At Harvard: The private face of Darwin

Science obviously has a public face. This is the stuff of curriculum vitae: positions, publications, prizes. Charles Darwin, for example, built his reputation as a traditional taxonomist by studying barnacles (the animals that resemble rocks on the side of a boat). Years before he published On The Origin of Species in 1859, he had already produced a four-volume monograph on barnacles and received the Royal Medal for Natural Science.

But science also has a private face. Darwin spent eight years studying barnacles, and he did much of his work at home. As Carol Kaesuk Yoon recounts in her book Naming Nature, his obsession with these creatures become something of a joke among his children.

They eventually became so accustomed to seeing their father always leaning over a pile of these little nubs of sea life that lay here, there, and everywhere in the house that one of the children, while visiting a friend, looked around the home and enquired about his friend’s father, “Then where does he do his barnacles?”


Darwin’s theories of evolution now permeate almost every aspect of modern scientific discourse, a public feat indeed. But if you’re still curious to know more about the private face of Darwin’s thinking, check out the Darwin Correspondence Project. Co-produced by Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts and the Cambridge University Library in the U.K., the site allows any user to read and search the text of over 6,000 letters that Darwin wrote.

Here, for example, is an excerpt from Darwin’s letter to William Darwin Fox, his second cousin. It is November 1831, just one month before Darwin set sail on the Beagle for a five-year voyage around the world. With a few swift strokes, Darwin’s letter conveys the tensions inherent between scientific life and personal life:

Why, I shall be an old man, by the time I return, far too old to look out for a little wife. What a number of changes will have happened; I suppose you will be married & have at least six small children.— I shall very much enjoy seeing you attempting to nurse all six at once.— & I shall sit by the fire & tell such wondrous tales, as no man will believe.—

Letter 1708 to J.S. Henslow: "Do you think the most able of your little girls would like to collect for me a packet of seeds of such Azorean plants as grow near Hitcham, I paying, say 3d for each packet..."

Now students and faculty at Harvard are delving even deeper into such tensions, with a new set of resources focused specifically on Darwin and gender. In his published works, Darwin conveyed relatively conservative views about the role of women; but these often stand in contrast to his private correspondence, in which he depicted a more progressive view. The resource, prepared by Philippa Hardman and made available this month, “is designed to encourage students to explore disparities between Darwin’s public ideas and those he expressed in private.” It includes a top-ten list of Darwin’s gender letters (he corresponded with a large number of naturalists, many of whom were women), as well as the syllabus for a recent Harvard course entitled Gender, Sex, & Evolution, taught by Sarah Richardson.

At the site, you can also see the work produced by undergraduates who enrolled in Professor Richardson’s course. These include a nifty comic strip that explores the ways in which Darwin’s language might change depending upon who he is addressing (lofty scientist? lady naturalist?), and a spoof article “Darwin Shaves!” which explores the symbolism of Darwin’s beard.

The Harvard Gazette sums up the situation as follows:

In his letters, Hardman said, Darwin was anxious not to shock or unsettle his correspondents, but he was also “more than happy to rely on the scientific observations made by women.” Still, the letters do not reveal a whole new Darwin, she said. Instead, they “complicate the picture rather than offer an entirely new story.”

Written by Anne Pycha

Further reading:
“On Darwin and Gender”, Harvard Gazette
Darwin and Gender: The Blog
Darwin and the Barnacle
, by Rebecca Stott

Artwork from ClipArt ETC


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