Charles Darwin was not a romantic. The brutally pragmatic ‘Pros and Cons list’ he wrote before deciding upon marriage to his cousin Emma Wedgwood proves that. We can safely assume that if the nineteenth century’s greatest naturalist ever received two turtle doves in his Christmas correspondence he would not have sung about them as symbols of fidelity and conjugal love. More likely, he would have treated them in the same way as he did other members of the Columbidae family of birds, which includes both doves and pigeons. First he would have studied them, then he would have boiled the flesh from their bones!
Modern readers of the Origin of Species (1859), many of whom pick up the text expecting anti-religious polemic or grand statements about man’s descent from an ape-like progenitor (Spoiler Alert: the Origin contains neither of these) are often bewildered to find a sizeable portion of chapter one spent discussing pigeons. And, unlike the better known insights Darwin gained from studying the beaks of Galapagos finches, his interest in pigeons was not just a matter of observation: it was hands-on, and often quite smelly!
[Image credit: Figure 23 – “Short Faced English Tumbler Pigeon” from Charles Darwin’s book “The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication”, 1868. Image from Wikimedia Commons.]
He first began thinking about how the activities of fanciers, in breeding an astonishing variety of pigeons (fantails, frillbacks, barbs, and more), might provide a model for natural selection, in the late 1830s. But it was in March 1855, about a year before he began to draft the manuscript that would become the Origin, that pigeons became Darwin’s passion.
A loft was constructed in the garden of Down House; fantails and pouters were purchased; specimens (alive and dead) were gathered from correspondents as far afield as India and the Gambia; and the notoriously unsociable Darwin joined two pigeon fancier clubs. On one occasion he even found himself in a South London gin palace, sharing a pipe with a ‘strange set of old men’ trading pigeon breeding anecdotes.
What Darwin wanted from these encounters was evidence of how experienced breeders were able to take the myriad of tiny variations found in nature, and accentuate them, sometimes to monstrous degrees. Back at Down House he was working in the opposite direction: breeding and measuring to demonstrate, as he argued in the Origin, and at even greater length in his Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication (1868), that the marvellous multiplicity of pigeons – pouters, carriers, runts, barbs, short-faced tumblers, and even the turtle dove – were all descended from one common ancestor, Columba Livia, the rock dove.
For anatomical proof, Darwin had to strip the carcasses.
[Image credit: Pigeon skulls, as drawn by Darwin in “‘The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication” by Charles Darwin, 1868. Image from Wikimedia Commons.]
Live birds were gassed with the vapours of prussic acid, released from potassium cyanide, then Darwin would ‘skeletonise’ them by boiling the corpse in a chemical mixture. The smell from the putrid flesh made Darwin, who had a weak stomach at the best of times, retch violently. (The task proved so unpleasant for Darwin, and his unfortunate servant, that in 1856 he began to send the birds to be ‘skeletonised’ professionally.) Once stripped of their flesh, the skeletons were carefully catalogued, labelled, and added to Darwin’s accumulating evidence for natural selection.
This image of Darwin at work, bent over a bucket in his back garden, boiling the flesh from pigeons, is important not only because it helps us to understand one of the key ways in which he confirmed his theory, but also because it helps to demystify Darwin. It is a world away from the depiction of Darwin as an Old Testament prophet bequeathed us by John Collier’s famous portrait.
The same, of course, is true when we think about Darwin and Christmas.
However exceptional Darwin’s scientific insights, his concerns each December were much like ours. His letters show a repeated determination to get tasks done ‘by Christmas’; one Christmas (1854) was made ‘gloomy’ by two sick children; another (1858) found him planning a family visit; and a few years later (1861) he was imploring his adult son (William) to be home for Christmas.
Most commonplace of all, each year Darwin sent and received Christmas wishes. Reading these now can be disconcerting. There is something incongruous in finding Francis Galton (the founder of eugenics) wishing Darwin ‘a very happy Christmas’ in 1869, and Darwin himself, five years later, wishing Ernst Haeckel (a key influence in the development of German scientific racism) ‘a merry Christmas and many of them’.
The Darwins were equally conventional when it came to Christmas dinner. Charles might have recalled wistfully the time when in 1834, three years into his Beagle voyage, while traversing Patagonia, he had shot two Guanaco for fresh meat on Christmas Day, but at Down House Christmas dinner was less exotic. And if the goose was a little too greasy, or the turkey a little too tough, it is almost certain that no one suggested supplementing the meat with boiled pigeon.