Charles Darwin

Born in Shrewsbury, England, Charles Darwin was the 4th of five children of an upper middle class family. His mother (who died when he was 8) was from a family renown for making chinaware (Wedgewood). His father was a physician and wanted Charles to follow in the family business but had little faith in his son’s ultimate success.

Although Darwin attended medical school at the University of Edinburgh, he was not a good student and found operations without anesthesia (which hadn’t yet been discovered) was gruesome. Switching from medicine to the clergy, Darwin transferred to Cambridge, where he spent more time drinking and singing than studying.

In 1831, he graduated from Cambridge but wanted to avoid taking his clergy vows. So at the suggestion of a botanist he met at school, Darwin signed on the HMS Beagle for a 5 year exploration of South American, Tahiti, New Zealand and Australia. Although he was paying his own way, Darwin almost never got to take the trip. The ship’s young skipper, Captain Robert Fitz-Roy, was a phrenologist who (based on the shape of the nose) believed that Darwin was too lazy to be the ship’s naturalist. Despite the captain’s reluctance, Charles was onboard two days after Christmas, 1831, when the Beagle set sail for South America.

Although Darwin collected samples and took notes, he did not immediately write his theory upon his return to England in October of 1836. He had acquired the data but needed an overarching principle to tie his observation together. Darwin found what he needed the following year in an article by Thomas Malthus. An economist, Malthus reasoned that the struggle to succeed in business is the result of resource scarcity. Darwin applied the concept to plants, which grow very rapidly and would overwhelm the Earth if it weren’t for shortages of food, space and other resources. Only the fittest of the offspring survive.

Darwin combined the idea of struggling for survival with Charles Lyell’s dynamic view of the Earth. According to Lyell, the planet is not static but is still in flux. Darwin proposed that the same process of equilibrium is the result of natural forces. Species change by natural selection. Changes in the environment impose circumstances that are conducive for some offspring and unsympathetic for others. Looking over time, changes in species reflect the adaptation needed for the species to survive. 

For Darwin, evolution is not a directional or a thoughtful process, it happens as a natural consequence of changes in the environment. Fitness is a function of individual differences and how well they match environmental demands. Changes in a species from one generation to the next are due to the species’ ability to adapt to the environment.

Before Darwin, the world was thought of a series of catastrophes. The last great catastrophic event (Noah’s flood) had wiped out all animals except those on the ark. Darwin’s speculation that related organisms come from common ancestors brought into question the immutability of species and, by extension, the special creation of humans. Darwin’s theory of evolution also replaced Lamarck’s contention that the effects of practice could be seen in one’s offspring. Lamarck’s belief in spontaneous generation was also called into question. 

Darwin didn’t invent the concept of evolution. Lamarck and others, including St. Augustine, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Darwin’s grandfather, had alluded to the idea. Darwin brought a tremendous amount of observational data and presented it at time when people were ready to seriously consider the premise. In addition to good data and good timing, Darwin provided an overall rationale for evolution. He noted that diversity helps a species survive. If all members of a species are exactly the same, changes in environment could wipe out the entire species. But with diversity there is a likelihood that some members of the species will be able to function under the new conditions.

In 1839, Darwin married Emma Wedgewood, his first cousin. Darwin’s health was failing and the couple soon moved to Kent (a few miles outside of London) in hopes of improving his condition. Unfortunately, by the time he was forty Darwin was virtually an invalid. Although he still traveled to scientific meetings, Darwin often worked alone at home, surrounded by his 10 children. 

In 1842, Darwin wrote a short sketch of his evolution theory and shared it with his friends. In 1844, a longer, unpublished version was created. Then, twenty years after he returned from his trip, Darwin began what he anticipated to be a multi-volume series on the subject of evolution. He was still working on it when the naturalist Alfred Wallace almost stole his thunder in 1858. Wallace sent a copy of an article he had prepared that described a theory of evolution virtually identical to Darwin’s. Together, Darwin and Wallace each presented their papers to the Linnean Society on the same day. The following year, Darwin published his now famous book, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.

Although Darwin rarely defended his theory, Thomas Huxley was less constrained. As the primary defender of evolution, Huxley not only argued the merits of the theory but also its implications. Evolution was not merely an unimpassioned collection of data. It was a challenge to the uniqueness of man and the nature of divine intervention.

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