By Lawrie Scott
Well, who was this Charles Darwin that everyone’s talking about? He was the one who invented evolution wasn’t he? Well no. Lots of people including his own grandfather, Erasmus, had been thinking about how species (animals and plants, etc.) changed or evolved over time. Charles Darwin’s enormous contribution to the discussion was to suggest the mechanism by which evolution took place – natural selection.
But before considering Darwin and his theory further, let us look at what most people believed at the time. They took a literal view of the bible including the book of Genesis wherein God created the world in six days. Bishop Ussher, Primate of all Ireland, had dated the creation as occurring in 4004 BC at nightfall preceding 23 October.
Moreover God had put all the plants and animals on earth at the same time and they had not changed since. Fossils were thought to be the remains of creatures that perished in the great flood (when Noah built his ark).
Charles Darwin was born in Shrewsbury on 12 February 1809, the fifth of six children of Robert Darwin, a wealthy doctor. Robert’s father, Erasmus, was a doctor, naturalist, inventor and poet and he foreshadowed much of his grandson’s work. Charles’s mother, Susannah, was the daughter of Josiah Wedgwood, founder of the first true pottery factory. Susannah died in 1817 when Charles was eight. The family were Unitarians, believers in one God but not in the Trinity or the divinity of Jesus Christ.
In 1825 Charles went to Edinburgh to study medicine. He was fairly idle, hated the brutal surgery of the time and neglected his medical studies. However he did learn about anatomy, taxidermy (the mounting of dead animal skins for display), taxonomy (classification of plants and animals) and current thoughts on evolution.
In 1828 his father, who did not want to support him forever, sent him to Cambridge to study theology and qualify as a clergyman. He continued to neglect his studies and preferred riding, shooting, and collecting beetles. But he also became friendly with John Stevens Henslow, a botany professor, and learned much from him.
He achieved moderate success in his final exams and planned, with others, to study the natural history of Tenerife. Meanwhile he joined a geology course mapping strata in Wales. On returning home, he had a surprise. Henslow had recommended him for the unpaid position of gentleman’s companion to Robert Fitzroy, the captain of the survey ship, HMS Beagle. It was due to leave in four weeks on an estimated two-year expedition to chart the coastline of South America. His father objected that it was a waste of time but Josiah Wedgwood helped persuade him to agree to his son’s participation. Darwin’s knowledge of natural history helped to get him appointed.
In the event the voyage was to last nearly 5 years. It sailed across the Atlantic to Brazil where the appointed surgeon and naturalist, Robert McCormick, left the ship. The journey went down the East coast of South America and up the West coast. It stopped in the Galapagos Islands before crossing the Pacific to New Zealand and Australia. Thence the Beagle sailed across the Indian Ocean to Cape Town and crossed the Atlantic again for a second visit to Salvador in Brazil before returning to England. Whilst only five weeks were spent in the Galapagos, these islands were to provide most of the source material for Darwin’s subsequent work on evolution.
About 600 miles West of Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands are volcanic and have never been connected to any other land mass. They started forming five to ten million years ago but the earliest islands have already disappeared again. The oldest, Espanola in the East, formed three and a half million years ago whilst Isabela and Fernandina in the West are still forming. The most recent eruption was in May 2008. The lava-strewn landscape and desert-like appearance caused Darwin to react with dismay. “Nothing could be less inviting” he wrote.
Whilst the Beagle moved methodically around the islands to chart the coast, Darwin took every opportunity to go ashore. He noted the large black marine iguanas or “most disgusting, clumsy lizards” which are unique to the Galapagos and also the abundant giant tortoises. He was told that it was possible to tell which island a tortoise came from by the shape of its shell. He happened to notice that a mockingbird from one island differed from a specimen from another island. From then on he kept a record of the island on which each mockingbird was caught. He industriously collected all the animals, plants, insects & reptiles and sent them back to England where Henslow made them available to selected naturalists.
As a result, by the time the Beagle returned on 2 October 1836, Darwin was already a celebrity. With help from Henslow and money from his father, he got experts in taxonomy to work on his specimens. They found that the mockingbirds from different islands were different species from each other, rather than just varieties, and not known elsewhere. John Gould, a famous ornithologist concluded that 25 of the 26 land birds were new and distinct forms, found nowhere else in the world but closely allied to those found on the South American continent. Darwin now saw that if the finch species were confined to individual islands, like the mockingbirds, this would help to account for the number of species on the islands, and he sought information from others on the expedition. Specimens had also been collected by Captain Robert FitzRoy, FitzRoy’s steward Harry Fuller and Darwin’s servant Covington, who had labelled them by island. From these, Darwin tried to reconstruct the locations where he had collected his own specimens. The conclusions led shortly afterwards to his conversion to the idea of transmutation of species.
The following years were extremely busy as Darwin worked on various studies following on from the Beagle trip. All the time his thoughts on the origin of species were developing. One of many influences was the work of Thomas Malthus who argued that the number of people would increase faster than the food supply. Population would eventually reach a resource (probably food) limit and any further increase would result in a population crash, caused by famine, disease, or war. Darwin wrote “In October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic enquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of new species. Here, then, I had at last got a theory by which to work…”
Also in 1838 Darwin married his cousin, Emma Wedgwood. She held strong Christian beliefs, and it seems that a major reason for the long delay before the publication of his evolutionary theory was that Darwin did not wish to upset her. Moreover, he continued to be involved with many other projects including the publication of the results of the Beagle voyage, jotting down daily notes on animal breeding, extensive plant experiments, a book on coral reefs, a classification of barnacles, the study of whether eggs and seeds could travel across seawater, and as Secretary of the Geological Society. Meanwhile, the strain told, and by June of 1838 he was being laid up for days on end with stomach problems, headaches and heart symptoms. For the rest of his life, he was repeatedly incapacitated with episodes of stomach pains, vomiting, severe boils, palpitations, trembling and other symptoms, particularly during times of stress such as attending meetings or making social visits. The cause of Darwin’s illness remained unknown, and attempts at treatment had little success.
Much later, in 1836, Darwin was made aware of work by Alfred Russell Wallace and his paper on the Introduction of species. There were similarities with his own thoughts and he was urged to publish to establish precedence. Though Darwin saw no threat, he began work on a short paper. Finding answers to difficult questions held him up repeatedly, and he expanded his plans to a “big book on species” titled Natural Selection. He continued his researches, obtaining information and specimens from naturalists worldwide including Wallace who was working in Borneo. The American botanist Asa Gray showed similar interests, and on 5 September 1857 Darwin sent Gray a detailed outline of his ideas including an abstract of Natural Selection. In December, Darwin received a letter from Wallace asking if the book would examine human origins. He responded that he would avoid that subject, “so surrounded with prejudices”, while encouraging Wallace’s theorising and adding that “I go much further than you.”
Darwin’s book was half way when, on 18 June 1858, he received a paper from Wallace describing natural selection. He was shocked that he had been “forestalled”, but they agreed to publish a joint paper, which received only moderate attention.
Darwin struggled with ill health for 13 months while he finished On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (usually abbreviated to On the Origin of Species). It proved unexpectedly popular, with the entire stock of 1,250 copies oversubscribed when it went on sale to booksellers on 22 November 1859. His theory is simply stated in the introduction:
As many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive; and as, consequently, there is a frequently recurring struggle for existence, it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally selected. From the strong principle of inheritance, any selected variety will tend to propagate its new and modified form. This is sometimes further simplified as the “survival of the fittest”.
It is not a complex theory. Individual members of each generation have a few genes slightly different from their forebears. If they are useful, then those individuals are more likely to survive and pass their genes onto the next generation. Thomas Huxley, often called Darwin’s bulldog, said “How extremely stupid not to have thought of that”. But there was, and still is, much misunderstanding such as “men from monkeys” and that man came about “by chance”. Not true. The theory postulates small changes from one generation to another but the results are not random. The fittest survive.
There were many reviews, articles, satires, parodies, caricatures, and fierce arguments. After all, how could you reconcile the view that new species were formed over millions of years with a literal view of Genesis that God created the world in 6 days, some said in 4004 BC. The C of E scientific establishment reacted against the book. The Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, asked Thomas Huxley, a supporter of Darwin, whether he was descended from monkeys on his grandfather’s side or his grandmother’s side Huxley replied that he “would rather be descended from an ape than from a cultivated man who used his gifts of culture and eloquence in the service of prejudice and falsehood”.
Much subsequent work, including Mendel’s work on genetics and the development of radioactive dating, has reinforced Darwin’s theory. Few disagree with it now. Indeed, in September 2008, the Church of England issued an article saying that the 200th anniversary of his birth was a fitting time to apologise to Darwin for “for misunderstanding him and, by getting our first reaction wrong, encouraging others to misunderstand him still”.
After quite a lot of illness, Darwin died in 1882. There was a state funeral at Westminster Abbey where he is buried. It was one of only five non-royal state funerals in the 19th century. So ended the life of a man whose thoughts and works, many believe, have influenced our view of the world more than any other person.