FLASHBACK – Good breeding: Darwin doubted his own family’s “fitness.”

James Moore
Natural History via Find Articles
Nov, 2005

Brought up in a provincial market town, Charles Darwin lived for forty years in rural Kent, where he raised a large family. The English countryside was his natural habitat, a world of gentleman farmers devoted to breeding livestock, flowers, fruit–and people. His paternal grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, was a noted horticulturalist, and his maternal grandfather, Josiah Wedgwood I, who raised sheep, improved the flocks with hundreds of Merinos. “It is a beautiful part of my theory,” Charles jotted, when developing his ideas on evolution, “that domesticated races … are made by precisely [the] same means as species.” Breeders decided which animals mate and which offspring survive–this was “artificial selection.” Nature, in Darwin’s view, did the same thing through the struggle for existence: he called it “natural selection.”

Ironically, some of the problems caused by inbreeding, which Darwin had heard about from farmers, threatened to play out in his own family. In 1839, as he turned thirty, did Charles select well in choosing a mate? His betrothed, Emma Wedgwood, was his first cousin. The Darwin and Wedgwood families had intermarried for some time (I call them the Darwoods, for short). Charles’s grandfather Josiah had eight children with his third cousin Sarah. Their eldest daughter, Susannah, married Robert Darwin, a noted physician; Charles was the fifth of Robert and Susannah’s six children. Josiah and Sarah’s second-eldest son, Josiah II, fathered nine children, four of whom, Emma Wedgwood Darwin among them, married first cousins.

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