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Charles Darwin on Family, Work, and Happiness

“Children are one’s greatest happiness, but often & often a still greater misery. A man of science ought to have none.”

Charles Darwin on Family, Work, and Happiness

Charles Darwin (February 12, 1809–April 19, 1882) may be best-remembered as the father of evolution, but he was also a man of great dimension and extraordinary capacity for reflection. In his prolific correspondence, he contemplated everything from the pros and cons of marriage to the downturns of mental health. But having married the love of his life and fathered ten children with her, he also frequently pondered questions of fatherhood and family as a backdrop for his broader meditations on love, work, and happiness.

charlesdarwin

After weighing the benefits of marriage above its costs, Darwin confides in his bride-to-be, Emma, a few days before their wedding in early 1839:

I was thinking this morning how on earth it came, that I, who am fond of talking & am scarcely ever out of spirits, should so entirely rest my notions of happiness on quietness & a good deal of solitude; but I believe the explanation is very simple, & I mention it, because it will give you hopes, that I shall gradually grow less of a brute, — it is that during the five years of my voyage (& indeed I may add these two last) which from the active manner in which they have been passed, may be said to be the commencement of my real life, the whole of my pleasure was derived, from what passed in my mind, whilst admiring views by myself, travelling across the wild desserts or glorious forests, or pacing the deck of the poor little Beagle at night. — Excuse this much egotism, — I give it you, because, I think you will humanize me, & soon teach me there is greater happiness, than building theories, & accumulating facts in silence & solitude. My own dearest Emma, I earnestly pray, you may never regret the great, & I will add very good, deed, you are to perform on the Tuesday: my own dear future wife, God bless you.

Darwin’s children relaxing at Down House (Cambridge University Library)

Darwin intuited the “humanizing” capacities of a stable family early on — he was himself the product of loving parenting. In a March 1826 letter, his father writes to 15-year-old Charles:

It made me feel quite melancholy the other day looking at your old garden, & the flowers… I think the time when you & Catherine were little children & I was always with you or thinking about you was the happiest part of my life & I dare say always will be.

But Darwin, a man of rigorous daily routine, was also keenly aware of the tradeoffs between family life and work life, which he lamented facetiously in a letter to a scientist friend about to get married:

I hope that your marriage will not make you idle: happiness, I fear is not good for work.

Still, Darwin knew that science and personal happiness were complementary rather than mutually exclusive. (He wrote in The Descent of Man in 1871: “Happiness is never better exhibited than by young animals, such as puppies, kittens, lambs, &c., when playing together, like our own children.”) In a July 1862 letter to his botanist friend Asa Gray, Darwin observes this false choice with equal part wry wit and earnestness:

Children are one’s greatest happiness, but often & often a still greater misery. A man of science ought to have none, — perhaps not a wife; for then there would be nothing in this wide world worth caring for & a man might (whether he would is another question) work away like a Trojan.

Darwin with his eldest son, William Erasmus Darwin, in 1842

Complement with this charming graphic biography of Darwin and the story of how his photos of human emotions revolutionized visual culture.

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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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