Tw**ets from Darwin and the Beagle: the Great Man envies kittens

August 18, 2014 • 1:20 pm

Darwin had both cats and d*gs, but it’s clear that he loved his d*gs more. I’ll forgive him for that; after all, he wrote the best science book ever, and that outweighs a lot of flaws.  In fact, I don’t think The Origin even mentions cats, though I recall that it has a few words on canids.

Nevertheless, Darwin did occasionally refer to the feline group of mammals, and here, in a tw**t taken from Darwin’s Beagle journal, he even wishes he were a kitten. This appeared 7 hours ago:


But why are there tw**ts from a man who’s been dead since 1882.  The Darwin Twitter comes from David Jones, who has it as a project described on his website Metaburbia. Jones explains that he doesn’t just make up the tw**ts:

2009 was the bicentenary of Charles Darwin’s birth and 150th anniversary of the publication of On The Origin Of Species. I’ve had an interest in Darwin since I  first read the Origin when I was a child, I’ve been to Down House, Darwin’s home for many years and now a museum, several times, Helen (my partner) teaches a course on evolution and I decided that it was high time Charles found his way onto Twitter.

Several people had already bagged Darwin-related names but cdarwin was free so @cdarwin I became,tweeting content from the Beagle Diary (and other journals, notes, essays, letters and books by him to fill in when he wasn’t too productive). At the time of writing, Charles is still on the eastern coast of South America, flitting about between southern Argentina, Tierra del Fuego and the Falklands. He’s getting quite fed up and looking forward to rounding  the Horn.

I load the tweets into an on-line  database periodically and then a cron job posts across to Twitter according to the current date and time so that the Tweets shadow the real world. When it’s the 5th of August here, it’s the 5th August on board ship, albeit 176 years in the past.

Shortly after setting up this automated tweeting I contacted Twitter and they permitted me to use the name TheBeagle for my tweeting client so that Tweets are apparently posted from TheBeagle. Twitter has recently changed the way client applications authenticate themselves to do this and although they’re not yet insisting that legacy applications use the new OAuth system, I’ve already created an OAuth-enabled client ready to deploy to my server.

I took to The Origin as soon as I read it and I’ve never accepted Darwin’s reputation for turgid prose. A whole new audience, responding to the humour, insight and imagination of the young Darwin as he begins to think about the marvellous, curious, and unexplained world he is circumnavigating  agrees with me, I think.

I agree with Jones that Darwin’s prose was not turgid; indeed, as in the end of The Origin, and many places in the Beagle books, it is positively inspiring. But I doubt Darwin would have taken so eagerly to social media. He was a shy man, deeply wedded to his work and not eager to travel or interact with many people. Indeed, after he returned to England on the Beagle in 1836, he never left that country again, and, after moving to Downe, he rarely even went to London, which wasn’t that far. I also recall he had a mirror installed in his study so he could see who was approaching Down House, presumably so that he could hide or tell the staff to put off the caller if it was someone unwelcome.

At any rate, I wanted  to check that kitten reference, and, sure enough, 181 years ago today on this date Darwin made the following entry in his diary (my emphasis):

 August 18, 1833:

Patagones to B. Ayres

. . . Sunday 18th

The Beagle had not arrived. — I had nothing to do, no clean clothes, no books, nobody to talk with. — I envied the very kittens playing on the floor. — I was however lucky in a hospitable reception by Don Pablo, a friend of Harris. —

[page] 351

Remember that most of the time when the Beagle was surveying the coast of South America (the purpose of its voyage), Darwin wasn’t aboard: he was traveling in the interior, observing the people, collecting specimens, and collecting most of the data that would eventually come together in The Origin. His entry on this day clearly reflects his boredom waiting to meet the ship.  What puzzles me a bit is that today’s entry is not, as Jones says, 176 years in the past. It’s 181 years into the past. Maybe I’m missing something.

Finally, to show that Darwin didn’t neglect cats completely, there is a discussion in Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) about how they can be both hostile and affectionate, a discussion illustrated with two plates:

“Cat in an affectionate frame of mind”:


“Cat terrified at a dog”:



30 thoughts on “Tw**ets from Darwin and the Beagle: the Great Man envies kittens

  1. Of course, CD was very aware of c*ts. Recall the letter to Asa Gray from May of 1860 when he was trying to imagine how a beneficent G*d could make evil c*ts:

    I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.

        1. I don’t think it works like that. I can offer one data point, my wife, who has toxoplasmosis and doesn’t like cats much at at all, perhaps because she knows the life cycle of this particular parasite.

          1. I’m too lazy to look it up, but IIRC there are some interesting sex-linked differences in the psychological/behavioral effects of toxoplasmosis.

  2. The cdarwin t***ts have been interesting so far – I found especially intriguing his decision making process prior to the voyage itself, which was a good while ago (how differently things could have turned out) we’d all be Wallacists, which doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. It’s intriguing to see some of his notes come to life over a prolonged period ad get a picture of the trials and tribulations of the whole expedition rather than the few weeks in the galapagos. (Really it’s the only reason I make episodic attempts to follow my feed.

    A famous American born on the same day as Darwin – one Abraham Lincoln – was a well documented lover of cats (who also happened to like d*gs).

    “When asked if her husband had a hobby, Mary Todd Lincoln replied, “cats.” President Lincoln visited General Grant at City Point, Virginia in March of 1865. The civil war was drawing to a close and the enormous task of reuniting the country lay ahead, yet the President made time to care for three orphaned kittens. Abraham Lincoln noticed three stray kittens in the telegraph hut. Picking them up and placing them in his lap, he asked about their mother. When the President learned that the kittens’ mother was dead, he made sure the kittens would be fed and a good home found for them.”

  3. I think (but am not sure) that the tweets are currently posted for the second time, hence them being from 181 years ago.

  4. Yes, that’s right, this is the second time around the world…I’m not sure what to do when he reaches England again this time. Can’t carry on circumnavigating forever.

    1. I’d argue that there is still room for another round. I love seeing those Tweets turn up in my feed, but I am sure that I don’t see all of them every day. It may take a few complete orbits for me to read them all unless I sit down and read your whole Twitter feed one day. Or perhaps I should read the whole journal for myself.

    2. How about … wossname, the guy on the boat. Francis Chichester on Gypsy-something the something-th?
      This guy. Or one of several others in the same game. His journey is probably pretty well recorded.
      On land … Sven Anders Hedin’s various (7 or 8 ; I forget) expeditions to explore central Asia. Livingstone, Stanley, Burton and Speke in various parts of Africe?
      If you’ve built the tools, you might as well use them.

  5. That’s novel and a good use of twitter. Excellent way of celebrating the great man’s life and work.
    I sometimes wonder what the expression on Charles Darwin’s face would have been if he had met the monk, Gregor Mendal. Now that would have been a chat worth tweeting about.

  6. Darwin mentions cats several times in the first edition of the Origin, noting the rarity of distinct breeds (in comparison with pigeons: p. 42); variation in their predatory preferences (p. 91); and that cats do not curl their tails to warn mice of their impending doom (p. 201). He also notes that wild members of the cat genus (i.e. lions, etc.) will attack livestock even when tamed, while chickens have lost their instinctive fear of domestic cats (p. 215). And, finally he mentions the spots and stripes of young members of the “cat tribe” as being an example of the law of embryonic resemblance (p. 439). Curiously, he calls lion “whelps” “striped”, although I’ve always thought of them as spotted.

    1. Out of curiousity, would he have ever seen any in person at the time he wrote Origin? Or ever?

      I’m somehow reminded of the 17th century illustrations in European book of orangutans, chimpanzees, etc. which showed them as being very human like, for example.

  7. “In fact, I don’t think The Origin even mentions cats…”

    I’m pretty sure there’s a passage where he notes that cats having eyes of two different colours is correlated with deafness.

  8. Those interested in the affective – emotional, if you will – lives of cats (and d*gs) are invited to read “Animals Make us Human” by Temple Grandin. You will never look at a cat fight the same.

  9. I had a prof once who had us read selections from Expression of the Emotions on laughter and humor. We contrasted Darwin’s theory of humor with Aristotle, Hobbes, and Freud. Quite interesting.

  10. Kink is mostly a tail up cat because he’s a Sweetie Pie, but when he’s startled or stalking the d*g he goes back up, tail down.

    He also goes back up, tail down when he’s playing with me and will leap at me sideways or jump out from a doorway and bat my leg, claws in.

    Sadly, we had to retire the game, Bite My Nose, after I required a gauze compress but received no other sympathy whatsoever.

  11. His daughter, Henrietta, writes “my kitten Mephistopheles, called Phisty, which we brought with us, was our only bright spot. He was a beautiful Persian kitten, with very tufted ears and of remarkable character; he amused us all, prancing sideways all across the garden to attack us; and when he was asleep, he was so drunk with sleep that you could prop him up in any attitude, and he trickled over just as the force of gravity acted. My father and mother never forgot poor Phisty and his fierce and tigerish charms.” (Century of Letters, volume 2)

  12. Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle report is very much worth a read. So many exciting issues in biology, geology, how to cook which animal properly, but most of all, Darwin’s commentary on social issues and the treatment of the native americans are extraordinary.

      1. I agree Descent can get a bit long, detailed and technical for casual reading. Origin I thought very readable, but Beagle has the action bonus…

  13. I always have loved the Voyage of the Beagle and also On the Origin of Species. Excellent stuff, very nicely written in remarkably modern prose, considering the time they were written.

    I also am very fond of that Portrait of Darwin as a young man.

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