Today is Charles Darwin’s 203rd birthday! For good reason, we celebrate Darwin’s monumental contributions to science. His theory of natural selection forever changed the way we view the world, as well as the trajectory of science. In many ways, modern biology started with Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species. Yet, despite Darwin’s prodigious celebrity status, we focus surprisingly little on his personal life, especially for a society that loves to uncover every detail of our idols’ live.
In honor of his birthday, I’ve compiled 20 little-known facts about Darwin. These small glimpses into Darwin’s life reveal a man who not only happened to make one of the most pivotal discoveries in history, but who cared deeply for his family, pursued countless assorted interests with a fierce curiosity, and held a strong sense of compassion. Here they are, presented in roughly chronological order:
1. Runs in the Family
Charles was not the first Darwin to speculate about evolution. His grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, who was one of the intellectual giants of his time, proposed his own ideas about evolution in his publication Zoonomia, or the Laws of Organic Life (1794-1796). In it, he wrote:
“Would it be too bold to imagine, that in the great length of time, since the earth began to exist, perhaps millions of ages before the commencement of the history of mankind, would it be too bold to imagine, that all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament, which THE GREAT FIRST CAUSE endued with animality, with the power of acquiring new parts, attended with new propensities, directed by irritations, sensations, volitions, and associations; and thus possessing the faculty of continuing to improve by its own inherent activity, and of delivering down those improvements by generation to its posterity, world without end!”
He further suggests that every organism has “three great objects of desire” — lust, hunger, and security — and that the strongest and most active individuals of a given species are the ones that persist, thereby continually improving the lineage. Erasmus’s conjectures preempted the theories about natural selection and survival of the fittest that his grandson would develop 40 years later.
2. Gullible Charley
As a child, Darwin, nicknamed “Charley” or “Bobby” after his middle name Robert, often fell fool to the trickery of others. A friend once convinced Darwin that, if he made a secret gesture while wearing a particular hat at any shop in Shrewsbury, the shopkeeper would let him take anything in the store free of charge. Shortly thereafter, Darwin walked into a bakery shop, moved the hat as he was instructed, scooped up some cakes, and split. It wasn’t until the shopkeeper chased him down that Darwin realized he’d been had.
3. Malodorous Feet
At the tender age of 12, Charles admitted to some shoddy personal hygiene habits in a letter to a friend, in which he wrote, “I only wash my fett [sic] once a month at school, which I confess is nasty, but I cannot help it, for we have nothing to do it with”.
4. Garden Shed Chemist
When they were in high school, Charles and his older brother Erasmus became interested in chemistry and turned their garden shed at home into a lab for studying crystallography. Charles continued these investigations even after Erasmus turned his attentions towards a medical course at Cambridge. Before long, Charles gained a reputation for his notoriously noxious concoctions, and earned himself the nickname “Gas”.
5. Beetles vs. Romance
During his time at Cambridge, Darwin developed a fondness for beetle collecting. He began to spend all of his free time in the countryside, collecting beetles, instead of with his then-girlfriend, Fanny Owen. During his second year, he even chose to stay at Cambridge to collect beetles over winter break instead of visiting Fanny at her father’s house. Fanny, tired of competing with beetles for Darwin’s heart, broke up with him a couple months later.
(Bonus anecdote: On one of his beetle-hunting excursions, Darwin reportedly had two beetles in his hands when he spotted a third, irresistible specimen. Not willing to sacrifice the two beetles he’d already caught, he decided to hold one of them in his mouth for safe-keeping. Imagine his alarm when the beetle immediately released a pungent discharge! Darwin quickly spit that one out, dropping the other two beetles in the process. At the end of the day, he had no choice but to go home, with nothing to show for his day of fascinating finds.)
6. A Taste for Zoology
Throughout his life, Darwin produced seminal works on the biology of various animals. What is not so well-known is his propensity for eating them. At Cambridge, Darwin joined the “Gourmet Club”, a group dedicated to the unconventional consumption of animals. Their exploits included eating hawks, herons, and even owls.
During his voyage on the Beagle, Darwin kept the tradition alive. In Patagonia, he ate armadillo, puma, a large rodent called agouti, and, unknowingly, rhea, a flightless bird resembling an ostrich. In fact, Darwin had been searching for a rhea, and when he realized that he had been having one for dinner, he sent the uneaten parts of his grub to the Zoological Society of London. They subsequently named the species Rhea darwinii.
In the Galapagos, he sampled iguanas and giant tortoises. Darwin even stowed 48 tortoises in the Beagle, to be eaten along their journey.
7. Winner By a Nose
Before embarking on his journey across the Atlantic, Robert FitzRoy, captain of HMS Beagle, set out to find a scientifically-educated gentleman to serve as his companion during the long, arduous voyage. Professors at Cambridge recommended Charles Darwin, who was just 22 years old at the time. Though Darwin may have fit the qualifications, his nose barely passed the test!
Darwin later recounted, “Afterwards on becoming very intimate with Fitz-Roy, I heard that I had run a very narrow risk of being rejected [as the Beagle's naturalist], on account of the shape of my nose! He was an ardent desciple of Lavater, and was convinced that he could judge a man’s character by the outline of his features; and he doubted wheather anyone with my nose could possess sufficient energy and determination for the voyage. But I think he was afterwards well-satisfied that my nose had spoken falsely.”
8. By All Accounts, A Land-Dweller
Darwin was not known for his physical health and fitness. He abandoned his studies of medicine because he grew faint at the sight of blood, and throughout his adult life, he was plagued with debilitating illness. For the majority of his time on the Beagle, Darwin was sick to his stomach. As a result, whenever they hit shore, Darin would maximize his amount of time on land. In the end, his extreme seasickness may have actually helped him make more observations than he otherwise would have!
9. It’s Your Birthday, Have a Mountain
Captain FitzRoy gifted Darwin a mountain for his 25th birthday on February 12, 1834. Mt. Darwin is the highest peak in Tierra del Fuego. FitzRoy chose that mountain in particular because, a year earlier, Darwin had saved the Beagle’s boats from being swept away by the currents when a huge chunk of glacier fell into the ocean there. Today, there are also Darwin Mountains in California, Tasmania, and Antarctica.
10. To Wed or Not to Wed?
Ever the rational thinker, Darwin made a list of pros and cons about marriage, entitled “This is the Question”, before deciding how he felt about life-long partnership.
Among the pros were children, constant companionship (“better than a dog anyhow”), and charms in music & female chit-chat (“these things good for one’s health”). Cons, meanwhile, included “no one to care for in old age who are near & dear”, loss of time, not being able to read in the evening, and less money for books.
In the end, he concluded that the benefits of marriage outweighed its costs. His list ends with these thoughts: “Marry – Marry – Marry Q.E.D.”
In 1839, a little more than two years after returning from his voyage on the Beagle, Charles Darwin married his first cousin, Emma Wedgwood. Charles and Emma had a strong, loving marriage. He was extremely devoted to her, and she cared for him through his chronic illnesses. To learn more about their love story, check out this young adult non-fiction book written about them.
11. A Prolific and Loving Father
Darwin and Emma had 10 children, although three of them died as children — two as infants and one at the age of 10. Darwin adored his children. At the time, men in Darwin’s social class typically had little involvement in their children’s upbringing, relying on governesses to help raise and educate their children. Although the Darwins did have a governess, Charles was known to be an attentive father who took an active interest in his children’s lives. One of his daughters wrote, “To all of us he was the most delightful play-fellow, and the most perfect sympathizer. Indeed, it is impossible adequately to describe how delightful a relation his was to his family, whether as children, or in their later life”.
12. Love Affair with Barnacles
From 1846 to 1854, Darwin threw himself into a long-term study on the natural history of barnacles. At one point, he was keeping ten thousand barnacles in his own home. This became such a familiar part of the Darwins’ daily lives that one of his sons who was young at the time asked a playmate where his father “did his barnacles”, not suspecting that most other fathers did not also hoard barnacles.
13. Staunch Abolitionist
Along his journey on the Beagle, Darwin witnessed brutal examples of slavery firsthand. He later wrote of slavery, in The Voyage of the Beagle, “It makes one’s blood boil, yet heart tremble, to think that we Englishmen and our American descendants, with their boastful cry of liberty, have been and are so guilty”.
In fact, some people go as far as to argue that one of Darwin’s main motivations for publishing On the Origin of Species was to illustrate the injustice of slavery, given his idea that all humans are descended from the same common ancestor. In 2009, Adrian Desmond and James Moore published a book entitled Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution, in which they argue that his humanitarianism and a fervent hatred of slavery drove Darwin to formulate his theories about human origin.
Coincidentally, Darwin was born on the same day and year as Abraham Lincoln, another great abolitionist.
14. Thank You, Herbert Spencer
Today, natural selection has become synonymous with the phrase “survival of the fittest”. The saying, however, was not actually crafted by Darwin himself. Herbert Spencer coined the phrase in his textbook, Principles of Biology, in 1864, after reading On the Origin of Species. Darwin subsequently incorporated the phrase into the 5th edition of On the Origin of Species, giving full credit to Spencer.
15. Backgammon Addiction
Over time, Darwin became a man of strict routine. Keeping his days busy helped him deal with his deteriorating health. Every day, he and Emma played two games of backgammon (from 8-8:30 pm). Although Emma was usually the victor, Charles kept a running tally of their scores for nearly 40 years.
16. Tone Deaf Musicophiliac
Part of Charles’s daily routine included listening to Emma (who was actually trained by Frederic Chopin) play the piano for him in the evenings. He was particularly fond of music by Mozart, Handel, and Beethoven. In fact, Darwin enjoyed music so thoroughly that, in his book The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, he dedicated several pages to his ideas on the evolution of musical ability through sexual selection.
Ironically enough, Darwin himself was tone deaf. He also could not hum a tune, had trouble recalling melodies he had just heard, and failed at keeping time while listening to music.
17. Big Ol’ Sap
In addition to being his pianist and backgammon mate, Emma read to Charles two times a day. Darwin decidedly preferred stories with happy endings, and was especially partial to the writers Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell, Lord Byron, Sir Walter Scott, and Charles Dickens. Despite having read a great deal of Shakespeare in his early life, Darwin, around this time, claimed Shakespeare to be “so intolerably dull that it nauseated me”.
Much to his own dismay, Darwin’s ability to appreciate literature and the arts declined greatly later in life, perhaps as a result of his fading health.
18. Charles Darwin the Buddhist?
Although they both came from Christian upbringings, Charles and Emma purportedly shared a fascination with Buddhism. In 1872, Charles wrote a book called The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, in which he asserted that human compassion transcends the laws of natural selection because it is beneficial for people to desire an end to one another’s suffering. His beliefs about the importance of empathy match key tenets in Buddhism. Psychologist Paul Ekman noted, “It’s an amazing coincidence that [Darwin's] views on compassion and morality are identical to the Tibetan Buddhist view”. Indeed, the Dalai Lama, after reading Darwin’s writings about emotions, told Ekman that he “would consider himself a Darwinian”. You can read more about the parallels between Darwin and Buddhism in this National Geographic article.
(Also of note: The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals was additionally groundbreaking in its extraordinary assemblage of photographs and illustrations.)
19. A Man of Assorted Interests
The last book that Darwin published before his death was The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms, With Observations on Their Habits, released in 1881. However, between the publication of The Formation of Vegetable Mould and his death only half a year later, he also produced papers on the following topics:
- The parasitic habits of molothrus (aka cowbirds)
- The action of carbonate of ammonia on the roots of certain plants
- On the dispersal of freshwater bivalves
- On the modification of a race of Syrian street dogs by means of sexual selection
The broad range and individual specificity of these works, written within the brief period of six months, speak to Darwin’s brilliance and his vast knowledge across numerous disciplines.
20. One Species of Darwin’s Tortoises “Comes Back from the Dead”
This last tidbit is not specifically about Darwin’s life, but it relates to his life’s work. Last month, scientists Garrick and colleagues published a study in the journal Current Biology about a species of giant tortoise that Darwin observed on his trip to the Galapagos Islands in 1835. (The chain of islands is actually named after its famous tortoise inhabitants, the Spanish word for tortoise being galápago.) In the paper, they report that one of the giant tortoise species that Darwin studied is likely still alive, despite widespread belief that the creatures have been extinct for over 150 years. The researchers sampled the blood of over 1,600 tortoises on Isabela, the largest island in the Galapagos archipelago. They found that 84 of the tortoises had at least one purebred parent from the species Chelonoidis elephantopus, a tortoise native to Floreana, an island all the way at the other end of the Galapagos. For years people have believed that C. elephantopus went extinct just a few years after Darwin visited the Galapagos. Now, based on their genetic analysis, Garrick and his team believe that some purebred C. elephantopus individuals are probably still roaming about. If they do find a living C. elephantopus tortoise, they plan to start a breeding program in captivity to restore the species back to its native Floreana.
Unlike the case of those tortoises, it has never been a question that Darwin’s legacy has remained very much alive. Darwin’s theory of evolution, referred to as the “best idea anyone ever had”, has made a lasting impact on us all. A closer look at the man behind the science shows that Darwin was not just a great scholar. Beyond his renowned intellect, Darwin was a family man, avid abolitionist, eater of strange fare, mountain-owner, backgammon devotee, poorly-equipped music lover, “Buddhist” philosopher, land-dweller, barnacle aficionado, and beetle collector, among many other things. So, readers, Happy Darwin Day! Hopefully this list has lent a bit more color to your mental portrait of Charles Darwin.