A retrospective: Charles Darwin

Charles Robert Darwin was born February 12, 1809, in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England, and is the son to the famous doctor, Robert Waring Darwin, and his grandfathers, Erasmus Darwin and Josiah Wedgwood were abolitionism activists, which was a movement in the 18th and 19th century to end slavery.

Both sides of his family were Unitarian, and Charles has a mild Christian upbringing as that was what was expected of people of the time, but his family were a collection of thinkers and were open minded to other possibilities. When Charles was eight years old his mother passed away, and his father had the task of raising six children alone.

At the age of sixteen, Charles was sent to Edinburgh to follow his father in the pursuit of becoming a doctor, but after two years he decided that surgery wasn’t for him, but Edinburgh was full of radical freethinkers who embraced science, and this is where his passion for transmutation began – specifically transmutation of species which is the alteration of one species into another. Here he learned about taxidermy from John Edmonstone, a freed South American slave.

At the age of eighteen he moved to Cambridge to study divinity, and eventually qualified as a clergyman, but in his spare time his passion for biology had him collecting and studying beetles. His tutor at college invited him into the H.M.S. Beagle, where over a five year period he travelled the world, and developed an interest in geology where he now considered himself a naturalist, or as it was then known as; a life scientist. During his Beagle voyages he spent five weeks in the Galapágos islands which are part of the Republic of Ecuador.

Divergent Evolution takes to unicellular life, and how the diversity of modern life came from it, and how life can develop from a common ancestor. Darwin’s finches is a perfect example of this. It shows how one species can adapt to change due to its competition regarding territory, food source and defence. When Charles Darwin was in the Galápagos Islands, he collected the Finches that were all of a dull colour, but ranged in size and beak, and were a perfect example of the rapid evolution of ecologically different species from a common ancestor, that will forever remain synonymous with Darwin.

“First of all, because it convincingly demonstrates the fact of evolution: it provides a vast and well-chosen body of evidence showing that existing animals and plants cannot have been separately created in their present forms, but must have evolved from earlier forms by slow transformation. And secondly, because the theory of natural selection, which the Origin so fully and so lucidly expounds, provides a mechanism by which such transformation could and would automatically be produced.” – Charles Darwin

The dilemma that Darwin faced after his travels was he saw how transmutation happened, and he realised that animals that adapted to their environment survived longer and had more offspring, and this he described as ‘natural selection‘, but it went against his Christian beliefs, and this caused him much anguish. How exactly was he going to back up his discoveries to a world that wasn’t ready for such brave ideology?

Intelligence is based on how efficient a species became at doing the things they need to survive” – Charles Darwin

Alfred Russel Wallace, an admirer of Darwin, who was also a traveller realised on his own discoveries thatnatural selection‘ had plenty of evidence, and Darwin was worried that Wallace would take all of the credit if he went public. Reluctantly he went public with his groundbreaking theories, and gave Wallace some credit, and still riddled with doubt, he published what would become one of the most important books ever written.

‘On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life‘ was published 24th November 1859, and became the foundation for Evolutionary biology, which studies the diversity of life on Earth that descended from a common ancestor, and the process of natural selection, that is known as universal tree of life.

“The affinities of all the beings of the same class have sometimes been represented by a great tree. I believe this simile largely speaks the truth.“- Charles Darwin

Darwin was expecting a backlash as he knew that the world wasn’t ready for such radical thoughts, but the press was scathing, and the church condemned him for suggesting that we come from the same ancestor as apes, and Darwin described the months after as living in Hell; This became the start of the battle between science and God, which continues to this day.

A brief summary of evolution by natural selection:

  1. More individuals are produced each generation than can survive.
  2. Phenotypic variation exists among individuals and the variation is heritable.
  3. Those individuals with heritable traits better suited to the environment will survive.
  4. When reproductive isolation occurs new species will form.

Darwin rarely argued his case in public as he preferred leaving it to others, mainly a Thomas Henry Huxley. He became Darwin’s public bulldog, and often went to war in debates between science and God. He was an expert in biology and anthropology and was made famous from the 1860 Oxford evolution debate.

“The debate is best remembered today for a heated exchange in which Wilberforce supposedly asked Huxley whether it was through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed his descent from a monkey. Huxley is said to have replied that he would not be ashamed to have a monkey for his ancestor, but he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used his great gifts to obscure the truth.” – Wikipedia

Thomas Huxley

Darwin now described himself as agnostic due to his theories seriously battling with his dwindling faith, and described religion as a tribal survival strategy, Agnosticism was a term that Huxley famously used in 1869 to describe himself.

One who professes that the existence of a First Cause and the essential nature of things are not and cannot be known” – Thomas Henry Huxley

A decade after his first book, Darwin published ‘The Descent of Man‘, and whilst it was condemned by the Church, like his first book, many respectable freethinkers were self-confessed ‘Darwinists‘ (Darwinism designates a distinctive form of evolutionary explanation for the history and diversity of life on earth) He used his home as a laboratory and continued studying and researching which resulted in six editions of his Origin of the Species book, and it was only in the final edition did he replace ‘descent‘ with ‘evolution‘. As each edition was released new theories were added or old theories updated like homology in which most animals have the same tetrapod structure in limbs, which again suggested a common ancestor. To back up his theory of evolution he came up with another theory called pangenesis that explained a considerable variety of biological phenomena linked to inheritance, variation, and development. Darwin claimed pangenesis was hereditary molecules, termed gemmules, that are thrown off by all cells of the body and assemble in the reproductive cells of parents that are passed on to their offspring. He also concluded that inbreeding led to weaker life, as he’d married his cousin and they’d lost several of their children at a young age, but this was something that he was reluctant to announce in public as the current monarch, Queen Victoria, married her cousin.

He died at Down House on 19 April 1882, aged 73, from heart failure after a life of continuous bad health. Many years after his death, at the start of the twentieth century, an era in the scientific circle was known as the eclipse of Darwinism, where the majority of scientists accepted evolution, but were still in debate over natural selection, and the following four alternatives were heavily discussed.

  • Theistic evolution was the belief that God directly guided evolution.[b]

  • Neo-Lamarckism was the idea that evolution was driven by the inheritance of characteristics acquired during the life of the organism.

  • Orthogenesis was the belief that organisms were affected by internal forces or laws of development that drove evolution in particular directions

  • Mutationism was the idea that evolution was largely the product of mutations that created new forms or species in a single stepWikipedia

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, not the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change” – Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin is considered by many to be one of the most important and influential minds to have graced humanity with its presence. His legacy will live on forever, and his theory of evolution made more of an impact than any other theory in history. On the origin of the Species radically changed the thought direction of scientists and natural selection is a great insight into how some species survive, and others don’t. His theory is the basis for cutting edge technology like environmental niche modelling.

“Species distribution modelling (SDM), also known as environmental (or ecological) niche modelling (ENM), habitat modelling, predictive habitat distribution modelling, and range mapping” – Wikipedia

Darwin published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life) one hundred and sixty years ago, and his thought process was considerably more advanced than his peers. Whilst genetic research is far more technical now than it was in Darwin’s day, science still accepts his theories as accurate and a basis than anthropologists work from.

The biggest hurdle that science faced and still faces was the church, as it’s unwilling and unable to accept that humans share an common ancestor with other animals, and not Adam and Eve allegedly created by God’s hands. Darwin provided plenty of evidence for his research, yet the church and its followers choose to remain wilfully ignorant to it, as they’re scared of upsetting their imaginary friend, and this helped to secularise science. It took scientists a further seventy years or so for to form an agreement on natural selection, and since then it’s become a basis of life science.

Charles Darwin at the Natural History Museum