How is a fervent interest created?

An important issue is how a lifelong interest is created by special circumstances in the home environment. It is self-evident that the attitudes and stimulation of the parents are important. But charismatic and skilled teachers probably also play a role.

This line of thinking leads us to another great natural scientist, Charles Darwin. He, too, had a burning interest in nature early in life: collecting animals, stones, snails, making observations, and brooding about connections. Darwin’s father was a physician. Despite this, he regarded his son’s interest in nature with some contempt. “You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family,” he is said to have uttered. Darwin’s mother was deeply religious. Like Linnaeus, Darwin encountered a school system whose main goal was to train the students in Latin in preparation for theological studies. This did not appeal to Darwin, whose interest in outdoor life and nature had grown. When Darwin was 16 his father decided that Charles would go with his brother Erasmus to Edinburgh to study medicine. Unfortunately Darwin had teachers there who were largely just as indescribably boring as those he had had in school. His father ultimately realized how hopeless the prospects were that his son would become a physician. His only hope now was for studies that could lead to a career as a clergyman, but Darwin had not studied much theology. He was relatively successful in a number of subjects in philosophy, mathematics, and physics. Where did this interest in science come from? As was the case with Linnaeus, Darwin’s early interest in researching and collecting was reinforced by encounters with personalities in science. One such person was the professor of botany J.S. Henslow of the University of Cambridge. There were also influences from literature, such as Alexander von Humboldt’s travelogue from South America and John Herschel’s book A Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy.

These two great scientists, Linnaeus and Darwin, have something interesting in common in their paths from childhood, school, and university and their devotion to science: the experience of nature in childhood, the conflict about following in their fathers’ footsteps, and encounters with teachers and personalities in their schooling. What is striking is their own initiative and powerful motivation. They approached teachers and accompany them on excursions or in their professional work. There were no set curricula involved. The university catalogue took up a number of public lectures – that’s all. If you wanted to gain more knowledge, you had to ferret out literature, often in private libraries. It was clearly of great importance to establish a social network and to demonstrate your interest, your ambition, and your talent to this network.

Last modified: 2022-02-16