Seeing the world through Darwin’s eyes

12 February 2014 by Malcolm Campbell, posted in Biology, Evolution, Science

Charles Robert Darwin first cast his bluish-grey eyes on this world, on this day, in 1809.

Later in life, those same bluish-grey eyes were said to be piercing – deep set beneath a prominent brow, and bushy eyebrows.

What Charles Darwin saw through those eyes, throughout his life, changed how all of us see the world.darwinhead

From a young age, Darwin’s eyes were dazzled by the natural world. In his youth, his eyes sought out birds and small animals. At age 17, while studying in Edinburgh Darwin gazed deeply into the innards of marine invertebrates to find parasites there. As an undergraduate student at Cambridge, he spied and collected a vast array of beetles. Always seeking, always documenting, always organising his sights in his thoughts.

While he had seen much growing up in the English countryside, then as a student in Edinburgh, and finally as a student in Cambridge, it took a near-five-year voyage around the world to open Darwin's eyes to a new way of thinking about life on this planet.

On the 27th of December 1831, just 6 weeks shy of his 23rd birthday, Charles Darwin boarded the ship, the HMS Beagle. He had graduated from Cambridge earlier in the year. Up to that point, his experience in the world was confined to the British Isles. Two months later, with a transatlantic crossing behind him, he walked in a South American forest. What he saw dazzled him:

“The day has passed delightfully. Delight itself, however, is a weak term to express the feelings of a naturalist who, for the first time, has wandered by himself in a Brazilian forest. The elegance of the grasses, the novelty of the parasitical plants, the beauty of the flowers, the glossy green of the foliage, but above all the general luxuriance of the vegetation, filled me with admiration. A most paradoxical mixture of sound and silence pervades the shady parts of the wood. The noise from the insects is so loud, that it may be heard even in a vessel anchored several hundred yards from the shore; yet within the recesses of the forest a universal silence appears to reign. To a person fond of natural history, such a day as this brings with it a deeper pleasure than he can ever hope to experience again.” February 29, 1832

This transformative experience was one of many that Darwin had over the following 5 years. Three-and-a-half of those years were actually spent on land, while his shipmates from the HMS Beagle charted coastlines. Throughout his voyage, Darwin saw and pondered countless wonders. Seashells on mountaintops. The fossilised remains of a land giant. Vast coral reefs. The remarkable aftermath of an earthquake. The flora and fauna of South America versus Australia so disparate so as to make one think of two distinct creators. The absence of a line that delineates humans from all other animals. ammoniteThe overwhelming diversity of the life on this planet.

And all that he saw, he shared.

He shared through letters. Scores of letters. To family. To friends. To colleagues.

So revelatory were the letters of this young man, not yet thirty years old, that Darwin had achieved celebrity by the time the Beagle returned to English shores in October of 1836. He had provided insights into biology and, prominently, geology that set him apart as a brilliant thinker.

The narrative of the voyage was all shared in a wonderful travelogue: “Journal of researches into the natural history and geology of the countries visited during the voyage of HMS Beagle round the world, under the Command of Capt. Fitz Roy, RN”. To this day it paints a remarkable, resonant picture captured by a sharp observer. You stand with this young man and gaze with him at wondrous things. With him you watch as his worldview changes. Each observation is like a thread, and you follow him as he collects and begins to weave each of those threads into a stunning tapestry - a tapestry that promises to explain the stunning diversity of life he saw. Each thread falls into place to reveal a more tangible picture of the whole.

He shares the genesis of his revelation:

“This wonderful relationship in the same continent between the dead and the living, will, I do not doubt, hereafter throw more light on the appearance of organic beings on our earth, and their disappearance from it, than any other class of facts.” January 9, 1834

When he returned home to England in 1836, Darwin continued to apply his keen eye. While convalescing, this eye fell on the woman who was to become his life partner, Emma Wedgwood. They married and a family ensued. Darwin shared his vision of the world and its workings with his children, who he adored. In turn, they marvelled at their father's ability to spot things they couldn’t immediately see – the fox curled up asleep in the copse, the rare birds in the hedgerow, the wee insects scurrying here and there. IMG_0941

But mostly they marvelled at his passion for the natural world.

As his son, Francis wrote:

He had great delight in the beauty of flowers—for instance, in the mass of Azaleas which generally stood in the drawing-room. I think he sometimes fused together his admiration of the structure of a flower and of its intrinsic beauty; for instance, in the case of the big pendulous pink and white flowers of Dielytra. In the same way he had an affection, half-artistic, half-botanical, for the little blue Lobelia. In admiring flowers, he would often laugh at the dingy high-art colours, and contrast them with the bright tints of nature. I used to like to hear him admire the beauty of a flower; it was a kind of gratitude to the flower itself, and a personal love for its delicate form and colour. I seem to remember him gently touching a flower he delighted in; it was the same simple admiration that a child might have.”

Darwin’s beloved “Sand-walk”, at his home at Down House, was testimony to the delight he took in nature.  According to his son, Francis:

“The "Sand-walk" was a narrow strip of land 1 1/2 acres in extent, with a gravel-walk round it. On one side of it was a broad old shaw with fair-sized oaks in it, which made a sheltered shady walk; the other side was separated from a neighbouring grass field by a low quickset hedge, over which you could look at what view there was, a quiet little valley losing itself in the upland country towards the edge of the Westerham hill, with hazel coppice and larch wood, the remnants of what was once a large wood, stretching away to the Westerham road. I have heard my father say that the charm of this simple little valley helped to make him settle at Down.” path2

And this was the beauty of Darwin’s eye. He saw the delight in everyday simplicity as well as the exotic. He wove his tapestry with observations made in some of the most biologically diverse regions of the world, where the splendour was almost unbearable. But the tapestry was woven also with the equally splendid marvels to be found in the more commonplace.

In dog breeds found hearthside.

In pigeons bred for their feathered finery.

In the climbing vine.

In the movements of parasitic plants.

In earthworms.

In the wearing of rocks.

In the whorls of seashells.

These all also held special place in Darwin’s tapestry. He merged them all. Woven together, they told a story of how we share this earth with such a remarkable assortment of creatures. A story of random variation. Of the selective forces in nature. Of time. IMG_1487

With a keen eye that he was prepared to cast anywhere, a phenomenal vision emerged of the relatedness of all living things. He provided us with a lens that irrevocably changed the way we see and understand life on Earth.

The vision of what we now call “evolution” ties us all together. You. Me. The bacterium. The beaver. The bee. The bass. The beech. Together are we connected. Connected back in time to a common ancestor that, through very simple processes, and the generosity of time, has populated the wonderful planet we call Earth. And that, in turn, connects us with the future, for the process will continue, unabated, for as long as this planet can support life.

Darwin gave us this vision. This way to see our profound interrelatedness. This view of the tangible ties between all of us – then, now, and always.

In his own words:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

We, all of us, have been granted a gift to see the world in this way. To see the deep beauty in the exotic and the commonplace, and the connectivity between them all.

Share the vision.

Happy Darwin Day!

Images: All photographs by Malcolm M. Campbell.


Darwin CR (1845) Journal of researches into the natural history and geology of the countries visited during the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle round the world, under the Command of Capt. Fitz Roy, R.N. London: John Murray.

Darwin CR (1859) On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. London: John Murray.

Darwin F (1887) The life and letters of Charles Darwin, including an autobiographical chapter. London: John Murray.



One Response to “Seeing the world through Darwin’s eyes”

  1. Mike Lewinski Reply | Permalink

    It's worth noting that before his voyage, Darwin was planning to attend a seminary that would have him ordained as clergy in a Christian religious order. The HMS Beagle adventure was just a diversion first, as in the US one might decide to backpack across Europe before entering grad school.

    This has always been one of my favorite quotes, as it so well captures the essence of conflict between religious faith and scientific understanding that Darwin contributed to:

    "I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created parasitic wasps with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars."

    I do think from the conclusion given in your essay here that there is a far grander spirituality to be had in a naturalistic view of the universe. The god of the church is a small god, compared to say the god of Robinson Jeffers (see "The Great Explosion").

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