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So, you think you know Darwin?

Charles Darwin, the English naturalist, geologist, and biologist is known the world over for his contributions to the science of evolution, and his theory of natural selection. Described as one of the most influential figures in human history, his ideas have invited as much controversy as they have scientific debate, with religious, social, and cultural ramifications. Darwin’s theory of evolution was famously published in On the Origin of Species, but did you know that in order to formulate these ground-breaking ideas, Darwin also had some rather more unusual pastimes?

Did you know that Darwin published an entire book on the “action of worms”? He conducted various experiments to gauge their responses, including testing their hearing with the “deepest and loudest tones of a bassoon.”

Darwin also studied emotions in both humans and animals, with a tome investigating various expressions (which also included some of the earliest printed photographs), and three volumes solely on barnacles. Although he is generally known as a serious scientist, in his younger days Darwin was also a fearless adventurer, and undertook a five-year voyage around the world, with no previous experience of sailing.

If you think you know Darwin, take a look at some of his lesser-known writings, and think again…

  1. Habits of worms
    Although the subject matter may seem unusual, this text is actually a classic piece of Darwinian science. Darwin conducted many ingenious experiments designed to learn about earthworm behaviour and to test the powers of earthworm intelligence. He was attempting to prove that some degree of intelligence existed across the animal kingdom, even in the lowliest creatures. The book was published just six months before Darwin’s death, and shows the naturalist at his finest and most curious: Worms do not possess any sense of hearing.

    They took not the least notice of the shrill notes from a metal whistle, which was repeatedly sounded near them; nor did they of the deepest and loudest tones of a bassoon. They were indifferent to shouts, if care was taken that the breath did not strike them. When placed on a table close to the keys of a piano, which was played as loudly as possible, they remained perfectly quiet.

    “Mussels, Barnacles” by stux, CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.
  2. Darwin on despair
    Would you have thought of Darwin as a photographic pioneer? The Expressions of the Emotions in Man and Animals was one of the first books to feature illustrative photographs, with a series of heliotype plates. The study attempted to demonstrate the similarities of human psychology with animal behaviour, which would in turn provide further evidence for Darwin’s theory of evolution. The most difficult part was the “metaphysical” aspects of humans (emotions such as depression, hope, or devotion) which Darwin dealt with in particular detail:

    If we expect to suffer, we are anxious; if we have no hope of relief, we despair…The circulation becomes languid; the face pale; the muscles flaccid; the eyelids droop; the head hangs on the contracted chest; the lips, cheeks, and lower jaw all sink downwards from their own weight.

  3. Captain Barnacles…
    Darwin is best known as a zoologist focusing on vertebrates, but he also had a substantial interest in marine invertebrates, and barnacles in particular. They were badly understood at the time, with muddled nomenclature, and hence made the perfect study. He published three volumes on The Sub-Class Cirripedia, describing the animals in a letter of 1849 as his “beloved Barnacles.” The novelty turned into monotony towards the end of this massive taxonomical project, with Darwin writing in 1852 “I hate a Barnacle as no man ever did before.” After this experience, Darwin never conducted any formal taxonomy again.

    I believe the Cirripedia do not approach, by a single character, any animal beyond the confines of the Crustacea: where such an approach has been imagined, it has been founded on erroneous observations.

  4. Darwin the adventurer
    At the age of 22, Darwin set off on a round-the-world expedition on the HMS Beagle. It was a trip which was meant to take two years, but lasted almost five (from 27 December 1831 to 2 October 1836). Captain Robert FitzRoy was in need of an expert on geology to join the survey mission, and consequently the young Charles Darwin (who intended becoming a rural clergyman) was invited to join the circumnavigation. Darwin was a complete novice to life at sea and suffered badly from sea-sickness in the early days of the voyage. In a particularly amusing passage, he describes trying to mount his hammock:

    I […] experienced a most ludicrous difficulty in getting into it; my great fault of jockeyship was in trying to put my legs in first. The hammock being suspended, I thus only suceeded in pushing [it] away without making any progress in inserting my own body. The correct method is to sit accurately in centre of bed, then give yourself a dexterous twist and your head and feet come into their respective places. After a little time I daresay I shall, like others, find it very comfortable.

Featured image credit: “Darwin, Natural History” by aitoff. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. John Campbell

    This is still only a partial list of Darwin’s scientific interests and accomplishments.

    As a young man he was an avid beetle collector. His first scientific love was geology and during his Beagle adventure he developed many geological explanations including the correct explanation for the formation of coral islands. In his The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, he outlined the theory of sexual selection.

  2. Lee Lo

    Wow! That is amazing! Didn’t know all those facts about Darwin. Wonder why they didn’t teach in school!

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