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Darwin’s Life, Adapted in Poems by His Great-Great-Granddaughter

“He is the most transparent man I ever saw and most affectionate.”

“Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge; it is the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all Science,” William Wordsworth wrote in his timeless meditation on poetry. And while he wasn’t necessarily being literal, the relationship between poetry and science — despite Coleridge’s attestation to the opposite — is a fruitful and alluring one, from Diane Ackerman’s verses for the cosmos to this vintage scientific paper published as a 38-stanza poem.

Now comes a fine testament inspired by the life of Charles Darwingraphic novel hero, man of formidable daily routine, scholar of human emotional expression, occasional grump. In Darwin: A Life in Poems (public library), the legendary scientist’s great-great-granddaughter, the poet Ruth Padel, draws on Darwin’s books, journals, autobiography, scientific papers, notebooks, drafts, and letters to summon an affectionate and imaginative memoir of rare poetic elegance.

In the first chapter, titled “Boy” and exploring Darwin’s childhood, Padel adapts the earliest memory of Darwin by anyone other than his family — an 1817 recollection by the botanist William Leighton, at the time an older pupil at the small school seven-year-old Charles attended in the medieval English town of Shrewsbury, where his father had built a house in 1800.

FINDING THE NAME IN THE FLOWER

I

THE CHAPEL SCHOOL

‘He brought a flower to school. He said his mother
taught him to look inside the blossom
and discover the name of the plant.
I inquired how it could be done
but the lesson was not transmissible.’
A walk through the zebra maze, to the Unitarian
chapel on Claremont Hill. What do they say,
the black stripes on white house-walls? He ’s afraid
of the dogs on Baker Street. When boys play
he chews the inside of his mouth. He can never fight.

Darwin’s mother, Susanna, died at a young age in July of the same year, when Charles was barely eight. Padel captures the chilling memory of the tragedy:

II

THE YEAR MY MOTHER DIED

‘I remember her sewing-table, curiously constructed.
Her black velvet gown. Nothing else
except her death-bed. And my Father, crying.’ No embrace.
‘My older sisters, in their great grief,
did not speak her name.’ Her memory was silence.
No memento of her face.

Charles as a child, with his sister Catherine. (Cambridgeshire Collection)

In a chapter dedicated to Emma Darwin, Padel channels the smitten obsessiveness of new love as Emma first encounters her future husband in 1838, only a few months before Darwin famously weighed the pros and cons of marriage.

SHE DIDN’T THINK HE CARED

‘I was glad he was not too sure of being accepted. I went
immediately to the village school but found after an hour
I’d taught the children nothing, was turning into an idiot
and so came away. Every word expressed his real thought.
But he is so fond of us all at Maer, so demonstrative
in his manner, I did not think it meant anything. The week
I spent in London, earlier, I felt sure he did not care
about me. He was very unwell. That was all.’

Charles and Emma went on to marry and have ten children. They remained together for 43 years, until Darwin’s death in 1882.

Darwin: A Life in Poems is a delight in its entirety.

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Darwin’s Daily Routine

“Darwin made a point of replying to every letter he received, even those from obvious fools or cranks.”

In between weighing the pros and cons of marriage, grumbling to his friends, and changing our understanding of human emotion, Charles Darwin spent a decade perfecting a radical scientific theory of how the world worked. In part because it demanded intense intellectual investment and in part because it challenged the accepted paradigms of the era enough to offend the public eye, Darwin needed a near-monkish environment to develop his framework of evolution. In 1842, he moved from London to the English countryside, where he would spend the next seventeen years working on The Origin of Species — a kind of intellectual endurance that required systematic, daily dedication of unfaltering rhythm.

charlesdarwin1

From Daily Rituals: How Artists Work (public library) — which previously gave us the routines of Mark Twain, Gertrude Stein, Vladimir Nabokov, and James Joyce — comes this curious chronology of Darwin’s day:

The first, and best, of his work periods began at 8:00 a.m., after Darwin had taken a short walk and had a solitary breakfast. Following ninety minutes of focused work in his study—disrupted only by occasional trips to the snuff jar that he kept on a table in the hallway—Darwin met his wife, Emma, in the drawing room to receive the day’s post. He read his letters, then lay on the sofa to hear Emma read the family letters aloud. When the letters were done, Emma would continue reading aloud, switching to whatever novel she and her husband were currently working their way through.

At 10:30 Darwin returned to his study and did more work until noon or a quarter after. He considered this the end of his workday, and would often remark in a satisfied voice, “I’ve done a good day’s work.”

[…]

Darwin made a point of replying to every letter he received, even those from obvious fools or cranks. If he failed to reply to a single letter, it weighed on his conscience and could even keep him up at night. The letter writing took him until about 3:00 in the afternoon, after which he went upstairs to his bedroom to rest, lying on the sofa with a cigarette while Emma continued to read from the novel-in-progress.

[…]

At 5:30, a half-hour of idleness in the drawing room preceded another period of rest and novel reading, and another cigarette, upstairs. Then he joined the family for dinner, although he did not join them in eating the meal; instead, he would have tea with an egg or a small piece of meat.

[…]

After two games of backgammon, he would read a scientific book and, just before bed, lie on the sofa and listen to Emma play the piano. He left the drawing room at about 10:00 and was in bed within a half-hour, although he generally had trouble getting to sleep and would often lie awake for hours, his mind working at some problem that he had failed to solve during the day.

Illustration from The Smithsonian’s graphic biography of Darwin. Click image for more.

Complement Daily Rituals (public library) with a graphic novel biography of Darwin and the daily routines of Mozart, Hans Christian Andersen, C.S. Lewis, Herman Melville, William S. Burroughs, Kurt Vonnegut, and other celebrated authors.

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A Graphic Biography of Darwin

The evolution of the father of evolution, illustrated.

Charles Darwin — father of evolution, decoder of human emotion, hopeless romantic, occasional grump — was born on February 12, 1809. From Smithsonian Books comes Darwin: A Graphic Biography (public library; UK) — a fine addition to outstanding graphic nonfiction, joining other famous graphic biographies of cultural icons like Richard Feynman, Hunter S. Thompson, The Carter Family, and Steve Jobs. Written by journalist Eugene Byrne and illustrated by cartoonist Simon Gurr, the story takes us into the life and times of Darwin — from a curious child on a “beeting” expedition to a patient young man persevering through the ups and downs of battling creationist oppression to a worldwide legend — tracing his intellectual adventures amidst the fascinating scientific world of the 1800s.

Complement Darwin: A Graphic Biography with the legendary naturalist’s original list of the the pros and cons of marriage, then revisit the best graphic novels of 2012.

Images courtesy Smithsonian Books

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How Darwin’s Photographic Studies of Human Emotions Changed Visual Culture

What disdain and devotion have to do with the dawn of photography, evolution, and Lewis Carroll.

In 1872, some thirteen years after On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin (February 12, 1809–April 19, 1882) published The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals — one of the first scientific texts to use photographic illustrations. Though the work itself was hardly groundbreaking — it was based on the research of French neurologist Guillaume-Benjamin Duchenne, who ten years prior used electrodes to explore the human face as a map of inner states and published Mécanisme de la Physionomie Humaine (The Mechanisms of Human Physiognomy) — Darwin’s book is regarded not only as his main contribution to psychology, but also as a pivotal turning point in the history of book illustration, right up there with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

(More than a century later, psychologist Paul Ekman used Darwin and Duchenne’s research as the basis for his Facial Actions Coding System, or FACS — a codified approach to reading human emotion based on facial micro-expressions — on which I happened to do a decent portion of my undergraduate work and which went on to aid everyone from the CIA to animators. You may also recall the subject from our recent look at the science of smiles.)

Darwin’s contribution to many fields of science, from evolution to geology to botany, are well-known — but it turns out he was also a seminal figure in the history of visual culture. In Darwin’s Camera: Art and Photography in the Theory of Evolution (public library), photography curator Phillip Prodger tells the remarkable story of Darwin shaped not only the course of science but also forever changed how images are seen and made.

Prodger traces Darwin’s tireless quest to capture human emotion at its most visually expressive — not an easy task in an age when photography was both slow and painfully awkward. After scouring countless galleries, bookstores, and photographic studios, Darwin finally found the eccentric art photographer Oscar Rejlander, a titan of creative history in his own right, and recruited him to capture the emotional expressions Darwin intended to study.

A page of photographs by Oscar Rejlander from the Darwin Archive, 1871-1872. Albumen prints.
Infants: Suffering and Weeping. Heliotype print.

Prodger chronicles the development of photography as a tool of scientific inquiry:

At first, photographs were judged in exactly the same way as prints and drawings. The same standards that applied to them — plausibility, authority, skill, and convincingness — applied equally to photographs. But photographic technology improved rapidly… It took approximately fifty years, but during the latter half of the 1800s photography moved into territory traditional drawing and printmaking could not. Once it became capable of taking pictures faster than what the naked eye could see, it began to affect measures of scientific integrity.

Joy, High Spirits, Love, Tender Feelings, and Devotion. Heliotype print.
Low Spirits, Anxiety, Grief, Dejection, and Despair. Heliotype print..
Indignation and Helplessness. Heliotype print.

But what’s perhaps most interesting is Darwin’s remarkable cross-disciplinary curiosity, a quality I believe is the key to combinatorial creativity. Though he never studied art formally, he had an active interest in art, read art history books, visited art museums, and mingled with the artists on his HMS Beagle voyage. Eventually, the sensibilities of art seeped into his work. Prodger takes a closer look at many of Darwin’s curated friendships — Lewis Carroll, iconic photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, celebrated animal painters Joseph Wolf and Briton Riviere, sculptor Thomas Woolner, and many more.

Disdain, Contempt, and Disgust. Heliotype print.
Hatred and Anger. Heliotype print.
Surprise and Astonishment, Fear and Horror. Heliotype print.

Prodger writes:

Photographic illustration was an inexact process. Because there were no present rules for using photographs in books, Darwin attempted to create them. Working at a time when printmaking still dominated scientific illustration, he internalized prevailing notions about authority and authenticity in picture making. In this regard, he was a transitional figure, with one foot firmly in the past — lessons learned from the books he knew and admired — and one foot in the future, with the enormous potential he recognized in photography.

Researchers at The Darwin Project, an ambitious initiative to digitize Darwin’s legacy and a fine addition to these 7 important digital humanities projects, are currently crowdsourcing Darwin’s experiment on emotions by asking you to name which core emotion each of Darwin’s images conveyed. The experiment features 11 images and can be completed in under a minute — give it a try.

Rigorously researched and eloquently narrated, Darwin’s Camera is an essential missing link in the evolution of visual culture at the intersection of history, psychology, and art.

HT How To Be a Retronaut; images courtesy of Oxford University Press

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