Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Darwin and his diaries

Charles Darwin, one of the greatest and most important scientists that ever lived, was born two centuries ago today. It is well known that his discoveries regarding evolution were first seeded while travelling round the world on HMS Beagle. During that journey, he wrote a detailed diary which has been published many times; but he also kept another diary throughout his life - unfortunately it’s very brief. Darwin’s wife, Emma, kept a diary too, also very brief (which seems to ignore her husband’s birthday!). All three diaries are freely available on the internet thanks to the wonderful Darwin Online website. 

There is no shortage of biographical information about Darwin on the internet, at Wikipedia for example, or the BBC website. The Diary Junction gives links to etexts of his diaries, and the Natural History Museum has a whole series of Darwin-related events and exhibitions.

Darwin was born in Shrewsbury, England, on 12 February 1809, exactly 200 years ago today. His mother died when he was eight, and he left home at 16 to study medicine at Edinburgh University. Rejecting the medical profession, though, he went to Cambridge to prepare for Holy Orders. However, this line of work didn’t suit him either, and he accepted an invitation to serve as unpaid naturalist on a five year scientific expedition aboard the HMS Beagle.

After returning, in 1839, Darwin married his cousin Emma Wedgwood, and in 1842, they moved to Down House at Downe in Kent, where they lived for the rest of their lives, bringing up 10 children, of whom only seven survived beyond puberty. Darwin worked at Down House, living off inherited money, reading and researching widely (including a long study on barnacles). Despite sometimes being incapacitated by illnesses, he established reputations in the fields of taxonomy, geology and the distribution of flora and fauna.

It was not until 1859, after painstaking consideration, that he finally published his famous theory on natural selection in The Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. And it took him another 12 years to publish The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. It was Darwin’s research and thought processes during the five years on board HMS Beagle that was to lead to these revolutionary theories, and, consequently, the journal he kept during that voyage has great historic and scientific importance.

Darwin wrote a book about the journey in the form of a journal which he based on his diary. This was first published in 1839 along with two further volumes written by other participants on the journey, Captain Robert Fitzroy and Captain Philip King. This three-tome publication was originally called Journal of Researches into the Geology and Natural History of the Various Countries visited by H.M.S. Beagle, under the command of Captain Fitzroy, R.N. from 1832 to 1836. However, it has been reproduced in various forms since then, and is often just called The Voyage of the Beagle these days.

All three of these tomes, and a bibliographical introduction to them by R. B. Freeman, are available on the excellent Darwin Online website - a one-stop source for all Darwin’s publications. These volumes also seem to be the source for an ongoing blog called Charle’s Darwin’s Beagle Diary which is publishing texts by Darwin and Fitzroy exactly 175 years after they were written; but, for some reason, the blog doesn’t give any information about itself.

Darwin Online, though, also provides the original text of Darwin’s actual Beagle diary (held by English Heritage at Down House). Here is an extract from the diary during his visit to the Galapagos Islands.

17 September 1835
‘The Beagle was moved into St Stephens harbor. We found there an American Whaler & we previously had seen two at Hoods Island. - The Bay swarmed with animals; Fish, Shark & Turtles were popping their heads up in all parts. Fishing lines were soon put overboard & great numbers of fine fish 2 & even 3 ft long were caught. This sport makes all hands very merry; loud laughter & the heavy flapping of the fish are heard on every side. - After dinner a party went on shore to try to catch Tortoises, but were unsuccessful. - These islands appear paradises for the whole family of Reptiles. Besides three kinds of Turtles, the Tortoise is so abundant; that [a] single Ship’s company here caught from 500–800 in a short time. - The black Lava rocks on the beach are frequented by large (2–3 ft) most disgusting, clumsy Lizards. They are as black as the porous rocks over which they crawl & seek their prey from the Sea. - Somebody calls them ‘imps of darkness’. - They assuredly well become the land they inhabit. - When on shore I proceeded to botanize & obtained 10 different flowers; but such insignificant, ugly little flowers, as would better become an Arctic, than a Tropical country. - The birds are Strangers to Man & think him as innocent as their countrymen the huge Tortoises. Little birds within 3 & four feet, quietly hopped about the Bushes & were not frightened by stones being thrown at them. Mr King killed one with his hat & I pushed off a branch with the end of my gun a large Hawk.’

Also at Darwin Online can be found what Darwin called, in his autobiography, the ‘little diary, which I have always kept’. It’s not a real diary of the Samuel Pepys or Alan Clark variety, mores the pity, but just a few notes for each year. It does, though, span the whole of his life. In a short introduction Dr John van Wyhe, the director of Darwin Online, writes: 

‘In August 1838, while living in London, Charles Darwin began his ‘Journal’ or diary in a small 3 x 4 inch notebook. He made back dated records of his life from birth to that date and continued adding entries recording his work and private events until December 1881, four months before he died.’ There is also a comment on the diary by Darwin’s son, Francis: ‘It is unfortunately written with great brevity, the history of a year being compressed into a page or less, and contains little more than the dates of the principal events of his life, together with entries as to his work, and as to the duration of his more serious illnesses.’

Here is the entire entry for 1869 (including one note for 11 Feb, the day before Darwin was 60).

‘Feb. 10th Finished 5th Edit of Origin: has taken me 46 days.

Feb. 11th Sexual Selection of Mammals & Man & Preliminary Chapter on Sexual Selection (with 10 days for notes on Orchids) to June 10th when I went to North Wales.

On Augt 4 recommenced going over all chapters on Sexual Selection.

Feb. 16th - 24th to Erasmus.

June 10th started for Caerdon, Barmouth sleeping at Shrewsbury. Returned July 31st having slept at Stafford. Weak & unwell.

Novr 1st to 9th Erasmus.’

Emma, Darwin’s wife, also kept notebooks, the images of which (though not the texts) are available at the Darwin Online website. Janet Browne, in her introduction to them, points out that they ‘are not discursive journals’ but were used ‘to make notes of appointments, important family events, a seemingly endless succession of illnesses and remedies, primarily relating to her children and husband, visits to and from relatives and friends, concerts to attend, minor expenses, charitable activities and other daily memoranda’. And, in this sense, she says, ‘they constitute a vivid record of daily life in the Darwin household. Indeed, they take the reader right to the heart of family life.’

There are no entries in the diaries for 12 February 1859 or 1869 or 1879, when Darwin was 50, 60 and 70 respectively. On 12 February 1849, all Emma writes is ‘sick twice in the evening’. Here, though, are a few entries taken from the week that Darwin died, in April 1882 (I have no idea what 3 1/2 means, but I think Polly was Darwin’s dog).

17 April 1882
‘good day
a little work -
out in orch twice’

18 April 1882
‘Ditto
Fatal attack at 12’

19 April 1882
‘3 1/2‘

20 April 1882
‘Polly died
All the sons arrived’

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