A Lifelong Passion

(c) Wellcome Library LondonRobert Grant

(c) Wellcome Library London

Robert Grant


Although bored at times by formal schooling, the young Charles Darwin poured enormous energy into his fascination with the natural world. As a boy, tired of Greek and Latin, he did chemistry experiments in a homemade lab with his brother Erasmus. At Edinburgh University, instead of studying medicine, he wrote his first scientific papers. And at Cambridge University, where he was sent to become a clergyman, he became so devoted to botany that he took the sole botany course three times.

One scientific hobby, however, stood out above all: collecting beetles. Darwin got into a heated rivalry with another Cambridge student, Charles "Beetles" Babington, over who would acquire a new species first. And when he wasn't collecting beetles, he was writing excited letters to his cousin William Darwin Fox, confessing, "It is quite absurd how interested I am getting about the science."

First Scientific Paper

While at Edinburgh University, Darwin was encouraged by a free-thinking professor and early evolutionist, Robert Grant, who was an admirer of the evolutionary writings of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Erasmus Darwin, Charles's grandfather. Grant was especially interested in primitive sea life like sponges and bryozoans--literally, "moss animals"--because he believed all plants and animals shared a simple marine ancestor. Darwin, too, became interested in this idea and in 1827 presented a paper to a student group on a bryozoan called Flustra.

(c) Thomas Eisner and Daniel Aneshansley, Cornell University.Bombardier beetle

(c) Thomas Eisner and Daniel Aneshansley, Cornell University.

Bombardier beetle


Revenge of the Beetles

Not all the beetles Darwin captured gave up without a fight. Many beetles, including the Brachinus crepitans and the Stenaptinus insignis, release irritating chemicals as a defense. Darwin experienced one such defense first-hand:

"One day, on tearing off some old bark, I saw two rare beetles, and seized one in each hand; then I saw a third and new kind, which I could not bear to lose, so that I popped the one which I held in my right hand into my mouth. Alas! it ejected some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, as was the third one."