BOOK REVIEW: Darwin and His Children: His Other Legacy

There is much to take in on Darwin – a constant barrage of books, journal articles, magazine features, blog posts, podcasts, videos on YouTube, etc. It can be a daunting task to keep up with it all and stay current with what historians and writers are discussing about Darwin: his life, his scientific work, and his legacy which permeates many fields beyond those sciences in which he worked. Sometimes new work takes an unexplored avenue, other times rehashing worn territory. A new book by biologist and previous Darwin biographer Tim Berra explores Darwin’s life from a different angle but with largely familiar subject matter. If you’ve read about Darwin at length before, then you likely know that he and his wife Emma had a large family and that Darwin was very involved in raising their children. In Darwin and His Children: His Other Legacy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013; 272 pp.), Berra describes the lives, careers, and achievements of the Darwin children, who, Berra shares, “were devoted to their father and mother, intensely loyal to the family and to each other, and protective of their father’s reputation.”

Darwin and His Children

The book is organized chronologically by their birth years, beginning with a chapter on Darwin’s life and work (a summary, essentially), and a chapter on his marriage to Emma. The following ten chapters cover each child, so there tends to be some repetition of information, but the book is nicely organized. Illness in the family is a thread throughout the chapters, and this was a constant source of anxiety for Darwin (he felt that marriage to his first cousin may have created weakened offspring).

Darwin and Emma’s first son, William (1839-1914), “my little animalcule of a son,” he wrote to Captain Fitzroy, became a subject of infant behavior, and information from this was included in The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). He was a banker, helped Darwin with mathematical calculations in a botanical study, and was an avid amateur photographer. Anne, or Annie (1841-1851), Darwin’s favorite, died young and this tore her father apart. Mary (1842-1842) only lived for 23 days, her cause of death unknown. Henrietta (1843-1927), or Etty, did much to help her father with his work. She assisted in pigeon breeding experiments, corrected proofs for The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication (1868), and edited book manuscripts, including The Descent of Man (1871). She also edited a collection of family letters and biography of Emma. George (1845-1912) was a mathematician and became a world authority on tides. He befriended Lord Kelvin, who disagreed with Darwin on evolution, and defended his father against critique from St. George Jackson Mivart, speaking freely about his views on prayer and other religious matters (as opposed to Darwin’s avoidance of making public his views on religion). Elizabeth (1847-1926), or Bessy, was the Darwins’ eccentric daughter, and was helpful to her mother in household duties and caring for her father during his illnesses, and helped to raise her nephew Bernard. Francis (1848-1925) was an accomplished plant physiologist, was an assistant to his father on plant experiments, helped with his massive daily correspondence, and edited The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin (1887) and, with A.C. Seward, More Letters of Charles Darwin (1903). Leonard (1850-1943) was a military engineer, politician, and economist who is most remembered for his work in eugenics (a term coined by Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton). Berra notes: “The negative eugenics advocated by Leonard is shocking to today’s sensibilities, but it was a product of the times.” Horace (1851-1928), their ninth child, was an intelligent child (Darwin wrote in a letter about Horace’s grasp of natural selection when age 11). He was founder and director of the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company, which succeeded due to World War I, a public servant in a variety of matters, and elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (joining his father and brothers George and Francis). Charles Waring (1856-1858), their tenth and last child, was their third to die in childhood. His funeral allowed Darwin to avoid the joint reading of his and Wallace’s papers on natural selection at the Linnean Society in July 1858.

However enjoyable this book is, I can’t help but point out the many myths about Darwin that continue to remain in popular treatment of the subject (this is not to blame Berra, of course, for it will be some time before corrections to these myths become mainstream). Darwin was not knighted, because “he was much too controversial for Queen Victoria’s taste (but Darwin did not carry out work in service of the British government, for which knighthoods were given). Darwin kept his ideas private, “except to broach them to his closest scientific colleagues” (Berra lists Lyell, Hooker, and Gray, however the list of who Darwin shared with is much longer). However, Berra rightly notes that Darwin was indeed the appointed naturalist on HMS Beagle, and that the common story of the Huxley-Wilberforce debate in 1860 is exaggerated. 

Berra’s sources are already published: Darwin’s Life and Letters volumes, his autobiography, reminiscences from some of the children as well as Darwin’s granddaughter Gwen Raverat. Given this, there are no grand revelations here. This is straightforward narrative history, and here Berra provides a charming, detailed narrative that gives due credit to Darwin’s children, whom he loved and shared in their griefs and successes in life. “Darwin” continued to be a very recognizable name in England, if not for Darwin’s own work, but the achievements of his descendants. An important takeaway from Darwin and His Children is how involved they were, from youth to adulthood in the case of some, with Darwin’s science: as editors, experimentalists, subjects of study, ambassadors (George and Francis traveled to the United States in 1871), and a variety of other roles. Several became respected scientists themselves, not too surprising given the nature-rich atmosphere and encouragement in which they were raised. The Darwins were truly a scientific family. 

2 thoughts on “BOOK REVIEW: Darwin and His Children: His Other Legacy

  1. Pingback: On Giant’s Shoulders #66: Contagious History! « Contagions

  2. Sorry to have to say that there are a LOT of errors and omissions in this “little book”, which Tim M. Berra and his OUP editor are well aware of. I would compare it to the (bad) egg in the classic cartoon in “Punch” magazine where the curate says “some of it is quite good”. Tim is now in French Polynesia by the way but OUP will have to revise it for the paperback version.

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