Young Darwin must have been a disappointment to his talented family. His 7 years at Shrewsbury School in his home town led to no career choice and his 2 years at Edinburgh as a medical student he found ‘intolerably dull’. His father, a successful physician, tried again and sent him to Cambridge to study for the church but, although he made some good friends, his 3 years were ‘sadly wasted there’ and his main interests were still insectcollecting and bird-shooting. Then, when he was 22, he learned that Captain Robert FitzRoy (1805 - 1865) had been commissioned by the Admiralty to take the naval survey ship HMS Beagle on a scientific expedition to circumnavigate the southern hemisphere and was looking for an unpaid volunteer naturalist to join him. Darwin was attracted; his father was against it, but his uncle Josiah Wedgwood (1769 - 1843) approved and, after some doubts, so did FitzRoy. Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle began in 1831, and was to last 5 years and to stir a revolution in biology.
At that time, biologists in general believed either that species in natural conditions had continued without change since their original creation, or else (like Lamarck) they thought that a characteristic acquired in life could simply be inherited by the offspring. Darwin’s experience on his voyage made him doubtful of both theories. For example, he studied the life of the Galápagos Islands, off the western coast of South America. These 10 rocky islands are typically about 80 km apart, with a similar climate, and are separated by deep and fast sea. They are free from gales, and their geology suggests they were never united and are geologically quite young. The few plants and animals resemble those in South America, but are different. Remarkably, each island has to a large extent its own set of plants and animals; there are tortoises, finches, thrushes and many plants which correspond in several islands but are detectably different, so that as the vice-governor Lawson told Darwin, speaking of tortoises, ‘he could with certainty tell from which island any one was brought’. (Incidentally, these animals can live over 170 years; some now living may have seen Darwin and the Beagle.)
Darwin published the Journal of his voyage in 1839, and from then on he gathered his notes on species and read extensively. He read T R Malthus’s (1766 - 1834) ideas of 1798 on human populations and their survival in the contest for food, and Darwin concluded that all plant and animal species undergo variation with time and that some variations tend to be preserved and others destroyed as a result of the inexorable contest for survival among all living things. Darwin’s collection of material on this subject was made while he lived as a country gentleman in Kent, with his wife Emma Wedgwood (his first cousin) and their 10 children. He discussed his views with his two close friends, the geologist Lyell and the botanist Hooker, but he was in no hurry to publish them.
Then in 1858 he had a shock; Wallace, then in Malaya, sent him an essay offering the same essential idea and inviting his opinion. As a result, he and Wallace published at the same time in 1858 by agreement. The next year Darwin’s book The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection appeared, giving his ideas in detail; it created excitement among biologists and widespread discussion. Many churchmen were shocked by it, since Darwin’s theory of evolution entailed no special need for divine intervention and the theory implied also that man had evolved like other organisms and was not a product of a Biblical creation.
Darwin was diffident (and manipulative), and the forceful arguments for his ideas were pressed by his friends, especially T H Huxley. Interestingly, Darwin had no understanding of mutation, or of heredity in the modern sense and, although Mendel’s work on heredity appeared in 1865, it was neglected then and effectively rediscovered only in 1900. The modern development of much of biology, anthropology and palaeontology is based on the idea of evolution of species, while discussion still continues on aspects of the subject such as whether the rate of evolutionary change is broadly uniform or includes periods of both sluggish and rapid change.
Darwin was a very careful observer and his theorizing showed both independence of mind and a desire (combined with caution) to reach general theories in biology. His famous work is in his bestselling books, The Voyage of the Beagle and The Origin of Species (their short titles), but he also wrote on the evolution of man, on emotion in men and animals and on climbing and insectivorous plants; he worked hard despite recurrent illnesses. He had ideas on the origin of life and in a letter of 1871 to Hooker wrote that ‘if (and oh what a big if) we could conceive in some warm little pond, with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts, light, heat, electricity, etc, present, that a protein compound was chemically formed’ but he recognized that such speculation was then premature. In fact, ideas a century later were broadly in accord with his. Darwin also contributed to geology, but his valuable work on coral atolls and on land elevation has been overshadowed by his massive contribution to biology. Prince Albert and Lord Palmerston in 1860 proposed to Queen Victoria that Darwin be knighted, but Wilberforce (Bishop of Oxford) persuaded the queen against this, and he was never honoured by the Crown. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, near Newton.
Other members of Darwin’s family contributed to work on evolution. His grandfather Erasmus Darwin (1731 - 1802) was a physician, biologist, engineer and poet, and the presiding genius of the Lunar Society; he had ideas on evolution that were ahead of their time. Erasmus’s second wife was the grandmother of Galton, who examined the statistics of inherited talent, in his own and other families (see family tree).
See also the Chronology of major events in science.
Charles Darwin, aged 40.
Galápagos giant tortoise, showing shell shape of subspecies
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