DARWIN WAS A BEETLE MAN
Just a few days ago I was rummaging through my backlog of reprints and journals when I discovered a filing folder labeled simply “Darwin.” How propitious that this meager collection of notes and papers on Charles Robert Darwin’s entomological influences and contributions should surface just days before his 200th birthday on February 12!
Back in 1994, I had embarked on what could be called a Darwin quest. I read as much as I could about him and, more importantly, by him. I started with a book entitled Darwin for Beginners for a light, yet interesting overview of his life before sinking my teeth into meatier works, such as Darwin, which provides a detailed and engaging account of this great man’s amazing life. I then read “The Autobiography of Charles Darwin and Selected Letters” edited by his son, Francis Darwin, originally published in 1892, just 10 years after his father’s death (see another edition). Then it was on to “The Voyage of the Beagle,” published by Darwin himself and one of the great natural history classics of all time. And finally, I attempted to absorb what is perhaps his best known work, On the Origin of Species, By Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle of Life, which has been reprinted many times over. Hardly an exhaustive reading list, I know, but it was what I could muster in the six months before my trip to England in October.
One of the many aspects of Darwin’s life that continues to resonate with me is the fact that insects had such an influence on him throughout his life and work. Although none of his writings are exclusively entomological, Darwin still incorporated various aspects of insect behavior in widely disparate works as he constructed his syntheses to describe the underlying principals of natural selection.
As indicated in his early letters and autobiography, Darwin’s young life was often consumed by collecting insects, especially beetles. He was later introduced to entomology through his cousin, W. Darwin Fox. It was Fox that introduced young Charles to other naturalists while attending university, including Professor John Stevens Henslow at Cambridge, the man who would eventually recommend Darwin for the job of the sole naturalist on the H.M.S. Beagle on its voyage around the world from 1831 to 1836.
While studying at Cambridge, Darwin would slip into the countryside at every opportunity to search for rare species. Recounting one such adventure in his autobiography, Darwin wrote “I will give proof of my zeal: one day, on tearing off some old bark, I saw two rare beetles, and seized one in each hand; then I saw a third and new kind, which I could not bear to lose, so that I popped the one which I held in my right hand into my mouth. Alas! It ejected some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, as was the third one.”
I have two favorite Darwin “beetle quotes.” The first appeared in a letter he wrote to botanist J.D. Hooker in 1858 that appears in his autobiography: “I feel like an old war-horse at the sound of a trumpet when I read about the capture of rare beetles—is this not the magnanimous simile for a decayed entomologist? It really almost makes me long to begin collecting again.” The second quote is taken from The Descent of Man: “From the small size of insects, we are apt to undervalue their appearance. If we could imagine a male Chalcosoma with its polished, bronzed coat of mail, and vast complex horns, magnified to the size of a horse or even of a dog, it would be one of the most imposing animals in the world.” When it comes to what we humans consider important, size apparently does matter!
My actual pilgrimage began not long after I arrived in London when I walked into Westminster Abbey to visit his final resting place among the remains of other great scientists, writers, politicians, royalty, and other important figures in English history. I found Darwin’s name, and date of birth and death all carved in stone. His body was interred in the north aisle of the Nave, just a few feet from the grave of Sir Isaac Newton. Later in the week I stopped by the Royal Entomological Society, where Darwin had long been a member in good standing. To this day I can still see and smell all those classic insect books in the library and continue to marvel at all of those incredible tomes together under one roof!
But the pinnacle of my Darwin pilgrimage was Down House in Kent, Darwin’s home set in the North Downs countryside just 16 miles from downtown London. He lived here as a country gentlemen from September of 1842 until his death on April 19, 1882. It was also here that he immersed himself in research, corresponded with the imminent scientists of the day, and penned his greatest works.
One of the things that has always fascinated me about great scientists with a penchant for popular writing is not only how and when they write, but also where they work. The condition and layout of Darwin’s study was just as it was when he was alive and delving into the mysteries of the natural world and claiming his place in history. There was even a display of a portion of Darwin’s beetle collection, nearly all British in origin and unlabeled. Then there was his beloved “Sand-walk,” a graveled path where the great man would ambulate each day around noon to think. Seeing the very same landscape in which Darwin retreated to ponder, synthesize, and create “On the Origin of Species” and his other important books was truly a humbling experience. A visit to Down House and its surroundings is indeed a visit to hallowed ground.
An important and engaging summary of his entomological work by Jeanne and Charles Remington entitled “Darwin’s Contributions to Entomology” appeared in the Annual Review of Entomology in 1961. Another enlightening and very useful overview is Darwin’s Insects, edited by Kenneth G.V. Smith and published in the Bulletin of the British Museum in 1987. Within this fascicle is a collection of notes and comments by Darwin on the insects he collected in Britain and on his voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle.
There are lots of Darwin sites on the web. To see and read Darwin’s works and letters, or descriptions of his specimens, visit The Complete Works of Charles Darwin. See also Darwin 200, the Darwin Collection at English Heritage, and AboutDarwin.com.
©2009, A.V. Evans