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7 surprising facts about Charles Darwin
The legendary naturalist may have revolutionized modern science, but he also loved backgammon, dabbled in Buddhism and couldn't stand the sight of blood.
Mon, Feb 11, 2013 at 04:24 PM
English naturalist Charles Darwin in an 1880 drawing. (Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Charles Darwin is a pretty famous guy, and deservedly so. His 1859 opus, "On the Origin of Species," revolutionized biology by explaining how life evolves and diversifies, and it remains as relevant today as ever. His Feb. 12 birthday is now celebrated worldwide as "Darwin Day," elevating the humble English naturalist to a kind of scientific sainthood.
But as with any historical figure, many details of Darwin's life have been obscured over time. Sure, he helped us understand our lot and legacy in the natural world, but he also played a mean game of backgammon and took an interest in Buddhism. For more little-known facts about the father of evolution, check out this list of Darwinian tidbits:
1. He liked to eat exotic animals, but not owls.
Darwin was an adventurous eater, applying his trademark scientific curiosity to animals both in the wild and on the table. While living in Cambridge, he presided over the "Glutton Club," a weekly gathering of food aficionados who met to dine on "strange flesh." The club often ate birds of prey such as hawks and bitterns, but Darwin reportedly once gagged on a meal of brown owl, writing that the taste was "indescribable."
That didn't stop him from tasting other exotic meats during his travels to South America, though. He wrote fondly of armadillos, explaining they "taste & look like duck," as well as an unidentified 20-pound rodent — most likely an agouti — he called "the best meat I ever tasted." His audacious appetite later inspired the concept of a "Phylum Feast," a biodiverse buffet modeled after the Glutton Club's philosophy of eating "birds and beasts ... unknown to human palate." Phylum Feasts are now often held on Darwin Day.
2. He married his first cousin.
Much like with food, Darwin took a consciously analytical approach to marriage, writing out a list of pros and cons to matrimony. (His pros included "children," "constant companion" and "charms of music & female chit-chat," compared with cons such as "loss of time" and "less money for books.") He ended up concluding that he should marry, but then made an odd decision for someone who would later illuminate the role of genetics in natural selection: He married his first cousin.
Of course, this was less taboo in Darwin's time than today, and Charles and Emma Darwin remained married for 43 years until Charles' death in 1882. Their marriage was recently retold in a 2009 children's book titled "Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith," which focused more on the couple's religious friction than their familial ties.
3. He was a backgammon buff.
Darwin suffered from a mysterious illness for much of his adult life, with symptoms such as blisters, headaches, insomnia and vomiting often flaring up at times of stress or exhaustion. He tried to fight this by following a strict daily schedule in his later years, which featured lots of time reading and researching at home. It also included two games of backgammon with Emma every night between 8 and 8:30, of which Charles meticulously kept score. He once bragged that he had won "2,795 games to her piddling 2,490."
4. He couldn't stand the sight of blood.
Long before he upended the field of biology, Darwin attended Edinburgh University with the intent of becoming a doctor like his father. That didn't last long, however, as the younger Darwin reportedly couldn't stand the sight of blood. Unable to face the brutality of 19th-century surgery, he opted to study divinity instead, eventually becoming the pastor at a small church. Naturalism was a common pursuit of rural clergyman at the time, and religion thus offered a unique segue for Darwin to serve as the naturalist on Capt. Robert Fitzroy's 1831-1836 voyage to South America on the HMS Beagle.
5. He was a reluctant revolutionary.
Although Darwin began developing his ideas on evolution while touring the South Atlantic, he delayed publishing "On the Origin of Species" for more than two decades. He was already convinced his theory was sound, but as someone well-versed in Christianity, he reportedly worried how it might be received in religious circles. He ultimately decided to publish it, though, upon hearing that fellow British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace was developing a similar theory. Both men were honored by the Linnean Society of London, but Darwin ended up getting far more credit for the idea.
6. He shared more than a birthday with Abraham Lincoln.
Both Darwin and U.S. President Abraham Lincoln were born on Feb. 12, 1809, and both went on to lead history-changing lives. But the similarities don't end there: Darwin, like Lincoln, was a firm abolitionist. He saw slavery firsthand during his travels in South America, and wrote frequently of his wish to see the practice end. Calling it a "monstrous stain on our boasted liberty," he wrote in 1833 that "I have seen enough of slavery … to be thoroughly disgusted." He expressed doubt that any god would allow such atrocities, and these experiences — along with the tragic deaths of two of his children — are thought to have played a role in Darwin's later conversion from Christianity to agnosticism.
7. He got a belated apology from the Church of England.
Even as his own faith faded, Darwin never fully rejected Christianity nor embraced atheism. He did grow more agnostic over time, however, and according to one interpretation of his 1872 essay "The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals," his view of compassion as an evolutionarily beneficial trait may have been inspired by Tibetan Buddhism. And by advocating the idea of evolution via natural selection, of course, he didn't exactly ingratiate himself to the Church of England.
Nonetheless, more than 125 years after Darwin's death, the church offered this apology for its treatment of the legendary naturalist:
"Charles Darwin: 200 years from your birth, the Church of England owes you an apology for misunderstanding you and, by getting our first reaction wrong, encouraging others to misunderstand you still. We try to practice the old virtues of 'faith seeking understanding' and hope that makes some amends. But the struggle for your reputation is not over yet, and the problem is not just your religious opponents but those who falsely claim you in support of their own interests. Good religion needs to work constructively with good science — and I dare to suggest that the opposite may be true as well."
To learn more about Darwin and his historic work, visit the Darwin Online project, which features free digital versions of "On the Origin of Species" as well as all other Darwin publications. And for a quick primer about how natural selection works, check out this animated explainer narrated by the late astronomer and science educator Carl Sagan:
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