Charles Darwin’s family come from a long line of freethinkers. His mother, Susannah Darwin (1734-1815) was the first child of Josiah Wedgewood (1730-1795). Josiah was the founder of the Wedgewood pottery company.
Josiah was a leader in the industrialisation of pottery in Europe and credited as the founder of modern marketing. He pioneered direct mail, money-back guarantees, self-service, free delivery, ‘buy one get one free’ offers and illustrated catalogues.
Josiah was a forward thinker in many ways. He was a prominent British abolitionist and creator of the anti-slavery medallion, known as: “am I not a man and a brother?” The image invites not solidarity with the enslaved but adds a paternalistic association. The morally righteous abolitionists who will answer the captive’s question by releasing his chains.
On his death Josiah bequest Charles Darwin’s mother Susannah a sum of £25,000. That would be worth something in the region of £3.3 million in today’s money. Certainly, this would have contributed towards enabling Charles to pursue his interests. This freedom would ultimately lead to the creation of his works ‘The Origin of Species’.
But wasn’t just Charles Darwin’s maternal grandfather Josiah that questioned the world around him.
Charles Darwin’s paternal grandfather, Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) the youngest son of Robert Darwin of Elston. It is worth noting that Erasmus was also grandfather to Francis Galton. Glaton would later expeed Charles Darwin’s work between The Origin of Species and his 1871 book ‘The Descent of Man’.
Just like Josiah, Erasmus was a slave-trade abolitionist, physiologist and poet. He was also a founding member of the Lunar Society of Birmingham (a discussion group of pioneering industrialists and natural philosophers). Interestingly, Josiah’s son Josiah Wedgewood II was also a member of the Lunar Society of Birmingham (the same man who funded ST Coleridge). It’s interesting to consider if there was a wager involved between Josiah and Erasmus to challenge the notion of evolution.
Erasmus’ works included The Botanic Garden (a set of two poems within a science book). The poems make botany interesting and relevant to his readers of the time. At the heart, he notes that plant and humans are the same, and sexual reproduction is at the heart of evolution. An idea that lastest well into the 19th century such as Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’.
Charles father Robert Darwin studied at The University of Edinburgh during the Scottish Enlightenment period. It was his experiences here that led a young Charles Darwin and his brother Erasmus to study medicine in Edinburgh.
By 1829 Charles elder brother Erasmus would move to London after being retired from medicine at the age of 26 upon his father’s advice. When Charles returned from his voyage in October 1836 he spent time with Erasmus in London. Eventually, he took up lodgings near Erasmus in Spring 1837. Charles would often partake in Erasmus’ dinner parties. They were a place where radical and dissenting heterodoxy was the norm.
Upon embarking on the Voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin was handed a copy of Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology by Captain Fitzroy. The Captain explained that land features were the result of a gradual process taking place over extremely long periods of time.
Along the journey, aboard the Beagle from 1831-36 Darwin visited the Galápagos archipelago in the eastern Pacific Ocean, and there beheld giant tortoises and finches. The finches, many species of them, were distinguishable by differently shaped beaks, suggesting adaptations to particular diets. The tortoises, island by island, carried differently shaped shells.
These clues from the Galápagos led Darwin to conclude that Earth’s living diversity has arisen by an organic process of descent with modification—evolution, as it’s now known—and that natural selection is the mechanism. He wrote a book called The Origin of Species and persuaded everyone, except the Anglican Church establishment.