John Edmonstone: The Freed Slave Who Inspired Charles Darwin
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Darwin might have never thought of his theory of evolution and natural selection — or become a naturalist, period — without John Edmonstone.
Science geek or not, you might have at least seen coverage of the debate between bow-tied science communicator Bill Nye and creationist Ken Ham pop up on your Facebook feed in February. Ham contended that life on Earth originated from acts of divine creation, while Nye supported the ideas outlined in Charles Darwin’s groundbreaking book, On the Origin of Species, published in 1859. Earlier this month, Nye made headlines again when he explained on the Skeptical Inquirer that he debated Ham to expose creationism as “bad for science education, bad for the U.S., and thereby bad for humankind.”
Settled in a house a few doors down from Darwin, he earned his living stuffing birds…
For those who need a biology refresher: During an expedition to the Galapagos, Darwin noticed distinct differences among the finches on each island. Some had broad, deep beaks, some elongated, and others small and stout. Darwin proposed that the finches had adapted to each islands’ dietary offerings, in a process known as natural selection. For example, those on islands with lots of seeds stood a better chance of surviving and passing on their traits if they had broad beaks suited to cracking open their hard coating — thus they would become more common in that island’s finch population.
But Darwin might have never proposed his revolutionary ideas if not for John Edmonstone. A freed Guyanese slave, Edmonstone taught Darwin taxidermy at Edinburgh University. During his voyage around the world on the S.S. Beagle, Darwin collected and preserved the famed finches using the techniques Edmonstone taught him, allowing him to draw his pivotal conclusions. Edmonstone’s vivid accounts of Guyanese rainforests might have also inspired Darwin to study natural history instead of medicine.
Historians believe Edmonstone was probably born in Demerara, Guyana. While still a slave, he learned taxidermy from his master’s son-in-law, British naturalist Charles Waterton. Edmonstone later accompanied him on bird collecting expeditions, entrusted with the crucial task of stuffing captured birds on the spot, before they rotted.
In 1807, Edmonstone’s master brought him to Edinburgh and freed him. Edmonstone settled in a house a few doors down from Darwin and his brother, Erasmus, earning his living stuffing birds at the Natural History Museum and teaching taxidermy to Edinburgh University students.
Edmonstone ‘was a very pleasant and intelligent man, and I spent many hours in conversation at his side.’
— Charles Darwin
Darwin came to Edinburgh in 1825 to study medicine, like his father and grandfather before him. But he soon realized that medicine wasn’t his calling. An outdoorsy type, he found his lectures boring and ran trembling from surgeries — which were still performed without anesthesia at the time.
But 17-year-old Darwin, though crestfallen, discovered a diversion: during his first winter at Edinburgh, he hired Edmonstone to teach him taxidermy for one guinea a week.
Darwin’s anti-slavery beliefs might have shaped his theory of evolution.
As Darwin perfected his taxidermy skills, Edmonstone regaled him with lively accounts of plantation life and lush rainforests teeming with wildlife. Meanwhile, Guyana had made headlines as the site of a slave rebellion that had been crushed there months earlier. And Waterton’s new book about his expeditions to Guyana, Wanderings in South America, was hugely popular. Edmonstone’s stories probably whetted Darwin’s appetite for exploration and discovery.
Throughout that frigid winter, Darwin came to consider his teacher “an intimate.” Edmonstone “was a very pleasant and intelligent man,” he wrote in his memoir. “I spent many hours in conversation at his side.”
Enamored with natural history, Darwin dropped out of medical school. Soon afterward, he signed up as a “gentleman’s companion” to HMS Beagle Captain FitzRoy, and was responsible for conversing with him, collecting biological specimens and more. Darwin collected and preserved 15 Galapagos finches as Edmonstone had taught him.
He initially thought they were the same species as the ones he saw in neighboring South America. To make sure, he sent the specimens to British ornithologist John Gould — who concluded that they represented 12 distinct species. In 1845, Darwin proposed that they had all evolved from a common South American ancestor that had somehow reached the Galapagos and diversified into a variety of species adapted to each island.
Edmonstone might have influenced Darwin’s theories in another, subtler way. Darwin’s extended family, the Wedgwoods, staunchly opposed slavery, and the bloody aftermaths of the South American slave rebellions he saw horrified him. “How often, too, Darwin must have seen amiable John Edmonstone … in these oppressed peoples,” wrote Adrian Desmond and James Moore in Darwin’s Sacred Cause. They argue that Darwin’s anti-slavery beliefs may have shaped his theory, which traced all races and species to a common ancestor, challenging the popular notion that whites were a superior species to blacks.
Despite the little known about Edmonstone, Darwin arguably might have never embarked on the S.S. Beagle without his mentorship. The evolution versus creationism debate might have begun with Darwin, but Darwin the naturalist began with his teacher.