The Autobiography of Charles Darwin

Cambridge 1828-1831

After having spent two sessions in Edinburgh, my father
perceived, or he heard from my sisters, that I did not like the
thought of being a physician, so he proposed that I should become
a clergyman. He was very properly vehement against my turning
into an idle sporting man, which then seemed my probable
destination. I asked for some time to consider, as from what
little I had heard or thought on the subject I had scruples about
declaring my belief in all the dogmas of the Church of England;
though otherwise I liked the thought of being a country
clergyman. Accordingly I read with care ‘Pearson on the Creed,’
and a few other books on divinity; and as I did not then in the
least doubt the strict and literal truth of every word in the
Bible, I soon persuaded myself that our Creed must be fully

Considering how fiercely I have been attacked by the orthodox, it
seems ludicrous that I once intended to be a clergyman. Nor was
this intention and my father’s wish ever formerly given up, but
died a natural death when, on leaving Cambridge, I joined the
“Beagle” as naturalist. If the phrenologists are to be trusted,
I was well fitted in one respect to be a clergyman. A few years
ago the secretaries of a German psychological society asked me
earnestly by letter for a photograph of myself; and some time
afterwards I received the proceedings of one of the meetings, in
which it seemed that the shape of my head had been the subject of
a public discussion, and one of the speakers declared that I had
the bump of reverence developed enough for ten priests.

As it was decided that I should be a clergyman, it was necessary
that I should go to one of the English universities and take a
degree; but as I had never opened a classical book since leaving
school, I found to my dismay, that in the two intervening years I
had actually forgotten, incredible as it may appear, almost
everything which I had learnt, even to some few of the Greek
letters. I did not therefore proceed to Cambridge at the usual
time in October, but worked with a private tutor in Shrewsbury,
and went to Cambridge after the Christmas vacation, early in
1828. I soon recovered my school standard of knowledge, and
could translate easy Greek books, such as Homer and the Greek
Testament, with moderate facility.

During the three years which I spent at Cambridge my time was
wasted, as far as the academical studies were concerned, as
completely as at Edinburgh and at school. I attempted
mathematics, and even went during the summer of 1828 with a
private tutor (a very dull man) to Barmouth, but I got on very
slowly. The work was repugnant to me, chiefly from my not being
able to see any meaning in the early steps in algebra. This
impatience was very foolish, and in after years I have deeply
regretted that I did not proceed far enough at least to
understand something of the great leading principles of
mathematics, for men thus endowed seem to have an extra sense.
But I do not believe that I should ever have succeeded beyond a
very low grade. With respect to Classics I did nothing except
attend a few compulsory college lectures, and the attendance was
almost nominal. In my second year I had to work for a month or
two to pass the Little-Go, which I did easily. Again, in my last
year I worked with some earnestness for my final degree of B.A.,
and brushed up my Classics, together with a little Algebra and
Euclid, which latter gave me much pleasure, as it did at school.
In order to pass the B.A. examination, it was also necessary to
get up Paley’s ‘Evidences of Christianity,’ and his ‘Moral
Philosophy.’ This was done in a thorough manner, and I am
convinced that I could have written out the whole of the
‘Evidences’ with perfect correctness, but not of course in the
clear language of Paley. The logic of this book and, as I may
add, of his ‘Natural Theology,’ gave me as much delight as did
Euclid. The careful study of these works, without attempting to
learn any part by rote, was the only part of the academical
course which, as I then felt and as I still believe, was of the
least use to me in the education of my mind. I did not at that
time trouble myself about Paley’s premises; and taking these on
trust, I was charmed and convinced by the long line of
argumentation. By answering well the examination questions in
Paley, by doing Euclid well, and by not failing miserably in
Classics, I gained a good place among the oi polloi or crowd of
men who do not go in for honours. Oddly enough, I cannot
remember how high I stood, and my memory fluctuates between the
fifth, tenth, or twelfth, name on the list. (Tenth in the list
of January 1831.)

Public lectures on several branches were given in the University,
attendance being quite voluntary; but I was so sickened with
lectures at Edinburgh that I did not even attend Sedgwick’s
eloquent and interesting lectures. Had I done so I should
probably have become a geologist earlier than I did. I attended,
however, Henslow’s lectures on Botany, and liked them much for
their extreme clearness, and the admirable illustrations; but I
did not study botany. Henslow used to take his pupils, including
several of the older members of the University, field excursions,
on foot or in coaches, to distant places, or in a barge down the
river, and lectured on the rarer plants and animals which were
observed. These excursions were delightful.

Although, as we shall presently see, there were some redeeming
features in my life at Cambridge, my time was sadly wasted there,
and worse than wasted. From my passion for shooting and for
hunting, and, when this failed, for riding across country, I got
into a sporting set, including some dissipated low-minded young
men. We used often to dine together in the evening, though these
dinners often included men of a higher stamp, and we sometimes
drank too much, with jolly singing and playing at cards
afterwards. I know that I ought to feel ashamed of days and
evenings thus spent, but as some of my friends were very
pleasant, and we were all in the highest spirits, I cannot help
looking back to these times with much pleasure.

But I am glad to think that I had many other friends of a widely
different nature. I was very intimate with Whitley (Rev. C.
Whitley, Hon. Canon of Durham, formerly Reader in Natural
Philosophy in Durham University.), who was afterwards Senior
Wrangler, and we used continually to take long walks together.
He inoculated me with a taste for pictures and good engravings,
of which I bought some. I frequently went to the Fitzwilliam
Gallery, and my taste must have been fairly good, for I certainly
admired the best pictures, which I discussed with the old
curator. I read also with much interest Sir Joshua Reynolds’
book. This taste, though not natural to me, lasted for several
years, and many of the pictures in the National Gallery in London
gave me much pleasure; that of Sebastian del Piombo exciting in
me a sense of sublimity.

I also got into a musical set, I believe by means of my warm-
hearted friend, Herbert (The late John Maurice Herbert, County
Court Judge of Cardiff and the Monmouth Circuit.), who took a
high wrangler’s degree. From associating with these men, and
hearing them play, I acquired a strong taste for music, and used
very often to time my walks so as to hear on week days the anthem
in King’s College Chapel. This gave me intense pleasure, so that
my backbone would sometimes shiver. I am sure that there was no
affectation or mere imitation in this taste, for I used generally
to go by myself to King’s College, and I sometimes hired the
chorister boys to sing in my rooms. Nevertheless I am so utterly
destitute of an ear, that I cannot perceive a discord, or keep
time and hum a tune correctly; and it is a mystery how I could
possibly have derived pleasure from music.

My musical friends soon perceived my state, and sometimes amused
themselves by making me pass an examination, which consisted in
ascertaining how many tunes I could recognise when they were
played rather more quickly or slowly than usual. ‘God save the
King,’ when thus played, was a sore puzzle. There was another
man with almost as bad an ear as I had, and strange to say he
played a little on the flute. Once I had the triumph of beating
him in one of our musical examinations.

But no pursuit at Cambridge was followed with nearly so much
eagerness or gave me so much pleasure as collecting beetles. It
was the mere passion for collecting, for I did not dissect them,
and rarely compared their external characters with published
descriptions, but got them named anyhow. I will give a proof of
my zeal: one day, on tearing off some old bark, I saw two rare
beetles, and seized one in each hand; then I saw a third and new
kind, which I could not bear to lose, so that I popped the one
which I held in my right hand into my mouth. Alas! it ejected
some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue so that I was
forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, as was the third

I was very successful in collecting, and invented two new
methods; I employed a labourer to scrape during the winter, moss
off old trees and place it in a large bag, and likewise to
collect the rubbish at the bottom of the barges in which reeds
are brought from the fens, and thus I got some very rare species.
No poet ever felt more delighted at seeing his first poem
published than I did at seeing, in Stephens’ ‘Illustrations of
British Insects,’ the magic words, “captured by C. Darwin, Esq.”
I was introduced to entomology by my second cousin W. Darwin Fox,
a clever and most pleasant man, who was then at Christ’s College,
and with whom I became extremely intimate. Afterwards I became
well acquainted, and went out collecting, with Albert Way of
Trinity, who in after years became a well-known archaeologist;
also with H. Thompson of the same College, afterwards a leading
agriculturist, chairman of a great railway, and Member of
Parliament. It seems therefore that a taste for collecting
beetles is some indication of future success in life!

I am surprised what an indelible impression many of the beetles
which I caught at Cambridge have left on my mind. I can remember
the exact appearance of certain posts, old trees and banks where
I made a good capture. The pretty Panagaeus crux-major was a
treasure in those days, and here at Down I saw a beetle running
across a walk, and on picking it up instantly perceived that it
differed slightly from P. crux-major, and it turned out to be P.
quadripunctatus, which is only a variety or closely allied
species, differing from it very slightly in outline. I had never
seen in those old days Licinus alive, which to an uneducated eye
hardly differs from many of the black Carabidous beetles; but my
sons found here a specimen, and I instantly recognised that it
was new to me; yet I had not looked at a British beetle for the
last twenty years.

I have not as yet mentioned a circumstance which influenced my
whole career more than any other. This was my friendship with
Professor Henslow. Before coming up to Cambridge, I had heard of
him from my brother as a man who knew every branch of science,
and I was accordingly prepared to reverence him. He kept open
house once every week when all undergraduates, and some older
members of the University, who were attached to science, used to
meet in the evening. I soon got, through Fox, an invitation, and
went there regularly. Before long I became well acquainted with
Henslow, and during the latter half of my time at Cambridge took
long walks with him on most days; so that I was called by some of
the dons “the man who walks with Henslow;” and in the evening I
was very often asked to join his family dinner. His knowledge
was great in botany, entomology, chemistry, mineralogy, and
geology. His strongest taste was to draw conclusions from long-
continued minute observations. His judgment was excellent, and
his whole mind well balanced; but I do not suppose that any one
would say that he possessed much original genius. He was deeply
religious, and so orthodox that he told me one day he should be
grieved if a single word of the Thirty-nine Articles were
altered. His moral qualities were in every way admirable. He
was free from every tinge of vanity or other petty feeling; and I
never saw a man who thought so little about himself or his own
concerns. His temper was imperturbably good, with the most
winning and courteous manners; yet, as I have seen, he could be
roused by any bad action to the warmest indignation and prompt

I once saw in his company in the streets of Cambridge almost as
horrid a scene as could have been witnessed during the French
Revolution. Two body-snatchers had been arrested, and whilst
being taken to prison had been torn from the constable by a crowd
of the roughest men, who dragged them by their legs along the
muddy and stony road. They were covered from head to foot with
mud, and their faces were bleeding either from having been kicked
or from the stones; they looked like corpses, but the crowd was
so dense that I got only a few momentary glimpses of the wretched
creatures. Never in my life have I seen such wrath painted on a
man’s face as was shown by Henslow at this horrid scene. He
tried repeatedly to penetrate the mob; but it was simply
impossible. He then rushed away to the mayor, telling me not to
follow him, but to get more policemen. I forget the issue,
except that the two men were got into the prison without being

Henslow’s benevolence was unbounded, as he proved by his many
excellent schemes for his poor parishioners, when in after years
he held the living of Hitcham. My intimacy with such a man ought
to have been, and I hope was, an inestimable benefit. I cannot
resist mentioning a trifling incident, which showed his kind
consideration. Whilst examining some pollen-grains on a damp
surface, I saw the tubes exserted, and instantly rushed off to
communicate my surprising discovery to him. Now I do not suppose
any other professor of botany could have helped laughing at my
coming in such a hurry to make such a communication. But he
agreed how interesting the phenomenon was, and explained its
meaning, but made me clearly understand how well it was known; so
I left him not in the least mortified, but well pleased at having
discovered for myself so remarkable a fact, but determined not to
be in such a hurry again to communicate my discoveries.

Dr. Whewell was one of the older and distinguished men who
sometimes visited Henslow, and on several occasions I walked home
with him at night. Next to Sir J. Mackintosh he was the best
converser on grave subjects to whom I ever listened. Leonard
Jenyns (The well-known Soame Jenyns was cousin to Mr. Jenyns’
father.), who afterwards published some good essays in Natural
History (Mr. Jenyns (now Blomefield) described the fish for the
Zoology of the “Beagle”; and is author of a long series of
papers, chiefly Zoological.), often stayed with Henslow, who was
his brother-in-law. I visited him at his parsonage on the
borders of the Fens [Swaffham Bulbeck], and had many a good walk
and talk with him about Natural History. I became also
acquainted with several other men older than me, who did not care
much about science, but were friends of Henslow. One was a
Scotchman, brother of Sir Alexander Ramsay, and tutor of Jesus
College: he was a delightful man, but did not live for many
years. Another was Mr. Dawes, afterwards Dean of Hereford, and
famous for his success in the education of the poor. These men
and others of the same standing, together with Henslow, used
sometimes to take distant excursions into the country, which I
was allowed to join, and they were most agreeable.

Looking back, I infer that there must have been something in me a
little superior to the common run of youths, otherwise the above-
mentioned men, so much older than me and higher in academical
position, would never have allowed me to associate with them.
Certainly I was not aware of any such superiority, and I remember
one of my sporting friends, Turner, who saw me at work with my
beetles, saying that I should some day be a Fellow of the Royal
Society, and the notion seemed to me preposterous.

During my last year at Cambridge, I read with care and profound
interest Humboldt’s ‘Personal Narrative.’ This work, and Sir J.
Herschel’s ‘Introduction to the Study of Natural Philosophy,’
stirred up in me a burning zeal to add even the most humble
contribution to the noble structure of Natural Science. No one
or a dozen other books influenced me nearly so much as these two.
I copied out from Humboldt long passages about Teneriffe, and
read them aloud on one of the above-mentioned excursions, to (I
think) Henslow, Ramsay, and Dawes, for on a previous occasion I
had talked about the glories of Teneriffe, and some of the party
declared they would endeavour to go there; but I think that they
were only half in earnest. I was, however, quite in earnest, and
got an introduction to a merchant in London to enquire about
ships; but the scheme was, of course, knocked on the head by the
voyage of the “Beagle”.

My summer vacations were given up to collecting beetles, to some
reading, and short tours. In the autumn my whole time was
devoted to shooting, chiefly at Woodhouse and Maer, and sometimes
with young Eyton of Eyton. Upon the whole the three years which
I spent at Cambridge were the most joyful in my happy life; for I
was then in excellent health, and almost always in high spirits.

As I had at first come up to Cambridge at Christmas, I was forced
to keep two terms after passing my final examination, at the
commencement of 1831; and Henslow then persuaded me to begin the
study of geology. Therefore on my return to Shropshire I
examined sections, and coloured a map of parts round Shrewsbury.
Professor Sedgwick intended to visit North Wales in the beginning
of August to pursue his famous geological investigations amongst
the older rocks, and Henslow asked him to allow me to accompany
him. (In connection with this tour my father used to tell a
story about Sedgwick: they had started from their inn one
morning, and had walked a mile or two, when Sedgwick suddenly
stopped, and vowed that he would return, being certain “that
damned scoundrel” (the waiter) had not given the chambermaid the
sixpence intrusted to him for the purpose. He was ultimately
persuaded to give up the project, seeing that there was no reason
for suspecting the waiter of especial perfidy.–F.D.)
Accordingly he came and slept at my father’s house.

A short conversation with him during this evening produced a
strong impression on my mind. Whilst examining an old gravel-pit
near Shrewsbury, a labourer told me that he had found in it a
large worn tropical Volute shell, such as may be seen on the
chimney-pieces of cottages; and as he would not sell the shell, I
was convinced that he had really found it in the pit. I told
Sedgwick of the fact, and he at once said (no doubt truly) that
it must have been thrown away by some one into the pit; but then
added, if really embedded there it would be the greatest
misfortune to geology, as it would overthrow all that we know
about the superficial deposits of the Midland Counties. These
gravel-beds belong in fact to the glacial period, and in after
years I found in them broken arctic shells. But I was then
utterly astonished at Sedgwick not being delighted at so
wonderful a fact as a tropical shell being found near the surface
in the middle of England. Nothing before had ever made me
thoroughly realise, though I had read various scientific books,
that science consists in grouping facts so that general laws or
conclusions may be drawn from them.

It can be very well compared to the different facts in the trading world like the economy downturns, currency fluctuations, demand and supply etc. Grouping of these facts from an important source and their inference will help us in investing in cryptocurrencies and forex to earn profits.

Next morning we started for Llangollen, Conway, Bangor, and Capel
Curig. This tour was of decided use in teaching me a little how
to make out the geology of a country. Sedgwick often sent me on
a line parallel to his, telling me to bring back specimens of the
rocks and to mark the stratification on a map. I have little
doubt that he did this for my good, as I was too ignorant to have
aided him. On this tour I had a striking instance of how easy it
is to overlook phenomena, however conspicuous, before they have
been observed by any one. We spent many hours in Cwm Idwal,
examining all the rocks with extreme care, as Sedgwick was
anxious to find fossils in them; but neither of us saw a trace of
the wonderful glacial phenomena all around us; we did not notice
the plainly scored rocks, the perched boulders, the lateral and
terminal moraines. Yet these phenomena are so conspicuous that,
as I declared in a paper published many years afterwards in the
‘Philosophical Magazine’ (‘Philosophical Magazine,’ 1842.), a
house burnt down by fire did not tell its story more plainly than
did this valley. If it had still been filled by a glacier, the
phenomena would have been less distinct than they now are.

At Capel Curig I left Sedgwick and went in a straight line by
compass and map across the mountains to Barmouth, never following
any track unless it coincided with my course. I thus came on
some strange wild places, and enjoyed much this manner of
travelling. I visited Barmouth to see some Cambridge friends who
were reading there, and thence returned to Shrewsbury and to Maer
for shooting; for at that time I should have thought myself mad
to give up the first days of partridge-shooting for geology or
any other science.

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