Not only one of the most recognisable names in the history of science, his ideas also became ingrained in the very fabric of society. Born from wealth and Cambridge educated in the 19th Century, he was once a young man voyaging across the world to the distant islands of the South Pacific. Despite sounding like a Dickensian novel, he struggled against several hardships to become the enlightened Englishman who developed one of the greatest scientific theories of all time; the grand theory of Evolution.
In 1809 a boy was born in Shrewsbury, Shropshire called Charles Robert Darwin. This child, born in the heart of Britain, would go on to change the very perception of life on Earth and explain how it got there. At the time of his death in 1882, the world was changing; politics and international relations were crumbling and war in the near-future was a nigh certainty. This bleak period of time followed on from the 19th century, the time of knowledge procured through proper scientific method, the Darwinian era.
Charles’ grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, died before he was born, but the similarities between grandfather and grandson are unavoidable. Erasmus was a physician, scientist and one of the leading thinkers of the 18th century.
Erasmus Darwin wrote “the Temple of Nature” in the early 19th century, its pages contained a rough idea of evolution. Born into a family of thinkers, Charles became skeptical, analytical and thorough – traits he would possess for the duration of his life.
Professor James McInerney, Chair of Evolutionary Biology at the University of Manchester said: “Evolution was a concept well-known in the biological sciences. However, nobody had a good mechanism or reason for why evolution might not occur and why the planet might not have been like this for thousands or millions of years.”
Darwin originally studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh, but dropped out after realising the gruesome nature of the profession was a little unsettling. After vomiting after observing his first operation, he attended Cambridge University to study arts with the intention of becoming a clergyman. He went and passed his exams but found himself at somewhat of a loose end following his graduation.
Around this time, Darwin received a rather unusual offer.
As a keen amateur naturalist at the tender age of 22, Charles received an invitation from the captain of the HMS Beagle, Robert Fitzroy, to join the crew as a ‘gentleman naturalist.’ It was here, on a five-year voyage around the Pacific islands and the coastlines of the South Americas, that Darwin would once again struggle with his suspect stomach. Regularly sea-sick and unwell during his time on the Beagle, the long stops on land at various places offered respite from the unsettling tidal rhythm to the struggling, young naturalist.
The Beagle often stopped for long periods of time to a variety of new locations. This provided the perfect opportunity for Charles to compile an impressive collection of fossils, skeletons and bones. With thousands of specimens and a plethora of detailed notes, this voyage set the foundations for the theories that he would slowly piece together decades later.
The notes that Darwin made on his journey were published when he returned to England in The Voyage of the Beagle. Here, Darwin detailed the findings of his time on board with Capt. Fitzroy.
Many islands have an extraordinary effect on wildlife (just look at the animals which live on Madagascar, you’d be forgiven for thinking that place was a long-lost Roald Dahl book), but the Galapagos is arguably the most famous example of this.
When the Beagle visited the archipelago, the incredible fauna caused by the unique geography of the island gave Darwin the chance to challenge his budding thoughts and theories.
It was on this journey that Charles started paying note to the nuances of the animal kingdom and the natural world. For example, some of the recent fossils he found were eerily similar to some known species, yet noticeably different. He also started spending more and more time contemplating what causes the phenotypic variations – physical differences – that emerge within populations of the same species.
Five gold rings
Four finches, four islands. Not a complex maths equation and not a particularly glamorous quandary, however it is the famous example of Darwin’s keen scientific eye. More importantly, a famous example of natural selection.
Though he studied different species in more detail throughout his career (he had a love affair with beetles and Venus flytraps), Darwin and the Galapagos finches will always be tied together through the annals of natural history.
Darwin saw that on four of the islands there was a common bird – a finch. These birds looked fundamentally similar with only one notable difference; the shape and size of their beak. On each island there were different food sources, ranging from nuts to cacti.
Darwin himself wrote: “It was as though one species had been taken and modified for different ends.” After returning to England it was confirmed that these birds were indeed different species.
Separated on different islands of the archipelago by the Pacific Ocean, the birds were prevented from breeding with each other and subsequently evolved into different species. This, although he didn’t know it at the time, was when the famous finches became the first documented example of allopatric speciation – several distinct species being created from one parent species due to geographical barriers.
(And no, that’s not what SpongeBob says when his best friend pops round for a cup of tea.)
Home is where the heart is
After half a decade traversing the globe on board the Beagle, Charles Darwin returned home to England. Shortly after his arrival back on British soil he married his cousin, Emma Wedgwood, and moved to a large house in the countryside of Kent in the south of England. Down House, as it was to become known, was his home for the rest of his life and is now an English Heritage site open to the public.
Charles led a difficult life; weak, frail and sick since birth he would rarely leave his house as an adult. It is still unknown what condition ailed him, but it did not affect the standard of his work. He continued his work from home and he did this for the rest of his life. Tragically, he lost two of his children in infancy and another, Anne, aged only ten.
The loss of his children had a devastating effect on Charles and, ultimately, ended his tumultuous relationship with Christianity. After the deaths of his children, Charles focused his energy on trying to understand the reasoning as to why his children had not survived into childhood. Despite knowing of the high infant mortality rate, Charles invested a lot of time researching if the close familial relationship he shared with his wife was the root of his heartache and grief.
Darwin was confined, by illness, to his house in Kent, but this was no barrier in his continuing journey to learn and satisfy his own enormous curiosity. For many years, whilst his grander ideas matured in his mind, Charles focused a lot of his attention on a rather unglamorous creature; the humble barnacle. Notoriously hard to dissect and widely unknown, the rock-like beasties that cover the hulls of many a docked ship captivated the attention of the great scientist.
He had a huge spectrum of interests and spent time studying many different things inside Down House (even barnacles). Darwin worked on his theories inside his home, whilst outside in his greenhouse the impressive collection of carnivorous plants went to work decimating the fly population of the Garden of England.
After his adventures into the world of crustaceans and Venus Fly Traps, he returned to address the one thing he wanted more than anything; a unification of several different, well-formed ideas.
At this point he was aware of the work of clergyman Thomas Malthus which addressed why the poorest of human society have such a high child mortality rate; this work noted that all species have far more offspring than will make it to adulthood. The litter of a domestic cat, the acorns produced by an oak tree, the hundreds of tadpoles produced by frogs are all examples, but why are we not overrun with frogs, oak trees and cats?
Well, most don’t survive of course. It’s tough out there, nature is ruthless. The ‘wastage’ is essential to ensure that the continuing generations are successful; this idea of the survival of the fittest became what Darwin dubbed Natural selection.
“The gaping holes in the arguments were the links between heredity and evolution. It was not until about 100 years ago that people started putting two and two together and combined [the work of] Mendel and Darwin that we saw the birth of modern evolutionary biology,” Professor James McInerney says.
French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck had published his idea that acquired traits can be passed on to the offspring of an organism. That means, if you live a life where being strong is essential in your profession and will help you survive, then your children will be born with big muscles. This idea, unsurprisingly, received mixed reviews and the scientific community was waiting for something to come along that made more sense.
His time on board the Beagle had already helped establish Charles’ views on different things: the difference in the fossil record to modern species, the ability for several different species to be born out of one ‘parent’ species (remember them Finches?) and the link between certain beneficial traits aiding in survival rates.
However, Charles was in no rush to publish his work. Until, that is, he caught wind of Alfred Russel Wallace coming forward with his own, independently formed, similar ideas. It was then that Darwin decided the time was right to go public with his thoughts. Darwin published his book, and it was entitled On the Origin of Species.
The Origin of Species
The 1,250 copies produced initially all sold out on the day of release. Published in 1859, Darwin hit a home-run with his book and, despite original objections from the religious community, set the benchmark for evolutionary biology. To this day, the work Darwin conducted stands as the central dogma for all biological sciences.
It was in this book that Charles Darwin outlined how the artificial selection being carried out by humans – dog breeding and manipulating plant reproduction for example – as also occurring in nature, just with a different agenda and much, much slower. As humans, we may wish for a dog with a fuller coat or a louder bark and we may want more red roses in a bouquet than yellow ones. This then, is the selection pressure to produce more of this particular phenotype (physical appearance) than the other, less desirable ones. In nature, the selection pressure is all about survival and the traits and characteristics that will aid in survival.
Whatever it is that gives one individual an edge will prevail in coming generations and become increasingly more common. But Darwin took this concept one step further – he progressed this idea and coupled it with the concept of making new species. This natural selection, opposed to the artificial selection, coined by Malthus, was producing new species, and that this was ultimately driving the ongoing process of evolution.
So, in a quick summary, natural selection is a process that makes animals more likely to survive and this, in turn, drives evolution.
Descent of Man
By the time of the 19th century, religion and science were no strangers. There were repeated clashes over some new claims by scientists that challenged the teachings of the church. Charles Darwin was fully aware of the implications his work would have on society; perhaps this is why he waited so long to publish his findings and theories in the Origin of Species. He wanted it to be almost irrefutable that he was right, for his work to stand every chance possible of being accepted.
In the end, his hand was forced by the imminent work of others, but with the extensive research he had done, the numerous examples he gave and the unquestionable logic and scientific skill he conducted his work with, he achieved this goal. There were critics and there were supporters, and the work was not flawless. However, science rarely is at the first time of asking. In later years, he continued to republish and update his theories as his ideas develop and clarified.
Charles Darwin had, by this point, lost his faith in a deity and was perhaps more inclined to apply his work to the thorny issue of human existence. He made the link to include humans in his theories, as he refrained from doing so in Origin of Species. By the time he was publishing his next book, The Descent of Man, he had enough faith in his work to go public with his theory on the evolution of mankind.
Darwin gave us perspective on our place in the natural world and backed it up with proper scientific reasoning. He changed the world of biological sciences forever.
As Professor James McInerney puts it: “Darwin was unquestionably the most influential person of all time in biological sciences. There is nobody that has had this amount of influence ever. Darwin has been the most influential person of all time, in any discipline.”
Inspired by the giant tortoises of the Galapagos and other wonders of nature, he gave us the fluid model of a constantly adapting animal kingdom. Nothing is fixed, evolution has given us a world filled with incredible animals and will continue to produce marvellous creatures to deal with the next wave of selection pressures thrust upon them. He made sense of the brutal nature of the world and the death that seems all encompassing at times and brought us the light of new birth and new opportunities.