Saturday, January 13, 2007

Why I hate Darwin’s beard

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.


Blogger John S. Wilkins said...

"Darwin's Beard" is also the name of a logical conundrum in evolution. Or if it isn't, it ought to be. I might write a paper and invent it...

4:18 AM  
Blogger Darren Naish said...

Please send me a reprint when one is available John.. :)

9:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

:-D :-D :-D

10:14 PM  
Blogger John S. Wilkins said...

OK, Plato's Beard is the idea that nonbeing has to be in some sense or we can't talk about things that don't exist. Darwin's Beard would be the view that an organism can be in a state where it is both in two species at once, and neither. That is, in a species in statu nascendi, it is not clear which species the intermediates belong to.

How's that sound?

7:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good -- as long as you believe in species. Some don't.

1:58 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

But the real question is, how do you feel about Spock's beard?

9:13 PM  
Blogger Mike Taylor said...

Actually, you're in your fourth decade.

11:53 PM  
Blogger Mike Taylor said...

(Waaay off-topic, but ...)

Nice to see a fellow progger here on a tetrapod zoology list. I have both Transatlantic albums, too :-)

11:55 PM  
Blogger Moro Rogers said...

Perhaps some people want to view Darwin as a modern sage or prophet (anything but a regular old scientist!) and no prophet is complete without a beard.=p

12:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, stereotypes aside, I'm not giving up my Darwin bobblehead (, which depicts him as balding and bearded. Afterall, those are the only two characteristics I share with the great man.

4:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good post. The best thing I've ever read about Darwin is David Quammen's new book, The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, which is short (192 pp.), readable, and generally excellent.

Also, are you really only in your third decade? I just started my fourth (31). I agree with you that reading about these great figures from the past is pretty soul-crushing work. I'm reading a biography of Teddy Roosevelt, who published three books by the time he graduated with his bachelor's. The first two were about birds--young Roosevelt had the largest private ornithological collection on the continent. The third, The Naval War of 1812, is still probably the definitive work on the subject. The Dept. of the Navy ordered that a copy be placed on board every U.S. ship, and when you guys (i.e, Brits) wrote your history of the Royal Navy you asked Teddy to write the section on the War of 1812. He was the only foreigner so honored.

The bastard.


4:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sadly, in the States at least, if you ask people to describe Darwin, I suspect 30% would draw a blank, 30% would remember the hat and the beard, and the remaining lot would describe a satyrical demon with horns and a pointy tail. That could be being generous.

7:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Einstein is the other classic case. Most of the work for which he is famous was done when he was young and yet he is almost invariably portrayed as a doddery white-haired old man. This is grossly unfair because, as we all know, scientists are really young, virile and sexy!

8:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Part of the reason, I'm sure, is that with that long white beard, he doesn't just look like an old man, he looks like a wise old man. Compare that to the picture from 1859 where he looks so grumpy it hurts.

2:32 PM  
Blogger Darren Naish said...

Thanks to all for their comments.

On my age.. ok ok ok, yes I am in my fourth decade. Thanks for pointing it out Mike and Matt. And, yes, I cannot count.

8:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I went to a fancy dress party as Darwin. Not only did everyone think I was Santa, but when I said that I was Charles Darwin, they didn't know who I meant. They were similarly confused when I mentioned the theory of evolution and had to be shown a ten pound note to see who I was talking about!

Education in Gosport is dreadful, it seems!

9:08 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Darren, good post. Most of my scientist cohorts are young---or at least young at heart---and only one of them has a beard. I believe layfolk think of scientists as somehow different from "ordinary" people. They imagine we are born old, bald, and bearded.

Tristram, you stole my comment about Einstein being the classic example of this phenomenon. Curse you! Also, I must agree with you that scientists are virile and sexy. Well, I am anyway.

Here are 3 more scientist stereotypes:

1: Scientists are all male. This is certainly becoming less and less true. My wife, for example, is an epidemiologist---I should point out that she is neither bald nor bearded---and let me tell you, that field is wall-to-wall women. Even the more traditionally male-dominated fields, such as physics and engineering, are experiencing an influx of women. Come to think of it, most of my friends at work are females, and they include a physicist, an applied physicist, and two chemists.

2: Scientists are invariably white, or possibly East Asian. At least, that seems to be the stereotype in the States. In actual fact, that's far from the case.

3: Scientists are unattractive and socially inept. In my experience, the distribution of attractiveness and sociability among science types is pretty similar to that in the population at large: there's a decent number of awkward geeks, but also a fair number of good-looking, social adepts.

9:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't "create a link", and probably that only works within Blogger anyway, so...

Pharyngula doesn't quite understand you.

9:13 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Addendum to my previous comment: For more on stereotypes of white nerds, please check out this hilarious Weird Al video. It's become my personal theme song.

9:19 PM  
Blogger Tengu said...

Oh, and Carl Linnaeus (did I spell that right?)was `not` a youthful Saami Shaman...

...Shamans are always bearded old men....

9:52 PM  
Blogger Darren Naish said...

I suspect that ol' PZ is responding to my teaser post rather than the full length justification (though sorry if I'm wrong). As is clear, I have no problems with beards, it's the stereotyping of Darwin as 'old man his whole life' that I'm getting at. As is also clear from some comments left on Pharyngula's site, some people seem under the impression that the only existing images of Darwin show him as old and bearded. Well, shame on you..

Simon: have you seen Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the 2005 movie? Trillian also goes to a party dressed as 'old man Darwin', with a beagle for support. For shame, I cannot recall whether this was also in the radio play/book/BBC TV series (all of which I've heard, read, and seen for those who care about these things). Oh and.. Gosport? I used to live there. Hell-hole.

Tristram and Skeeler: of course, all scientists are indeed sexy, young, virile and generally wonderful. Just look at me.

9:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have to disagree with the basic premise of your post. An alternative explanation for the common portrayal of famous scientists as old men, is the fact that, although they often did their monumental work when they were young, good-looking and virile (if male!), their work usually took decades to be recognized as as ground-breaking, and they to be recognized as fit subjects to pose for posterity. Hence fame and portraiture (of the old man, rather than the young) is decades behind the deed. Not to say that this very natural situation does not promote the stereotype- I just don't think it a deliberate falsification. And it's probably not the most harmful- my least favorite is the "mad-scientist" protrayal often presented to children in their comics and television shows.

1:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Regarding Darwin specifically, my understanding was that he grew the beard intentionally not so much as a 'disguise' from others but because he was in failing health and wanted to make that less obvious by obscuring most of his face.

Wouldn't you say that "famous" scientists in general are held in the image that either shows 1. the prime of their career, 2. old and wise, or 3. 'wacky' or reinforcing the mad scientist stereotype?


4:28 AM  
Blogger John S. Wilkins said...

Philosophers, on the other hand, are mature, virile and sexy. And bearded. Apart from all those young whippersnappers that keep popping up in the department.

1:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Darren, a good point. It's worth remembering (for one's own encouragement and to induce a healthy competitive drive) - scientists' seminal work done while they were young.

Re human quadrupedalism, may I hope that you will be discussing feral children in this capacity? And the stages of learning to walk, in babies/toddlers? (which incidentally - along with learning to speak! - strikes me as a fairly wondrous bit of inductive learning that we mostly take for granted.)

I still sometimes go up stairs on all fours - if I'm in a hurry, and because it's more fun that way, not out of unsteadiness nor any fear of heights (only in domestic settings, I should add). I offer that to you as data. (Anyone else do the same?)

-Graham King

4:19 PM  
Blogger Darren Naish said...

I confess to being a part-time quadruped...

4:27 PM  

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