How Darwin's Social Anxiety Nearly Prevented the Discovery of Evolution - OZY | A Modern Media Company

How Darwin's Social Anxiety Nearly Prevented the Discovery of Evolution

How Darwin's Social Anxiety Nearly Prevented the Discovery of Evolution

By Ian Graber-Stiehl


Because evolution in science might never have developed.

By Ian Graber-Stiehl

“I have found it impossible to travel anywhere; the novelty and excitement would annihilate me,” Charles Darwin admitted in a letter to his cousin in 1872. A far cry from being the intrepid explorer we’ve come to respect, right? But the truth is that Darwin was a frail, anxious man who often suffered from “wretched days, miserable from morning to night, and unable to do anything.”

Resigned to being a shadow, the narrative of Darwin the man — as opposed to the scientific great — has been lost to the story of evolution’s discovery, but is no less important. After all, as the famed naturalist noted in his autobiography, the anxiety and “ill-health, though it has annihilated several years of my life, has saved me from the distractions of society and amusement.”

Without the frailties of the meeker side of Darwin — a man who took great pains to ensure that even his beetle specimens died painlessly, because he was aware, as biographer David Quammen points out, “that he’d already caused discomfort enough” — evolution may not have become known as it is today.

Beagle-era Charles was young and aimless, and “his journal entries are full of life,” says Darwin Correspondence Project editor Paul White. Save for bouts of seasickness, “he sounds gregarious” and unburdened by thoughts of evolution — at least until after his voyage.

Anything which flurries me completely knocks me up afterwards and brings on a bad palpitation of the heart.

Charles Darwin

An established collector and scholar, bachelor Darwin secured a comfortable position in gentlemanly society and began tending to a hellish backlog. He analyzed both his specimens and his marriage prospects, both of which proved vexing. His notes were peppered with arguments about whether to marry, as well as observations of peculiar variances in his specimens. Then there were the open-ended questions about some natural force that acts “like a hundred thousand wedges.”

As he toiled, the tone of his correspondence began to change. “I have not been very well of late,” an oft-used refrain, could’ve become the epithet for Darwin’s post-Beagle life. He was slowed by inexplicable maladies. “Of late, anything which flurries me completely knocks me up afterwards and brings on a bad palpitation of the heart,” he wrote to an old professor. “I feel I must have a little rest, else I shall break down.” 

Those same notes reveal a 21-year gap between his On the Origin of Species groundwork and its publication. In between, Charles decided that a family would “be better than a dog anyhow.” So he married, and his home grew to the brim, Quammen says, filling with “joyful clamor.” But not everything was ideal. For all their love, his wife, Emma, was a devout Christian, and to her testament “there is a painful void between us.” Referring to one of her letters lamenting his work, Charles would later write: “When I am dead, know that many times, I have kissed & cryed [sic] over this.”

Illness kept Darwin from social obligations, and his next closest confidant — a botanist named Joseph Hooker —  brought him companionship. An offhand comment by Hooker unintentionally spurred Darwin to spend eight years researching barnacles: “How painfully true is [Hooker’s] remark that no one has hardly a right to examine the question of species who has not minutely described many.”

Throughout, Darwin remained a devout father, wrote letters and cataloged with painstaking accuracy the details of barnacles and the anatomy of specimens. He published taxonomies that bolstered his credentials and, as cautious as a cat testing a perch, evoked evolution as their subtext. 

But illness continued to plague him, and, desperate to stop the suffering, he bounced through pseudo-scientific treatments — bathing in ice and frequenting “water cure” spas where he spent hours soaking wet and in the freezing cold. He applied the same touted cures with commensurate desperation when his most-cherished daughter fell ill. But she eventually died, and any vestiges of religious compunction were erased. Anxiety would later keep him from the funerals of both his father and another child.

But he continued to work slowly and methodically. Until, that is, a letter arrived from the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, detailing an account of evolution similar enough to his that his hand was forced to rush and publish On the Origin of Species, lest he be erased from the narrative of evolution’s discovery. When it was finished, Origin became the focal point of much debate, forcing the reclusive Darwin to defend his work with revisions penned from the shadows. He grew old, and the clamor in the house subsided — along with his odd malady.

There have been plenty of hypotheses about Darwin’s illness — front-runners being cyclic vomiting syndrome and a hereditary mRNA disorder. But what we know for sure is that he lived with a case of anxiety that wielded a choke hold on his life. Yet if Darwin had not been compelled to live as a recluse with such meticulousness, forced into dependency on his wife (even as he tiptoed around her religious beliefs with his work) and panicked into publishing, the face of science as we know it might have been very different.

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