Genius in the genes – An Irishman’s Diary about Chris Darwin

How Emma Darwin held the fate of ‘The Origin of Species’ in her hands

 Chris Darwin, four generations removed from the great man,   had the misfortune of failing his biology exams. Inevitably, he was nicknamed “the missing link”. Above, at the RIA this week.

Chris Darwin, four generations removed from the great man, had the misfortune of failing his biology exams. Inevitably, he was nicknamed “the missing link”. Above, at the RIA this week.

 

It’s a mixed blessing being a great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin. On the plus side, you can bask in the reflected glory of one of history’s most brilliant scientists. On the minus, you can expect to be personally measured against the concept of evolution, and found wanting.

This, for a time, was the fate of Chris Darwin, four generations removed from the great man. Growing up in late-20th century England, as he recalled during a talk at the Royal Irish Academy on Monday, he had the misfortune of failing his biology exams. Inevitably, he was nicknamed “the missing link”, while fellow students wondered aloud if he was devolving back to a lower life-form.

That may or may not have been an influence on one of the more extreme of his subsequent adventures. In 1989, to raise money for charity, he helped set a world record for a form of “social climbing”.

This involved him and a group of friends hauling a dining table and other accessories to the top of the 6,800 metre Mount Huascaran in Peru. There, wearing formal (but also thermal – it was minus 37 degrees) dress, they held the world’s highest ever dinner party, to the astonishment of two Argentinian mountaineers who also trekked through the snow and thinning air to the summit that day, only to be greeted by a scene from Downton Abbey.

But in the years since, Darwin Junior has settled down to a more sustainable level of achievement, becoming an environmental activist, establishing a nature reserve in Australia, where he lives, and most recently launching an app designed to encourage people to eat less meat.

None of this would have happened, he concedes, had his famous ancestor not himself decided to propagate the species, with the assistance of his first-cousin, Emma Wedgwood.

‘Marry – Marry – Marry QED’

The decision was in the balance for a while, as the RIA audience heard. Approaching 30, with the five-year voyage of the Beagle already behind him but its conclusions ahead, Charles Darwin turned his thoughts to the question of whether he should marry, using the same intellectual rigour he applied to science.

He compiled a list of the pros and cons, side by side. Among the former were the joys of children (“if it please God”) and having a constant companion (“better than a dog anyhow”). Among the latter were the “expense and anxiety” of parenthood, the chore of being “forced to visit relatives”, and the “terrible loss of time”.

In the end, his image of “a nice soft wife on a sofa with good fire, & books & music perhaps” swung the decision. He concluded: “Marry – Marry – Marry Q.E.D”.

In the meantime, Emma Wedgwood, eligible daughter of the porcelain family, with which the Darwins were already closely linked, had ruled out several potential suitors - because they didn’t suit her – and was resigning herself to principled spinsterhood.

Meeting of minds

So when she and Charles eventually chose each other, it was a meeting of minds. The Darwin-Wedgwood merger certainly proved more robust that the Waterford-Wedgwood one of later fame: producing 10 children and, through several generations, a dynasty.

The marriage had some tense moments, however, as Chris Darwin reminded us. Against the harmony Emma brought Charles (he had been well vindicated in his hopes for a musical wife, she having had piano lessons from Chopin) were the disturbing ideas to which his studies inexorably led.

Both husband and wife had started as devout Christians. Indeed, Darwin’s Beagle trip had been originally designed to discover scientific proof of divine creation. But where the ship’s captain, FitzRoy saw seashells in the Andes as welcome signs of the Biblical Flood, Darwin saw them as objective evidence: to be collected, sifted, and challenged until it led where it would.

The former, his descendant explained to the RIA audience, is an example of deductive thinking: beginning with a theory and seeking support for it, with the inherent risk of “confirmation bias”. The latter – Darwin’s preference – is inductive: starting with the evidence and building to a theory.

The theory in this case was terrifying to those with Charles’s and Emma’s background. Apart from anything else, it threatened to overturn the marriage. So the scientist took to expressing his ideas in letters to his wife, delivered via their children for added insulation.

And before unleashing his intellectual earthquake – The Origin of Species – on the world, he sent Emma the manuscript, allowing her complete power to decide its fate. Her response, perhaps also in a letter, is unrecorded. But Chris Darwin likes to imagine it took the form of a single word: “Publish.”

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