Five Professional Lessons from Darwin’s Scientific Career

THE BOY’S NAME WAS CHARLES. His father, Robert Darwin, a doctor himself, wanted his son to study medicine. So young Charles Darwin was sent to Edinburgh University Medical School –the finest medical college in Britain – where his elder brother Erasmus was already enrolled. Contrary to his father’s ambitions, Charles found the lectures intolerably dull; the dissection of animals was a horrific sight for him and he often escaped the place in disgust.

Charles had a peculiar taste for natural history rather than medicine. As soon as his father learned about his lack of interest in medicine, Charles Darwin was presented a second career choice: to be a clergyman which, after a little bit of thought, he accepted. However, before undertaking a vocation as solemn as priesthood, he was enrolled in the Cambridge University for studying arts. 

Most of us know Charles Darwin as a naturalist, not as a priest. Ironically, he was condenmed as a “heathen” whose ideas were in stark conflict with the clergy his father wanted him to join. He would later recall in his autobiography:

Considering how fiercely I have been attacked by the orthodox, it seems ludicrous that I once intended to be a clergyman. Nor was this intention and my father’s wish ever formerly given up but died a natural death”. 

Lesson One: Do not force yourself or let others force you to make specific career choices. Your profession is a significant part of your life; you must choose it wisely and deliberately.  Newton’s mother forced him to be a farmer rather than a scientist, but he resisted. Similarly, Darwin’s father wanted him to be a physician at first, and then a pastor. However, unlike Newton, Darwin had nearly accepted priesthood as his future profession. As it turned out, fate had other plans for him.  

Darwin spent a major portion of his stay at Cambridge collecting beetles. Nonetheless, he found a special friend at the campus­­ – John Stevens Henslow – a botany professor who was about to play the most significant role in the subsequent making of Charles Darwin as we know him today.

As he graduated from Cambridge University in 1831, Charles Darwin was on his way to be a priest as his father desired. Meanwhile, he joined a course on geology which saw him traveling to Wales to map out rocks and soil. When he returned from his Wales trip, a letter from Henslow awaited him. There was an expedition going along the HMS Beagle and Henslow had proposed his name to join the ship as a naturalist.  

Initially, Robert Darwin objected saying that this trip would entail a huge loss of his son’s time. He thought it as youngster’s excuse for avoiding his career in clergy. However, upon involvement of Charles’ uncle, the elder Darwin agreed to finance the trip. This was destined to be the most influential voyage in the known human history – a voyage that uprooted the long-held beliefs about the nature of life on earth. 

Lesson Two: Make sincere friends who can see your strengths and support you in your career. As you have seen here and will find out later in this tale, Henslow was instrumental in creating opportunities for Darwin without being jealous or biased. Just like Edmond Halley encouraged and supported Newton in publication of Principia.

On December 27, 1831, HMS Beagle embarked its journey. While the Beagle surveyed and chartered the American coastlines, young Darwin would stay on land collecting specimens and taking copious notes. Though not an experienced botanist, Darwin was a man of intent. Despite being seasick at times, he remained diligent with his specimen collection and notes taking. By the end of the voyage, he had compiled a dairy of 770 pages and had cataloged more than five thousand skins, bones, and carcasses. 

The trip was originally planned for two years but it actually took five years to complete. Every now and then, Darwin would send his collected specimens to Henslow at Cambridge who, with unparalleled sincerity, presented and popularized Darwin’s work in the academic circles.By the time the Beagle landed back in October 1836, Darwin was no longer a juvenile looking forward to becoming a priest. He was a kind of celebrity who had seen natural wonders no other Brit had ever witnessed.  

Lesson Three: Make extra efforts in the beginning of your career. Darwin was inexperienced as a biologist, but he made up for his shortcomings through extensive notes taking and specimen collection. You may not be the smartest in a new field, but hard work seldom goes unrewarded.    

Funded by his wealthy father, who was by now convinced that his son’s original talent was somewhere else, Darwin did extensive research over his collected specimens. By 1839, Charles Darwin had his theory on evolution of life through natural selection. Though he himself was convinced about his results yet he was fully aware of the consequences of the publication of his concepts: clerics would certainly deem his ideas as a blasphemy, an affront to religious scriptures. So he kept his ideas to himself for many years while continuing his research on plant and animal species thus fine tuning the details.

In 1856, two decades after his Beagles voyage, Darwin started writing a book incorporating the gist of his ideas. Though public sense of science had improved during these years, yet he apprehended that the publication of his concepts concerning human evolution could lead to a national uproar causing problems for him and his family.

While he was halfway through his book, Darwin received a letter from Alfred Russel Wallace, who had indicated that while working on animal species as a naturalist in the islands of Malay Archipelago, he had found conclusions nearly the same as those of Darwin. While Wallace had sought Darwin’s views on his research as a respected biologist, the latter went into a professional dilemma: if Darwin delayed his publication further, the opportunity could be seized by someone else. 

Contrary to Darwin’s apprehensions, the matter was sorted wisely: joint extracts of Darwin’s and Wallace’s findings were read at the Linnean Society. Surprisingly, the presentation (which Darwin couldn’t attend due to his son’s death) failed to cause much social stir. 

Lesson Four: Don’t live in your comfort zone and try to seize the opportunity before someone else grabs it. Darwin delayed the publication of his theory for nearly two decades. Unless he felt a threat that another man could take credit for a similar work, he did not take the initiative. Off course, he had solid reasons for delaying the publication but then those reasons could persist forever.     

Once the Wallace crisis was averted, Darwin, despite his health problems and family turmoil (two of his ten children passed away at young age), started working towards his main idea. Fully aware of the nature of objections that could arise, he used his two decades of research to find convincing answers.

Finally, in 1859, The Origin of Species was published which sparked significant interest on international level. It was translated into several languages and its popularity can be compared to any international bestseller on today’s Amazon list.

Lesson Five: Prepare well before presenting a critical idea. Darwin had concluded his theory during 1830s but did not have all the answers. Learning from the Wallace episode, he started working diligently on his ideas to address anticipated objections. Bottomline:  if you are not prepared, don’t present your idea;  a bad impression is far worse than no impression at all.       

Charles Darwin died in 1882, having lived for 73 years. His idea of natural selection would not become a widely accepted principle until 1930s which meant only Darwin’s son Leonard lived on to see his efforts to fruition.

23 thoughts on “Five Professional Lessons from Darwin’s Scientific Career

  1. So absorbing and interesting. The life-stories of all great men are really examples which we should all emulate for making our lives productive and sublime so as to realize the purpose of life here on this planet. Regards.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks for reading and liking. I prefer to read full biographies usually; in case of Darwin it was a biography as well as parts of his autobiography which he wrote for his children and grandchildren. The next one in line is Marie Curie which will complete the scientist series. The next series would be about inventors and Nicola Tesla is definitely one of the greatest inventors. Thanks again and let’s keep reading:)

      Liked by 1 person

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