Letters reveal the true character of Charles Darwin

September 25, 2009|By ALLAN POWELL

To "read the soul" of a remarkable person, one could do no better than read "The Beagle Letters" edited by Frederick Burkhart.

These letters commence in 1831, when Charles Darwin was a mere 22 years of age and became aware of the possibility that he might be considered for the position of naturalist on HMS Beagle. Commanded by Robert Fitz Roy, this ship was commissioned to undertake a lengthy voyage (that turned out to be nearly five years) to survey and report useful information to advance British commerce.

While the voyage took Darwin around the world, most of the time was spent on the east and west coasts of South America. Frequent stops along the way permitted Darwin the opportunity to gather fossils and specimens of plants and animals to send back to England. Darwin was also able to take journeys inland to study rock formations, volcanic sites and the effects of earthquakes.


Our primary interest is the correspondence between Darwin, friends and family to get a read on Darwin's character. Of special importance are his former teachers who agreed to receive the many boxes of specimens and fossils to be the subject of future study.

The importance of these letters is the possibility of getting a very close look at an original thinker. When one reads the nasty articles and views the ugly cartoons that present Darwin with the horns of a devil, it becomes evident that his name and his ideas generate considerable hostility. Many who dislike Darwin have never read anything that properly represents the thinking or the character of this generous and good young man.

A look at how people close their correspondence is a good indicator of the way they relate to others. Signs of trust, respect and affection, by both sender and receiver, will open the door to the "real" Charles Darwin.

Susan Darwin, Charles' sister, signs off with, "All our affectionate Loves to you Dearest Charles and I am Ever Yrs most particularly -- Susan E. Darwin." Professor John S. Henslow, Darwin's geology teacher, concludes his letter with, "Believe me Yrs. Ever affectionately and sincerely." Captain Fitz Roy, whose good will and friendship was essential, signed his letters in an obviously friendly way, "Adios Philos -- Ever very faithfully Yours. Robt. Fitz Roy." The tease "Philos" (Philosopher) is a sign of friendship and respect.

A gentle, caring and ever-present sensitivity is dependable in Darwin's letters. When asking for his father's approval to sail on the Beagle, he is fully aware of all of his father's objections. Nonetheless, he signs off with, "Believe me my dear Father -- Your affectionate Son -- Charles Darwin." Eventually, with the gentle pressure of friends who supported Charles, permission was granted. Science benefited immensely from this family decision.

Just prior to sailing from England, Darwin wrote a letter to his much-admired professor of geology, John S. Henslow. He concluded with, "Good bye, my dear Henslow -- Your most sincere friend." These friendly and caring expressions of respect and affection are typical of what is found in about five years of exchanges while sailing on the HMS Beagle.

Also of significance is the fact that Darwin did not rush hurriedly to the now-famous concept of evolution by natural selection. Rather, we discover a patient, organized collector of an abundance of artifacts and a cautious, deliberate crafting of a theory. This is also evident when it is remembered that he withheld publication of his findings for 20 years until he was literally prodded into going to press.  

Just as notable is the fact that Darwin could have opted for the genteel, highly respected career of a clergyman with science as a hobby, which was a well-practiced pattern at the time. Instead, Darwin courageously moved into the unknown that brought on seasickness, exposure to extremes of heat and coldness, separation from friends and tropical diseases.

As Darwin stubbornly and successfully completed his duties on the Beagle, he could not have imagined the consequences for his future and for science. This voyage shows Darwin's toughness in both body and mind and why he rightfully deserves the recognition of a giant among giants.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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