The young Charles Darwin
From an early age, Darwin exhibited a keen interest in the natural world. His boyish fascination with naturalist pursuits deepened as he entered college and started to interact with fellow natural history enthusiasts. Darwin’s correspondence from this period makes it clear that Darwin was a highly sociable young man who spent more time entomolygizing than studying—a cause of concern at exam time! Darwin loved hunting, beetling, and, as a young man of his social class, was very much like his contemporaries.
Darwin’s early research
While at university, Darwin excelled at natural history, which caught the eye of some of his professors. Under the mentorship of Robert Grant at Edinburgh, Darwin undertook original research about the mode of reproduction among Flustra, a species of bryazoan. In correspondence from his student days, Darwin negotiates complicated relationships with his mentors and peers as he seeks direction for his passion for inquiry into the natural world.
You can download the entire packet of reading materials here: Early Days Source Pack
Browne, Janet. Darwin’s Origin of Species: A Biography. (2008) Grove Press, pages 1 – 83.
Letter 16—Darwin to Robert Waring Darwin [23 October 1825]
In this letter to his father, Darwin describes the lodgings he and Erasmus have found in Edinburgh, and their first impressions of the city.
See images of this letter here: Letter 16, Dar 154:68
Letter 20—Darwin to Caroline Darwin [6 Jan 1826]
Darwin describes to his sister Caroline his lectures and lecturers, often ridiculing them. Isolated in Edinburgh he asks that his sisters write to him as “it is so pleasant receiving letters.”
Letter 68—Darwin to William Darwin Fox [15 July 1829]
Darwin writes to his friend and cousin, William Darwin Fox, with whom he had shared rooms at Cambridge and spent many long hours “entomologizing.” He notes various practicalities related to their shared hobby, his rivalry with fellow naturalist Leonard Jennyns, and he expresses anxiety over the exam he must take to complete his degree.
Letter 78—Darwin to William Darwin Fox [25 Mar 1830]
This letter is full of excitement over having passed the exam that he thought would be “the very devil to pay amongst all idle men & Entomologists.” Over this last hurdle, he makes plans to spend Fox’s visit beetling in Cambridgeshire.
Letter 98—Darwin to Caroline Darwin [28 Apr 1831]
Writing to his sister Caroline, Darwin describes his life as a sociable undergraduate in Cambridge with his cousin—the dinners, the lectures, his circle of acquaintances—and speaks excitedly of his anticipated trip to the tropics.
1. Do you think Darwin resented that his work was published under Grant’s name? Why or why not?
2. What were Darwin’s first impressions of Scotland? How does he compare Scotland to his home in Shrewsbury?
3. How would you characterize Darwin’s descriptions of his studies and his time spent at university? What do his letters to his sister Caroline reveal about their relationship? What about his letters to his brother Erasmus?
4. Why do you think Darwin was unable to take courses in entomology and natural history at university?
In order to experience some of Darwin’s observations and experiments with Flustra and bryozoans from his university days, we suggest collecting marine invertebrates in your area (if you are in a coastal region). If you do not have access to local marine invertebrates, you may contact a natural history museum in order to see collections of specimens from these groups. You can easily order specimens from a catalog such as this one. Have your students observe any differences or similarities in morphology and behavior among the marine invertebrates, and speculate about why Darwin found them so fascinating as a young man.