Whenever we read historical works – whether they’re scientific tomes or novels – learning something about the context is crucial to our understanding. It’s a point that’s often (and unfortunately), lost particularly by those who wish to play “gotcha” with the lives of scientists from times past. So, before you lose yourself in On the Origin of Species, find out more about the person and times of Charles Darwin. And he had a fascinating life indeed. As a boy, he was a passionate collector – of practically anything – and, as an adult at Down House, he cared for his children, juggled several books and projects at a time, and struggled with disabling chronic illnesses.
What we’re really after here is a contextual overview of Darwin’s life before delving into the specificity of his work. Scientific investigations aren’t acts of special creation. Darwin’s life and science were born out of the intellectual and social milieu of 19th century, and influenced by his predecessors, teachers and colleagues. What were the intellectual and scientific foundations for his work? Who influenced him, and how?
If all this sounds like you’ll need (minimally) a new set of Encyclopedia Britannica just to get started, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to learn that you won’t need anything beyond a computer with internet access. A great place to launch your study of Origin of Species is at Down House, itself, home to Charles and Emma Darwin and their children. It was here in his study where he wrote by the fire in his favorite chair and peered through his microscope at slides of stems and seeds. Fortunately, we can take a virtual tour of Down House with David Attenborough as our guide by exploring the estate’s website at http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/server/show/nav.20235 .
For learning about the person of Charles Darwin we have virtual access to his autobiography, a work that was edited and includes supplementary material by Francis Darwin, his son. http://darwin-online.org.uk/content/frameset?itemID=F1461&viewtype=text&pageseq=1The elder Darwin never intended to publish his autobiography – he wrote this rich collection of stories solely for his children and future generations. The work is a gift to all who want a better appreciation for his life and an excellent prelude to your explorations of Darwin’s scientific work.