Thursday, June 11, 2009

Music and Darwin

In a recent interview, Darwin enthusiast Dr. Michael Sinclair of the International Scientific Steering Committee of the Census of Marine Life shared his insights on the man, the scientist and his work. In this blog entry, Dr. Sinclair reflects on the connection between Darwin and music.

From his letters and books, it's clear that Darwin was influenced by the classical music of his period. His wife, Emma, was an accomplished pianist and it is said that her daily practice influenced his theories (Derry, 2009). From the Descent of Man:

" appears probable that the progenitors of man, either the males or females or both sexes, before acquiring the power of expressing their mutual love in articulate language, endeavored to charm each other with musical notes and rhythm."

By exploring these connections, we hope to give greater insight to the man, whose passion for science - and music - helped change our understanding of the world.

[Dr. Sinclair] In May, we hosted a tribute to Darwin by Symphony Nova Scotia at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography. This fall, a chamber music concert is being planned to compliment the October lectures to be held at Dalhousie University. One might ask why we have included music as a key part of our celebrations. Darwin was tone deaf, but he loved music and has referenced classical music and composers in much of his writing, including The Origin of Species. In his letters, we learn that he missed listening to music during the several years of the Beagle expedition. In his autobiography Darwin states that the several weeks hiking in the mountains of Chile in the summer of 1834 were, as a continuous time period, the most memorable of his life. He refers to one experience in the mountains as comparable to listening to Handel’s Messiah: “I felt glad that I was alone: It was like hearing in full orchestra a chorus of the Messiah.” He uses Mozart’s precocious musical aptitude as an analogy to illustrate the difference between “instinct” and “habit” (Chapter 7, Origin). Music was a significant part of his life.

Also Darwin’s ideas, and associated controversies, have had a surprisingly long lasting influence on music. The book, Rough Guide to Evolution provides a great summary of the influence of the concept of evolution on contempory music, including a playlist with Bruce Springsteen’s piece on the Scopes trial as number one on the list (for contemporary music influenced by Darwin, see links to Springsteen and Smithsonian below).

Music is a regular part of out “all staff” meetings at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography, with local talent of the staff featured at each meeting. The symphony Nova Scotia performed in our auditorium for our 40th anniversary. The performance was a great success. Darwin would enjoy our meetings, at least this aspect, in 2002 in spite of his tone deafness. Music will enhance the spirit of celebration this year in Halifax. A descendent of Darwin is collaborating in an opera focussed on the indigenous people of Tierra del Fuego, and a symphony has been written in honour of Darwin; “Age of Wonders” by Michael Stimpson. So music and Darwin seem to be tightly coupled over the past two centuries. Our celebrations here in Halifax will reflect this linkage between the arts and science.

Charles Darwin would be pleased, as he wrote: "occasionally a little music & a little reading & then bed-time makes a charming close to the day" (Letter 542, 27 Oct 1839)


Article by University of Edinburgh scholar, J.F. Derry: "Bravo Emma! Music in the life and work of Charles Darwin" doi:10.1016/j.endeavour.2009.01.005

Bruce Springsteen's account of the Scopes trial: Part Man, Part Monkey (Acoustic)

Smithsonian's blog "Surprising Science" on Darwin as the muse for other songwriters: Darwin Rocks, includes a great live version of "Man on the Moon" by REM and Springsteen

Letters: Darwin Correspondence Project