Thursday, January 29, 2015

Darwin: An Encounter With Beetles

In 1827 Charles Darwin's father Robert Darwin, alarmed that his son was turning into  a wastrel, decided to enroll him at Cambridge with the ultimate  aim of preparing Charles Darwin for a life as a country parson. This would set him up for life among the country gentry he already knew and was comfortable with. Charles's unhappy tryst with medical school in Edinburgh had disappointed his father and the Church of England  seemed a perfect place for a rather aimless son with a love for nature and sport.

"What calling but the highest for those whose sense of calling  was nil?"

Charles Darwin mulled  over his future and was not entirely displeased. Although  he had spent two years in Edinburgh in the company of free thinkers  and religious dissenters who insisted that nature be explained in material terms and not through supernatural explanations, he still, under the considerable  influence of  his  sisters, took  religion seriously. Besides, a career in a rural parish would give him time to pursue his real  passion, which was natural history.

In Cambridge, in the company of  his cousin William Darwin Fox he became obsessed with collecting beetles.

"Nothing was spared in the trophy hunt. He bought a sweeping net and learned how to trap tiny jumping and flying insects. Sheaves if cardboard were festooned with beetles, each pinned in its proper place. He also hired a local to collect the debris from the bottom of barges  that brought reeds from the fens, which he sifted through,  hunting down his prey. It was not simple  slaughter, for some beetles had unexpected defences. One day, on stripping  bark from a dead tree, he  pinned down two rare types,one in each hand. Suddenly, he saw a third new species, too good to lose. His  action was that of a trained egg collector. He popped the right-hand one on his mouth. Unfortunately, it was a bombardier beetle,which promptly lived up to its name by squirting a noxious boiling fluid into his throat, momentarily stunning him. He spat the beetle out, losing it on the ground, and in the confusion dropped the others too". 

It was at Cambridge that Charles Darwin met John Stevens Henslow and Adam Sedgwick. From Henslow he learned botany and the methods of  rigorous scientific observation and analysis. Henslow's recommended books, especially Alexander Von Humboldt's South American travelogue Personal Narrative, inspired Darwin to travel. Henslow  also  introduced Darwin to Adam Sedgwick  from whom he learned the basic principles of geology and formed an appreciation of "deep  time", that the earth must be very old. .."What a capital hand is Sedgewick for drawing large cheques upon the Bank of Time".... This conceptual grounding proved crucial to accommodate his theories of evolution. 

Later, it was Henslow who recommended Darwin's name as a companion to Captain Robert FitzRoy who would be commandeering the HMS Beagle to a voyage of South America and beyond.

..summarized from Darwin:  Life Of A Tormented Evolutionist.

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