Saturday, October 17, 2009


Sometimes as I'm crossing New York Harbor on the way via ferry from Staten Island to Manhattan, I listen to books on my iPod Shuffle. Yesterday, as I made this twice-daily crossing, I heard Adam Gopnik read from his own book called Angels and Ages: A
Short Book about Lincoln, Darwin, and Modern Life. He had come to the part where he recounts what a doting father Darwin was to his 10 children, and how much he especially loved his slightly awkward but intensely inquisitive daughter named Annie.
Gopnik was noting that Darwin saw much of himself mirrored in Annie's habit of reading the dictionary in search of new words to capture her experiences. He added, I assume from his own experience, that there are few emotions as powerful as a father's love for a daughter who seems to be an emerging reflection of himself.

Gopnik even suggests that Darwin's long delay in writing Origin of the Species had to do with his abiding affection for his children and his desire to spend as much time as possible playing and learning with them. And above all, his adoration for Annie seemed boundless. I should have been prepared, though I wasn't, for the revelation that came a paragraph or two later that at the age of 10 Annie contracted tuberculosis and succumbed to the disease shortly thereafter. Just as the Staten Island Ferry was passing the Statue of Liberty, I could feel little tears streaming down my cheek, and I found myself wondering what made this so poignant for me.

All parents love their children dearly and any time they lose a child, especially before she or he can develop into an adult, it must be nearly more than anyone can bear. I probably should just leave it at that. But...for Darwin, with his almost supernatural observational powers and his passion for inquiring and knowing, the loss of a daughter, who seemed to share these very same remarkable capacities, is an even greater calamity that only someone like Darwin himself can grasp fully.

At any rate, I love Gopnik's book, especially the parts regarding Darwin, about whom I knew so little. In this book, he is not only a great scientist, he is a great humanist and a great human being as well by virtue of his enormous capacity for love and for his unquenchable desire to know the world as completely as possible.


  1. I cried just from reading your blog post.

  2. Great post. It is strange in deed how such a man as Darwin who was so filled with compassion and love for his family, not to mention his devotion to contemplitive thought about the the world he observed, has come to be a subject of derision by those who find his ideas anathema and to be associated with violence and aggression through the use of his name by social theorists who have turned 'survival of the fittest' into an excuse for exploitation.