Here’s a little known fact. Charles Robert Darwin (1809-1882), the most important biologist of all time, did not spend his entire life as an old man. I despise stereotypes, especially those that are totally erroneous, and whenever I see a picture of ‘old man Darwin
’ I wonder: why is it that so many of our most important scientists are consistently portrayed as old men? Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing in particular against old men, it’s just that this tradition is annoying and misleading, and perpetuated by a society that seems to want scientists to be oddballs that operate on the fringes of society.
Darwin is the ultimate example of this sort of thing: ask people what Darwin looked like and I reckon 99% or more will describe an aged, bald-headed individual with a bushy beard, photographed in black and white and wearing a suit. Of course this is the way in which Darwin is virtually always depicted, in part because photography only became widespread in the 1850s (and by the 1860s Darwin was indeed balding and bearded). But the obvious point worth making – and drumming home whenever it’s appropriate – is that Darwin didn’t spend his entire life as an old man of 70 years of age. While it’s correct that he was still actively involved in research at this age (in 1879 he finished a work on climbing plants, and in 1881 he published work on the ecological importance of earthworms), it’s neither fair nor appropriate to imagine him doing all of his important work at this stage in his life.
Quite the opposite: in fact most of the stuff that Darwin is best known for happened when he was disgustingly young (I’m in my thi - - fourth decade* and already feel angry and bitter about the absurd brevity of life). Darwin was on The Beagle between late December 1831 and October 1836. In 1832 he visited Patagonia and collected the remains of glyptodonts, megatheres and toxodonts. In 1833 he arrived at the Falkland Islands, where he met and ‘collected’ specimens of the now extinct Falkland Island fox or Warrah Dusicyon australis (image at left by John Keulemans), and in September 1835 The Beagle reached the Galapagos Islands. All of this happened when Darwin was between the ages of 22 and 27, with his narrative of the expedition being published in 1839, when he was just 30 (Desmond & James 1991). He was a young man when all of this happened.
* Many, many thanks to the good friends who reminded me how old I really am. I was young once.
We know that Darwin had been seriously entertaining ideas about transmutation, or evolution, since the mid 1830s. But he felt forced to publish his best known work, On the Origin of Species By Natural Selection (Darwin 1859), earlier than he would have liked because he learnt in 1858 that Alfred Russell Wallace (1823-1913) had essentially come up with the same ideas regarding natural selection. Origin was therefore published in 1859 (in fact it was published in November 1859, while Darwin was deliberately avoiding things by being on holiday at Ilkley Spa in Yorkshire), and at this time Darwin was 51. Still he had no beard: the image at left shows him at this age.
In fact Darwin didn’t grow that beard until early 1866 when he was 56, and he may have done so in a deliberate effort to disguise himself. This must have been successful: Darwin became close friends with Joseph Hooker (1817-1911) after they met in 1839 (later, in 1846, Hooker became Darwin’s right-hand-man as regards botanical issues), yet Hooker failed to recognise the now-bearded Darwin at a Royal Society meeting of April 1866.
So, it’s no big deal, but I sooo wish that Darwin, and all those other great scientists, weren’t stereotyped so much. Images of the young, pre-bearded Darwin do exist, and given that he was between the ages of 22 and 51 when all of the things he is famous for happened, I have to wonder why we don’t see such images more often. We would all do our field some good if we stopped perpetuating stereotypes that have negative connotations. Think of this next time you think of Darwin.
Moving on: I have been kept busy the last few days with Mesozoic frogs, pterosaurs (again), gazumping and aetosaurs… and I must stop knuckle-walking. It hurts. I’m serious: future post to come on quadrupedality in humans.
For the latest news on Tetrapod Zoology do go here.
Refs - -
Darwin, C. 1859. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. John Murray, London.
Desmond, A. & James, M. 1991. Darwin. Penguin, London.