It's hard to miss the celebrations this week of the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth, but unlike the life of Einstein, the public is remarkably ignorant of the real story of the father of evolution.
There are no big scandals. Darwin was squeaky clean — a homebody (once he returned from the HMS Beagle voyage) and good husband — hardly the rapscallion image you might have of someone who sailed the seas for five years as a young man and later developed a theory that has rarely ceased to stir controversy since it was published 150 years ago.
However, there are some strange facts about Darwin:
Stinky feet — At age 12, Darwin confessed in a letter that he only washed his feet once a month at school, due to a lack of anything with which to wash.
Tough dad — Darwin's father Robert thought Charles was a failure as a young man at times, prior to the Beagle voyage. The elder Darwin, himself a physician, sent Charles to Edinburgh University to study medicine, but Charles later showed no interest in becoming a doctor. The elder Darwin exploded: "You care for nothing but shooting, dogs and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family."
Seasick — Darwin was sick to his stomach most of the time on the Beagle, which is one of the main reasons he spent as much time as possible on land and not on the ship. That illness probably helped him collect more data than he might have.
Missing the boat — Darwin almost missed the boat (OK, the ship) that took him to the Galapagos Islands and beyond, where he discovered evidence for evolution and started to realize its mechanism — natural selection. First, he wasn't Captain Robert FitzRoy's first choice when seeking a science companion for the survey of the South American coastline. Then, when the 22-year-old Darwin was invited, his father rejected the offer. Luckily, Darwin's uncle persuaded Robert Darwin to relent. Meanwhile, FitzRoy promised the job to a friend, but he turned the job down just five minutes before Darwin showed up to interview. The two spent a week together until they judged each other agreeable, and the ship set sail before the year’s end.
Iffy on marriage — As a young man, Darwin made a list of marriage's pros and cons. Cons included loss of time and no reading in the evening. Pros included companionship ("better than a dog anyhow") and children. In the end, he concluded: "Marry — Marry. Marry Q.E.D." Q.E.D. stands for the Latin phrase "quod erat demonstrandum," which is used at the end of mathematical proofs to indicate that the proof is complete.
Foot-dragger — Darwin delayed the publication of On the Origin of Species for more than two decades after he was convinced of his theory, because he was nervous about how it would be received.
Almost scooped — In the late 1850s, it became clear to Darwin that British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace also had come up with a similar theory of evolution. This sparked Darwin into high gear to finish On the Origin of Species. Scientists with the Linnean Society of London resolved the "who was first" question by presenting both men's work jointly in July 1858. Darwin later got most of the credit for evolutionary theory, because he had worked out the theory in greater detail.
Ho-hum reaction — The publication of Darwin's and Wallace's work was a non-event at first. The president of the Linnean Society said in May 1859 that there had been no big discoveries in the past year.
Family losses — Darwin and his wife had 10 children, but three of them died at young ages — two as infants and one at age 10. Darwin was known to be quite devoted to his children.
Christian, then agnostic — Darwin was a conventional Christian for much of his life. He studied at the University of Cambridge to become an Anglican clergyman, just prior to the Beagle voyage. Later in life, he described himself as agnostic, not atheist.
Sickly life — Darwin was incapacitated by various illnesses of unknown origin for much of his adult life, once he settled down with his family in a rural area outside of London. Some suggest it was the result of the stress from fathering the theory of evolution and its social impact.
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