Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Darwin's Nose

The course of history rarely hinges on the impact of a single individual...let alone an individual’s nose. Yet Charles Darwin’s nose --which one captain Robert FitzRoy disliked at first sight-- was a hair’s breadth from disqualifying its owner for the post of “naturalist” aboard HMS Beagle, departing on a voyage around the world. The young Darwin had been recommended for the job by his mentor, professor John Steves Henslow, after several candidates had turned down FitzRoy’s overtures.

Charles’ father, Dr. Robert Darwin II, was a respected physician, the son of another doctor Darwin, Erasmus, who at the close of the 18th century had proposed one of the many theories of evolution then in vogue. The ponderous and imposing doctor Robert wanted his son to follow in his footsteps, but Charles gave up medicine after witnessing an operation performed without the aid of anesthetics. In the wake of this incident, doctor Darwin had decided that his son should become a clergyman. This decision seemed to suit the indolent Charles, and so he set off to Cambridge University.

Charles Darwin had some time earlier began collecting insects spurred by his cousin William Darwin Fox. The new hobby soon became an obsession. “I am dying by inches, from not having anybody to talk to about insects,” he wrote to his cousin.

Charles sought after new beetle varieties. He was more interested in collecting as many different kinds as he could get his hands on than in dissecting and classifying them. “I will give proof of my zeal,” he wrote in his autobiography.
One day, tearing off some old bark, I saw two rare beetles and seized one in each hand, then I saw a third and new kind, which I could not bear to lose, so that I popped the one which I held in my right hand into my mouth. Alas! It ejected some intensely acrid fluid which burnt my tongue so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, as was the third one.

It was at Cambridge that Darwin, aged 22, met the botanist J. S. Henslow. Henslow, a revered teacher, developed a great fondness for his pupil. “What a fellow that Darwin is for asking questions,” he once remarked. Chalres, his mind still set on a career in the Church of England, had finally found a passion.

One day, returning home from a walking tour of North Wales with the geologist Adam Sedgwick, Charles found a letter from Henslow waiting for him. Her Majesty’s Ship Beagle, commanded by captain Robert FitzRoy, was soon to set sail for South America on a scientific voyage that would eventually take her around the world. “Capt. F. wants a man (I understand) more as a companion than a mere collector and would not take any one, however good a naturalist, who was not recommended to him likewise as a gentleman,” wrote Henslow.

FitzRoy was rather cold on his first meeting with Darwin. Charles was a bourgeois from a liberal family, whereas the captain was an aristocrat and a headstrong conservative. FitzRoy felt particularly hostile toward the young man’s nose. It was not the nose of a man who could withstand the hardships of life at sea. But in the end Charles’ enthusiasm and good nature won the seaman over and he was given the position.

And so Charles Darwin embarked in what was to be a five year trip around the world, during which his early belief that species were immutable was to be shaken and eventually shattered, to be replaced by the conviction that they had evolved through the ages. Twenty-odd years after Darwin’s return to England, the naturalist poured the results of his musings in a beautiful book that changed the world --The Origin of Species.