He was a poor student and liked a drink, but Darwin turned out OK

The naturalist's university days suggest that those who indulge their curiosity are not all headed for oblivion, Stephen Halliday says

February 12, 2009

Today (12 February), Christ's College, Cambridge will unveil a sculpture of its most famous student, Charles Darwin. The statue resembles Darwin as he looked as a student rather than as the prematurely aged, bearded patriarch that is his usual image.

Darwin would surely be astonished that his college is honouring him in this way. He was a genuinely modest and retiring man who loved the company of his family and a circle of scientific friends, and avoided publicity.

The original outline of his theory of natural selection was read to the Linnean Society by someone else, and with relief he left it to Thomas Huxley and Joseph Hooker to defend On the Origin of Species against the criticism of Samuel Wilberforce at the meeting of the British Association in 1860. Darwin wrote to Hooker: "I would have soon as died as tried to answer the Bishop in such an assembly."

Besides being by nature self-effacing, Darwin was a poor student. His father, Robert, was a successful and wealthy doctor in Shrewsbury; but as a younger son, Charles would have to earn his living. The plan was for him to train as a doctor and take over his father's practice.

However, his attempts to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh were a fiasco. His aversion to surgery - with the blood and screams that filled operating theatres in the days before anaesthetics - caused him to flee one operation, vowing never to return. He occupied the time that he should have spent studying medicine in pursuit of his childhood hobby, collecting insects. His despairing father wrote to reprove him for missing lectures: "If you do not discontinue your present indulgent way your course of study will be utterly useless."

After Charles failed as a doctor, his father moved him down a few academic rungs and suggested that he study to be an Anglican clergyman - a calling that required modest intelligence and enough contacts to secure a country parsonage. For that reason, Darwin entered Christ's College in the Michaelmas term of 1828.

Coincidentally, he occupied the rooms that had earlier been those of William Paley (1743-1805), whose book A View of the Evidences of Christianity argued that species were immutable and had all been created by God in their present state.

Darwin did not make a promising start. He arrived in Cambridge three weeks late and busied himself unpacking his new £20 shotgun and his beetle collection, before setting off on a round of card-playing, drinking, hunting and gambling.

By 1829, with his allowance spent and bills unpaid, his tutor warned him that he was in danger of failing the preliminary examination that he had to pass if he wanted to proceed to take a degree.

He described Cambridge itself as "rather stupid"; witnessed with approval a student riot during which the proctors, who were responsible for discipline, were attacked and chased into their colleges; and acknowledged that he was in danger of being "rusticated" - sent down.

In Darwin's own words at the time: "I have been in such a perfect and absolute state of idleness that it is enough to paralyse all one's faculties." His father agreed, writing angrily that he would be good for nothing but rat-catching and would bring shame upon the family. In January 1831, Darwin gained his pass degree and was placed tenth in a class list of 178, an achievement that probably says more about the scholarly abilities of other gentlemen commoners of the time than it does about his innate intelligence.

But all was not quite as it seemed. When he should have been studying theology, he was collecting insects with John Stevens Henslow, a professor of botany, and accompanying Adam Sedgwick, a professor of geology, on geological field trips during his vacation.

From Henslow and Sedgwick, Darwin received his real education, and it was the former who proposed Darwin for the post of naturalist on HMS Beagle. His long-suffering father dismissed it as "a wild scheme" but was persuaded to relent by his friend and Charles' future father-in-law, Josiah Wedgwood. Neither Henslow nor Sedgwick accepted the arguments of Origin. Sedgwick read it "with more pain than pleasure" - this was the view of orthodox Cambridge clergymen.

Cambridge eventually honoured its heretical student. In 1877, the university conferred upon its troublesome pupil an honorary doctorate of laws. The clergy forgave him when, five years later, Darwin the agnostic was interred in Westminster Abbey.

Perhaps Darwin's record will comfort parents and tutors who despair of the extracurricular activities of the young. And Darwin himself has earned a wry smile.

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