Science stories

Darwin’s privilege

He was unqualified. He enjoyed his father’s good reputation and influence in the elite of England, and was accepted in reputable universities to study medicine and theology, but did neither. Both topics were his father’s choices, and being privileged enough, he had the opportunity to quit them without repercussions, while indulging in his own passions. Since always, he was enthralled by nature, collecting beetles and making keen observations on the mechanisms of nature around him. It was this inclination that lead him to meeting Professor Henslow, a pivotal connection and future mentor, also happening to be a priest, botanist and geologist. As the upper classes of society often work, Charles Darwin was able to secure a spot in the Beagle through him, to be acting as a naturalist – a largely untrained one – but also a self-financed companion to the ship’s captain, for a trip around the world.

Up to that point, Darwin regarded himself as a “normal boy” and a run of the mill English country gentleman, raised in a highly religious Victorian society. At the time, the origins of the universe were commonly attributed to a divine act, in essence stipulating that all species existed all along, and scientists were simply cataloging them. Education in English public schools reflected conservationism and science was consider dehumanizing. Although Darwin himself was a creationist, even as he was on-board the Beagle, during his time spent in universities, he was drawn to the “deviant” groups of students, who often challenged creationist notions.

The seminal journey across the globe would be a formative experience, although it would take decades to formulate and publish the ideas it transpired. What’s astonishing, is that Darwin’s most famous work occurred while visiting the Galapagos islands. When being taught about this particular part of the trip, one thinks that Darwin spent months and months observing the shape of the finches’ beaks or the tortoises’ shells, and how each specific contour served a very particular purpose, in relation to the animals’ habitats. He spent 19 days on Galapagos land.

Although he did collect a few samples, he also failed to take a complete stock of the area. Still, his observations and collections were adequate to give rise to the theory of natural selection. He ruminated his findings and what he came up with has heretic at the time. Maybe that’s why it took more than twenty years to complete a “short” version of his findings and publish it. That, as well as the fact that another of his peers was about to beat him to it, although without the mountain of scientific evidence Darwin had collected. It is safe to assume that if not for Darwin, speculations on the evolution of species would have been instigated by others, however it’s because of his diligent approach, based on the scientific method, that his theory actually made sense.

Darwin was brilliant in his ability to look past the confines of his time. It took a great amount of courage to work against the grain of society beliefs and it could be presumed that society itself changed because of him. What is not often said, is that Darwin was also exceptionally privileged; he could afford to indulge in his hobbies and spent years and years looking for his calling and developing scientific skills. Without the support system he had, it’s hard to say if his Origin of Species would be the the bible it is today.

It is sad to think of all the Darwins we have, and will still miss, because of the society we fabricated.

Charles Darwin, Britannica
The evolution of Charles Darwin, Frank J. Sulloway, Smithsonian Magazine
What Henslow taught Darwin, David Kohn, Gina Murrell, John Parker & Mark Whitehorn, Nature
The Voyage of Charles Darwin, BBC
Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life, BBC

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