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Sunday, February 12, 2017

Darwin Day 2017

Today is Darwin Day but I'm too busy with other things to write a new post in his honor. So here's a post from 2007 (slightly updated) to help you enjoy the day.

Today is the birthday of the greatest scientist who ever lived. When you visit Darwin's home (Down House) you get a sense of what he must have been like. One of the things that's obvious is the number of bedrooms for the children. The house must have been alive with the activities of young children. It's no wonder that Darwin needed some peace and quiet from time to time.

Gwen Raverat was Darwin's granddaughter (daughter of George Darwin). She described Down House as she knew it in the years shortly after Darwin died.
Of all places at Down, the Sandwalk seemed most to belong to my grandfather. It was a path running round a little wood which he had planted himself; and it always seemed to be a very long way from the house. You went right to the furthest end of the kitchen garden, and then through a wooden door in the high hedge, which quite cut you off from human society. Here a fenced path ran along between two great lonely meadows, till you came to the wood. The path ran straight down the outside of the wood--the Light Side--till it came to a summer-house at the far end; it was very lonely there; to this day you cannot see a single building anywhere, only woods and valleys.
I became interested in Darwin's children about fifteen years ago when I first began to appreciate the influence they had on his life. We all know the story of Annie's death when she was ten years old and how this led to Darwin's rejection of religion. There were other tragedies but Charles and Emma turned out to be very good parents.

Here's a short biography of each of Darwin's children from
William Erasmus Darwin
The first of Darwin's children was born on December 27, 1839. He was a graduate of Christ’s College at Cambridge University, and was a banker in Southampton. He married Sara Ashburner from New York, but they had no children. William died in 1914.

Anne Elizabeth Darwin
Born on March 2 1841, and died at the age of ten of tuberculosis on April 22, 1851. It was the death of Annie that radically altered Darwin’s belief in Christianity.

Mary Eleanor Darwin
Born on September 23, 1842 but died a few weeks later on October 16th.

Henrietta Emma Darwin ("Etty")
Born on September 25, 1843 and married Richard Buckley Litchfield in August of 1871. She lived 86 years and edited Emma's (her mother) personal letters and had them published in 1904. She had no children.

George Howard Darwin
Born on July 9, 1845. He was an astronomer and mathematician, and became a Fellow of the Royal Society ... in 1879. In 1883 he became the Plumian Professor of Astronomy and Experimental Philosophy at Cambridge University, and was a Barrister-at-Law. He studied the evolution and origins of the solar system. George married Martha (Maud) du Puy from Philadelphia. They had two sons, and two daughters. He died in 1912.

Elizabeth Darwin
Born on July 8, 1847 and died in 1926. She never married and had no children.

Francis Darwin
Born on August 16, 1848. He became a botanist specializing in plant physiology. He helped his father with his experiments on plants and was of great influence in Darwin's writing of "The Power of Movement in Plants" (1880). He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1879, and taught at Cambridge University from 1884, as a Professor of Botany, until 1904. He edited many of Darwin's correspondence and published "Life and Letters of Charles Darwin" in 1887, and "More Letters of Charles Darwin" in 1903. He also edited and published Darwin’s Autobiography. He married Amy Ruck but she died when their first child, Bernard, was born in September of 1876. He then married Ellen Crofts in September of 1883, and they had one daughter, Frances in 1886. Francis was knighted in 1913, and died in 1925.

Leonard Darwin
Born on January 15, 1850. He became a soldier in the Royal Engineers in 1871, and was a Major from 1890 onwards. He taught at the School of Military Engineering at Chatham from 1877 to 1882, and served in the Ministry of War, Intelligence Division, from 1885-90. He later became a liberal-unionist MP for the town of Lichfield in Staffordshire 1892-95, and was president of the Royal Geological Society 1908-11. Leonard married Elizabeth Fraser in July of 1882. He married a second time, but had no children and died in 1943.

Horace Darwin
Born on May 13, 1851. He was a graduate of Trinity College, Cambridge, and became an engineer and a builder of scientific instruments. In 1885 he founded the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company. He was the Mayor of Cambridge from 1896-97, and was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1903. Horace married Emma Farrer in January of 1880 and they had three children. He died in 1928.

Charles Waring Darwin
Born on December 6, 1856 but died on June 28 1858.

This is something I wrote about my visit to Westminster Abby 17 years ago.

Eventually we wind around the Monastery and finally enter the Nave. Ignoring the monument to Winston Churchill (1874-1965) and hardly bothering to look up and admire the high ceiling, I head for the front of the church where I can see the statue of Isaac Newton (1643-1727). This is the same statue that plays such an important role in the Da Vinci Code but today I’m not interested in Newton or his orb. I takes me only a few seconds to find the marked stone on the floor. I’m standing on the grave of Charles Robert Darwin.

I can picture the scene on Wednesday, April 26, 1882—a grand funeral attended by all of London’s high society and the leading intellectuals of the most powerful nation in the world. Darwin would not have been pleased. He wanted to be buried quietly in the Downe cemetery with his brother Erasmus and two of his children. Darwin's family was persuaded by his friends Galton, Hooker, Huxley and the President of the Royal Society, William Spottiswoode, that, for the sake of England, Darwin should be laid to rest in Westminster Abbey. As Janet Browne writes in her biography of Charles Darwin, "Dying was the most political thing Darwin could have done."

Looking around I can see the tomb of Joseph Hooker and a memorial to Alfred Wallace, two of the scientists who were Darwin’s pallbearers. (Another pallbearer, Thomas Henry Huxley, is buried elsewhere.) Nearby are the final resting places of a host of famous scientists; Kelvin, Joule, Clerk-Maxwell, Faraday, Herschell, and Sir Charles Lyell. Lyell was Darwin’s hero and mentor. We are told that Darwin’s wife Emma wished he were buried closer to Lyell.

I am not overly sentimental but this visit has a powerful effect. I think Charles Darwin is the greatest scientist who ever lived—yes, even greater than Sir Isaac Newton whose huge statue overshadows Darwin’s humble marker in the floor. Natural selection is one of the greatest scientific ideas of all time. Darwin discovered it and he deserves most of the credit. But Charles Darwin died on April 19 in 1882 and that was a long time ago.


  1. Thanks for this, Larry. But a couple of minor corrections:

    1. Alfred Russel Wallace is memorialized in a plaque on the wall near Darwin's grave. But he is actually buried in Broadstone in Dorset (see his Wikipedia page for a recent and appropriate marker placed at his grave).

    2. Darwin was not the first person to think of natural selection. Patrick Matthew has clear priority there. And in more casual remarks the idea goes back much further, even to Ancient Greece. But Darwin did more with the idea than anyone else, and more effectively. I strongly suspect that his discovery of the idea was original with him. though others has argued that he lifted the idea.

    1. Thanks Joe. I remember being puzzled by this plaque when I first saw it. There's nothing on the plaque to distinguish between people who are "memorialized" and people who are actually buried in the Abby. I thought it was rather strange that Wallace would be buried there since he was not a member of the establishment.

      Unfortunately, I never followed up on this so I thank you for the correction. I have deleted the incorrect information.

      The second point is more interesting. I'm going to delete "first" from the post to avoid unnecessary controversy but I'm uneasy about this. I'm convinced that Darwin thought of it all by himself in 1838 and I'm convinced that he worked the idea up to the level of an important biological hypothesis. He also provided evidence to support the concept when he published in 1859.

      I don't think we should be scouring the literature for casual mentions of similar concepts that were never promoted by their authors and never recognized as a fundamental part of evolution and then tout them as significant claims on priority.

      I call this the Ernst Mayr way of doing science. As you know, Mayr said so many different things at different times that he can lay claim to being the first to discovery everything in evolutionary biology. The fact that much of what he said was contradictory doesn't seem to bother him. I think we should give credit to those who come with an idea independently and recognize it's importance. We should recognize the people who promote, as well as discover, an idea and we should give credit to those who explain it well and provide evidence to support their idea.

      Darwin did all this and he went one step farther. He considered and evaluated all the objections to his theory and admitted its shortcomings. That's the mark of an excellent scientist.

      I find it ironic that Newton is often thought to be the greatest scientist when his claims for priority over the discovery of calculus faced much more serious challenges. Newton, was part of a serious attempt to discredit Leibniz for personal glory. That's not the mark of a good scientist.

      Newton was also a bit of a kook in other areas, such as alchemy and religion. Those are not attributes of a great scientist.

    2. To be religious is sign of not being a great scientist ? LOL

      These were not good scientists, because they believed in God ?

      Albert Einstein (1879-1955)
      Blaise Pascal (1623-1662)
      Ernst Haeckel (1834 –1919)
      Erwin Schrödinger (1887 –1961)
      Francis Bacon (1561-1627)
      Galileo Galilei (1564-1642)
      Gregor Mendel (1822-1884)
      Guglielmo Marconi (1874 –1937)

    3. Otangelo,
      You have reading comprehension problems: "a kook in ... religion" is not the same as "religious." "LOL" back at you.

    4. Otangelo's other logic fail: To say that an attribute is not the mark of a great scientist is not to say that someone with that attribute cannot still be a great scientist.

      As always, Otangelo serves as a reminder that in order to be a creationist, it is not enough just to be ignorant of science. On must also be deficient in the ability to use logic.

      (Oh, and theists really need to stop trying to claim Einstein as one of their own. He wasn't.)

    5. haha.

      Larry shits.

      And there are his faithful servants, ready to immediately try to clean it up....


    6. So you don't realize your errors in logic, Otangelo, even when they have been pointed out to you? Why am I not surprised?

    7. Otangelo Grasso says,


      Larry shits.

      And there are his faithful servants, ready to immediately try to clean it up....


      You just crossed a line.


    8. Larry: I don't think we should be scouring the literature for casual mentions of similar concepts that were never promoted by their authors and never recognized as a fundamental part of evolution and then tout them as significant claims on priority.

      Patrick Mathew's argument goes well beyond a "casual mention", but he published it in an incredibly obscure place. Darwin ultimately acknowledged his priority. I am unconvinced that Darwin knew anything about Mathew's publication before 1859.

      I don't think that this detracts from Darwin (and Wallace's) great achievements, just from the argument that they were first.

    9. You just crossed a line.


      Good riddance to bad medicine.

    10. Re Larry Moran

      The argument as to who should be given credit for the discovery of calculus is irrelevant. Both Leibniz and Newton who discovered the mathematics of calculus made their discovery independently of each other so they should be given shared credit. The fact that Newton had great sensitivity on the subject should not detract from his accomplishments.

      Newton was notoriously a disputatious individual who carried on feuds with many of his contemporaries (the only one he seemed to get along with was Edmond Halley). Unlike Darwin, he was not a nice man.

    11. Speaking of "not a nice man," which Watson is IBM's computer named after, if that's known?

  2. One of my bucket list items is to visit Darwins' home.
    I am not sure if everyone would agree that Darwin was the greatest scientist who ever lived. Isaac Newton may have him beat there, but I have no dog in this fight.

    1. The greatness would depend on what the scientist is being appreciated for science, or liberation from Christianity. Newton or Blaise Pascal wouldn't have much to offer towards the latter.

    2. Considering that Newton was not a Christian, txpiper's comment is irrelevant.

    3. "Considering that Newton was not a Christian..."

      I'm sure you have a profound but uninteresting reason for believing this.

    4. Whether Newton was a Christian or not is a matter of how you define Christian. He would certainly have been considered a heretic in his day. He was an anti-trinitarian; he believed Jesus was a mediator between man and God, created by God and not part of or equal to the creator God. He wrote extensively about his beliefs, though he wisely kept these pages secret during his life.

    5. One of the places that would have tossed Newton out if he admitted that he was not a Christian was Cambridge University. Even nearly 200 years after Newton, the mathematician James Joseph Sylvester who was Jewish, studied at St. James College, Cambridge, but had to get his undergraduate and masters' degrees awarded by Trinity College Dublin because he would not swear adherence to the 39 Articles of the Church of England.

    6. Further to bwilson's comment, Newton believed that praying to Jesus was idolatry. This might make his beliefs somewhere on the fringes of Christianity, but certainly not "Christ-ian" if we wish to be literal.