Monday, June 13, 2011

Notes on Charles Darwin’s Education

Anyone wanting more detail on Darwin's education from childhood to his voyage on the HMS Beagle should read the Wikipedia article on Darwin's education. I have read it, and was excellent. It is exceptionally detailed, but very readable.

(This is more a draft than a finished piece. I'll poke bits and pieces in as they occur to me).

Darwin’s childhood education was at a classical school- much memorization of Greek and Latin, and some mathematics. He was also an avid collector of beetles, and minerals and studied the insect taxonomies of the time. (Darwin's facination with beetles returned when he was a Cambridge student). One of the significant early scientific experiences of Darwin's early life was the study of chemistry. As he wrote in his Autobiography,
"Towards the close of my school life, my brother worked hard at chemistry and made a fair laboratory with proper apparatus in the tool-house in the garden, and I was allowed to aid him as a servant in most of his experiments. He made all the gases and many com-


pounds, and I read with care several books on chemistry, such as Henry and Parkes' Chemical Catechism. The subject interested me greatly, and we often used to go on working till rather late at night. This was the best part of my education at school, for it showed me practically the meaning of experimental science. The fact that we worked at chemistry somehow got known at school, and as it was an unprecedented fact, I was nick-named "Gas." I was also once publicly rebuked by the head-master, Dr. Butler, for thus wasting my time over such useless subjects; and he called me very unjustly a "poco curante,"(1) and as I did not understand what he meant it seemed to me a fearful reproach."

1) A "poco curane" is interested in small things, while being indifferent to important things.

His formal medical education was in Edinburgh. At the same time, Darwin received practical instruction in taxidermy from a “blackamoor” named John who was the former slave of Charles Edmonstone. John had also traveled extensively as a servant and companion for the famous explorer Charles Waterton. In November of 1826, Darwin took a course from Robert Jameson in “Natural History” in addition to his medical studies. Jameson’s 200 page geological illustration addendum to his translation of Curvier’s Essay on the Theory of the Earth was part of Darwin’s reading that term. Darwin later wrote that he found Jameson’s lectures, “… incredibly dull. The sole effect they produced on me was the determination never as long as I lived to read a book on Geology or in any way to study the science.” Darwin made several studies of marine life while at Edinburgh under the encouragement of Dr. Robert Edmund Grant, who shortly after became Professor of comparative anatomy and zoology at London University, (1827-1874). Grant referred in print to two of Darwin’s original discoveries made in 1826; that the so-called "ova of Flustra" were in fact larvæ, and that the little globular bodies which had been supposed to be the young state of Fucus loreus were the egg-cases of the worm-like Pontobdella muricata. Darwin had read papers on these observations to the student’s “Plinian Society” founded by Professor Jameson.

Two years later, Darwin had given-up medicine. He could not stand the sights, sounds, and smells of the surgery. Instead, his disappointed father sent him to Cambridge to prepare for the clergy. But more significantly, Darwin became closely acquainted with the Revd John Stevens Henslow, Professor of Botany, and the Revds Adam Sedgwick and William Whewell, respectively professors of geology and mineralogy. These men totally changed young Darwin’s early resolution to avoid geological science. Whewell sought to reform the practice of science into a more formal profession. In fact, he was the man who coined the word “scientist.” Sedgwick and Henslow both lead field trips that Darwin attended. Fieldwork is much superior to lectures for learning geology and what we would call ecology today. The famous voyage around the world Darwin took from 1831 to 1836 was through the recommendation of Henslow. It was Sedgwick who sent Darwin off on the HMS Beagle with a copy of Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology, which Darwin said, “Allowed me to see with the eyes of Hutton.”

In the three volumes of “Principles of Geology” (1830–33) Lyell, as noted by Darwin, was the chief promoter and advocate of the Uniformitarian theory proposed by James Hutton. Uniformitarianism founded scientific geology. (Lyell also proposed that species of animals came and went throughout the geological record). An example of how Darwin applied Hutton's uniformitarianism as expounded by Lyell, was when in 1835 Darwin experienced a massive earthquake on the coast of Chile. Darwin observed that in a few momments the local coastline had shifted three to six feet higher. Reasoning that similar forces over large amounts of time would have resulted in thousands of feet of movement, Darwin realized that marine shells found on mountain tops were not evidence of a global flood.

By the time Darwin returned to England, he was considered a respected scientist- but as a geologist. Particularly well received was his theory on the formation of coral atolls and reefs. This work has been shown to be correct in every regard. While working on his “big book,” Darwin also spent years in the study of the biology of barnacles, publishing numerous papers and culminating in the still well regarded books; 1852 Living Cirripedia, A monograph on the sub-class Cirripedia, with figures of all the species. The Lepadidæ; or, pedunculated cirripedes, Volume 1 , and 1854, Living Cirripedia, The Balanidæ, (or sessile cirripedes); the Verrucidæ, Volume 2, London: The Ray Society.

All of this preceded the publication of Darwin's theory of evolution, which he had begun working on while still at sea on the HMS Beagle.

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