Charles Darwin: Strange and Little-known Facts

By Robin Lloyd, LiveScience Senior Editor

posted: 11 February 2009 01:06 pm ET
Charles Darwin when he was an old man
One of the last photographs taken of Charles Darwin, circa 1878.
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Charles Darwin when he was an old man
    One of the last photographs taken of Charles Darwin, circa 1878.
A young Charles Darwin
    A portrait of 31-year-old Charles Darwin by George Richmond in 1840. 
Courtesy of the Darwin Heirlooms Trust, copyright English Heritage Photo Library
Charles Darwin in the 1850s
    Though often depicted as an old man, this photograph shows Charles Darwin 
in the 1850s.

It's hard to miss the celebrations this week of the 200th anniversary of 
Charles Darwin's birth, but unlike the life of Einstein, the public is 
remarkably ignorant of the real story of the father of evolution.

There are no big scandals. Darwin was squeaky clean — a homebody (once he 
returned from the HMS Beagle voyage) and good husband — hardly the rapscallion 
image you might have of someone who sailed the seas for five years as a young 
man and later developed a theory that has rarely ceased to stir controversy 
since it was published 150 years ago.

However, here are some strange facts about Darwin:

Stinky feet — At age 12, Darwin confessed in a letter that he only washed his 
feet once a month at school, due to a lack of anything with which to wash.

Tough dad — Darwin's father Robert thought Charles was a failure as a young man 
at times, prior to the Beagle voyage. The elder Darwin, himself a physician, 
sent Charles to Edinburgh University to study medicine, but Charles later 
showed no interest in becoming a doctor. The elder Darwin exploded: "You care 
for nothing but shooting, dogs and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to 
yourself and all your family."

Seasick — Darwin was sick to his stomach most of the time on the Beagle, which 
is one of the main reasons he spent as much time as possible on land and not on 
the ship. That illness probably helped him collect more data than he might have.

Missing the boat — Darwin almost missed the boat (OK, the ship) that took him 
to the Galapagos Islands and beyond, where he discovered evidence for evolution 
and started to realize its mechanism — natural selection. First, he wasn't 
Captain Robert FitzRoy's first choice when seeking a science companion for the 
survey of the South American coastline. Then, when the 22-year-old Darwin was 
invited, his father rejected the offer. Luckily, Darwin's uncle persuaded 
Robert Darwin to relent. Meanwhile, FitzRoy promised the job to a friend, but 
he turned the job down just five minutes before Darwin showed up to interview. 
The two spent a week together until they judged each other agreeable, and the 
ship set sail before the year’s end.

Iffy on marriage — As a young man, Darwin made a list of marriage's pros and 
cons. Cons included loss of time and no reading in the evening. Pros included 
companionship ("better than a dog anyhow") and children. In the end, he 
concluded: "Marry — Marry. Marry Q.E.D." Q.E.D. stands for the Latin phrase 
"quod erat demonstrandum," which is used at the end of mathematical proofs to 
indicate that the proof is complete.

Foot-dragger — Darwin delayed the publication of On the Origin of Species for 
more than two decades after he was convinced of his theory, because he was 
nervous about how it would be received.

Almost scooped — In the late 1850s, it became clear to Darwin that British 
naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace also had come up with a similar theory of 
evolution. This sparked Darwin into high gear to finish On the Origin of 
Species. Scientists with the Linnean Society of London resolved the "who was 
first" question by presenting both men's work jointly in July 1858. Darwin 
later got most of the credit for evolutionary theory, because he had worked out 
the theory in greater detail.

Ho-hum reaction — The publication of Darwin's and Wallace's work was a 
non-event at first. The president of the Linnean Society said in May 1859 that 
there had been no big discoveries in the past year.

Family losses — Darwin and his wife had 10 children, but three of them died at 
young ages — two as infants and one at age 10. Darwin was known to be quite 
devoted to his children.

Christian, then agnostic — Darwin was a conventional Christian for much of his 
life. He studied at the University of Cambridge to become an Anglican 
clergyman, just prior to the Beagle voyage. Later in life, he described himself 
as agnostic, not atheist.

Sickly life — Darwin was incapacitated by various illnesses of unknown origin 
for much of his adult life, once he settled down with his family in a rural 
area outside of London. Some suggest it was the result of the stress from 
fathering the theory of evolution and its social impact.

    * Special Report: Darwin's Legacy
    * Gallery - Darwin on Display
    * The Life of Charles Darwin

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