Sunday Meeting Report – 10:00 AM    February 7, 2016

By Joyce Tomboulian


Charles Darwin – the Early Years: 

The Making of the World’s Greatest Natural Scientist

By Barrie Webster & Rob Light


The presenters of our Sunday Talk this morning, subtitled “From Charles to Darwin”, were VSHA’s illustrious President, Barrie Webster and Vice-President, Rob Light.  The occasion was to celebrate the 207th birthday of the great natural scientist, Charles Darwin, who was born on February 12, 1809 in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England.   To start off, Barrie read a city of Victoria official proclamation, being approved by City Council this week, in recognition of Darwin’s birthday and scientific contribution.


Barrie and Rob then went on to trace Darwin’s background and early years, which in a unique way led to his genius in later life.  Charles was born the 5th of 6 children and the younger of two sons.  His father, Robert Warren Darwin, was a physician, and his mother was Susannah Wedgwood.  His paternal grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, also a physician, was a close friend of Josiah Wedgwood and the two families had close ties.

Unfortunately Charles’ mother died when he was only 8 years old.  The several older sisters took on the mothering role, but his father, who was a strong authority figure, tended to dominate the upbringing of Charles.  At the age of 9 he was enrolled in a boarding school, though he came home on weekends.  He and his older brother Erasmus then spent time together devising experiments.  Charles also enjoyed hunting and outings with the Wedgwoods.  He was a mediocre student and did not show academic promise, so his father, concerned that Charles did not have bright career prospects, withdrew him from school and made him a medical assistant in his own practice.


At the age of 16, Charles was enrolled by his father in Edinburgh University to study medicine.  The practice of medicine did not appeal to Charles, though, and he spent his time involving himself in natural history, as well as learning taxidermy.  During this time he presented papers at scientific meetings.  His father was not impressed with these interests or achievements, however, and in 1827 at the age of 18, Charles left Edinburgh.


While Charles did not appear to have much formal academic interest, his family was a prominent one and had ties with many of the leading intellectuals of the time, so he was exposed to the current thinking in science, natural history and other fields through these contacts.   Further, this was a liberal environment that encouraged progressive ideas and free thinking.  His grandfather Erasmus, was something of a natural philosopher himself and also supported such causes as religious freedom, anti-slavery legislation and American independence.  He himself had written a book, “Zoonomia” which proposed a natural explanation regarding sexual selection and the mechanism of inheritance.


So in spite of his father’s concern for his future, Charles was becoming broadly educated.  But still hoping that Charles would achieve an honorable profession, his father enrolled him at Cambridge to become a clergyman.  Due to the tutorial system there, Charles had much leeway in his studies.  He became very interested in beetles and in collecting them.  His tutor and mentor at Cambridge, John Stevens Henslow, who was a botanist and naturalist himself, recognized that Charles had potential in this area and took him on field trips.  Under Henslow’s guidance, Charles got his BA at Cambridge at age 22 and was 10th in his class of 178.  He had also been introduced to the distinguished geologist, Adam Sedgwick and took a major field trip with him where he learned many technical skills.  He read texts on geology by Sir Charles Lyall which proposed uniformitarianism, based on gradual rates of change through erosion that led to the conclusion that the earth must be far older than the 6000 years, as biblical interpreters had insisted.


Following the completion of his degree, Charles thirsted for adventure and had some valuable technical skills.  He had been recommended to join the second voyage of discovery financed by the Royal Navy and led by Captain Robert Fitzroy,  who needed someone with a science background and of ‘suitable class’ to accompany him on this around-the-world venture on ‘The Beagle’, expected to take 2 years.  Charles’ father initially disapproved, but wound up supporting Charles and paying his way after Uncle Josiah Wedgwood convinced him of the value of the venture.


So on December 27, 1831, at the age of 22, Charles Darwin departed on this voyage of ‘The Beagle’, which would actually take 5 years, and would result in his detailed documentation and discovery of natural selection as the origin of all species of life on earth.  But that’s getting ahead of the story…  More to come at next year’s Talk.  The purpose of this one was to explore the early background and influences in the development of Darwin’s genius, which was not obvious to even his own father at the time.


Meanwhile, to learn more about Darwin’s life and work, read his autobiography (uncensored version)!


After the presentation we all shared a delicious and beautifully decorated birthday cake celebrating Darwin’s 207th that had been provided for the occasion.