Darwinian Wonder

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“Cultivate a superiority to reason, and see how you pare the claws of all the sensible people when they try to scratch you for your own good!”

~Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone


Charles Darwin liked to roam through national galleries smelling paintings. He did not get much out of looking at them. Here is the relevant note from a dark red leather book (clasp missing), which Darwin labeled “M”:

Aug. 12th When in National Institution & not feeling much enthusiasm, happened to go close to one & smelt the peculiar smell of Picture. association with much pleasure immediately thrilled across me, bringing up old indistinct ideas of FitzWilliam Musm. I was amused at this after seven years interval.

The Darwin we have known changes, like a planet turning its dark side toward us. Instead of a staid gentleman counting the feathers on his pigeons, recording the natural world note by careful note, here skips a jolly fellow with a large forehead sniffing paintings. He seeks out thrills. The security guards must have gotten out their walkie-talkies to report the vagrant to security. “Please do not smell the paintings, sir.”


Like many of Darwin’s notes, this one is charming and quietly haywire. The thrill of wonder shines out at us. The “M” that he inscribed on the cream-colored label of the book stands for “Metaphysical Enquiries,” as he explains in another journal: “Very idle at Shrewsbury, some notes from my Father. & opened note book, connected with Metaphysical Enquiries.”

Many of the jottings in this book and others reveal Darwin’s close attachment to the emotion called wonder. The word recurs across all of his works, often in comparisons, for example “there is no more wonder in extinction of species than of individual,” or “circumstances having given to the Bee its instinct is not less wonderful than man his intellect.”

Darwin is not just a taxonomist of nature: he is a taxonomist of wonders. In the early decades of his career he delighted in collecting information and in comparing the relative thrills of different facts. In 1987, Cambridge University Press published Charles Darwin’s Notebooks 1836-1844: Geology, Transmutation, Metaphysical Enquiries, a critical edition of his early work that records the crucial rudiments of the theory of evolution by natural selection. That noble discovery appears alongside other sundry observations, for example: “in some monkeys clitoris wonderfully produced” (C203) and “every animal surely is hermaphrodite” (D154). I think it might be useful to delve into these notes, when the wonder was fresh, hidden from the world, all his. Long before fixing the long arguments of The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, he was a gleeful note-taker, keeping a log like the captain of a private, magical ship.


Of course he learned notation aboard an actual vessel. Following a lacklustre undergraduate career at Cambridge, Darwin seized the chance to travel the world on the HMS Beagle as a “gentleman’s companion” to its Captain, a man named FitzRoy. Between 1832 and 1835 he studiously kept watch on the world around him, on all the animals, plants, and humans they found on every continent. When he returned to England the habit of note-taking persisted, and he opened new journals in which he mixed his observations from the Beagle voyage with extracts from works of natural history.

These journals are ordered alphabetically. A through D mainly cover the details of adaptation and transmutation, reaching a climax in D with his famous sketch of species branching out from one another.

Darwin's 1837 sketch of species branching out from one another

Throughout these books Darwin places different organic structures (of the mind or body) on the scales of wonder. He downgrades human mental capacities by comparing them with natural events:

People often talk of the wonderful event of intellectual Man appearing..–the appearance of insects with other senses is more wonderful. its mind more different probably & introduction of man. Nothing compared to the first thinking being. although hard to draw line.—-

By embracing wonder he elevates the senses above novel writing or bridge building. Touch, hearing, seeing—in Darwin’s view these are more praiseworthy and mysterious than the labors of any human technician. Wonder is a feeling worth dwelling in.


The intellect, for its part, shrinks in importance like a wrinkled balloon. In his fumbling syntax you may find Darwin frustrated with the intellectualism vaunted by his professors at Cambridge:

Who with the face of the earth covered with the most beautiful savannahs & forests dare to say that intellectuality is only aim in this world

He equates the advent of a most prestigious Cambridge professor, Sir Isaac Newton, with the growth of scabs: “That an embryo the thousandth of an inch should produce a Newton is often thought wonderful. it is part of same class of facts that the skin grows over a wound.” Darwin found as much to praise in self-healing wounds as in the pivotal figures of scientific history. He tends to eschew great minds for humble animals and plants, vanquishing the arguments of philosophers and scientists alike. “The monkeys understand the affinities of man, better than the boasted philosopher,” he writes.


Perhaps you have to be a bit like a monkey to get closer to the truth, even if this means loosening your grip on the world. Such loss of grip is valuable. Of course the theory of evolution by natural selection represents an explication of the highest and most elegant order, but I like to think that it came about because of a useless wonder cast over the rapids of the world. In the notebooks and his major works Darwin denies the priority of human reason, and the irony is that this claim is perfectly reasonable.

There is something humble and paradoxical in the gesture: he uses reason to reduce the importance of reason. The bee is a not a physician (this is nothing against the bee). Barnacles with their enormous penis-to-body ratio cannot perform calculus (this is nothing against barnacles). Yet these beings remain, we are assured, wonderful, and it is perhaps through wonder and not reason that we can best hold the world to our chests. Or, said another way, wonder furnishes reason with its best materials.


That discovery begins in wonder is an old idea. In the Theaetetus Socrates says that “to wonder” (thaumazein) is “the mark of the philosopher. Philosophy indeed has no other origin.” So perhaps we needn’t be as hard on philosophy as young Darwin is, since the compass he uses to navigate the world received praise from the prime mover of the whole philosophical affair.

To appreciate this particular spin on Darwin’s mind, perhaps you should skip the Origin or the Descent and instead dash at random through the notebooks, as Darwin might have dashed through a gallery sniffing paintings. Yes, there is his immense contribution to human thought and history, his Copernican revolt against Christian orthodoxy, etc&. But in the notebooks you glimpse his lyricism. “[T]he fabric falls, but Man. Wonderful Man.”


One response to “Darwinian Wonder”

  1. Newton as the growth of a scab? I love this. Comparable to William Blake’s painting, “Newton” where Newton sits on a rock at the bottom of the sea, looking like a rock himself. I wonder if Darwin ever smelled this painting.