Part 9 - Father to the Man

Of Father Figures

Being over 6 feet tall, and weighing in at 24 stone (336 lbs!), Darwin's father must have made quite an imposing figure, especially to a young boy.  In later life Darwin would describe him as "the largest man I ever saw", and "the kindest man I ever knew".1  Their relationship, however, was never an easy one.

In 19th century England, amongst the middle and upper classes at least, a man was indeed king in his own home, and his authority over the members of his household was as absolute as he cared to make it.  (A woman, on marriage, became effectively just one more of her husband's goods and chattels.  Whatever she owned at the time of marriage automatically became, by law, her husband's property.)
It is hardly surprising, in these more liberated days, that Dr Darwin's forceful character is often interpreted as being the cause of some of Charles Darwin's more eccentric (?) behaviour.  According to Huxley and Kettlewell, for example:

"The predisposing cause of any psychoneurosis which Charles Darwin displayed seems to have been the conflict and emotional tension springing from his ambivalent relations with his father ... whom he both revered and subconsciously resented."2

The same point is echoed by biographer John Chancellor, who cites a theory that:

"... [Darwin's] obsessive desire to work and achieve something was prompted by hatred and resentment of his father, who had called him an idler and good-for-nothing during his youth."3

That incident certainly seems to have still carried an emotional charge when Darwin came to write his autobiography, as evidenced by the 'spin' he puts on the event:

"... [my father] was a little unjust to me when I was young, but afterwards I am thankful to think that I became a prime favourite with him."4

"My father was a little unjust to me".  An interesting way of describing comments like: "... you care for nothing but shooting, dogs and rat catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and your family"!

So just how seriously should we take these examples of posthumous psychoanalysis?

We can, I think, quite safely assume that Darwin was always very conscious of his father's authority, and very wary of incurring his father's displeasure.  In his autobiography he makes a point of describing his father's ability to gauge a person's true nature after only the briefest acquaintanceship (including one case involving a loan of the staggering sum, in those days, of 10,000 - it was repaid!).  As John Bowlby (himself a specialist in child and family psychiatry at the Tavistock Clinic for the best part of 50 years) observed:

"Inevitably Charles stood in awe of this formidable man.  Recognising that it did not pay to cross him, he seems early to have developed effective ways of placating him.  One of these ways, which became ingrained in his character, was to accept all his father's pronouncements as ultimate truths that were never to be questioned."5

I'm personally not convinced that Darwin had the courage to consciously hate his father, even within the privacy of his own mind.  Much more to the point, given his father's early disapproval I think Darwin faced two basic options in his life.  On the one hand he could continue his reprobate ways and run the risk of incurring the ultimate measure of parental displeasure - disinheritance.  Alternatively, though in a covert version of the same spirit of rebellion, he could prove his father wrong (thus, by implication also undermining his authority) by surpassing anything his father had ever thought possible.

It is pretty obvious, I suggest, that Darwin chose the latter course.  Harking back to his time aboard the Beagle he claimed, in typically sanctimonious tones, that he had:

"... worked to the utmost during the voyage from the mere pleasure of the investigation, and from my strong desire to add a few facts to the great mass of facts in Natural Science."

And then in a rare moment verging on self-perception:

"But I was also ambitious to take a fair place among scientific men - whether more ambitious or less so than my fellow workers, I can form no opinion."6
(Italics added)

On the one hand one might argue that the strained relationship between Darwin and his father thus acted as a spur for him to make something of his life.  Having said that, I am inclined to agree with Bowlby that this was a very two-edged sword:

"Lurking always in the back of Charles's mind, ever ready to emerge, was a deep uncertainty.  Was he the disgrace to his family his father had so angrily predicted, or had he perhaps made good?  On this vital issue Charles oscillated."7

Bowlby, another keen Darwinist, seems to have satisfied himself that the bouts of self-doubt are all we need to consider to understand the darker side of Darwin's personality.  Unfortunately there is one more factor that is as important as any other - Darwin's habit of manipulating the truth in any way that seemed appropriate to serve his own ends - a characteristic which seems to have its origins in his early childhood (as a side effect, perhaps, of that need to placate his father).
There is evidence, for example that by the time he went to Shrewsbury School he had already developed the habit of concocting stories to impress and interest his fellow pupils.8  It seems quite reasonable to identify the incident recounted by Leighton as an early example of this behaviour.9

This kind of behaviour is, of course, quite common in children who feel isolated from the people they should, ideally, be able to look to for love and support, and it is hardly surprising that the young Darwin, deprived by the untimely death of his mother, unable to relate very closely to either his father or his older siblings, should have developed some of the typical symptoms of youthful isolation.
(The assertion by Darwin's sister Caroline that Robert Darwin actually felt great affection for his younger son10 is neither here nor there.  It is what young Charles perceived to be true at the time that counts, no matter how inaccurate those perceptions may have been.)

The full tragedy of the situation only emerged as Darwin approach maturity (in the chronological sense) yet failed to put off his childish behaviour.  Far from withering, this tendency to invent his own version(s) of the truth actually blossomed into wholesale dissimulation.  Thus in 1831, for example, we find Darwin writing to Henslow, in the guise of an obedient son, to say that he cannot sail with the Beagle as his father forbids it, whilst at the same time he is persuading his uncle, Josiah Wedgewood, to influence Robert Darwin to change his mind.11
It may tell us something about the degree to which others recognised Darwin's tendency to 'economise on the truth' that Henslow seems to have ignored Darwin's rejection of the post and simply waited for his subsequent acceptance.

In light of this, it isn't hard to understand how Darwin could have adopted Edward Blyth's hypothesis as his own, sometime in 1836 or 1837, and is within a year proudly referring to "my theory", as though Edward Blyth had never existed.  Nor how readily, thereafter, he rolled out a series of misleading reports of his work and progress to the men whose aid and support he is soliciting, in order to conceal his plagiarism.
It looks like nothing more nor less than a transference of the techniques he had learnt to use on his father.

It is hardly surprising that Darwin's life after his return to England was long plagued by ill health when one considers the magnitude of the fraud he succeeded in perpetrating on the scientific establishment of the day.  The strain of keeping track of what he had said, when, and to whom he had said it must have assumed the proportions of a second career!

In Sickness and In Ill Health

When Charles and Emma were married in January, 1839, the first signs of Darwin's future illnesses had only recently begun to manifest themselves.  There had, of course, been several well-documented incidents prior to this time.  The lip eczema in the winter of 1829-30, the exams in March, 1830, before which (as Darwin wrote to his friend and 2nd cousin W.D. Fox): "my nerves were in a shattered and weak condition"12, and the bout of nervous upset he suffered whilst waiting for the Beagle to be made ready to sail.  Generally speaking, however, Darwin's youth was mainly characterised by good, even robust, health.

The first real sign of trouble appears in a letter Darwin wrote to Henslow in October, 1837, (only a few months after opening his first notebook on 'the species question') in which he complains that:

" ... of late anything which flurries me completely knocks me up afterwards, and brings on violent palpitation of the heart"13
(Italics added)

And yet, despite this problem, Darwin later recalled that:

"... these two years and three months [October 1836-January 1839] were the most active ones I ever spent, though I was occasionally ill, and so lost some time"14

Once Darwin was married and safely tucked away at Down House, however, a very different picture starts to emerge.  According to Francis Darwin's account, illnesses (for which no doctor could find clear cause) were:

".. a principle feature of his life ... for nearly forty years [Darwin] never knew one day of the health of ordinary men ... thus his life was one long struggle against the weariness and strain of sickness."15

To be accurate, this description is somewhat excessive, as we shall see in just a moment, and it was almost certainly instilled in the minds of all the other members of the family through Darwin's constant harping on the subject.  Yet having said that, Darwin certainly did experience far more illness than anyone would normal have to bear.

The real question, though, is not: 'Was he ill?' so much as: 'What lay behind this seemingly unremitting round of ill health?'  Did it have a physical cause?  Or was it psychosomatic - real enough, but self-induced?

Darwin Myth #9: The Constant Invalid

According to one proponant of the 'Chagas explanation':

"... once back in England, [Darwin's] health declined horribly. ... Forced to give up field work and social life, he lived out the rest of his 71 years as a reclusive semi-invalid."16

This account is fairly typical of the claims made by those who support the notion that Darwin was to all intents and purposes, a constant invalid for most of his adult life.  And it would have been a sad and heart-wrenching state of affairs indeed, if it were true.  But it wasn't.  As Professor Janet Browne comments in the second part of her meticulously researched biography of Darwin:

"Darwin's real life, in short, belies the common view of him as an isolated recluse.  There was a sliver of ice inside, enabling him to make the most of all the advantages he possessed and circumstances in which he found himself."17

In the first place Darwin had a rich social life to the end of his days.  As for his physical health, as the photographic evidence shows, Darwin was far from being the physical wreck which some biographers - and his own account - seem to imply:

The picture on the left, taken in 1842, shows Darwin (aged 33) with his oldest son, William.

The picture on the right, shows Darwin aged 45.  The voyage of the Beagle was now 20 years in the past, whilst the publication of The Origin was still 5 years in the future.

You may well think that it is difficult, if not impossible, to see any evidence of the wasting disease which Darwin had allegedly contracted during his time in South America.

Bowlby picks up this topic on the very first page of his biography of Darwin:

"Despite sporadic claims still heard that Darwin suffered from an organic illness, perhaps an infection contracted in South America, the weight of medical opinion today very strongly favours a psychosomatic diagnosis. ... In favour of a psychogenic diagnosis are not only the nature of his bodily symptoms but also the severe psychiatric problems from which he suffered.  Evidence shows that he was prone to panic attacks, in which he feared he would die, and also that on two occasions he was incapacitated for months on end by depression."18

Another of the dwindling band of dissenters is Professor Urbanowicz who, in his 1996 review of Darwin's life: Urbanowicz on Darwin states:

"On the 26th of March 1835, in South America, Darwin was bitten by what has been called 'the Great Black Bug of the Pampas' or Triatoma infestans."19

It is certainly true that Darwin made a diary entry to this effect.  However, Brent notes that Darwin continued in unabated health - apart from homesickness and seasickness - for a further 18 months after the bite during which time the Trypanosoma cruzi organism (carried by Triatoma infestans) apparently lay completely dormant.  If, indeed, Darwin had been infected at all:

"One bite, it seemed, was not enough to cause [Chargas' Disease] - it was secondary contamination, not the direct consequences of the bite, that created the conditions for the disease to take hold."20

Moreover, even in the second edition of The Voyage of the Beagle, published nearly 10 years after the event, Darwin still attaches little or no importance to the encounter which supposedly blighted his life:

"We slept in the village of Luxan, which is a small place surrounded by gardens, and forms of the most douthern cultivated district in the province of Mendoza; it is five leagues south of the capital.  At night I experienced an attack (for it deserves no less a name) of the benchuca, a species of Reduvius, the great black bug of the pampas.  It is most disgusting to feel soft wingless insects, about an inch long, crawling over one's body.  Before sucking they are quite thin, but afterwards they become round and bloated with blood, and in this state are easily crushed.  One which I caught in Iquique (for they are found in Chile and Peru) was very empty.  When placed on a table, and though surrounded by people, if a finger was presented, the bold insect would immediatelty protrude its sucker, make a charge, and if allowed draw blood."21

If Salwen's claim were accurate - "once back in England, [Darwin's] health declined horribly" - how do we explain Darwin's apparent fitness (see photographs) and his very offhand account of the event that allegedly had such a ruinous affect on his life when he records it nearly a decade later?

The Difficulty of a Definitive Diagnosis

The greatest obstacle to making a definitive diagnosis is the fact that Chagas' Disease, named after the man who identified it - Carlos Chagas - was not recognised until 1909, twenty-seven years after Darwin's death.  Moreover, this particular diagnosis was made long after the event - in 1959 by Dr. Saul Adler, a specialist in tropical medicine at the Hebrew University in Israel.
Having said that, we have already touched on the reason why Darwin almost certainly was not a victim of this particular illness.

The 18 months of good health is not, of itself, evidence against a diagnosis of Chagas' Disease.&mnsp; The chronic stage may not manifest itself until some years, or even decades, after initial infection.  The usual result of the form of Chagas' Disease found in adolescents and young adults is tissue degeneration, either around the heart (causing shortness of breath, chest pains and palpitations), or in the central nervous system (which can cause convulsions, dementia, etc.), and/or dilation of the digestive tract (megacolon and megaesophagus).
A sufferer may experience difficulties in swallowing as the first symptom of digestive disturbances which can lead to malnutrition.  Even in the latter in recent times, after several years of showing no apparent signs of the disease, 27% of those infected develop cardiac damage, 6% develop digestive damage, and 3% present peripheral nervous involvement, and when left untreated Chagas' Disease can be fatal, especially where there is damage around the heart.
It is true that, of the various symptoms exhibited by Darwin at one time or another - palpitations, stomach upsets, boils, eczema, insomnia, anxiety attacks, depression, etc. - some are indicative of the presence of Chagas' Disease.
But it is equally true that all of Darwin's symptoms are commonly associated with stress and emotional disturbance.

In other words, Darwin was both too ill and not ill enough to justify the diagnose of Chagas' Disease.  The extent and frequency of his symptoms would seem to indicate a terminal form of some illness, such as Chagas' Disease, yet he survived for over fifty years after his time in South America.
Finally, and perhaps the strongest indicator of all that Darwin had not been suffering from an organic wasting disease is the fact, to quote Bowlbey once more:

"that during the final decade of his life he was in better health than he had been during the previous thirty years."22

Further support for the notion that Darwin's illness was primarily psychological in origin may be derived from the knowledge that his physical symptoms were often remarkably susceptible to alleviation by purely non-physical means.  In June, 1855, for example, he writes to Hooker:

"I have just made out my first grass, hurrah! hurrah! ... It has done my stomach surprising good."23

Likewise, in another letter to Hooker, dated some two years later, Darwin makes it plain that a physical 'treatment' - a course of hydrotherapy - has been successful in a very psychological manner:

"It dulls one's brain splendidly; I have not thought about a single species of any kind since leaving home."24

It seems quite obvious, from the evidence, that Darwin's problems and frustrations tended to produce one or more of his range of psychosomatic illnesses, whilst the lifting of those pressures tended to produce a corresponding respite from sickness.

As the son of a successful doctor with a large and varied practice, Darwin may well have been familiar, from an early age, with most or all of the various symptoms which he himself later manifested.  He would have seen the care and attention paid to those patients by the father from who he felt so distanced.  Was this the genesis of his relapse into thirty years or more of ill health?  To actually choose to be so ill, so often, may seem at first to be a nonsense.  Yet there were, in practice, at least three significant benefits from adopting this behaviour.

Firstly, it legitimised Darwin's constant claims upon his wife's attention - who seems, quite early on in their marriage, to have been appointed both wife and surrogate mother.
This is illustrated, I think, by the way in which Darwin addressed his wife.  Peter Brent cites a passage in a letter from Charles to Emma dated 1848 which runs as follows:

"My dearest old Mammy ... Without you, when sick I feel most desolate .. Oh Mammy I do long to be with you and under your protection for then I feel safe."

Now of course it is not unusual, even now, for some married men to address their wife as "Ma," "Mother," or some similar title.  But in Darwin's case he seems to have carried it to an extreme.  Indeed, as Brent says, when taken in context it is hard to realise that the plaintive fragment quoted above was penned by a thirty-nine year old man writing to his wife and not by a young child writing to its mother.25

Step Into My Parlour ...

The second advantage was that ill health made it easier for Darwin to put upon his little army of helpers, advisors and correspondents in a way they obviously found it impossible to resist.
As Janet Browne wrote in her biography of Darwin:

"He knew how to charm, how to make people help him.  And the collaboration was mostly hierarchical, with Darwin acting as a greedy spider, throwing out a thread here, pulling in a fly there."26

Just how far he was prepared to go in deceiving his collaborators in order to gain their assistance may be gauged from this statement in a letter to his cousin, the Rev. William Fox, who might have been rather less forthcoming had he known Darwin's true intentions:

"I am hard at work at my notes collecting & comparing them, in order in some two or three years to write a book with all the facts & arguments, which I can collect, for and versus the immutability of species.""27

This was written as late as 1855, when Darwin knew perfectly well what his book was going to be about.  As biographer Peter Brent observes, in quoting this letter, whilst Darwin was certainly collecting the information he described, he certainly wasn't doing it from a position of scientific neutrality, such as is implied in this description.  But then again, Darwin needed the information Fox and all the others supplied to him, and apparently that in itself justified twisting the truth however much was necessary to keep his collaborators happy, and responsive.

Once his initial work resulting from the voyage of the Beagle was complete Darwin was in a spot.  To maintain, or better yet enhance his position he had to come up with something new - something out of the ordinary.  If he had stuck to barnacles, beetles and worms it is very doubtful if he would have been remembered past the day of his death, so to speak.

As it turned out, for the several reasons discussed in previous sections of this paper - and some yet to be opened for consideration - Darwin lighted on 'his' evolutionary hypothesis.  But that meant finding help, not only from Blyth but from scientists of all persuasions.  It is worth noting, on this score, how often we read Darwin upbraiding himself for the demands he is making on his correspondents' time and knowledge.  Yet seldom if ever do those demands abate until Darwin's requirements have been met.  If Darwin was gifted in any way at all it was certainly in his ability to get other people to do things for him.

Mr Darwin Sends His Regrets

And thirdly, illness provided a mighty shield behind which Darwin could hide rather than having to enter the public forum to argue for his ideas.  A task he was ill-equipped to perform.
Safe in the fastness of Down House, Darwin saw only those friends he wished to see, and only for as long as he wished to see them.  He needed to reveal to his correspondents only what he wished them to see.  He could venture out to the odd meeting of a learned society when there was nothing controversial in the wind - and leave it to others to do his fighting for him when it looked like things might get a bit sticky.
We should remember, here, that Darwin was never called upon to justify or further explain "his" ideas in public debate - because he was always conveniently too unwell to attend any such occasion.

The knowledge that his reputation was being built on someone else's work; waiting for the moment when his debt, and his plagiarism, might be made public; the knowledge that his ability as a scientist might, at any moment, be questioned and found wanting - this must have placed a constant and substantial stress on Darwin, both mentally and physically.  What better solution could there be than to adopt the life of a reclusive semi-invalid?

We might also be aware that psychosomatic illness is readily open to positive re-inforcement whenever it achieves it's undeclared purpose.  There is no doubt in my own mind that Darwin's illnesses became so firmly established as a means of dealing with a potentially hostile world that there came a day when this behaviour became entirely automatic.  Only his fame and the support of a substantial section of the scientic establishment allowed Darwin to become less reliant (to a degree) on this negative behaviour.

  1. Charles Darwin and His World, J. Huxley and H.B.D. Kettlewell.  op. cit. p.7.
  2. Ibid.  p.66.
  3. Charles Darwin, John Chancellor.  op. cit. p.119.
  4. The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Frances Darwin (ed.). op. cit.  Vol. 1. p.11.
  5. Charles Darwin, John Bowlby.  op. cit. p.69.
  6. The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Frances Darwin (ed.). op. cit.  Vol. 1. p.65.
  7. Charles Darwin, John Bowlby.  op. cit. p.71.
  8. Charles Darwin and His World, J. Huxley and H.B.D. Kettlewell.  op. cit. p.11.
  9. Charles Darwin, Peter Brent.  op. cit. p.24.
  10. Ibid.  pp.22-23.
  11. Autobiography, Charles Darwin (Nora Barlow, ed.).  op. cit. p.52.
  12. The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Frances Darwin (ed.). op. cit.  Vol. 1. p.159.
  13. Ibid.  Vol. 1, p.287.
  14. Ibid.  Vol. 1, p.67.
  15. Ibid.  Vol. 1, p.160.
  16. The New York Times, "Letters", Peter Salwen.  June 15th, 1989.
    The full text of the letter is on Peter Salwen's website at
  17. Charles Darwin   Voyaging, Janet Browne.  New Pimlico Edition, Pimlico, London:2003.  p.xiii (Introduction).
  18. Charles Darwin, John Bowlby.  op. cit. p.1.
  19. Urbanowicz on Darwin, C. Urbanowicz.  Seminar paper posted on Professor Urbanowicz's website at:
  20. Charles Darwin, Peter Brent.  op. cit. p.387.
  21. Journal of Researches into the Natural History and Geology of the Countries Visited During the Voyage of HMS Beagle Round the World, Under the Command of Captain Fitz Roy, RN (usually simplified to The Voyage of the Beagle), Charles Darwin.  Wordsworth Editions Ltd. (Wordsworth Classics of World Literature),  Ware, Herts:1997.  p.314.
    The journal actually has a single entry covering March 25-26, but the connection of the "attack" with it's geographical location indicates that it must have occurred on the 26th rather than on the 25th.
  22. Charles Darwin, John Bowlby.  op. cit. p.1.
  23. The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Frances Darwin (ed.). op. cit.  Vol. 2. p.59.
  24. Ibid.  Vol. 2, p.91.
  25. Charles Darwin, Peter Brent.  op. cit.
  26. Charles Darwin   Voyaging, Janet Browne.  op. cit.
  27. Charles Darwin, Peter Brent.  op. cit.  p.392.

Go to other sections

Part 0 - Introduction
Part 1 - Metaphors and Myths
Part 2 - The Mystery Begins
Part 3 - All At Sea
Part 4 - He Who Hesitates ...
Part 5 - Last Days
Part 6 - Without Reference ...
Part 7 - The Missing Link
Part 8 - Going Public, Maybe
Part 10 - Mr Wallace, Mr Blyth ...
Part 11 - ... and 'Mr' Lyell
Part 12 - The Final Frontier
Appendices - The full text of Blyth's papers from 1835-37
Appendix A - The Varieties of Animals - Part 1
Appendix B - The Varieties of Animals - Part 2
Appendix C - Seasonal and Other Changes in Birds - Part 1
Appendix D - Seasonal and Other Changes in Birds - Part 2
Appendix E -  Seasonal and Other Changes in Birds - Part 3
Appendix F -  Seasonal and Other Changes in Birds - Part 4
Appendix G -  Psychological Distinctions Between Man and Other Animals - Part 1
Appendix H -  Psychological Distinctions Between Man and Other Animals - Part 2
Appendix  I -  Psychological Distinctions Between Man and Other Animals - Part 3
Appendix  J -  Psychological Distinctions Between Man and Other Animals - Part 4
This paper was written and produced by Andrew J. Bradbury