Darwin Connections

Darwin’s connections were extensive, he read voraciously and spent part of every day corresponding with people all over the world. This is a short introduction to some of the people who he met and who influenced his thinking and the development of his ideas.

Robert Grant 1793 – 1874) 

When the 16 year old Charles and his older brother Erasmus were sent to Edinburgh to study medicine they actually spent most of their time exploring the life of the sea shore, and there Charles met Robert Grant, a zoologist and marine biologist who became an expert on sponges.  

Grant had read of Aristotle’s work and knew that the great philosopher had been puzzled the nature of sponges which are covered in holes. Grant wondered if these holes were like the tiny holes on the underside of leaves through which a plant breathes, or were they like the holes in animals which were there for various purposes, some were for breathing but other holes were for taking in food, excreting waste and reproducing. 

Grant decided to begin his studies where Aristotle had left off, and Darwin was one of his keenest assistants, helping with the dissection and microscope work. Grant was very thrilled to observe a sponge excreting brown waste through one of its holes, and he also saw that eggs emerged from other holes. He was also excited by the way that the eggs of sponges moved with the aid of little whip like threads called cilia. 

Robert Grant was a free-thinker who could see that the anatomy of simple sea creatures showed a connection to more complex land creatures, and he wondered if creatures might have changed and become different species over time. Darwin’s early work with Grant would have planted the seeds of evolutionary thinking at a time when Darwin was still a conventional Christian and a believer in the Biblical account of creation.

John Stevens Henslow, 1796–1861

Professor Henslow was a clergyman and Professor of Botany at Cambridge when Charles was a student. He writes in his Autobiography that he attended Henslow's lectures on Botany though he was not studying the subject and, he wrote; ‘liked them much for their extreme clearness, and the admirable illustrations;’.

Darwin writes that ‘Henslow used to take his pupils, including several of the older members of the University, on field excursions, on foot or in coaches, to distant places, or in a barge down the river, and lectured on the rarer plants and animals which were observed. These excursions were delightful’. ’Before long I became well acquainted with Henslow, and during the latter half of my time at Cambridge took long walks with him on most days; so that I was called by some of the dons "the man who walks with Henslow;" and in the evening I was very often asked to join his family dinner. His knowledge was great in botany, entomology, chemistry, mineralogy, and geology. His strongest taste was to draw conclusions from long-continued minute observations. His judgment was excellent, and his whole mind well balanced’.

It was Henslow who recommended Darwin to Fitzroy, the Captain of HMS Beagle, and Henslow who took charge of all the specimens that Darwin sent back to England and who arranged for other naturalists to study the material.  Throughout his life Henslow supported Darwin, though he was never able to accept Darwin’s evolutionary ideas he always had faith in Darwin’s  honesty.

Adam Sedgwick 1785 – 1873

It was Henslow who persuaded Darwin to study geology and Henslow who asked Sedgwick to allow Darwin to accompany him on a visit to North Wales to investigate the geology of its ancient rocks. This visit was an excellent preparation for Darwin’s geological investigations on his expeditions during the Beagle voyage. Sedgwick admired Darwin’s early work but was vehemently opposed to the views expressed in the Origin of Species.

Alexander von Humboldt 1789-1859

As a young man Darwin was fired with a desire to explore the new world a by the German explorer Humboldt’s Personal Narrative of his travels in South America. Humboldt had collected a great deal of information on the botany and geology of the areas he explored and this approach influenced Darwin who followed Humboldt’s example and took great pains to collect specimens and record data. 

In his autobiography Darwin records that ‘I once met at breakfast at Sir R. Murchison's house the illustrious Humboldt, who honoured me by expressing a wish to see me. I was a little disappointed with the great man, but my anticipations probably were too high. I can remember nothing distinctly about our interview, except that Humboldt was very cheerful and talked much.’

Charles Lyell 

On the voyage of the Beagle Darwin read the first volume of Lyell's 'Principles of Geology.’ Darwin wrote that he studied attentively; ‘and the book was of the highest service to me in many ways. The very first place which I examined, namely St. Jago in the Cape de Verde islands, showed me clearly the wonderful superiority of Lyell's manner of treating geology, compared with that of any other author, whose works I had with me or ever afterwards read.’

When Darwin returned he met Lyell, and this was the beginning of a long and fruitful friendship. Darwin wrote in his Autobiography;  ‘I saw a great deal of Lyell. One of his chief characteristics was his sympathy with the work of others, and I was as much astonished as delighted at the interest which he showed when, on my return to England, I explained to him my views on coral reefs. This encouraged me greatly, and his advice and example had much influence on me. I saw more of Lyell than of any other man, both before and after my marriage. His mind was characterised, as it appeared to me, by clearness, caution, sound judgment, and a good deal of originality. When I made any remark to him on Geology, he never rested until he saw the whole case clearly, and often made me see it more clearly than I had done before.

Joseph Hooker

Darwin shared many of his ideas with his friend Joseph Hooker, who travelled around the world collecting and classifying plants from around the world for Kew Gardens. It was Hooker who suggested to Darwin the that he should do some serious work on classification to focus his ideas and support his speculations. In response Darwin spent 7 years classifying barnacles, work that established his reputation as a naturalist.  

Darwin exchanged letters with Hooker as he travelled the world; Darwin described miniature males which he’d found which lived as parasites inside the shells of females. Hooker in turn wrote back with details of the tribes of Nepal where women often had two husbands. Hooker supported Darwin throughtout his life.

Alfred Russel Wallace

Wallace was working in the Indonesian Islands, collecting specimens of plants and animals for sale to collectors when he thought of the idea of natural selection.  He sent an essay on his idea to Darwin who was amazed to find how closely Wallace’s ideas matched his own. this galvanised Darwin into putting a synopsis of all the work he’d done into a short book rather than postponing publication so that he incorporate more definitive proofs. All those Wallace’s early ideas were very close to Darwin’s, later in his life Wallace came to question whether evolution by natural selection could account for human intelligence and consciousness. He thought that a higher intelligence must have placed these attributes in humans. Though he had been agnostic since he was a teenager he took up spiritualism and tried to prove scientifically that communication with the spirit world was a fact not a fraud or fantasy. Darwin rejected this idea completely, and in his book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals he looked for evidence in animals of qualities thought to be unique to humans such as intelligence, moral sense and appreciation of beauty. In spite of their different views Darwin and Wallace reamined friends and continued to correspond and share ideas throughout their lives.

This is only a very small selection of some of Darwin’s more important connections; many people wrote to Darwin from all parts of the world, asking questions and giving information which they thought would interest him. For example, Walter Drawbridge Crick, a boot and shoe manufacturer from Northampton who was a keen naturalist wrote to Darwin about shell of a minute cockle that he had found attached to a beetle’s leg. Charles was very interested and asked Mr Crick to send it to him. Later Crick found a similar cockle on a dead frog. Darwin saw the cockles as a confirmation of his idea that snails could be dispersed by birds and other animals and he published an article on Crick’s cockles in the journal Nature; it was his last publication.

Walter Crick would be a very small footnote in the massive Darwin archives if it were not for Crick’s more notable but indirect contribution to the scientific understanding of evolution: he was the grandfather of Francis Crick, who was awarded the Nobel prize for his work as part of the team who worked out the structure of DNA. This was essential in our modern understanding the mechanisms of evolution.

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