One hundred seventy-five years ago today, on October 2, 1836, the H.M.S. Beagle ended its nearly five-year voyage and returned to England. During the trip, Charles Darwin collected natural history specimens and studied geological formations, all the while writing down his observations, and some theoretical speculations, in a series of notebooks. These speculations, and the evidence he gathered, nourished the first roots of what would grow into, more than twenty years later, Darwin’s Origin of Species.
Darwin’s life and work intersected with the members of the philosophical breakfast club both before, during, and immediately after his voyage. Before he was chosen as the ship’s naturalist, he was a student at Cambridge, where he attended John Henslow’s botany lectures, often in the company of William Whewell, a fellow of Trinity College; Whewell was probably the one who recommended that Darwin read John Herschel’s book about scientific method, the Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy. This book was credited by Darwin with spurring him to devote his life to science. “It made me wish to try to add my mite to the accumulated store of knowledge,” Darwin would later say of Herschel’s book.
While on board the Beagle, Darwin was able to meet Herschel in person; Herschel was at the Cape of Good Hope studying the stars of the Southern Hemisphere when the ship docked at the port of the Cape on its way back to England from the Galapagos Islands. Darwin enthused in his diary afterwards that becoming acquainted with Herschel “was the most memorable event which, for a long period, I have had the good fortune to enjoy.”
Once back in England, it was not long before Darwin met Charles Babbage. While giving a talk at a meeting of the Cambridge Philosophical Society in February, Darwin wrote to his sister that the geologist Charles Lyell was insisting that he cut his visit to Cambridge short and return to London. He “wants me to be up on Saturday for a party at Mr. Babbage,” Darwin half-heartedly complained. “Lyell says Babbage’s parties are the best in the way of literary people in London–and that there is a good mixture of pretty women!” (Darwin was then a bachelor, so this was a particularly enticing prospect.) It was at this party, at the beginning of March, that Darwin would have first seen the demonstration model of Babbage’s Difference Engine, the first all-purpose calculating machine. During this period, Babbage was demonstrating his machine at his soirees to make the point that God was something like a “Divine Programmer” who had pre-set his creation with all the future alterations necessary to bring about the origin of new species. God did not need to constantly tinker in the world, personally creating new species. Babbage’s argument dovetailed nicely with the speculations Darwin had begun while on the Beagle. It was within two weeks of this soiree that Darwin made his first comment (in one of his notebooks) suggesting that evolution of species was a real possibility.