Today, February 12, 2020, is the 211th birthday of Charles Darwin. It was purely fortuitous that it is also the day that I read Albert Goldbarth‘s poem, “Prosopagnosia,” (pp. 25-26 in his 2017 book, The Loves and Wars of Relative Scale, Lost Horse Press). In the final stanza of this brilliant poem (google the title if you don’t know the word), Goldbarth celebrates Darwin’s human-ness while simultaneously acknowledging the way the scientist Darwin could shun human contact by enveloping himself in his work. Recounting Darwin’s grief at losing his ten-year-old daughter, Annie, Goldbarth speculates that Darwin might have assuaged his profound sorrow in the same way: “I think it was the worms / that calmed him. One night when the house was still, / he padded down to the billiard room where the worm pots were / and by the light of the paraffin lamp he watched them…” One of the reasons this poem resonated so deeply with me is that I had once managed to celebrate Darwin’s humanity in a similar way but in the relatively dry prose of a scientific paper.
I have long admired Darwin’s work and read much of his correspondence (Cambridge University Press), and many biographies, attempting to better understand the man behind the science. One of those books was Randal Keynes‘, Annie’s Box: Charles Darwin, His Daughter And Human Evolution (Fourth Estate, London, 2001). Keynes chronicled the interactions of Darwin’s family life, including the tragic loss of his daughter, and his scientific work during the time he was formulating and documenting The Origin of Species. In 2011, not too long after I had read Keynes’ volume, Michael S. Engel and I reported a study of the Palaeozoic insects of Alabama (Roy J Beckemeyer and Michael S Engel, 2011, “Upper Carboniferous insects from the Pottsville Formation of northern Alabama (Insecta: Ephemeropterida, Palaeodictyopterida, Odonatoptera)” Scientific Paper, University of Kansas Natural History Museum 44: 1-19). One of the fossils we described was this finely preserved pair of forewings of an insect that we determined belonged in the extinct insect order SYNTONOPTERODEA Laurentiaux, 1953:
We decided that this insect, the first new genus and species described in our paper, would be named in recognition of Darwin’s daughter. The name we assigned was Anniedarwinia alabamensis. Here is our statement on the etymology of the genus name:
“The new genus-group name honors Charles Darwin’s humanity by remembering his second child … Anne Elizabeth “Annie” Darwin (1841-1851). Darwin nursed his ten-year-old daughter through the final stages of her illness. Her death broke her father’s heart: ‘We have lost the joy of our household, and the solace of our old age: she must have known how we loved her; oh that she could know how deeply, how tenderly we do still…’ (Charles Darwin, 30 April, 1851: Keynes, 2001).”
So Albert Goldbarth’s poem brought me full circle, here on Charles Darwin’s birthday, back to thinking of how Darwin had nursed his child through all the stages of her illness, watching her weaken and fade, how this distraught father had struggled through debilitating grief to write the book that changed the way we understand the mechanisms of life on our world.
Roy Beckemeyer, 12 February 2020