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When Charles Darwin Hated Everybody

A necessary reminder that even geniuses have their despondent days.

“The day of days!,” wrote an elated 29-year-old Charles Darwin in his journal after his cousin, Emma Wedgwood, accepted his marriage proposal, proceeding to famously weigh the pros and cons of marriage and merrily conclude that the enterprise was worth it. But Darwin, apparently, wasn’t always so cheerful. In her recent Creative Mornings talk,* the inimitable Maira Kalman shared a letter Darwin wrote to his friend, the Scottish geologist Charles Lyell, in 1861, a little over a year after the publication of On the Origin of Species. The missive, found in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, Volume 9 (public library) and made available online by the Darwin Correspondence Project, is at once jarring in its uncharacteristic despondency and oddly reassuring, reminding us that even the greatest of minds have their dark days — that rather than detracting from one’s genius, those are as much a part of it as the intellectual and creative highs, that emotional intensity is essential to the creative process in all of its extremes.

My dear Lyell

[…]

What a wonderful case the Bedford case.– Does not the N. American view of warmer or more equable period after great Glacial period become much more probable in Europe?–

But I am very poorly today & very stupid & hate everybody & everything. One lives only to make blunders.– I am going to write a little Book for Murray on orchids & today I hate them worse than everything so farewell & in a sweet frame of mind, I am

Ever yours

C. Darwin

Kalman’s final presentation slide put it all so simply yet so eloquently:

*UPDATE: Kalman’s talk is now up — do yourself a favor and watch it.

Darwin image via The New York Times

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Charles Darwin’s List of the Pros and Cons of Marriage

“My God, it is intolerable to think of spending one’s whole life, like a neuter bee, working, working, & nothing after all.”

“The day of days!,” wrote 29-year-old Charles Darwin (February 12, 1809–April 19, 1882) in his journal on November 11, 1838, after his cousin, Emma Wedgwood, accepted his marriage proposal. But the legendary naturalist wasn’t always this single-minded about the union. Just a few months earlier, he had scribbled on the back of a letter from a friend a carefully considered list of pros (“constant companion,” “charms of music & female chit-chat”) and cons (“means limited,” “no books,” “terrible loss of time”) regarding marriage and its potential impact on his work. The list, found in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, Volume 2: 1837-1843 (public library) and also available online in the excellent Darwin Correspondence Project, was dated April 7, 1838, and bespeaks the timeless, and arguably artificial, cultural tension between family and career, love and work, heart and head.

If not marry Travel. Europe, yes? America????

If I travel it must be exclusively geological United States, Mexico Depend upon health & vigour & how far I become Zoological

If I dont travel. — Work at transmission of Species — Microscope simplest forms of life — Geology. ?.oldest formations?? Some experiments — physiological observation on lower animals

B Live in London for where else possible[6] in small house, near Regents Park –keep horse –take Summer tours Collect specimens some line of Zoolog: Speculations of Geograph. range, & Geological general works. — Systematiz. — Study affinities.

If marry — means limited, Feel duty to work for money. London life, nothing but Society, no country, no tours, no large Zoolog. Collect. no books. Cambridge Professorship, either Geolog. or Zoolog. — comply with all above requisites — I could not systematiz zoologically so well. — But better than hybernating in country, & where? Better even than near London country house. — I could not indolently take country house & do nothing — Could I live in London like a prisoner? If I were moderately rich, I would live in London, with pretty big house & do as (B), but could I act thus with children & poor? No — Then where live in country near London; better, but great obstacles to science & poverty. Then Cambridge, better, but fish out of water, not being Professor & poverty. Then Cambridge Professorship, — & make best of it, do duty as such & work at spare times — My destiny will be Camb. Prof. or poor man; outskirts of London, some small Square &c: — & work as well as I can

I have so much more pleasure in direct observation, that I could not go on as Lyell does, correcting & adding up new information to old train & I do not see what line can be followed by man tied down to London. —

In country, experiment & observations on lower animals, — more space —

Several weeks later, in July of 1838, he revisited the subject, with another meditation on the value of a life-partner (“better than a dog anyhow”):

This is the Question [circled in pencil]

Marry

Children — (if it Please God) — Constant companion, (& friend in old age) who will feel interested in one, — object to be beloved & played with. — better than a dog anyhow.– Home, & someone to take care of house — Charms of music & female chit-chat. — These things good for one’s health. — but terrible loss of time. —

My God, it is intolerable to think of spending one’s whole life, like a neuter bee, working, working, & nothing after all. — No, no won’t do. — Imagine living all one’s day solitarily in smoky dirty London House. — Only picture to yourself a nice soft wife on a sofa with good fire, & books & music perhaps — Compare this vision with the dingy reality of Grt. Marlbro’ St.

Not Marry

Freedom to go where one liked — choice of Society & little of it. — Conversation of clever men at clubs — Not forced to visit relatives, & to bend in every trifle. — to have the expense & anxiety of children — perhaps quarelling — Loss of time. — cannot read in the Evenings — fatness & idleness — Anxiety & responsibility — less money for books &c — if many children forced to gain one’s bread. — (But then it is very bad for ones health[19] to work too much)

Perhaps my wife wont like London; then the sentence is banishment & degradation into indolent, idle fool —

He then produces his conclusion:

Marry — Mary — Marry Q.E.D.

…and moves on to the next question:

It being proved necessary to Marry

When? Soon or Late

The Governor says soon for otherwise bad if one has children — one’s character is more flexible –one’s feelings more lively & if one does not marry soon, one misses so much good pure happiness. —

But then if I married tomorrow: there would be an infinity of trouble & expense in getting & furnishing a house, –fighting about no Society –morning calls –awkwardness –loss of time every day. (without one’s wife was an angel, & made one keep industrious). Then how should I manage all my business if I were obliged to go every day walking with my wife. — Eheu!! I never should know French, –or see the Continent –or go to America, or go up in a Balloon, or take solitary trip in Wales –poor slave. –you will be worse than a negro — And then horrid poverty, (without one’s wife was better than an angel & had money) — Never mind my boy — Cheer up — One cannot live this solitary life, with groggy old age, friendless & cold, & childless staring one in ones face, already beginning to wrinkle. — Never mind, trust to chance –keep a sharp look out — There is many a happy slave —

Page from the graphic-novel biography of Darwin. Click image for more.

Six months later, the two were married. They had ten children and remained together until Darwin’s death in 1882 — a beautiful antidote to the cultural myth that love and meaningful work can’t coexist. As Maira Kalman wisely put it, “in the end, okay, it’s love and it’s work — what else could there possibly be?”

The Paris Review

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Emma Darwin’s Stirring Love Letter to Charles

“I feel in my inmost heart your admirable qualities & feelings & all I would hope is that you might direct them upwards.”

Given my soft spot for exquisite love letters, particularly those exchanged between yesteryear’s greats — including Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, Charles and Ray Eames, Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, E. B. White and Katharine White — I was hopelessly heartened to discover a missive addressed to Charles Darwin from Emma Wedgwood, with whom the father of evolution spent the remaining forty years of his life and raised ten children. Found in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, Volume 9 (public library), the letter comes nearly thirty years into their marriage, long after young Darwin penned his famous and timelessly endearing list of the pros and cons of marriage.

In June of 1861, shortly after Darwin faced a major confrontation with the British clergy over their accusations that his theory of evolution was heresy, Emma sends Charles this exquisite testament to love’s power of spiritual elevation:

I cannot tell you the compassion I have felt for all your sufferings for these weeks past that you have had so many drawbacks. Nor the gratitude I have felt for the cheerful & affectionate looks you have given me when I know you have been miserably uncomfortable.

My heart has often been too full to speak or take any notice I am sure you know I love you well enough to believe that I mind your sufferings nearly as much as I should my own & I find the only relief to my own mind is to take it as from God’s hand, & to try to believe that all suffering & illness is meant to help us to exalt our minds & to look forward with hope to a future state. When I see your patience, deep compassion for others self command & above all gratitude for the smallest thing done to help you I cannot help longing that these precious feelings should be offered to Heaven for the sake of your daily happiness. But I find it difficult enough in my own case. I often think of the words “Thou shalt keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on thee.” It is feeling & not reasoning that drives one to prayer. I feel presumptuous in writing thus to you.

I feel in my inmost heart your admirable qualities & feelings & all I would hope is that you might direct them upwards, as well as to one who values them above every thing in the world. I shall keep this by me till I feel cheerful & comfortable again about you but it has passed through my mind often lately so I thought I would write it partly to relieve my own mind.

To further celebrate the intersection of science and romance, see Darwin’s life adapted in poems by his great-granddaughter, then revisit Richard Dawkins’s beautiful letter to his daughter on the importance of evidence in science and in love.

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The Great 19th-Century Biologist and Anatomist T.H. Huxley on Darwin’s Legacy and What Makes Us Human

In praise of the faculty “making every generation somewhat wiser than its predecessor, — more in accordance with the established order of the universe.”

The Great 19th-Century Biologist and Anatomist T.H. Huxley on Darwin’s Legacy and What Makes Us Human

“The quality of a civilisation,” Iris Murdoch insisted in her sublimely insightful “Salvation by Words,” “depends upon the scope and purity of its language.” Two decades later, in becoming the first black woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, Toni Morrison bellowed elemental truth from the Stockholm podium in her remarkable acceptance speech: “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”

More than a century before Murdoch and Morrison, long before the field now known as psycholinguistics existed, another great mind examined the role of language in what makes us human at the most fundamental level of our evolutionary biology — a concept itself then brand new and ferociously disputed.

Practically self-taught, the 19th-century English biologist and comparative anatomist Thomas Henry Huxley (May 4, 1825–June 29, 1895) helped pioneer scientific education in Great Britain, crusaded against religious extremism, coined the term agnosticism, and became the fiercest public champion of Darwin’s then-controversial theory of evolution, beginning with a praiseful anonymous review when On the Origin of Species was published in 1859 and culminating with a series of six laudatory public lectures he delivered the following year as part of the wonderfully titled “Lectures to Working Men” at the Museum of Practical Geology, now part of London’s iconic Natural History Museum. They were eventually included in Huxley’s essay collection Man’s Place in Nature (free ebook | public library).

Thomas Huxley (left) and Charles Darwin

In the final lecture, extolling Darwin’s epoch-making contribution to science and our understanding of nature — a contribution the full scope and impact of which Huxley would not live to see — he draws out the elemental question of what makes us human:

What is it that constitutes and makes man what he is? What is it but his power of language — that language giving him the means of recording his experience — making every generation somewhat wiser than its predecessor, — more in accordance with the established order of the universe?

What is it but this power of speech, of recording experience, which enables men to be men — looking before and after and, in some dim sense, understanding the working of this wondrous universe — and which distinguishes man from the whole of the brute world? I say that this functional difference is vast, unfathomable, and truly infinite in its consequences; and I say at the same time, that it may depend upon structural differences which shall be absolutely inappreciable to us with our present means of investigation.

A century and a half before Ursula K. Le Guin observed that “words are events, they do things, change things… feed energy back and forth and amplify it,” and long before the birth of neuroscience, Huxley considers the nature of speech itself — a phenomenon entwining our physiology and our psychology more intricately than any other:

I am speaking to you at this moment, but if you were to alter, in the minutest degree, the proportion of the nervous forces now active in the two nerves which supply the muscles of my glottis, I should become suddenly dumb. The voice is produced only so long as the vocal chords are parallel; and these are parallel only so long as certain muscles contract with exact equality; and that again depends on the equality of action of those two nerves I spoke of. So that a change of the minutest kind in the structure of one of these nerves, or in the structure of the part in which it originates, or of the supply of blood to that part, or of one of the muscles to which it is distributed, might render all of us dumb. But a race of dumb men, deprived of all communication with those who could speak, would be little indeed removed from the brutes. And the moral and intellectual difference between them and ourselves would be practically infinite, though the naturalist should not be able to find a single shadow of even specific structural difference.

In other words — for words, after all, are all we have in making sense and navigating meaning — Virginia Woolf was right in writing that “communication is health; communication is truth; communication is happiness.” Communication is, above all, humanity. But it was Darwin who moored this ancient intuition of artists and poets alike to the facts of science, effecting a larger truth about who and what we are.

Couple with Nietzsche on how we use language to both reveal and conceal reality, then revisit Darwin’s touching letter of gratitude to his best friend, who had supported him and defended him against the towering tides of convention with which his theory of evolution was met.

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