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Darwin’s Eye

Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection did not spring into his mind all at once. It was developed slowly and painfully on the basis of many years of research – in his own words, ‘grinding general laws out of large collections of facts’. Those facts could only be discovered through acute firsthand observation of living things in all their amazing variety. Darwin’s visual perceptiveness was crucial to his achievements as a naturalist and thinker.

Darwin was fascinated by the intricate structures of natural forms, which were both purposeful and, in his words, of ‘great beauty’. His delight in the appearance of flowers, birds, and even worms spurred on his research.

Martin Johnson Heade (1819–1904)
Martin Johnson Heade (1819–1904)
Cattleya Orchid and Three Hummingbirds, 1871
Tropisternus collaris
Tropisternus collaris and other beetles, collected by Darwin on the voyage of the Beagle
University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge
Roderick Impey Murchison
Roderick Impey Murchison
The Silurian System, Founded on Geological Researches, 1839

In his youth, Darwin was highly sensitive to visual traditions in both fine art and natural history. As a student at Christ’s College in Cambridge he famously collected beetles, but was also a frequent, thoughtful visitor to the Fitzwilliam Museum, where he admired the paintings and prints bequeathed to the University in 1816 by Richard, 7th Viscount Fitzwilliam. But he valued scientific illustrations just as much – many also beautifully coloured and composed – didactic in function, but artworks in their own right. The images that he studied ranged from the microscopic analysis of a bee’s eye in a seventeenth-century engraving to the detailed botanical drawings made by his Cambridge mentor John Stevens Henslow (listen to podcast).

Such painstaking studies reflected a belief in ‘natural theology’: the presupposition that God had created animals in forms that were perfectly suited to their ordained places in the natural world. Darwin would ultimately reject the view that a Creator had designed or even predestined the forms of animals. However, he continued to adopt the methods of his predecessors, especially the close examination of particular species and their marvellous ‘adaptations’ to conditions of life. Those methods were crucial to his understanding of the evolutionary process.

Jan Swammerdam (1637–1680)
The Book of Nature; Or, The History of Insects
Richard Bankes Harraden (1778–1862)
The Fitzwilliam Collection, Housed in the Perse Hall, Old Perse Grammar School, Cambridge, c. 1822–25
Philip Gosse (1810–1888)
Studies of sea anemones and corals, c. 1858–60