A Lifelong Passion


(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

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."