Why I Like Charles Darwin Now, More than Ever

I recently visited Down House, the home of Charles Darwin, in the countryside southeast of London. Of course I expected to learn more about the man’s background and his writings on evolution, and I looked forward to seeing the study where he worked. But I also caught unexpected glimpses into his habits of mind. As a person who has taken notes to discern patterns in everything from the final game in Tic-Tac-Dough to the behavior of our home thermostat, I can modestly venture that I think he and I would have had at least one personality trait in common.

Down House, UK

Home of Charles Darwin, Downe, UK

A visit to Down House starts on the top floor, where the first few exhibits are devoted to some of his personal effects, family background, and a brief history of pre-Darwinian thoughts about evolution. I especially enjoyed a handwritten list on display: Darwin’s father’s objections to his son’s joining the Beagle‘s expedition. (Item #2 on the list: “A wild scheme.”)

My favorite room on the top floor was a full-scale replica of Darwin’s cabin on the Beagle, complete with a computer-generated projection of a bearded young Darwin look-alike busy at his work table. The children’s room was fun too. There we learned that Darwin’s father insisted that every visitor to the house be weighed upon entry, and all weights were entered into a ledger. And we learned that Darwin was a kind, thoughtful, and science-minded father himself, publishing notes about his observations of his young son’s development. Darwin’s A Biographical Sketch of an Infant is a short, amusing paper that I thoroughly enjoyed, both for its glimpse into Victorian life and for its image of Darwin as a man who took meticulous notes about his children as they grew.

What I liked best about our visit is the contrast between Charles Darwin as a young man and the iconic scientist he became. By his own admission, he was lazy and unmotivated when he went to college (remind you of any students you know?). He had begun to develop his naturalist’s instincts before he was invited to join the Beagle‘s expedition, but by the time he came back he was totally devoted to his passion. He spent the rest of his life collecting data on whatever fascinated him, from earthworms to carnivorous plants to barnacles. Far from being shiftless, he transformed into a meticulous, systematic, and disciplined naturalist.

He was also a prolific writer. You can find all of Darwin’s publications at Darwin Online, and his personal letters are at the Darwin Correspondence Project. The latter site has a “Darwin’s postbox this day in [insert year]” sidebar; you can enter the year and read the letters Darwin sent or received on that day.

I have met a lot of students during my teaching career. A few already know their passion. Some discover it in college, thanks to influential teachers or profoundly transformative experiences. Others are clearly bright but are adrift because they haven’t found “it” yet. We can only hope that with patience, an open mind, and time to explore, these students will also discover their “inner Darwin.”

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