An Introvert as Reluctant Revolutionary
British naturalist and theorist Charles Darwin overturned centuries of traditional theistic thinking about nature – a revolutionary achievement by someone who disliked making waves.
Humble yet incisive, retiring yet influential, both meticulous with details and sweeping in the scope of his ideas, Charles Darwin (1809-1882) offers a fascinating instance of an introvert with a massive and lasting impact on science and society. He dreaded direct conflict and arranged his adult working life to maximize solitary work time. Using low-profile strategies, he knocked God out of the causal chain of events in evolutionary biology with his theory of natural selection.
People who met Darwin before and during his five-year stint going around the world as a naturalist on the H.M.S. Beagle described him as easy-going, inquisitive and not terribly ambitious. From his early boyhood he loved dreamily wandering around the countryside, collecting birds’ eggs and stones with interesting minerals.
Darwin’s father, a successful country doctor and shrewd investor, decided Charles should become a doctor also. But in those days before anesthesia, the son found the cruel, bloody spectacle of surgery revolting. Dr. Darwin’s fallback idea was Charles becoming a country parson, and although Charles agreed to study theology at Cambridge, he much preferred to go beetle hunting with a cousin.
Interestingly, Charles Darwin’s opportunity to join the Beagle’s scientific voyage had as much to do with his personality and social background as with his talents and knowledge as a naturalist. The Beagle’s captain, Robert FitzRoy, feared going mad on what was originally slated to be a two-year voyage unless he had someone along to talk to who was educated, amiable and of his own social class. The ship’s previous captain had in fact blown his brains out from despair at the isolation of his post. And during five years in close quarters, Darwin argued fiercely with FitzRoy only once, over the atrocity of slavery, which merited little more than a shrug from FitzRoy.
Back in England, Darwin slowly began reviewing the observations and specimens he had collected and wrote an account of the Beagle expedition that became popular with the educated public. Puzzling through questions such as how separate species might have developed on nearby islands, he soon formulated his theory of natural selection. Yet two decades went by before Darwin published the book propounding his theory, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.
Four factors explain the publication delay. First, in his Autobiography, written in 1876 and published after his death, Darwin explained that he was anxious to avoid a storm of controversy. Even though he’d not directly stated that his theory left little or no role for creation by God, he knew that readers would draw that conclusion from his arguments. Second, many commentators point out that Darwin was reluctant for his writings to upset his beloved wife Emma, who had a deep-seated religious faith. Third, he wanted to be sure that he had carefully thought through and addressed every possible objection to his reasoning. And fourth, he got seriously sidetracked on other projects, including an eight-year detour studying and writing about barnacles.
During the long period between his return from the Beagle voyage and the publication of his landmark book on natural selection, Darwin’s introverted personality came to the fore. In daily life at his country estate, he put his work first and his family just behind that in second place. From 1842 through the end of his life, he traveled very little – just to some spas for treatments of chronic ailments. He avoided social engagements, considering them a waste of time and energy. “Continuous ill health saved me from the distractions of society and amusements,” he once wrote. As with Florence Nightingale, his poor health was real but also provided a convenient excuse for keeping to the secluded lifestyle he preferred.
What mobilized Darwin to get his ideas of natural selection finally into print was the news that another naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, had independently come to conclusions very similar to his. In his autobiography Darwin noted that while he cared very much for the approval and respect of his scientific peers, becoming known by the general public didn’t matter to him. He considered caring about rank in society a “foible.” The most praise he would bestow on himself was that he was a careful and dogged researcher and had meticulously used reasoning just to the level of any fairly successful lawyer or doctor.
Once The Origin of Species was published, Darwin did not alter his home-based routines to promote it. By writing letters to prestigious scientific contacts he had maintained over the years, he engineered reviews and other publicity from eminent people. And instead of going on a lecture tour, which would most likely have necessitated sharp public exchanges with detractors, he delegated that to two friends, Thomas Henry Huxley and Joseph Hooker. Both undertook the role of defending Darwin’s ideas – in Huxley’s case with such relish that the press dubbed him “Darwin’s bulldog.”
Darwin’s financial security, inherited from his father, facilitated his ability not to fall in line with social expectations that he think, act and live a certain way. But his personality and character strength also contributed to his independence. Working out his thoughts in private notebooks, he allowed his curiosity, the data and the best reasoning he was capable of to lead him wherever it needed to go. And although he hedged by delaying publication for years and leaving implicit some of the implications of his work, he was willing to accept the consequences of his life’s work – which continues to stir up controversy even now.