Sunday, October 3, 2010

Darwin's nose

During the end of the 1700s and the beginning of the 1800s, there was great interest in the study of personality "types:" criminal types, lazy types, meticulous types, trustworthy types ... you name it.

One of the most prominent among such "scientists" was Joseph Lavater (1741-1801) who became known as the father of physiognomy. According Lavater, facial characteristics - skull shape, jutting of the chin, the way the lips formed expressions - represent the various types of personalities. Lavater's books included page after page of drawings of people's faces illustrating examples of what these types looked like. (Armed with these drawings, people could eye their neighbors and decide which were trustworthy and which were criminals.)

Lavater's work became very popular, and not just among the gullible. One of his fans was a ship captain named Robert Fitzroy (1805-1865). Fitzroy's vessel was named the "Beagle." And when he wanted to hire a naturalist to accompany his upcoming voyage, one of people he considered was Charles Darwin.

Darwin later recounted that during his interview, he had been disconcerted by the fact that Fitzroy kept staring at Darwin's nose. Darwin ended up being hired, and later in the five-year journey he and Fitzroy became close enough friends to have a personal conversation. Darwin wrote that Fitzroy told him that he very nearly had been rejected. It was your nose, Fitzroy told him. It just wasn't the nose of a competent, meticulous naturalist.

Darwin, the most famous and influential naturalist in the history of science, wrote that was glad the captain had concluded that his nose had lied.

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