Posted by: Nancy | October 22, 2009

Darwin & friends

It’s the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his “Origin of the Species” and that’s a good enough reason for me to indulge myself with a commitment to a four-week lecture series about him.

Linda Hall Library: Charles Darwin

The series, conducted by Dr. Bill Ashworth, at Linda Hall Library (Kansas City’s hidden treasure) has been delightful.<Update: Maybe not-so-hidden? See November 1  NYTimes article with prominent reference to Linda Hall Library.>

Ashworth is curator of “The Grandeur of Life” exhibit and author of the exhibition catalog. He’s also an associate professor of history at UMKC and consultant for the History of Science at Linda Hall Library. Ashworth brings Darwin to life and is continually telling stories that paint the context of life and the knowledge of the day.

Darwin, I learned, really did not like his schooling — not his prep school time at Dr. Butler’s School in Shrewsbury, or his medical studies at Edinburgh University, or his clergy studies at Cambridge University. His letters talked about how boring his professors were, how dreadful the topics and, like most university guys, he even participated in a drinking club. (The club’s crest included a beer keg, tankards and a water pipe, and in Latin, the phrase “replete with barley and ale.”)

It’s not that he wasn’t curious or interested in learning. Not at all. He just wasn’t suited to the lectures and the classical training that was meted out. It was boring and outdated, and he had other interests — like exploring the estuaries at the Firth of Forth and, later, collecting beetles.

He indulged his passion for collecting things, and that changed the course of science.

It wasn’t always easy. Darwin faced some pretty harsh criticism from his father, who told him he likely wouldn’t amount to anything (I’m paraphrasing, but it wasn’t positive feedback at all). Despite his failures in school, and letting his family down by not following his father’s footsteps in medicine and rejecting a career in the clergy, he managed to follow his interests and that made all the difference.

I learned one other bit that fascinated me: When Darwin returned from his five-year voyage on the Beagle, he realized that he didn’t know what all of his collections of bones and fossils and specimens really were. He admitted that he wasn’t skilled enough to identify them.

So he asked for help.

He gave his collection of creatures’ bones to Richard Owen, famous anatomist (known as the English Cuvier), and he gave his collection of 26 Galapagos birds to John Gould, the famous naturalist painter of birds. It was Owen who identified key items in the bones, including the giant sloth; and it was Gould who told him that 13 of the Galapagos birds were finches.darwin002

What he learned floored him and led him to ask: why? The rest is history — he kept searching for answers and produced “The Origin of Species” to explain the  questions.

Darwin had asked for help and shared his collections to get it. He’d had a bittersweet experience earlier: At Edinburgh, he’d been thrilled to discover a new type of seaweed but when he told his mentor about it, the professor told him to get off his turf and then took credit for Darwin’s find. So Darwin was seduced by the excitement of uncovering new knowledge, and yet he must have been frustrated by the pettiness and unfairness of the professor who claimed it.

Still, he took a chance again. He was willing to share what he’d found. I have to believe that, even though he didn’t know what he had, his passion for LEARNING overcame the risk of losing “credit” for it.

It was risky then and it’s risky now.

It takes courage to admit what you don’t know. It’s hard to ask for help. Darwin won’t be remembered for this, but he wouldn’t be remembered at all if he hadn’t done this.

There’s a sweetness in this little backstory lesson: take a risk, share information, collaborate. It still makes sense, 150 years later.


  1. […] didn’t care about us and he didn’t care about his topic. He didn’t care about the Library, an archive dedicated to scientific inquiry, or his hosts, careful curators of the relics of human […]

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