Charles Darwin did not want to be the most controversial scientist of the 19th century. How the author of The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man handled his unique celebrity offers writers a lessons that have nothing to do with paradigm shattering ideas Darwin brought to the world.
- You don’t have to be a selfish, excessive lout in order to write important things.
- If “everyone’s a critic” you can be something else.
- It’s okay to live quietly and behave modestly: let others toot their horns for you.
- Being wrong requires the same determination as being right. Both points of view can be vital for those that follow.
Before Darwin became interested in botany and zoology, he expected to enter the Anglican clergy. He maintained friendly relationships with many religious people throughout his life (his wife Emma Wedgwood, related to the pottery family, was among them) and insisted that his conclusions were based on his personal observations, and, therefore, open to debate, independent verification and revision, and not intended to challenge anyone’s faith.
Privately he confessed that he had lost his faith in the accuracy of the Biblical story of Genesis, as well as the deity of the Bible. Among his objections was how such a deity described as loving, merciful and all-knowing would doom human souls to eternal torment for a committing a sin based on ignorance.
He kept those, and other potentially divisive opinions, to himself, practicing that distinctly English form of civility all his life–even when those elsewhere did not. Born into an affluent middle class family, he spent most of his life in Downe, a small village southwest of London where his house still stands. There he raised a family, conducted most of his research, and apparently never said anything unkind of anyone, even when he acted as a local magistrate.
Whether he caught a parasite during his ’round-the-world adventure on the H.M.S. Beagle, or suffered from colitis, Darwin’s ill health made him a homebody. He took walks through the countryside, rode his horse and encouraged his children to help him with his studies. Instead of attending a meeting of the scientific societies of which he was a most prestigious member, he would move his family to places offering a “water cure” for his digestive blues. He happily accepted visitors, all of whom described him as a simple but convivial host who would tire easily.
Though Darwin is rarely mentioned with the other writers of the time, two of his half-dozen books, The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, made him the most famous British author of the century after Charles Dickens. Unlike Dickens, Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Dante Gabrielle Rossetti and too many other British poets and writers of that period, Darwin’s happy life was free of scandal or intrigue. Discounting the vilification, ridicule and vituperative condemnation aimed at him by those ignorant of his science, his worst moments were coping with the grief when three of his ten offspring died in childhood.
So the trope of the artist as “sacred monster”–a indulgent, offensive, selfish lout who must give into his passions at the expense of the comfort and dignity of others–does not apply to Darwin. His public and private amiability never faltered, when the captain of the H.M.S. Beagle, with whom Darwin spent five years sailing around the world, wrote a book claiming that Darwin’s ideas were wrong and that the reason so many fossilized remains abound was that the animals did not board, or could not fit, on to Noah’s Ark, Darwin never made a mocking, or otherwise negative remark about the man’s work.
This remains a good idea nowadays, when the slightest slight sets off torrents of hostile invective on the Internet.
Darwin did not seek fame and, whether it was ill health, shyness or a genuine desire to pursue his research, he avoided most opportunities to advance his name, letting his friends, the biologist T.H. Huxley among them, promote and defend his ideas. This may offer some solace to those writers who are told that, in order to sell their work, they must hire a publicist, make noise on the Internet, and become someone else’s idea of a brand-name. If you work is good enough or important enough, the right people may find you, and help you.
As much as Darwin was right about natural selection as a factor in the survival of a species, he was wrong about how cells pass on inherited characteristics. After years of research and documentation, he came up with a theory called pangenisis that claimed that cells put out small bits of themselves, like seeds, that find places within an organism to grow.
Darwin respected his theories because they were derived from his personal observations filtered through methodical, painstaking research. He would have taken even more than twenty-three years between the end of the H.M.S. Beagle’s voyage and the publication of The Origin of Species if others were not coming forward with ideas and theories that seemed to support his.
Though parenthesis was incorrect, it inspired further generations of scientists to identify chromosomes, genes, RNA and DNA.
Of course, it helps if you’re independently wealthy, as Darwin was, and sufficiently capable of building a world where you, your family and your work can thrive.
But it helps even more if you honor the patience, dedication and persistence that, more than anything else, makes up the DNA of great achievement.
In my life I have found that patience, dedication and persistence is not in short supply. Most people have it to some degree. Others are quite good at encouraging it.
Maybe we have all that we need, right now.