Charlie’s Angels

I was recently interviewed for the History Hack Podcast and the subject of Darwin on the Beagle came up. As my book explains, it was by no means a foregone conclusion that Darwin would be given the post of Naturalist indeed he wasn’t even on the shortlist. When you add to that the fact that Darwin wasn’t formally qualified in Natural History you can be forgiven for wondering how on earth he got the gig? Furthermore, if Darwin’s father had had his way, his son wouldn’t have gone even after he was approached to fill the vacancy. Looking at the situation objectively, it’s something of a puzzle. There’s an old addage which goes ‘it’s not what you know it’s who you know’ and there’s certainly an element of that in this episode of Darwin’s professional development. From his time as a not so promising schoolboy, Darwin charted his own path through his university years, much to the annoyance and frustration of his father. His study of medicine and later theology were undertaken under duress but in parallel Darwin was pursuing his interest in the natural world and seeking out figures who could feed his hunger for knowledge. Domestically, Darwin was also spending time with his Uncle Jos (Josiah Wedgwood II) who was perhaps less stern than his father and the two became as much friends as family members. At Edinburgh, Darwin attended the lectures of Robert Grant and looked to him for guidance as he searched for ways to apply his curiosity and pursue his dream of being a naturalist. At Cambridge it was Adam Sedwick and most significantly, John Stevens Henslow who took on the role of mentors. Having already studied marine invertebrates in Edinburgh, at Cambridge Darwin attached himself like a limpet to Henslow and was drawn into his social circle where he met other academics and amatuer naturalists including Henslow’s brother-in-law, the Reverend Leonard Jenyns. All of these figures saw in Darwin a raw energy powered by curiosity and an insatiable drive to understand the world around him. This view of Darwin was diametrically opposed to the view held by Robert Darwin of his son and this is where the tension lies. Darwin’s journey from Shrewsbury to the gangplank of HMS Beagle was only possible because of the actions of a small number of individuals who I like to call ‘Charlie’s Angels’; fairy-godfathers who make Darwin’s dreams come true. After the voyage their ranks would be swollen by other key figures such as Joseph Hooker, a friend and confidante as Darwin developed his great idea, Thomas Huxley ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’ who championed Darwin’s Theory of Evolution on publication and Charles Kingsley the poet, priest, professor and author.

Who were Charlie’s Angels?

Robert Grant who encouraged Darwin’s early forays into the exploration of the natural world whilst studying medicine at Edinburgh University. Grant brought Darwin into the Plinian Society to which body the young, aspiring naturalist would present his first scientific paper.

Adam Sedgwick who took Darwin on geological sorties into North Wales including Cwm Idwal which included a puzzle that Darwin was finally able to solve on his return from the Beagle. Whilst Darwin was still at sea, the geologist visited his father to plead that his son ‘should take a place amongst the leading scientific men’.

Robert Fitzroy, captain of HMS Beagle, who needed a gentleman naturalist to add scientific gravitas to his planned circumnavigation of the oceans and offered Darwin the chance of a lifetime albeit through a tortuous route.

Rev John Stevens Henslow, originally offered the post of Naturalist on HMS Beagle who along with his brother-in-law, Rev Leonard Jenyns (later, also offered the position) turned down the opportunity owing to professional commitments but both recommended that Darwin, despite his apparent lack of experience or qualifications ‘in all respects, would be a fit man to go’

Josiah Wedgwood II (Uncle Jos), the only ‘man of common sense’ who could persuade Robert Darwin to change his mind and allow Darwin to accept the offer from Fitzroy having already written to decline it. Thankfully the post had not beeen filled in the interim. On his return from the Beagle voyage Darwin wrote at once to his uncle to express his gratitude ‘I hope in person to thank you, as being my first Lord of the Admiralty. I am so very happy I hardly know what I am writing.’

Alfred Russel Wallace who shook Darwin out of his torpor with respect to finishing his great book by confronting him with a paper that mirrored his own thinking. The need for haste arguably produced a more concise and readable work. Despite Darwin receiving all the aclaim, as he largely continues to, the two were friends and Wallace was a pall-bearer at Darwin’s funeral in Westminster Abbey.

Charles Lyell, geologist and author of Principles of Geology, one of Darwin’s treasured books on the Beagle voyage. Lyell had a big influence on Darwin’s development as a naturalist with the young acolyte later suggesting that his books ‘came half out of Lyell’s brains’

Joseph Hooker, Darwin’s confidente and moral support as he formulated his big idea. It was Hooker (and Lyle) that Darwin consulted when he received Wallace’s paper and it was he who suggested the joint reading at the Linnean Society in 1858, the ‘delicate arrangement’ as it is sometimes referred to.

Thomas Huxley, ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’ who advocated on Darwin’s behalf when the Theory of Evolution came in for criticism. Huxley was more than happy to enter a debate to defend his friend’s theory whenever it came in for criticism writing to Ernst Haeckel (2 November 1871) ‘The dogs have been snapping at [Darwin’s] heels too much of late.’

Charles Kingsley, the priest, poet, social reformer and author perhaps best known for The Water Babies. Sometimes known as Darwin’s other bulldog, Kingsley had a less confrontational approach as an advocate of The Theory of Evolution. Darwin was able to add in a later edition of Species Kingsley’s comment that he had ‘gradually learnt to see that it is just as noble a conception of the Deity to believe that He created a few original forms capable of self-development into other and needful forms, as to believe that He required a fresh act of creation to supply the voids caused by the action of His laws.’

Emma Darwin (nee Wedgwood). It is a well-worn cliche that ‘behind every great man is a great woman’ but there can be few finer examples than Darwin and his beloved wife (and first cousin) Emma. Devout and devoted would be apt descriptions of Emma who supported her husband even though his big idea would appear to undermine her faith. Gatekeeper at Downe House when Darwin was suffering one of his regular bouts of ill-health, wife, mother, personal assistant, Emma was the constant in Darwin’s life who gave him the stability and security to devote himself to his work.

I have begun research on these figures in advance of a proposed book on the subject; Charlie’s Angels – The mentors, counsellors and confidantes of Charles Darwin.

One response to “Charlie’s Angels”

  1. […] a respected natural historian able to ‘take a place amongst the leading scientific men’*. Charlie’s Angels reflected on the old adage ‘it’s not what you know but who you know’ and […]

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