Darwin Sound

A year ago I was asked to write a short biography of Darwin. I said to the publisher ‘But there are millions of those already’. He replied ‘That means there’s room for one more’.  And so I began.

At the same time we in the Science Communication Unit started work on a project called ‘The Silences of Science’. If I had to summarise the idea I’d say it is an academic exploration of the well-known motto, Sometimes It’s Best to Hold Your Tongue. Everyone knows the world is getting noisier and busier. Scientists are having to publish harder and faster. All institutions are hollowing themselves out in their rush to communicate. Yet while creativity does sometimes link with haste, quietude has got to be part of the scientific mix.

Thinking is in the job description for scientists. It worked for Einstein. It worked for Newton. The history of science is filled with examples of people withdrawing for a while from the rush of life, so as to develop an idea. I popped the question to a professor friend of mine at Imperial: ‘When do you do your thinking?’. He didn’t hesitate in his reply: ‘On flights to international conferences’. I didn’t ask whether he planned to carbon offset his imagination.

It was time to settle to the task of reading Darwin’s portions of correspondence. I came across plenty on silence and hesitation – more on that later. At first though, as often happens with writing, an entertaining distraction squirreled its way into my mind, a distraction I named ‘Darwin Sound’. To an extent I’d never noticed with any other scientist, Darwin’s writings are filled with references to sound. Once you start looking for them, you find them everywhere.

We can start with the worms, and Darwin’s last book (Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms), published in 1881. This great tribute to the power of worms contains a most striking description of their auditory powers, which according to Darwin are pretty much zero. They ignored his shrill whistle, he said. They ‘were indifferent to shouts’. And when placed on a piano being played as loudly as possible, they lay insensible. Even when Darwin got a bassoon, and ‘played the deepest and loudest tones’, the worms reacted not at all. What a vision! The world’s greatest scientist in his very old age turns his attention to worms, shouting at them, whistling at them, and playing music to them.

His many children were allowed to be noisy, for the Darwin household was a liberal one. Those children, when grown up and recalling the great man, described the ‘tap, tap, tap’ of his walking stick as he struck the flints  of his favourite path, the Sandwalk. There are many accounts of the sounds of  his walking: an almost mystical silence as he approached a fox’s lair; the soft sound of embarrassed tip-toing, as he headed down a corridor to the place he hid his snuff.

Then there is the noise of his digestive system. Darwin was almost destroyed by illness, which centred on a malfunctioning stomach. Vomiting and retching are definitely part of the Darwin soundscape. When he declined to travel to  a friend’s funeral, his excuse was that he would have to stay the night. The sound of his retching, he said, would make him a poor guest.

And so it goes on. It would be good to make a radio opera consisting of all these noises. The production, I suggest, should be called ‘Darwin Sound’, after the stretch of South American water named in his honour. Darwin Sound will be a small but sweet addition to the history of science. For we too easily think of Darwin as reclusive and hesitant, rather than as noisy and expressive. A corrective is probably needed. When he wasn’t ill he loved conversation and communicated incessantly. His letters are wonderfully expressive. Darwin was good company, no question.

Nevertheless, Darwin is a totemic figure for anyone interested in the silences of science. For silence is best understood as involving far more than the absence of noise. It evokes concepts such as interruptions, gaps, pauses and stuck-ness. All of them things we tend not much to like. For Darwin however they were central to his method.

The big pause concerned his masterpiece On the Origin of Species. Darwin was working  on his ‘theory of transmutation’ in 1836. He wrote a short draft in 1844 and he finally published in 1859. The delay was partly the result of Darwin’s fears about the attitude of colleagues and of society. He would upset too many people, or, worse, be dismissed as a maverick.

A big factor too was Darwin’s quite obsessive attention to detail. He had very clear ideas about ‘good’ science: careful and long drawn out study would not only deepen your understanding. It would allow self-criticism too. He explained in his autobiography that delay in publication ‘… has been a great advantage to me, for a man after a long interval can criticise his own work almost as well as if it were that of another person’.

Should one therefore seek out delay? Darwin’s life suggests that procrastination takes effort. Creative pauses need planning – a switching on of the mind, rather than a switching off. Half way through his decades long pondering on evolution Darwin suddenly turned to the barnacles, and spent eight years classifying them. While he did that all thoughts of publication could fade.

When Darwin did at last get into print, it was because he was bumped into it by Alfred Russel Wallace. Darwin was honest enough to know that losing priority was worse for him than having to rush. When Wallace’s famous letter arrived, with its description of a theory of evolution, Darwin changed pace entirely. In a remarkable change of habit he wrote at breakneck speed and had the Origin ready in a year. Finally he had jumped.


Dr Stephen Webster is a Senior Lecturer at Imperial College London’s Science Communication Unit.
Image Credit: Laurence Livermore (via Flickr).