Happy Darwin Day!


I thought I’d include a picture of the young Charles Darwin, since we are celebrating his birthday today. That’s him in 1816, when he was 6 or 7 years old, with his younger sister, Emily Catherine Darwin. And then I started wondering about that other person in the picture. Darwin’s sisters were an extremely important influence on his life, and I don’t know a heck of a lot about her; Darwin had four sisters and one brother, Erasmus, and most of the biographies say quite a bit about the older brother who preceded him to university, but the sisters seem to be background noise. It seems Catherine’s life was mainly about caring for her father’s household, and she married late in life, at age 53, only to die a few years later. You can read some of Catherine’s correspondence, and she seems to have been a lively and intelligent person.

According to Darwin’s autobiography, she was also the smart one.

I have been told that I was much slower in learning than my younger sister Catherine, and I believe that I was in many ways a naughty boy. Caroline was extremely kind, clever and zealous; but she was too zealous in trying to improve me; for I clearly remember after this long interval of years, saying to myself when about to enter a room where she was-“What will she blame me for now?” and I made myself dogged so as not to care what she might say.

Roughly the same age, roughly the same intelligence, but Catherine Darwin didn’t have the opportunity to go to college or to sail on the Beagle. It makes the picture even more interesting: foreground and background, different fates, different choices, different chances. We know what will happen to those two children — Darwin will die in 1882, Catherine in 1866 — history does this odd thing of telescoping complex lives into just a few events, and I don’t know, but it makes me sad.

I am now resisting the temptation to pull out the old photos of my kids from that box in the closet.


  1. says

    Yeah, wanna know why there was no female Darwin/Beethoven/Voltaire? Because the societies that produced those people didn’t allow women to be. It wasn’t because women are less intelligent or creative than men, or “hormones,” or whatever stupid explanation people come up with. It’s the culture, stupids! And the existence of cultural barriers isn’t proof that women being limited to “their proper place” is the natural order of things.

  2. Jerry says

    I went to a school with a woman who was working and paying her own way through college. Her conservative working class family had a little money saved, but they had three kids, and the money was saved for “the boys” to go to college. She was a girl, so she wasn’t expected to go. The “boys” were below and a bit above average in intelligence, but her IQ was at a minimum 190+… I say ‘minimum’ only because the test wasn’t calibrated to go higher. This whole girls/boys (or race or economics or…) living up to their potential isn’t limited to the 19th century nor to foreign countries. The USA could easily afford to send everyone who qualifies to go to college for free, if we valued people more than corporate subsidies, tax cuts for obscenely wealthy individuals, or weapons that will rust in a crate.

  3. Erp says

    Well there were women who did make their mark but opportunities were more limited. Frances Julia (Snow) Wedgwood, Charles Darwin’s niece, seems to have been the female family member of that era who made the most public mark despite her father’s disapproval. In addition much of her time was spent taking care of her father and other relatives as was expected by the custom of the time for women of her class. Note that even famous women scholars were frequently forgotten by the next generation. Mary Somerville was probably the most eminent British female scientist of the time and Caroline Herschel of the generation before.

  4. Sastra says

    I remember my elderly grandmother holding a very old sepia turn-of-the-century photograph of her extended family with many children, pointing to one child after another and saying “She is dead … he is dead now … she is also dead.” It’s jolting.

    The other day someone showed me a link to an attempt to debunk the “Annie Hypothesis” — the view that Darwin only stopped believing in God when his daughter died. Unfortunately, I can’t read it, but it sounds interesting.

    This article examines one of the most widely believed episodes in the life of Charles Darwin, that the death of his daughter Annie in 1851 caused the end of Darwin’s belief in Christianity, and according to some versions, ended his attendance of church on Sundays. This hypothesis, it is argued, is commonly treated as a straightforward true account of Darwin’s life, yet there is little or no supporting evidence. Furthermore, we argue, there is sufficient evidence that Darwin’s loss of faith occurred before Annie’s death.

  5. Pierce R. Butler says

    I have zero training in interpreting Georgian visual tropes, but the portraitist’s apparent implication in posing those children as if the brother was courting his sister bothers me no end.

  6. says

    What? Is this “Annie Hypothesis” even real? You can see the gradual evolution of Darwin’s views in his writings, and there isn’t any evidence of an abrupt transition. When he proposed to Emma, she expressed concerns about his materialism, and worried that it would create a “void” between them.

    As a proper Victorian, Charles proposed to and married Emma long before she gave birth to Annie. The idea that her death turned him atheist is part of the simplistic narrative that atheists only become atheists out of anger at god.

  7. says


    What? Is this “Annie Hypothesis” even real? …. The idea that her death turned him atheist is part of the simplistic narrative that atheists only become atheists out of anger at god.

    Yup, it’s real, though I haven’t had many personal experiences with it. And the ‘anger at god’ narrative is exactly why it makes the rounds. It reinforces a common prejudice, so fundies are demotivated to examine it in detail.

  8. David Marjanović says

    I can’t read it

    …I have full access. …Just saying.

    And most of my papers contain my e-mail address.

  9. L E says

    It’s not as if these attitudes are a thing of the past – we’re still reaping the results. My aunt is a dietician. But not because she was drawn to food science, in fact I think she let her license lapse and hasn’t really practiced except on her own family since she got married back in the 60s. She was the first girl in her family to go to college and her father said that if she was going to go (as girls of her social class were increasingly expected to do) she’d better study something useful. So instead of studying Math (which she wanted to do) he essentially forced her to major in Home Economics.

  10. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    Furthermore, we argue, there is sufficient evidence that Darwin’s loss of faith occurred before Annie’s death.

    But did Annie’s death change Darwin’s attitude to Christianity and faith perhaps? It was after her death Darwin came out with such openly anti-Christian remarks as “I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice. ”
    Annie’s death certainly seems to have affected Darwin badly. There’s a book, Annie’s Box by a descendant, Randal Keynes, looking at Darwin’s relationship with her.

  11. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    Advice to Young Ladies

    A. D. HOPE

    A.U.C. 334: about this date
    For a sexual misdemeanour, which she denied,
    The vestal virgin Postumia was tried.
    Livy records it among affairs of state.

    They let her off: it seems she was perfectly pure;
    The charge arose because some thought her talk
    Too witty for a young girl, her eyes, her walk
    Too lively, her clothes too smart to be demure.

    The Pontifex Maximus, summing up the case,
    Warned her in future to abstain from jokes,
    To wear less modish and more pious frocks.
    She left the court reprieved, but in disgrace.

    What then? With her the annalist is less
    Concerned than what the men achieved that year:
    Plots, quarrels, crimes, with oratory to spare!
    I see Postumia with her dowdy dress,

    Stiff mouth and listless step; I see her strive
    To give dull answers. She had to knuckle down.
    A vestal virgin who scandalized that town
    Had fair trial, then they buried her alive.

    Alive, bricked up in suffocating dark,
    A ration of bread, a pitcher if she was dry,
    Preserved the body they did not wish to die
    Until her mind was quenched to the last spark.

    How many the black maw has swallowed in its time!
    Spirited girls who would not know their place;
    Talented girls who found that the disgrace
    Of being a woman made genius a crime;

    How many others, who would not kiss the rod
    Domestic bullying broke or public shame?
    Pagan or Christian, it was much the same:
    Husbands, St. Paul declared, rank next to God.

    Livy and Paul, it may be, never knew
    That Rome was doomed; each spoke of her with pride.
    Tacitus, writing after both had died,
    Showed that whole fabric rotten through and through.

    Historians spend their lives and lavish ink
    Explaining how great commonwealths collapse
    From great defects of policy–perhaps
    The cause is sometimes simpler than they think.

    It may not seem so grave an act to break
    Postumia’s spirit as Galileo’s, to gag
    Hypatia as crush Socrates, or drag
    Joan as Giordano Bruno to the stake.

    Can we be sure? Have more states perished, then,
    For having shackled the inquiring mind,
    Than whose who, in their folly not less blind,
    Trusted the servile womb to breed free men?

  12. Esteleth, [an error occurred while processing this directive] says

    Virginia Woolf, in her essay “A Room of One’s Own,” speculates as to how the life of a made-up sister of William Shakespeare would go. Woolf starts by presuming that she is her brother’s intellectual and creative equal.

    The essay in its entirety is very much worth a read, and the section on “Judith” (as Woolf named her) is quite grim.

    Another example to firm this up is the example of Benjamin Franklin’s sister, Jane Franklin Mecom. They were close in age, and Franklin seems to have considered her an intellectual equal (their letters to each other are very much worth a read). And yet – Benjamin was educated and was allowed the means to achieve great things. Jane married at fifteen, was literate if one is being generous, and spent her life in backbreaking work, spared from poverty largely by her brother’s charity. If Jane had been given the social freedom that her brother was, what might she have achieved?

  13. Erp says

    I have zero training in interpreting Georgian visual tropes, but the portraitist’s apparent implication in posing those children as if the brother was courting his sister bothers me no end.

    I doubt courting was done with such a large earthen flowerpot and both children are holding flowers. Apparently the family was heavily into flower gardening (his mother’s brother, John Wedgwood, was one of the founders of what was to become the Royal Horticulture Society). According to Peter Boyd, http://www.peterboyd.com/darwinyoung.htm, the plant Charles is holding is a Lachenalia (originally native to southern Africa). He also recounts:

    A later account by William Leighton quoted by Francis Darwin provides an insight into the botanical education that Charles received from his mother when he was a boy. Leighton remembered Charles bringing a flower to the Rev. Case’s school and saying that his mother had taught him how by looking at the inside of the blossom, the name of the plant could be discovered. Leighton recounted that “This greatly roused my attention and curiosity, and I inquired of him repeatedly how this could be done?”