Darwin, his Daughter and Human Evolution

By Randal Keynes

(Riverhead Books, New York, 2002; 384 pages. $27.95.)

As its title suggests, this book concentrates specifically on the thinking of Charles Darwin (1809-1882) vis-à-vis the evolution of human beings rather than on evolution as a general biological process. In particular it discusses how the death of Darwin's beloved daughter Annie at the age of 10 colored his philosophy on this profound subject, an issue that he never really succeeded in resolving and continued to ponder for the rest of his life.1

The Darwin family itself is a remarkable example of bloodlines. The author Randal Keynes is Charles Darwin's great-great-grandson and a great-nephew of John Maynard Keynes. Charles' wife was his first cousin Emma Wedgewood (1807-1892), granddaughter of Josiah Wedgwood, founder of the pottery firm that still bears his name.2 Margaret Wedgwood, Annie Darwin's first cousin, was the mother of Ralph Vaughn Williams. In fact Sophy Wedgwood, Annie's double first cousin, gave Vaughn Williams his first music lessons. And Charles' and Emma's daughter Margaret Elizabeth Darwin married Geoffrey Keynes, brother of John Maynard Keynes, and became the grandmother of Randal Keynes.

Son George Darwin, FRS (1845-1912) was Plumian Professor of Astronomy at Cambridge and, appropriately enough, studied the evolution of the solar system. (Sir) Francis (1848-1925) was also a FRS and professor of botany at Cambridge; Leonard (1850-1943) was an MP as well as president of the Royal Geologic Society, while Horace (1851-1928 was also a FRS and founder of the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company. There are other interesting intertwining relations as well, but truth to tell the genealogical information in this book is poorly presented; in fact I was thoroughly confused for a long time until I figured out a misprint (confusing Josiah Wedgwood II with Josiah III).

Charles returned from his voyage on HMS Beagle in 1832. In 1839 he and Emma were married, and in 1842 they moved to a country estate in Kent where they lived for the rest of their lives. The Darwins could easily afford the estate (and the servants necessary to maintain it). They had an income from investments of 3250 per year, but were able to live comfortably on 1900; the rest was reinvested. At present exchange rates this income was bout $6,000 per annum, a princely sum considering inflation; at an annual rate of only 3 per cent this would amount to well over $500,000 per year in today's dollars. Of course both Charles and Emma came from well-to-do families, and had inherited wealth. (Charles' father and grandfather were both physicians and his grandfather, Erasmus, was an inventor as well).

The major asset of Keynes' book is the insight it gives into the personal life of Darwin and the torment caused him by the conflict between religion and his scientific beliefs. (He eventually decided that he was an agnostic.) Emma on the other hand, continued to believe in a personal God and the afterlife (where she would be reunited with her loved ones). The rift between husband and wife caused by this dichotomy was palpable. Such spiritual torment might have been responsible for Darwin's poor health; the cause of his continuing malaise was never diagnosed, and could well have been stress-related.3

It was Annie's death that eventually made Charles reject the notion of a benevolent God, since such a Being would not permit the anguish that Annie's death brought. As Charles observed the cruel struggle for existence among the species (the "survival of the fittest") in the animal kingdom, his views contra God became even stronger. It is important to remember that before Darwin's works were published it was widely believed that God had created each species independently. The concept that one species could evolve into another was considered sacrilegious (and there are of course those who still regard it so today including some eminent scientists, for example the late Alvin Radkowky).4 Through Darwin's careful and painstaking observations of animal life, for example of wasps, he came to the conclusion that intelligence was not a distinguishing feature of human beings but was shared by even the lowest forms or life. This was a completely radical idea which he refrained from publishing because of fear of repercussions.

Darwin's ideas on the descent of man (which culminated in his eponymous book) was first suggested by his observation in the London zoo of an orangutan named Jenny. Before her arrival nobody in that part of the world had ever seen a great ape, and Darwin was struck by how much like a human being she appeared and reacted. Later when he discovered that apes shared many common diseases with man (such as hydrophobia and cowpox) his ideas were reinforced.

I recommend this book primarily to those who already have a scientific knowledge of the theory of evolution and would like to see how such a radical concept could develop in the mind of a person trained from childhood to think in a completely different manner. The step-by-step development of Darwin's ideas and a description of the mental torment they caused make for fascinating reading indeed.

  1. Another of my reviews in this journal, that of Galileo's Daughter has a similar theme. See TTSP (Vlad and/or Jack please supply reference.) The book reviewed here was originally published in England under the title Annie's Box, this referring to the writing case which played such an important role in her young life. This box is pictured on page xiv of the introduction.
  2. It is interesting that marriage between first cousins is perfectly acceptable everywhere in the western world except the U.S., where only 26 states allow it. Such marriages are in any event permitted by the Catholic Church which, strangely enough, until recently forbade marriage between a man and his brother's widow. Henry VIII of England, whose brother Arthur had married Catherine of Aragon, infanta of Spain, was for political reasons forced to marry Catherine after Arthur's death. This required a dispensation from Pope Julius II. Eighteen years later when Henry decided to get rid of Catherine, he based his plea for an annulment on the invalidity of the original marriage. The Pope at that time, Clement VII, refused to grant an annulment and the result was the schism between the Roman and Anglo Catholic Churches which continues to this day. From 1835-1907 British law forbade marriage between a man and his "deceased wife's sister," a statute satirized in the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta Iolanthe.

  3. In any event medicine was at best rudimentary in those days. The cause of Annie's death was never discovered, although today it is believed to have been tuberculosis. (The only treatments she received for her fatal illness were water baths.) Of the ten Darwin children, two died in infancy and Annie, as we have seen, at age 10.
  4. My obituary of Alvin appears in Physics Today 56, 65 (January, 2003).