Charles Darwin, His Daughter and Human Evolution
Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2002).
Biographies of Darwin naturally emphasize his intellectual development, although readers will also know that the death of his daughter Annie had a profound effect on him and probably accelerated his progressive rejection of religion. This book by Darwin's great-great-grandson draws on family records as well as much other material to provide a full and vivid account of the tragedy and its impact. Keynes brings out the deep emotionality of Darwin's nature and demonstrates how far he was from the caricature picture of the dispassionate intellectual.
Darwin emerges very much as the family man. His children had the run of the house and, far from being "seen and not heard" in the well-known Victorian phrase, they were allowed to make as much noise as they liked and no attempt was made to preserve the furniture from their depredations. Emma Darwin was unconcerned about neatness or order in her household and was easy-going with her children. Although she felt things deeply she was reserved and undemonstrative, disliking extravagant shows of emotion. Charles played a lot with his children when they were small and liked them to be close and affectionate with him, and yet he also observed them with the eye of a scientist. Thus, he noted that when they were "in a passion" they naturally tried to bite, reminding him of young crocodiles just emerged from the egg. He was not wholly successful in separating the scientist and the fond father, however, for he found that his sympathy with his children's distress often made it difficult to study them objectively. His last book, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, drew in part on his observations of young children.
Annie, his first daughter, was his favourite and this made her death at the age of ten, probably from tuberculosis, almost unbearable for him. After the initial shock had abated a little he concentrated on his scientific work as a distraction. Emma had no such recourse and her grief was lifelong, although in keeping with her reticent nature she seldom spoke of it. Charles was unable to find consolation in the Christian promise of an afterlife in which he would meet Annie again, and even Emma's confidence in this seems to have waned somewhat with time. However, Charles did not become a frank atheist; his mature position was that questions about the existence of God are beyond the capacity of the human mind and so are best left in abeyance. He therefore described himself as an agnostic, making use of the word coined by his friend and colleague Thomas Huxley.
This book should certainly be read by anyone with a serious interest in Darwin and in how the events in his emotional life helped to shape his intellectual outlook. In his old age he lamented that he was no longer able to enjoy poetry and music as much as he did in his youth and remarked that if he had his life again he would make sure he kept up his appreciation of these things. Nevertheless the picture of Darwin that emerges from these pages is very much that of a full and rounded human being who was deeply conscious of the wider social, emotional, and spiritual implications of the revolutionary theory he brought into the world.