‘[L]ove for all living creatures [is] the most noble attribute of man’
- Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, Chapter 4.
This quote is often snipped out of Darwin’s long body of work as a slogan for vegetarianism, veganism and animal rights, and Darwin is often cited as one of history’s most famous vegetarians. However, it seems that he was anything but: not only was he a lifelong meat-eater, but his early eating habits would make him more villain than hero for animal conservationists today.
As an unenthusiastic university student, Darwin neglected his medical and religious studies, instead spending time collecting and studying animal and rock specimens. This inquisitiveness about the natural world also influenced his appetite. While at Cambridge University, Darwin was an avid member of the ‘Glutton Club,’ a group that met weekly with the explicit goal of eating unusual animals, ideally those nobody else had ever tasted. The club apparently lost its appetite and disbanded after eating rancid brown owl – Darwin, a fastidious note-taker who filled notebooks with lengthy descriptions of minute details, simply described this nasty owl experience: ‘indescribable.’
But Darwin’s spirit and voracious appetite for ‘rare flesh’ was not seriously damaged, because he chowed down on many exotic and, in some cases, endangered animals during his famous five-year voyage on the HMS Beagle. Darwin started this life-changing journey in 1831 as a part-time naturalist, but he ended it with a reputation as a prominent scientist and a collection of data and observations that would drive his studies for the next half-century. Along the way, he ate such things as puma, iguana, armadillo and giant tortoises – something he and the ship’s crew enjoyed so much that they loaded aboard 48 of them from the Galapagos Islands to eat on the onward journey.
But it was one particular meal on his journey that may have changed Darwin’s attitude towards eating exotic species.
While in northern Patagonia, Darwin had heard about a rare local variant of the large, flightless bird rhea. He was intrigued but did not see one, and after a few months the ship sailed further south and he was forced to forget about the elusive bird. The following week, in early 1834, the ship’s artist shot a rhea which the crew had for dinner. As the story goes, Darwin realised, halfway through or shortly after the meal, that this was not a young specimen of the common rhea, but a mature version of the smaller, rare species he had been told about. Famously, he gathered together what was left uneaten of its carcass and sent it to England to be studied. This species was later named Rhea darwinii after him.
Rather than just making for a good story and getting a bird named after him, the encounter of the rhea came to mean a huge amount to Darwin’s most famous theory. During his time on the Beagle, Darwin had followed the prevailing thought at the time: that animals only ever developed into superior, perfected versions of their own species. By the late 1830s, however, drawing heavily on observations of the two rhea species and maybe even those tasty giant tortoises, Darwin supposed that an animal could adapt over time so much as to evolve into a different species.
A collection of Darwin’s wife Emma’s recipes, or at least those of their household cooks, has recently been published. It suggests that Darwin’s exotic eating habits were a feature only of his young life, and his diet after returning to England and marrying was much more conventional. The recipes are predominantly hearty, humble meals, typical of the time: beef and onions rather than braised iguana.
This could be due to the fact that feeding hard-working Darwin, a household of servants and a total of ten children is a difficult task even on the budget of a well-renowned Victorian scientist, and it is hard to include exotic ingredients. Or it may reflect a change of heart after the Beagle voyage and the rhea episode. He did not become vegetarian, but Darwin may have toned down his appetite for obscure animals, realizing that his culinary curiosity could destroy the evidence behind his Earth-shattering discoveries.
Charles Darwin’s birthday, February 12th, is celebrated as ‘Darwin Day’ around the world. An increasingly popular way to mark Darwin Day is with a ‘Phylum Feast,’ a multi-course meal consisting of as many different plant and animal species as possible.