Explore Dozens of Drawings by Charles Darwin’s Creative Children

Charles Dar­win’s work on hered­i­ty was part­ly dri­ven by trag­ic loss­es in his own fam­i­ly. Dar­win had mar­ried his first cousin, Emma, and “won­dered if his close genet­ic rela­tion to his wife had had an ill impact on his children’s health, three (of 10) of whom died before the age of 11,” Kather­ine Har­mon writes at Sci­en­tif­ic Amer­i­can. (His sus­pi­cions, researchers sur­mise, may have been cor­rect.) He was so con­cerned about the issue that in 1870, he pres­sured the gov­ern­ment to include ques­tions about inbreed­ing on the cen­sus (they refused).

Darwin’s chil­dren would serve as sub­jects of sci­en­tif­ic obser­va­tion. His note­books, says Ali­son Pearn of the Dar­win Cor­re­spon­dence Project at Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty Library, show a curi­ous father “prod­ding and pok­ing his young infant,” Charles Eras­mus, his first child, “like he’s anoth­er ape.” Com­par­isons of his children’s devel­op­ment with that of orang­utans helped him refine ideas in On the Ori­gin of Species, which he com­plet­ed as he raised his fam­i­ly at their house in rur­al Kent, and inspired lat­er ideas in Descent of Man.

But as they grew, the Dar­win chil­dren became far more than sci­en­tif­ic curiosi­ties. They became their father’s assis­tants and appren­tices. “It’s real­ly an envi­able fam­i­ly life,” Pearn tells the BBC. “The sci­ence was every­where. Dar­win just used any­thing that came to hand, all the way from his chil­dren right through to any­thing in his house­hold, the plants in the kitchen gar­den.” Steeped in sci­en­tif­ic inves­ti­ga­tion from birth, it’s lit­tle won­der so many of the Dar­wins became accom­plished sci­en­tists them­selves.

Down House was “by all accounts a bois­ter­ous place,” writes McKen­na Staynor at The New York­er, “with a wood­en slide on the stairs and a rope swing on the first-floor land­ing.” Anoth­er archive of Darwin’s prodi­gious writ­ing, Cambridge’s Dar­win Manuscript’s Project, gives us even more insight into his fam­i­ly life, with graph­ic evi­dence of the Dar­win brood’s curios­i­ty in the dozens of doo­dles and draw­ings they made in their father’s note­books, includ­ing the orig­i­nal man­u­script copy of his mag­num opus.

The project’s direc­tor David Kohn “doesn’t know for cer­tain which kids were the artists,” notes Staynor, “but he guess­es that at least three were involved: Fran­cis, who became a botanist; George, who became an astronomer and math­e­mati­cian; and Horace, who became an engi­neer.” One imag­ines com­pe­ti­tion among the Dar­win chil­dren must have been fierce, but the draw­ings, “though exact­ing, are also play­ful.” One depicts “The Bat­tle of Fruits and Veg­eta­bles.” Oth­ers show anthro­po­mor­phic ani­mals and illus­trate mil­i­tary fig­ures.

There are short sto­ries, like “The Fairies of the Moun­tain,” which “tells the tale of Poly­tax and Short Shanks, whose wings have been cut off by a ‘naughty fairy.’” Imag­i­na­tion and cre­ativ­i­ty clear­ly had a place in the Dar­win home. The man him­self, Maria Popo­va notes, felt sig­nif­i­cant ambiva­lence about father­hood. “Chil­dren are one’s great­est hap­pi­ness,” he once wrote, “but often & often a still greater mis­ery. A man of sci­ence ought to have none.”

It was an atti­tude born of grief, but one, it seems, that did not breed aloof­ness. The Dar­win kids “were used as vol­un­teers,” says Kohn, “to col­lect but­ter­flies, insects, and moths, and to make obser­va­tions on plants in the fields around town.” Fran­cis fol­lowed his father’s path and was the only Dar­win to co-author a book with his father. Darwin’s daugh­ter Hen­ri­et­ta became his edi­tor, and he relied on her, he wrote, for “deep crit­i­cism” and “cor­rec­tions of style.”

Despite his ear­ly fears for their genet­ic fit­ness, Darwin’s pro­fes­sion­al life became inti­mate­ly bound to the suc­cess­es of his chil­dren. The Dar­win Man­u­scripts Project, which aims to dig­i­tize and make pub­lic around 90,000 pages from the Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty Library’s Dar­win col­lec­tion, will have a pro­found effect on how his­to­ri­ans of sci­ence under­stand his impact. “The scope of the enter­prise, of what we call evo­lu­tion­ary biol­o­gy,” says Kohn, “is defined in these papers. He’s got his foot in the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry.”

The archive also shows the devel­op­ment of Darwin’s equal­ly impor­tant lega­cy as a par­ent who inspired a bound­less sci­en­tif­ic curios­i­ty in his kids. See many more of the dig­i­tized Dar­win children’s draw­ings at Brain Pick­ings.


Relat­ed Con­tent:

16,000 Pages of Charles Darwin’s Writ­ing on Evo­lu­tion Now Dig­i­tized and Avail­able Online

What Did Charles Dar­win Read? See His Hand­writ­ten Read­ing List & Read Books from His Library Online

Charles Dar­win Cre­ates a Hand­writ­ten List of Argu­ments for and Against Mar­riage (1838)

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