Editor's Note: This article, translated from German, originally appeared in Spektrum. We are publishing it as part of our tribute to Charles Darwin on his 200th birthday.
Mr. Darwin, there is hardly any other book that has polarized society to such an extent as your On the Origin of Species. Do you think you have been given a fair treatment in the public debate?
My views have often been grossly distorted, attacked with bitterness and made to sound silly. But this has been done, as I believe, in most cases in good faith. In this context I must mention, though, that Ihave almost always been handled decently by my critics, and I would ignore those among them without any scientific knowledge as not worthy of mention
Did your talent for science show up early in life?
When I left school, I was neither too far ahead or behind in relation to my age, and I believe all my teachers thought I was a very ordinary boy, rather below the intellectual grade. To my utter disappointment, my father once told me: "You have no other interests apart from shooting, catching rats and dogs, and you are going to bring shame upon yourself and your whole family." Since I was not able to do anything dazzling in school, my father very wisely pulled me out of school at a far earlier age than was customary and sent my with my brother to Edinburgh University.
Where you started to study medicine…
The course consisted exclusively of lectures, and these were insufferably boring. It was one of the most unfortunate circumstances of my life that I was not required to perform dissections, because I would have overcome my aversion soon enough, and the practice would have been inestimably important for all my future activities.
And then you met the zoologist Robert Grant…
One day, as we were walking together, he burst out in great admiration for Lamarck and his views on evolution. I listened in silent amazement, without being affected in any way emotionally. I had read my grandfather's zoonomy earlier, and it had contained similar views. Nevertheless, it is quite probable that the fact that I was exposed at an early age to such views and heard them being praised made it easier for me to uphold the same ideas in a different form in my Origin of Species.
From Edinburgh you went to the University of Cambridge. Why?
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.
The father of evolution theory as a priest?
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 accepted. It never struck me how illogical it was to say that I believed in what I could not understand and what is in fact unintelligible. I might have said with entire truth that I had no wish to dispute any dogma; but I never was such a fool as to feel and say, "credo quia incredibile" ["I believe because it is incredible"]. If I think of how vehemently I have been attacked by the orthodoxy, it is very amusing to think that I had once entertained intentions of becoming a priest.
In Cambridge you met the botanist John Henslow who was instrumental in getting you a place on the "HMS Beagle" after your studies. Was this the definitive turning point in your life?
The journey on the Beagle has been the most significant in my life by far, and shaped my whole career. I always felt that I owed to this trip the first real cultivation or education of my mind; this journey led me to take a deep interest in several branches of natural science. My powers of observation were honed through it.