The Atavism

Friday, February 12, 2010

Charles Darwin and the Origin of Spouses

Happy Darwin Day everyone! Today would have been Charles Darwin's 201st birthday so around the world geeks are celebrating, churches are standing up to creationism and at least a few biologists are trying to eat their way through the tree of life. With Darwin Day falling so close to Valentines Day I thought it might be fun to forget about Darwin's science just for a few minutes and look at his attitude to love and marriage.

No one has ever accused Darwin about making a rush to judgement about any topic. Just as he spent years poring over the minutest detail of barnacle anatomy before he published The Origin he gave the topic of marriage careful consideration before singing on. In fact, preserved in his notebooks we have a record of the deliberations he undertook. Sometime in 1838 Darwin turned to a new page in his notes and drew a line down the middle, he added the headings "Marry" and "Not Marry" to either side of the line an proceeded to list the pros and cons of either decision. You can see the notebook here but below (presented without comment) is a transcript :


  • Children — (if it Please God)
  • Constant companion, (& friend in old age) who will feel interested in one
  • Object to be beloved & played with —better than a dog anyhow.
  • Home, & someone to take care of house
  • Charms of music & female chit-chat.
  • These things good for one's health.
  • Forced to visit & receive relations but terrible loss of time.

Not Marry

  • No children, (no second life), no one to care for one in old age.
  • What is the use of working 'in' without sympathy from near & dear friends—who are near & dear friends to the old, except relatives
  • Freedom to go where one liked — choice of Society & little of it.
  • Conversation of clever men at clubs
  • Not forced to visit relatives, & to bend in every trifle.
  • To have the expense & anxiety of children
  • Perhaps quarelling
  • Loss of time.
  • Cannot read in the Evenings
  • Fatness & idleness
  • Anxiety & responsibility
  • Less money for books &c
  • If many children forced to gain one's bread. (But then it is very bad for ones health to work too much)
  • Perhaps my wife wont like London; then the sentence is banishment & degradation into indolent, idle fool

On the "marry" side of the page Darwin makes his conclusion:
  • My God, it is intolerable to think of spending ones whole life, like a neuter bee, working, working, & nothing after all.
  • No, no won't do. — Imagine living all one's day solitarily in smoky dirty London House.
  • Only picture to yourself a nice soft wife on a sofa with good fire, & books & music perhaps — Compare this vision with the dingy reality of Grt. Marlbro' St.
Darwin made his list a year before his engagement to his cousin Emma Wedgwood and it seems from their letters to each other and their personal diaries that Charles' "nice soft wife" more than made up for the money he didn't get to spend on books. There is a movie out at the moment which apparently makes much of the religious divide between the Darwins. Emma was certainly a devout Unitarian (apparently she made the children turn their heads during the Nicene Creed and their local Anglican church!) who worried that Charles' skepticism of religion would prevent them from being joined in Heaven. Religion was a sticking point for the Darwins but they reached a sort of detente on the topic epitomised by one of Emma's letters to Charles during their engagement:
When I am with you I think all melancholy thoughts keep out of my head but since you are gone some sad ones have forced themselves in, of fear that our opinions on the most important subject should differ widely. My reason tells me that honest & conscientious doubts cannot be a sin, but I feel it would be a painful void between us. I thank you from my heart for your openness with me & I should dread the feeling that you were concealing your opinions from the fear of giving me pain.

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Posted by David Winter 12:48 PM


I love that list! The inclusion of "music" makes me think of the social and technological change since and how in the circles in which Darwin moved to have any domestic music typically depended on living with women who could play the piano and sing.

John-Paul at Man of Errors has made some interesting posts on Darwin's youth and domestic life. My favourite of these is this one, in which Darwin senior takes the young man to task for his hobbies: "shooting, dogs and rat-catching".
It's a good list. I've had plenty of chances to reflect on the way music has changed in the last few generations. Some of my friends back in the Wairarapa are very talented musicians and evenings with them almost always end with guitars and pianos and ad hoc drums and singing. For me music is usually something in the background but until recently for most people it would have always been the sort of interactive experience it is when my mates get together.

I actually think Darwin might have been thinking of Emma when he placed such emphasis on music. She was pianist and actually traveled to Paris to be taught by Chopin.

Thanks to the link to Man of Errors, new to me and looks very interesting!

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