Charles Darwin and his evolution Theory
Being open to and advocating change ran in Charles Darwin’s blood. Both of his grandfathers had played significant roles in altering public perception.
Josiah Wedgewood had been an industrialist by trade but is now better remembered by history as a tireless anti-slavery campaigner and his efforts helped bring an end to the slave trade.
Likewise, Erasmus Darwin, a doctor, had written an important and controversial book called Zoonomia. In it, he put forward the idea that one species could “transmute” into another. Both Wedgewood and Erasmus Darwin had been key figures in the European Enlightenment.
Although Charles Darwin performed poorly in his medical studies at university, his place of study, Edinburgh, had gained a reputation as one of the pre-eminent places to study science. It frequently attracted people with radical views who were at liberty to discuss them openly without fear of rejection or undue criticism. It was here that Darwin first came to hear of the theory of “transmutation”, which is how evolution was then known.
Darwin then altered his educational path and began training to be a clergyman in Cambridge. Due to the nature of his studies, he had ample time to pursue his true passion: biology, which mostly took the form of collecting beetles. Following the completion of his training his tutor, knowing full well his student’s great love of biology and nature, recommended him as a “gentleman naturalist” on a five-year voyage on HMS Beagle that would see Darwin visit four continents.
The young naturalist grasped the opportunity with both hands and spent much of his time on land collecting specimens and learning as much as he could about the local geology. With plenty of time at sea to dedicate to books, Darwin began to think long and hard about slow processes which take considerable amounts of time to develop.
When the voyage ended and Darwin returned home, he began to write down his findings, with his classic theory slowly beginning to crystalize in his mind. The evidence he had already amassed was considerable but, due to his Christian beliefs, he felt it was insufficient and decided to accumulate more before his findings could be published. It was around this time that he coined the term “Natural Selection” for his findings.
The decision to go public finally arrived thanks to a chance meeting with Alfred Russel Wallace, who had come to admire Darwin through his published writings on his voyage on the Beagle. Russel had been inspired to undertake a similar voyage of his own and had independently encountered evidence of evolution and wanted Darwin’s input as to how best to go about publishing his findings. This compelled Darwin to finally go public with his theory and, to avoid hurting his admirer, ensured that Russel received due credit for his own work towards the natural selection theory. Russel, having been abroad at the
time and so out of contact, was satisfied that Darwin had handled the matter satisfactorily.
Darwin’s first step was to present his and Russel’s ideas to the Linnean Society, which at that time was Britain’s leading natural history body. Due to the death of his son at eighteen months of age, however, Darwin was unable to attend the presentation in person.
In November 1859, Darwin’s new theory was published and presented to the public as On the Origin of Species. Despite drawing fierce criticism and alarm from certain sections of society, the book is now considered to be one of the most significant ever written.
It popularised the relationship between humans and apes and for all the ire directed at it, it encouraged many to hear the evidence it contained and subsequently seek to learn more. Darwin himself was plagued with doubt and refused to defend his theory in public, leaving it to others to argue the case for the theory.
One very famous example of this, known as the Oxford Debate, saw the young biologist Thomas Huxley and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce debate and defend the merits of evolution and creationism at the British Association for the Advancement of Science.
The phenomenal success of his book convinced Darwin to defend his ideas more robustly and in the remaining years of life he confidently published more of his work, such as The Descent of Man. He also reinforced his ideas as laid down in On the Origin of Species with each new edition, eventually coining the term ‘survival of the fittest’. He died in 1882 and was buried in Westminster Abbey.
The impact of Darwin’s theory can perhaps best be summed up by the evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr: “Eliminating God from science made room for strictly scientific explanations of all natural phenomena; it gave rise to positivism; it produced a powerful intellectual and spiritual revolution, the effects of which have lasted to this day.” In other words, Darwin’s work broke the mould by offering a theory on the understanding and development of humankind which did not involve a supreme creator, posing a direct challenge to the established beliefs of many in the establishment.
Darwin was aware of the significance and potential risk of publishing his theory, even to the extent of saying that describing his beliefs was akin to “confessing to murder”. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it took many years before his ideas were accepted by the mainstream – not until the 1930s did they become conventionally acceptable – and pressure from the church led to Queen Victoria declining to award Darwin a knighthood despite the ground-breaking work he had accomplished.
Darwin’s legacy however is undeniable. An entire field of study, evolutionary biology, was founded upon his principles. It can also be credited with the decline in influence of the Church over scientific study. Perhaps there was a foretaste in Darwin’s time of the huge importance of his work, as he
became one of only five people outside the Royal Family to be buried in Westminster Abbey in the nineteenth century.
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