I'm a biology student, so - obviously - I'm slightly in love with Darwin. And I've recently been exploring these incredible websites: 'Darwin Online' and 'The Darwin Correspondence Project' from Cambridge. Together, they're a pretty much a complete virtual library of everything Darwin wrote, and that was a lot. In fact, I can't believe quite how varied his output was. Besides quietly coming up with the greatest idea in the history of humanity, he was also beavering away on essentially every mystery going, including the origin of coral reefs, the nature of hedgehogs, the arcana of duck skeletons, the geology of the ocean floor, the role of volcanoes, the source of tiny Saharan microbes appearing on ships in the middle of the Atlantic, the size of Jamaican bees, the 'civilisation' of 'South American savages', and whether or not Chinese children pout when grumpy. What a man.
Evolutionary biology was born in the tropics
A bit of background quickly. Around the reign of Queen Victoria, three people suddenly came up with the idea of natural selection independently.
The first was an obscure Scottish writer called Patrick Matthew, who penned a few musings at the back of a boringly technical book on ship-building and then kicked up a fuss when it turned out nobody had actually read them. Let's quietly forget about him.
The second was, of course, the great Darwin himself, largely inspired by his travels in South America.
And the third was Alfred Russel Wallace, an eccentric, spiritual, and bearded English traveller, chasing butterflies alone in the rainforests of the Far East. The great idea came to him - like a revelation - in the midst of a malarial fever on a remote Indonesian island.
It's probably not that surprising that two of these three came to their genius realisations during or after a sojourn in the tropics, given the exuberance of life here. I decided, then, that it would be interesting to use the 'Darwin Online' and 'Darwin Correspondence Project' libraries to delve into Darwin history and find out just what the great man thought of tropical rainforests...
Wide-eyed in the 'primaeval forests'
First things first. In his public account of the three-year HMS Beagle expedition, the young Darwin eulogises the forest:
Young Darwin is full of such wide-eyed wonder at everything. It's fantastic to read The Voyage of the Beagle, because so much of it is packed with excitement and curiosity about the things he finds around him. Decades later, however, after a difficult life as a reluctant revolutionary, the old Darwin is tired and world-weary, and I've found this rather sad passage in his autobiography:
This mournful, aged Darwin goes on to claim that his young excitement 'was intimately connected with a belief in God' and 'did not essentially differ from that which is often called the sense of sublimity' (p. 92). Having painfully lost his faith, old Darwin claims he lost the 'sense of sublimity' too.
I'm not sure quite how much I believe all this. Imagine the fresh Cambridge graduate, standing for the first time on the shores of Patagonia, or the rocky outcrops of the Galapagos, or a ridge surveying a rainforest in Brazil, and it's hard to believe that this energetic genius with such a sense of constant curiosity for the world wouldn't be just as moved as he was, whether or not he had the faith. But who can tell?
In any case, it's true that old Darwin still loved the forests, and, indeed, a mere ten pages earlier in his autobiography he mentions that same 'the sense of sublimity':
Did rainforests sow the seeds of revolution?
Darwin in the rainforest was overwhelmingly excited about the sheer diversity of species. Surely this must have been important in his coming to see the natural world not as harmonious and ordered but as competitive, ruthless, and fundamentally selfish. The manic scramble for light taking place amongst rainforest trees is about as clear an illustration of 'the struggle for existence' as you can get. It's interesting to note, though, that in the final paragraphs of 'The Origin of Species', Darwin doesn't turn to the rainforests for an easy and powerful image of nature's intricacy and diversity. Instead, he picks a scene much closer to home: the woody banks of Kent. Just because they're so wonderful, here are those famous lines:
Jilted by 'the prettiest, plumpest, most charming' girl in the land
There's a further twist to the rainforest tale, argued and laid out in brilliant detail at this link by Eric Simmons. I'll summarise it here. Basically, before he married his first cousin, Darwin had a love interest in the form of a local friend called Fanny Owen:
They should make this into a film.
So the story of Darwin and the rainforests has everything: God, jilted lovers, jealously, and the germs of Darwin's gradual steps towards changing the world. They really should make a film of all this.
Hi! I'm Patrick - an early-career postdoc in behavioural ecology. I completed my PhD in 2019, focused on Polistes paper wasps in South and Central America. I'm currently a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow and Simons Society Junior Fellow in the Rubenstein Lab at Columbia University (New York) and the Radford Lab at the University of Bristol (UK), looking at the social behaviour and evolution of Africa's incredible wasps! I'm always keen to get involved in outreach to spread the word about these amazing animals.
Patrick Kennedy, University of Bristol
A blog about research, fieldwork, and trying not to get stung by big tropical wasps too often