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Darwin's Diary

Introduction | 1809-1825 | 1826-1829 | 1831 | 1832 | 1833 | 1835 | 1836
1837 | 1838 | 1842-1854 | 1856 | 1858-1859 | 1881 | 1882


Summer 1842-1844 (Birth of a Theory)

The village of Down lies roughly two hours from London by carriage. For Darwin, it provides a welcome refuge.

Darwin installs a mirror outside his study window so he can watch visitors approach. At his country home, Down House, he feels safe to work on his secret theory, but cannot escape his troubled conscience.

"... it is like confessing to a murder ..."

In 1842, Darwin writes a 35-page draft of his theory, but shares it with no one. In the next few years, he begins tentatively testing out his radical ideas on other scientists he believes he can trust, including the young botanist Joseph Hooker, to whom he writes:

"I have been now ever since my return [from the Beagle voyage] engaged in a very presumptuous work & which I know no one individual who would not say a very foolish one ... I determined to collect ... every sort of fact, which could bear any way on what are species ... I have read heaps of agricultural & horticultural books, & have not ceased collecting facts ... At last gleams of light have come, & I am almost convinced (quite contrary to opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing to a murder) immutable ... I think I have found out (here's presumption!) the simple way by which species become exquisitely adapted to various ends ... You will now groan, & think to yourself 'on what a man have I been wasting my time in writing to.'"

Joseph Hooker is Darwin's admiring friend, confidant, and sounding board. Hooker helps Darwin hone his thinking about natural selection, but he is not shocked by its basic premise. Darwin can even later, as he sits down to write On the Origin of Species, half-jokingly tell his friend, "What a book a Devil's Chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low & horridly cruel works of nature!"

To another confidant, Rev. Leonard Jenyns, Darwin writes:

"I have a grand body of facts & I think I can draw some sound conclusions. The general conclusion at which I have slowly been driven from a directly opposite conviction is that species are mutable & that allied species are codescendants of common stocks. I know how much I open myself to reproach for such a conclusion, but I have at least honestly & deliberately come to it."

Jenyns never takes up the offer to read a draft of Darwin's theory.

Around this time, anonymously, the journalist Robert Chambers publishes a book speculating on evolution. It sells well, but is lambasted by the church and scientific establishment. Darwin's former mentor, Reverend Adam Sedgwick, writes a scathing 85-page critique. When later asked why he published anonymously, Chambers pointed to his house, in which he had 11 children, and said: "I have eleven reasons."

1844-1854 (Birth of a Theory)

In 1844, Darwin finishes a detailed 230-page account of his theory, yet still he does not dare take it public. He asks Emma to publish it in case of his sudden death.

He then spends nearly a decade dissecting and classifying barnacles.

"I do not doubt that Sir E. Lytton Bulwer had me in his mind when he introduces in one of his novels a Professor Long, who had written two huge volumes on Limpets.

"In October, 1846, I began to work on Cirripedia [barnacles ] ... I worked steadily on the subject for the next eight years, and ultimately published two thick volumes, describing all the known living species, and two thin quartos on the extinct species.

"The Cirripedes form a highly varying and difficult group of species to class; and my work was of considerable use to me, when I had to discuss in the Origin of Species the principles of a natural classification. Nevertheless, I doubt whether the work was worth the consumption of so much time."

Studying barnacles, Darwin gets key insights into the nature of organisms. He sees tremendous variation -- everywhere, slight differences between individuals that nature can "select" as fit or unfit. And as he struggles to distinguish true "species" from mere "varieties," he finds a continuum. There is no essential difference between the two. Given enough time and the right selective pressures, varieties can evolve into new species.

Circa 1848 (Darwin's Struggle with Faith)

"[D]isbelief crept over me at very slow rate, but was at last complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress, and have never since doubted even for a single second that my conclusion was correct."

Darwin writes this in his Autobiography, as an old man.

Darwin reads religious books in the months before his father's death. Two by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, an Anglican theologian, warn that divine wrath and an eternal Hell awaits unbelievers.

Darwin's creeping disbelief in Christian doctrine was hastened by the death of his unbelieving father Robert in November 1848, after a period of great suffering.

"I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all of my friends, will be everlasting punished.

"And this is a damnable doctrine."

These last two sentences were struck from the first published version of Darwin's Autobiography at the request of his wife Emma. She noted,

"I should dislike the passage ... to be published. It seems to me raw."

At the time of his father's death, the 40-year-old Darwin is so ill that he cannot attend the funeral. After the Beagle voyage until the decade before his death, Darwin suffered from severe nervous and stomach ailments and was prone to fits of shivering and vomiting. Some historians have attributed his ill health to a parasite picked up on his travels, others to persistent fears about the reception of his theory, still others to both factors; but the exact causes are unclear.

Spring 1851 (Darwin's Struggle with Faith)

"We have lost the joy of the Household, and the solace of our old age: -- she must have known how we loved her; oh that she could now know how deeply, how tenderly we do still & shall ever love her dear joyous face. Blessings on her."

With this, Darwin closes his memorial to his daughter, Annie, a week after her death at 10 years old. Annie and two of her sisters earlier suffered a bout of scarlet fever, but Annie never fully recovered. In 1851, over a bitter Easter weekend, Darwin sat at her bedside watching her die.

His memorial is private, intended for himself and Emma -- the most intensely emotional piece he will ever write.

"I write these few pages, as I think in after years, if we live, the impressions now put down will recall more vividly her chief characteristics ... her bouyant joyousness tempered by her sensitiveness ... & strong affection ...

"[S]he would at almost anytime spend half-an-hour in arranging my hair, "making it" as she called it "beautiful" ... every expression in her countenance beamed with affection & kindness, & all her habits were influenced by her loving disposition ...

"I always thought, that come what might, we should have had in our old age, at least one loving soul, which nothing could have changed."

Annie is buried beneath a cedar of Lebanon. Darwin is so devastated that he cannot attend the funeral. His cousin Fanny tries to comfort him: "There never could have been a child laid in the ground with truer sorrow round her than your sweet & happy Annie."

In his old age, Darwin writes, "She was a most sweet and affectionate child, and I feel sure would have grown in to a delightful woman ... Tears still sometimes come into my eyes, when I think of her sweet ways."

Annie's death marks the final destruction of Darwin's faith in a beneficent Christian God and a just moral universe. His dear Annie did not deserve to die. She did not even deserve to be punished, in this life or the next.

-> Go to 1856


Introduction | 1809-1825 | 1826-1829 | 1831 | 1832 | 1833 | 1835 | 1836
1837 | 1838 | 1842-1854 | 1856 | 1858-1859 | 1881 | 1882

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