Steampunk Sourcebook: Charles Darwin

Student Days

  • young-charles-darwinCharles Robert Darwin was born in 1809 in Shropshire, England. He was the fifth born of Robert and Susanna Darwin’s six children. Both his paternal and maternal grandfathers, Erasmus Darwin and Josiah Wedgewood, respectively, were famous for their abolitionist activities at the end of the 19th century.
  • He studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh but became fascinated by the non-human world of biological studies. His first animal kingdom of choice to study in detail was marine invertebrates, but he also learned taxidermy from a freed slave named John Edmonstone in his early days at University.
  • Darwin was first introduced to the concept of evolution during his tenure with the Plinian Society, a club devoted to natural history at the University of Edinburgh. Darwin became deeply involved after his appointment in 1826, and was later elected to the council.
  • He worked for some time at the University museum classifying plants before his neglect of his medical studies annoyed his father so much that papa Darwin sent him to Christ’s College on the road to become an Anglican parson. But rather than steering him away from the natural sciences, Charles found a passion for beetle collecting and met several supporters of Natural Theology. This philosophy is about using reason to understand the nature of God (or the gods) and his/their creations (nature).

darwin_beagle_small

 

World Traveler

  • In 1831, at the age of 21, Darwin joined a scientific expedition. It was only meant to last for two years, but in the end it lasted until 1836.
  • After some delays, the HMS Beagle embarked from England on December 27. The expedition circumnavigated the globe, and visiting far-off places with diverse ecosystems helped to further Darwin’s theories. He was not the official naturalist on the journey, but maintained a private collection.
  • The most well-known part of his journey was his stopover in the Galapagos Islands, but the fossils of extinct giant sloths on the South American mainland did just as much to fuel his new take on evolution theory as the famous finches.
  • Important Dates:
    • January 6, 1832: The Beagle makes it first stop on Tenerife Island, but the crew is not allowed to disembark because of the fear of cholera.
    • January 16, 1832: 23 days in the Cape Verde Islands, off the coast of Senegal, which at the time was a French colony.
    • February 28, 1832: All Saints Bay, Salvador, Brazil. Darwin and the Beagle’s captain, Robert FitzRoy, get into a heated argument about abolition after seeing enslaved Africans.
    • August 1832: During a survey of the Patagonian coast, Darwin found the fossil remains of huge creature that he could not identify. Experts back in Cambridge found them to be the bones of giant sloths. He also sent several teeth, beetles, and other smaller animals periodically from the expedition.
    • December 18, 1832: Darwin has his first encounter with native peoples.
    • March 1833: Falkland Islands. This area had only recently come under British control and the Beagle did survey work for the government. Darwin was intrigued by seeing a completely new set of fossils and decided to do comparative studies of all the specimens he had found so far.
    • May 1833: Darwin acquires an assistant, Syms Covington. Now that someone else was in charge of stuffing the specimens, Darwin was free to continue his detailed observations.
    • November 1833: Darwin spent time on and off the sea for a stretch of a few months and completed overland exploration and fossil collecting. His most compelling discovery was finding the bones of a giant ground sloth that were clearly below a seashell deposit. He was puzzled by how this could be possible, as the movement of the earth’s crust through plate tectonics and the number of times the earth underwent climate change were still unknown to science.
    • February 1834: Darwin turns 25, and FitzRoy names the highest peak in the area Mt. Darwin in his honor.
    • September 1834: Darwin is ill for several weeks with a fever. He stays at the home of a former classmate in Valapairiso, Chile.
    • February 20, 1835: A massive earthquake hits the region where Darwin’s group is studying and after investigating the island of Quiriquina he found that several land masses moved inches or even feet during the quake. This supported the theories of Charles Lyell, whose work was an important point of debate at the Plinian Society.
    • July 19, 1835: The Beagle takes on provisions in Lima, Peru, to get ready to cross the Pacific Ocean.
    • September 15, 1835: The Galapagos Archipelago is sighted.
    • November 15, 1835: The Beagle arrives in Tahiti.
    • December 21, 1835: Arrival in New Zealand.
    • January 12, 1836: Arrival in Australia.
    • February 5, 1836: Arrival in Tasmania.
    • April 1, 1836: Arrival in the Cocos Islands, Indian Ocean.
    • May 31, 1836: The Beagle sails around the tip of Africa and anchors in Simon’s Bay.
    • August 6, 1836: After years at sea, the Beagle finally sets it sights on England.
    • October 2, 1836: The ship arrives in Britain and Darwin heads directly for home after four years, nine months and five days.
  • Darwin published his first book, widely known as The Voyage of the Beagle, in 1839.

darwins-finches

Competing Theories of Evolution

  • Transmutation/Transformism: It got its name from clchemy and the attempts to change a base metal into gold. It was first introduced by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck in his book Philosophie Zoologique (1809). In this theory, it was believed that “nervous fluid” drove organisms to greater and greater complexity. The idea that later generations could inherit the traits of their ancestors was also important, but focused more on individual change than any sort of larger, species-wide shifts.
  • Eugenics: The word arose in 1883, but the idea of improving the human race through controlling our breeding and research on the topic started much earlier in the 1800s. For instance, the castration of lunatics and criminals in order to keep them from passing on their unsavory traits was advocated for long before Darwin’s theories were published, but it was Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, who first coined the phrase. It gained popularity during the early 1900s, but lost favor after it was used by Ernst Rudin to justify the Nazi’s racial politics. Nevertheless, several countries adopted eugenics policies, starting with the United States in the early 1900s and ending with Switzerland in 1975.
  • Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation: This book was published anonymously in 1844. It applies the theory of transmutation to all things, including the solar system. It concluded that Caucasian people were the pinnacle of creation, and that God’s direct intervention was not necessary for species to change. Darwin would later regard it as the work that made people open to his theories. Prince Albert is said to have read it to Queen Victoria to get her up to speed with scientific knowledge. After his death in 1871, Scottish publisher Robert Chambers was revealed to be the author.
  • On the Origin of Species: Darwin had planned to release his treatise after his death, but he got word from Lyell that another Naturalist, Alfred Russell Wallace, was about to publish similar theories. Wallace was actually the one to accurately describe natural selection, and sent Darwin a short paper on the subject in 1858. Their theories were presented jointly at a Linnean Society meeting but did not receive the attention that was expected. Darwin could not attend due to the death of his young son by scarlet fever. His book was completed and published November of 1859. By the end of the 1860s, most scientists were in agreement that evolution had taken place, but there was no agreement as to the mechanism. The majority still believed that God was behind it, not natural selection.

References in Steampunk Literature

  • In The Strange Affair of Spring-heeled Jack (2010) by Mark Hodder, Charles Darwin is the villainous force behind a mysterious plot in an alternate timeline where Queen Victoria was assassinated in 1840. In the world Hodder created, the Technologists and Eugenicists (with Darwin as their leader) are at war.
  • In the Leviathan trilogy by Scott Westerfield, Darwin not only discovered the forces behind evolution, but also its building blocks, DNA. In this alternate version of events, The Darwinists use genetics to creating living weapons in their war with the “Clankers,” who use technology.
  • If you like graphic novels, you can follow Edgar Allan Poe, Abe Lincoln, and Charles Darwin as three children with incredible destinies who find themselves kidnapped by a dimension-traveling cowboy in Charlie Darwin or the Trine of 1809. Hurried away to meet the Princess of Avalon – they discover just how extraordinary the world really is!
  • Many books use references to Darwin as a way to situate their stories in time. For instance, his name is mentioned in The Difference Engine as being among the new privileged class of intellectuals collectively called “savants.”

Author: Phoebe Darqueling

Gears, goggles and glamour; Corsets, crafts and creativity; Sci-fi, silliness and steampunk; Dirigibles, dancing and DIY; Physics, phonics and phoenixes; Bustles, balloons and beads; Lace, leather and life; Fantasy, feathers and flaws; Paper, piercings and pirates!

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