Darwin on Social Networking

Charles Darwin’s private letters suggest that he was not keen on socialising.  Dedicated scientist that he was, Darwin’s preference was for “society – and little of it”. Indeed, one of Darwin’s concerns about getting married was that it would entail taking a far more active part in London’s social scene, resulting in a life made up of “nothing but society - no country, no tours, no large Zoolog. Collect. no books“.


It seems that Darwin was right to worry;  the endless invites which he and Emma circulated among their friends and colleagues and their regular acceptance (and, sometimes, refusal!) of others’ invitations shows that Charles and Emma were active (if perhaps reluctant) members of the London social scene.


Contrary to Charles’ concerns, however, his social networking had a positive (rather than wholly negative) effect on his work.  While certainly time consuming, Charles’ social life (organised primarily by Emma) allowed him to share and develop his ideas with some of the most influential natural scientists, botanists, geologists, historians and philosophers of the time. In one typical invitation dated May 1840, Charles and Emma were asked to dine with mathematician, philosopher and inventor Charles Babbage and one M. Sismondi “an influential historian”. Botanist and geologist J.S. Henslow was later invited along to join them.


At a time when one’s social and professional worlds were inextricably linked,  the social world so dreaded by Darwin the bachelor arguably played a key part in fostering a network of intellectual connections which proved crucial to the content, integrity and thus success of his research and works. Like many nineteenth-century scientists’ wives , Emma Darwin played an important part in liberating Charles from a life of scientific dedication and introduced him to the important and highly influential world of Victorian polite society. Charles, it seems, appreciated her influence; “I think that  you will humanize me,” he told in Emma in 1839, “& soon teach me that there is greater happiness than building theories & accumulating  facts in silence  & solitude”.

One Response to Darwin on Social Networking

  1. Pingback: Giants’ Shoulders #30: A (Scientific) Christmas Carol | Whewell's Ghost

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>