Darwin's Luck: Chance and Fortune in the Life and Work of Charles Darwin

Stephen Halliday enjoys an unusual book about Darwin, but wonders at its focus on his fortunes

April 16, 2009

In this year of Charles Darwin, Patrick Armstrong has approached the great man's work from a novel perspective, drawing attention to the many examples of good (and occasionally bad) luck that attended him throughout his long and productive life.

Admittedly, he has to scratch around for ill fortune. Darwin's mother died when he was eight, but he was brought up by indulgent elder sisters. He learnt little at school except Latin and Greek, but this was a common fate at the time. His girlfriend married someone else while he was aboard the HMS Beagle, but Darwin married a loving wife, his cousin Emma, who added Wedgwood wealth to an inheritance from his endlessly patient father, who we learn was a shrewd investor as well as a successful doctor.

The illness that plagued Darwin for much of his life has never been convincingly identified, but a strong case can be made for it being caused by the anxiety he felt about the controversial nature of his theories. As such, it could be regarded as an occupational hazard. Most of us would settle for that balance of good and bad fortune.

His real "luck", however, came from people who befriended and educated him and promoted his cause. Three were critical. John Stevens Henslow, professor of mineralogy and later of botany at the University of Cambridge, invited Darwin to his soirees and accompanied him on so many expeditions into the fens to collect insects and plants that Darwin became known as "the man who walks with Henslow".

From Henslow, Darwin learnt how to classify insects and plants, and it was Henslow who secured him the position of naturalist on board the Beagle.

His second mentor was Adam Sedgwick, who was appointed professor of geology at Cambridge although he claimed no special knowledge of the subject. He held the chair for 55 years - still a record - and learnt the subject by teaching it.

Darwin was one of his pupils and it was from Sedgwick that he picked up how to conduct geological surveys, use maps, compasses, geological hammers and other instruments, and how to classify rock specimens.

His third mentor was the redoubtable Thomas Henry Huxley, "Darwin's bulldog", whose admiration for Darwin as a man and a scientist led him to take on the task of defending Darwin's views against Bishop Samuel Wilberforce and others, a role that Darwin was reluctant to assume.

So was Darwin just lucky with his friends and mentors or was there more to it? Many young men attended the lectures of Henslow and Sedgwick and some of them were studying botany and geology - unlike Darwin, who was supposed to be preparing for the church. So why did Henslow nominate Darwin, rather than another student, for the Beagle; and why did Sedgwick take the potential ordinand to Wales to study geology instead of one of his own pupils? And why did Henslow's and Sedgwick's admiration for Darwin survive their disagreement with his theories? And why, after the publication of On the Origin of Species, did Huxley write "I am prepared to go to the Stake if requisite in support"? Perhaps Darwin wasn't just lucky in his friends. Perhaps there was something about him, even as a lacklustre student of theology, that marked him out as someone special. That's not luck.

Besides drawing attention to these aspects of Darwin's life, the author gives a good summary of Darwin's achievements for the general reader in fewer words than are sometimes considered necessary. Someone should have noticed a howler in the family tree, according to which Darwin's father was born when his grandfather was 15. They were an unusual family but not that unusual.

Darwin's Luck: Chance and Fortune in the Life and Work of Charles Darwin

By Patrick H. Armstrong

Continuum, 216pp, £25.00

ISBN 9781847251503

Published 15 February 2009

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