Friday, 26 December 2008

Science and Chess - Was Charles Darwin a Chess Player

Charles Darwin (1809-1882):

Charles Darwin
was one of the greatest Scientists of all time. It is also quite well known that he was subject to melancholia and depression. Charles Darwin was recommended as a suitable naturalist for the unpaid position of gentleman’s companion to Robert FitzRoy, the captain of HMS Beagle in 1831. Captain Robert FitzRoy was also very prone to depression and black moods (modern medicine would probably have diagnosed him as having bipolar disorder). Robert Fitzroy would later (1865) commit suicide by slashing his wrists, as had his uncle.

This recent article discusses the selection of Charles Darwin for the HMS Beagle voyage in 1831 and also analyses further the life of Robert FitzRoy (full article here):
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The problem was that on these long ocean voyages, the Captain was disposed to great isolation and loneliness. In those times, it was unbecoming for the Captain to have any relations with the crew except as a commanding officer. The crew lived in their little world and the Captain in his. If the Captain wanted company, someone to talk to or play chess with, he had to make arrangements for such. Enter Charles Darwin, recommended by two of Captain FitzRoy's friends as a personable and agreeable young fellow. Darwin was named as a naturalist and expected to pay his own way. The Captain hoped, that with this interesting companion, he could avoid the "Black Dog" of depression. And it did seem to work out that way. Except for a few noted disagreements, Darwin and "Hot Coffee" got along well enough.
The above passage suggests that Charles Darwin may have been a chess player, spending many hours playing chess in the evenings with Captain FitzRoy. The evidence from Darwin's extensively documented correspondence, however, suggests that he was not a chess player. The definitive answer comes from correspondence between Charles Darwin and his cousin Francis Galton in November 1879 where Darwin answers a series of questions for Galton's future book, 'Inquiries into Human Faculty' (1883). Darwin claims to have never played chess (see question 16).
"MY DEAR GALTON, I have answered the questions as well as I could, but they are miserably answered, for I have never tried looking into my own mind. Unless others answer very much better than I can do, you will get no good from your queries. Do you not think you ought to have the age of the answerer? I think so, because I can call up faces of many schoolboys, not seen for sixty years, with much distinctness, but nowadays I may talk with a man for an hour, and see him several times consecutively, and, after a month, I am utterly unable to recollect what he is at all like. The picture is quite washed out."

The Life, Letters and Labours of Francis Galton, 4 vols
By Karl Pearson [Doctoral student of Galton]
Published by Cambridge University Press, London (1914)

Fitzroy: The Remarkable Story of Darwin's Captain and the Invention of the Weather Forecast (Hardcover)
By John Gribbin, Mary Gribbin
Headline Review (7 Jul 2003)
[Amazon review]

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