With much of the rhetoric that surrounds Charles Darwin in the popular mind, especially in the United States and Britain, it would be hard to imagine the man as anything but a “great man of science”. But shifting the lens to instead see him as a figure who is representative of a class of ideas and an approach to scientific inquiry during a tumultuous century, allows for a broader narrative of science in Victorian Britain, which is not focused on Charles Darwin, but instead simply includes him as just another scientist. One of the most important, and perhaps obvious, dimensions of nineteenth-century science which Darwin captures is the progression of the gentleman scientist throughout the century. Charles Darwin was, without a doubt, a gentleman scientist. He did not have to publish his scientific inquiries in order to make a living, and he was not employed as a scientist. The work which he did was purely science which was of interest to him, and his social circle, which was populated by other gentlemen scientists such as himself.

Originally attending Edinburgh to study to become a physician, upon learning that his father would leave him comfortably off, all determination which Charles had (which was little to begin with) evaporated. This was a problem which professors were familiar with, “losing their well-to-do students when they came into money was a perennial problem in an age of occupational gentlemen.”[1] Darwin was also very interested in mixing the activities of a gentleman, such as shooting, with the collection of specimens for study, as well as just for collections[2]. Even after he decided against pursing medicine as a career, and having his father try to have him pursue a career with the Church (a gentlemanly pursuit in the nineteenth century if ever there was one), Darwin decided that this was not for him, and when the opportunity for travel upon the Beagle arose, he decided to pursue it. Even without his father’s blessing and funding, Darwin still believed that he would be able to find the funding to pursue this dream, something a scientist from a less prestigious background would have no assurance of.[3] These examples should lend themselves to the idea that Charles Darwin could be a stand in for any other gentleman scientist of his age, exemplifying the class of person performing science at this time. Moreover, the progression of the gentleman scientist during the nineteenth century shows the evolution in the prestige of the study of science as the century progressed, becoming more inclusive as it became a paid profession.

Another dimension of Victorian science which Darwin exemplifies is the relationship between science and religion (morality) and how the questioning of faith leads to conflicts about scientific practice. Charles Darwin, especially through his relationship to his wife, Emma, and their children, exemplifies this crisis of faith which Victorian scientists were facing around every corner. Before they had even married, Emma Wedgwood represented to Charles, everything which a wife should be. When he decided to marry, rather than to get a dog, Emma came to mind not only as “an angel” who “had money” but also as a “model of domesticity”, who could provide Darwin not only with a wife and caretaker, but also with the company and seclusion which he would need as he progressed intellectually.[4] This moral compass which Emma Darwin was proposed to in order to provide, was not just important to Charles domestically, but important to him as a man of science, and was something he considered as he worked on his writings. He never believed that he would be able to convince Emma of his way of thinking, or convert her to his ideas, but he did write with her, and other people of her faith, in mind, believing that he needed his ideas to, if not appeal to them, not find them to be offensive. This was especially important for Emma, who, if Darwin were to die, would inherit all of his unpublished works and would be the deciding factor as to whether or not they would eventually be published.[5] The domestic sphere completely influenced Darwin’s religious faith in relationship to science, when, in 1851, his favorite child and eldest daughter, Anne (Annie) passed away, causing Darwin to take his final stand as a nonbeliever.[6] This relationship between faith, domesticity, and science was not unique to the experience of Charles Darwin, however, Darwin does highlight how that relationship shaped his work at the time of his major publications as well as his ideas as he grew older. This relationship between morality and science played an important role in nineteenth century science, especially as the century progressed.

From today’s standards of science, it may seem that Charles Darwin’s areas of interest were rather broad in scope, spending his formative years solely interested in collection and chemistry, enjoying the physical aspects of being in nature, taking a keen interest in marine life, and drawing inspiration from texts written about geology. While it might not seem necessary to investigate each of these interests in much detail, because to some it might not seem that any one area was more important than any other, Rebecca Stott in Darwin and the Barnacle spends her entire book exploring Darwin’s interest in marine creatures, and notably spends almost 60 pages of her texts “fleshing out” Darwin’s time in Edinburgh and his interest in marine creatures. This explanation of this time in Darwin’s life is much more expansive than the treatment which Desmond and Moore give to Darwin’s time in Edinburgh, with the 800-page book only devoting a mere two chapters and 20 pages to these formative years.

What is most notable though, in terms of ramifications, is how the two texts approach the discussion of Robert Grant, Darwin’s professor and mentor, and the impact which he had on Darwin. While Desmond and Moore spend time discussing the hiking trips and late night discussions which Darwin, Grant, and their group have together, they spend little to no time discussing what sorts of scientific inquiry which Grant encouraged in his students. Within the Desmond and Moore text, this explanation would not be necessary for the sort of narrative which they are trying to convey to their readers. Grant is not a person who moves the narrative of the conflicted scientist forward, because it is during his time with Grant, that Darwin feels comfortable in his scientific mind and begins to grow as an intelligent inquirer. Desmond and Moore are almost dismissive of Darwin’s time in Edinburgh, making it seem as though the only revelations which he had while in Scotland were that he was not suited for being a doctor. This is not to say that this narrative is incorrect, but rather than the discussion of Robert Grant was not necessary for furthering that narrative.

Stott, on the other hand, gives a framework to the fascination which Darwin has with marine life, specifically the many years which he spends dissecting barnacles in his later life, because this was something which Robert Grant was very interested in during his time in Edinburgh. The entomology of sea sponges drove Grant in his research during the 1820s, something which will be seen again in the character of Charles Darwin when he is driven by his dissections of the barnacles. The personality of Charles Darwin is mirrored by that of Grant, creating a picture of the nineteenth-century scientist for the reader: the obsessive worker. Rather than being dismissive of Darwin’s time in Edinburgh, Stott frames his years studying under Grant as being formative to the rest of his scientific career, a position which is opposite of Desmond and Moore. Moreover, Stott’s careful examination of Grant’s, and later Darwin’s, study of marine life, highlights the importance of the study of the unknown to nineteenth century science. Even today, the ocean is the final frontier on the Earth, nearly as unknown as the outer reaches of space. The obsession with life below the surface is not new to this century, but one that was shared by the likes of Charles Darwin himself.

[1] Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist (New York: Warner Books, 1992), 31

[2]  Ibid., 83.

[3]  Ibid., 102

[4] Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist (New York: Warner Books, 1992), 258.

[5] Ibid., 319

[6] Ibid., 387