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Book Summary: The Upright Thinkers

Author: Leonard Mlodinow

Substory: Darwin’s Curiosity: How He Found His Calling?

Born at his family’s home in Shrewsbury, England, on February 12, 1809, Charles was the son of Robert Darwin, the town physician, and Susannah Wedgwood, whose father had founded the pottery firm of that name. The Darwins were a well-to-do and illustrious family, but Charles was a poor student who hated school. He would later write that he had a bad memory for rote learning and “no special talents.” He was selling himself short, for he also recognized that he had a “great curiosity about facts, and their meaning,” and “energy of mind shown by vigorous and long-continued work on the same subject.” These latter two traits are, for a scientist—or any innovator—indeed special talents, and they would serve Darwin well.

Darwin’s curiosity and determination are well illustrated by an incident that occurred when he was in college at Cambridge, obsessed with a hobby of collecting beetles. “One day,” he wrote, “on tearing off some old bark, I saw two rare beetles & seized one in each hand; then I saw a third & new kind, which I could not bear to lose, so I popped the one which I held in my right hand into my mouth.” Only from a boy of that character can emerge a man with the tenacity to put together 684 pages on the topic of barnacles (though before he was finished he would write, “I hate a barnacle as no man ever did before”).

It took many years for Charles to find his calling. His journey began in the fall of 1825 when his father sent him, at age sixteen, not to Cambridge but to the University of Edinburgh—to study medicine, as both he and Charles’s grandfather had done. It proved to be a bad decision.

For one, Charles was famously squeamish, and this was an era in which operations featured copious splashes of blood and screaming patients, cut into without the benefit of anesthetic. Still, squeamishness wouldn’t stop Charles, years later, from dissecting dogs and ducks as he searched for evidence supporting his theory of evolution. Probably what proved fatal to his medical studies was the lack of both interest and motivation. As he would later write, he had become convinced that his father would leave him enough property “to subsist on with some comfort,” and this expectation was “sufficient to check any strenuous effort to learn medicine.” And so, in the spring of 1827, Charles left Edinburgh without a degree.

Cambridge was his second stop. His father sent him there with the idea that he should study divinity and then embark upon a clerical career. This time Charles completed his degree, ranking tenth out of 178 graduates. His high ranking surprised him, but it reflected, perhaps, that he had developed a genuine interest in geology and natural history—as evidenced by his beetle collecting. Still, he seemed headed for a life in which science would be at best a hobby, while his professional energies would be devoted to the church. But then, on returning home from a postgraduation geological walking tour of North Wales, Darwin found a letter that presented a different option: the chance to sail around the world on the HMS Beagle, under one Captain Robert Fitzroy.

The letter was from John Henslow, a Cambridge professor of botany. Despite his high ranking, Darwin hadn’t stood out to many at Cambridge; Henslow, however, had seen potential in him. He once remarked, “What a fellow that Darwin is for asking questions”—a seemingly bland compliment, but it says that in Henslow’s mind, Darwin had the soul of a scientist. Henslow befriended the curious student, and when he was asked to recommend a young man for the position of naturalist on the voyage, he recommended Darwin.

Henslow’s letter to Darwin was the culmination of a series of unlikely events. It all began when the Beagle’s previous captain, Pringle Stokes, shot himself in the head and, after the bullet didn’t kill him, died of gangrene. Fitzroy, Stokes’s first lieutenant, brought the ship home, but it wasn’t lost on him that Stokes’s depression had been spurred by the loneliness of a multiyear sea voyage in which the captain was forbidden to socialize with his crew. Fitzroy’s own uncle had slit his throat with a razor a few years earlier, and some four decades later Fitzroy himself would follow suit, so he must have sensed that his captain’s fate was one he should do his best to avoid. As a result, when the twenty-six-year-old Fitzroy was offered the opportunity to succeed Stokes, he decided he needed a companion. It was the custom at the time for the ship’s doctor to double as its naturalist, but Fitzroy instead put word out that he sought a young “gentleman-naturalist” of high social standing—a person to serve, essentially, as his hired friend.