Young Darwin

A couple of vignettes from Paul Johnson’s Darwin: Portrait of a Genius , which is vintage Johnson.

Darwin’s paternal grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, who died several years before Charles was born was a well-known physician who filled his off hours with studies of poetry and science. His off hours included the time between house calls. He equipped his coach with “a writing desk, a skylight, and a portion of his library, so that he could carry on his intellectual pursuits while going on his daily round of professional calls” (3).

Darwin’s maternal grandfather was Josiah Wedgewood, to whom Johnson devotes this encomium:

Wedgeworth’s “father died when he was eight, and he was immediately taken from school and put to work. He thus had virtually no education. But his intelligence was enormous, versatile, highly flexible, and above all, practical. He was an empirical scientist on a superhuman scale. By his early twenties, he was running his own ‘family’ of potbanks, and over the next forty years, he transformed a clumsy handicraft trade into a vast domestic and export industry employing a range of high technologies. He improved every aspect of the business by an endless series of careful and judicious experiments. He introduced uniformity in the plates, so they could be piled without cracking. His teapot lids fitted exactly; his spouts poured gentle; his handles could be held without burning the finger. Without any theoretical training or knowledge, he got to understand the physics of baking pots, the chemistry of glazes, dyes, and colors, the geology of clays, and the machinery of mass production. In every department, his changes were fundamental and, eventually, highly successful.” Johnson suggests that his greatest talent might have been for design and “for introducing new materials, combinations, and coverings, which gave his pottery, especially the revolutionary Jasperware, an elegance and distinction that led to its worldwide fame” (8-9).

One consequence of Darwin’s ancestry was the fact that he had comfortable financial support throughout his life. He inherited the family knack for money-management: “Darwin, though he never earned a penny in salary and made scarcely 10,000 pounds from his books in his lifetime, grew steadily richer, and in his last years had an investment income alone of over 8000 pounds a year, leaving at his death a fortune of ‘at least’ 280,000 pounds” (10).

From an early age, Darwin was a collector of (his words) “shells, seals, franks, coins & minerals.” He started a beetle collection, and Johnson quotes Darwin’s account of one collecting expedition: One day he “saw two rare beetles & seized one in each hand; then I saw a third & new kind, which I could not bear to lose, so that I popped the one I held in my right hand into my mouth. Alas it ejected some intensely acrid fluid which burnt my tongue so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost” (19).

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