Charles Darwin and the History of Evolutionary Theory
To thousands of people, the Darwin Awards are a series of hilarious but tragic true stories that circulate the internet every few months and which each year, are updated with newer and even more hilariously sad award-winners who have done mankind the dubious honour of stepping up to receive this coveted, time-honoured and completely senseless imaginary prize.
For those who don’t know, the ‘Darwin Awards’ are fictional awards that should be given out each year to the people who, in the award’s own words: “remove themselves from the human gene-pool” either by rendering themselves sterile or by killing themselves in an increasingly stupid and hilarious range of ways.
Legendary Darwin Awards include the man who tried to check for the presence of petrol with a lit match, the bomb-disposal expert who tried to dispose of nitroglycerine by patting it down with a shovel and the youth who attempted to play ‘Russian Roulette’ with an automatic pistol.
The awards pay ‘tribute’, so to speak, to the legendary naturalist Charles Robert Darwin and his famous Theory of Evolution. The theory states that every species on earth improves with each generation by killing off the elements of that species which are detrimental to its progress…or in layman’s terms: ‘Survival of the Fittest’. The winners of the Darwin Awards have therefore done mankind a favour by removing themselves from humanity and in the long-run, contributed towards the betterment of mankind.
In the 21st Century, this is all that most people think about when they hear the name ‘Darwin’. Little thought is probably given these days, to the theorist and scientist who came up with this radical, revolutionary and groundshaking idea that has shaped modern biological science for the past 150+ years. So what is the Theory of Evolution? How did Darwin come up with the Theory and what happened when he did?
What is the Theory of Evolution?
There are a lot of mistaken beliefs about the Theory of Evolution, warped and twisted over time by those who attempt to give it credence and by those who would destroy it as heresy. So what exactly is it?
- The Darwinian Theory of Evolution is not an attempt to explain the creation of the world.
- The Darwinian Theory of Evolution is not an attempt to show how life came into being.
- The Darwinian Theory of Evolution is not an attempt to explain ‘where we come from’.
- The Darwinian Theory of Evolution is not an attempt to explain ‘where we go to’.
- The Darwinian Theory of Evolution is not an attempt to explain the creation of the known universe.
So if that’s what you’ve been told…forget it immediately.
The Darwinian Theory of Evolution attempts to explain none of these things. It was created to attempt to explain how and why a species changes over time and how animals of all kinds (including humans) can change through natural selection to better adapt to their surroundings. Nothing more. Nothing less. The story of how Darwin came up with this theory was revolutionary and mindboggling to medical, scientific and religious minds of the mid-1800s. Although his theory was fascinating and interesting, it was also wildly controversial…nearly 200 years after it was first published, it doesn’t seem like much has changed.
Who was Charles Darwin?
Charles Darwin was an English naturalist, born in Shropshire, England in 1809, into the wealthy and prominent Darwin-Wedgewood Family. His maternal grandfather was Josiah Wedgewood…Yes, the same Wedgewood who established the famous pottery firm. Darwin developed an interest in medicine and science from a young age. He was particularly interested in plants and animals, and fancied himself as something of a gardener.
Charles’s father was the physician Dr. Robert Waring Darwin, and as a man of science, was delighted at his son’s field of interests and encouraged him with his gardening and scientific research. Charles also helped his father in his medical research and attending to his patients.
As a student, Charles’s scientific interests were shared by his older brother, Erasmus Darwin. The two brothers set up a scientific laboratory in a garden shed in their house and Charles became his brother’s lab-assistant in their numerous experiements. It was this upbringing, surrounded by medicine, science, biology, a burning curiosity and a fascination for plants and animals, that would spur on Darwin to, in his later years, develop his famous evolutionary theory.
The World Before Darwin
Even today in the 21st Century, there are still people who believe firmly in the Theory of Creationism. This theory states that God created everything and that the Story of Creation as told in the Bible’s Book of Genesis, is to be taken as literal and true fact.
As it was in the 1800s, nearly two centuries ago.
Prior to Darwin’s development of the Evolutionary Theory, how did people explain the history of the natural world?
Taking the bible as a guide, scientists believed that the world was only a few thousand or tens of thousands of years old. They believed that everything was a divine creation from God above. And this would’ve been fine…except for one problem.
People kept finding fossils.
Fossil-hunting was just as popular in Victorian times as it is today. And whenever scientists were confronted with these, they had no idea how to explain it. It went against everything that religion had told them about the history of the world, and in the 1800s, religion was the bedrock of society. To question the Church, to question God, on anything, was strictly taboo. It simply wasn’t done!
…but the fossils were there. And they were an annoying little thorn in the side of the scientific and religious communities that wouldn’t go away. So how did they explain them?
The closest thing to the Evolutionary Theory that existed before it, was the belief in naturalism. In a nutshell, naturalism is the understanding that there are specific Laws of Nature. These laws regulated how and why certain things happened in the natural universe. The one that we see every day. Anything outside this order would not and did not affect the natural world, and had no bearing or significance to life on earth whatsoever, these elements being called ‘Supernatural’. Since God did not exist in nature and since nothing that didn’t exist in nature was thought to have a bearing on the operation and maintenance of the planet, God was seen as insignificant and imaginary. His presence or absence from the lives of everyday people was something of no consequence. As he wasn’t of the natural world, he couldn’t affect it or regulate it in any way.
In the earlier 1800s, naturalism was the only theory apart from Creationism, that had any followers. But Victorian conservatism forced naturalism underground. It went against the teachings and belief of the Church of England, and was quashed and discredited to the fullest extent possible.
…And we still have those pesky fossils.
Without naturalism to back up any theories, scientists of the early 1800s believed that fossils existed due to the theory of catastrophism.
The Theory of Catastrophism is exactly what it sounds like. According to this theory, scientists believed that every few thousand years, God caused great natural disasters. Tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, floods, raging infernos and great storms. These powerful, earthshaking, earth-changing, cataclysmic events or ‘catastrophes’ (giving the theory its name) was God’s way of wiping out everything that had existed before, and starting fresh with a new world every few thousand years. Fossils, argued catastrophism scientists, were merely the remants that God left behind of the stricken worlds that he had obliterated after each catastrophic event.
Once a catastrophic event had taken place and the earth was wiped clean, God would recreate the earth and its creatures out of nothing but thin air (because he’s like…God and can do…anything), set it up and then just sit back and watch, to see if his latest version of Earth would work out as he planned.
An awesome theory. But there were still people in the scientific community to whom this theory did not jive. To them, it did not explain the history of the world in a coherent and realistic manner that explained everything that they saw around them, or everything that they found on archeological digs. Amongst these naysayers of the Theory of Catastrophism, was Charles Darwin.
The Call of the Sea
In 1831, a young sea-captain was stocking his little ship for a voyage around the world. A voyage of scientific research, a voyage of adventure, a voyage of discovery!
This captain was Robert FitzRoy.
FitzRoy was a sea-captain, a navy man, and one of the first successful meteorologists, who made accurate weather-forecasting a reality. He helped design better and more accurate barometers to forecast the weather with greater accuracy (a barometer works by measuring atmospheric pressure, the same kind of ‘high pressure’ and ‘low pressure’ that your local weatherman talks about on the 6 o’clock news every evening, thereby allowing people to foretell the weather).
FitzRoy was looking for a naturalist – a scientist of the natural world – to follow him on his voyage and to be his travelling companion. He chose the young (22-year-old) Charles Darwin to be that naturalist.
The voyage was the chance of a lifetime for Darwin. A very long chance. The voyage took nearly five years! In that time, he and FitzRoy would literally sail around the world, leaving England in December of 1831 and heading west. They would sail down through the Atlantic, around the bottom of South America, across the Pacific, stop off at New Zealand and Australia, then sail all the way across the South Pacific, the Indian Ocean, around Africa, up the continent’s west coast and then back to England, in October of 1836.
The actual purpose of the voyage was to chart the world, to make corrections on earlier, less accurate maps, and to test out the new maritime chronometers. The maritime chronometer, the insanely accurate ship’s clock invented by clockmaker John Harrison at the turn of the century, was a relatively new invention in the 1830s. Although they were now relatively cheap enough that any ship with a wealthy-enough captain could purchase one, they still required rigorous in-the-field testing. When FitzRoy set sail in 1831, he carried twenty two of these clocks onboard his ship!
A Voyage of Discovery
The H.M.S. Beagle left England on the 27th of December, 1831. It initially sailed south to the Canary Islands, and then southwest towards South America. Regular stops allowed Darwin to get off the ship and to explore the South-American wilderness, where he examined plants, animals, bones and fossils. He would even arrange with Capt. FitzRoy, to have himself dropped off at one point along the coastline, while the ship sailed on without him. They would meet up further along the coastline at a pre-determined time and place, where Darwin would reboard the ship for the next leg of their voyage.
The Beagle reached the famous Galapagos Islands in the Pacific Ocean in September of 1835. Here, Darwin collected more specimens and wrote about his observations on the islands, such as the famous giant tortoises…He even tried to ride one!…but the tortoise failed to oblige him and retreated inside its shell.
It was while he was on the Galapagos Islands, that the seeds for Darwin’s Theory of Evolution were gathered. As he journeyed between the islands, examining the local wildlife, he noticed how the birds which existed on each island, although were all of the same species (they were all mockingbirds), no two types of mockingbirds were exactly the same. Each island had its own distinct type of bird. From this observation, Darwin concluded that the birds had to have a common ancestor – They had to, because they were all the same species of bird! This ancestor arrived in the Galapagos sometime in the distant past, and over several hundred years, its descendants adapted and morphed to make the best use of their local environments.
In January of 1836, the Beagle reached Australia. It dropped anchor in Sydney, a young city, then not yet fifty years old.
The ship then sailed across the Indian Ocean towards South America…again. Here, it turned northwards and it reached England on the 2nd of October, 1836.
The voyage had taken nearly five years, and Darwin had ammassed a library of observations, diary-entries, sketches, scientific specimens and stuffed animals. Before the end of the decade, he would publish his account of his journey on the Beagle and was in the process of writing an account of the flora and fauna that he had encountered on his voyage (finally published in 1843).
On the Origin of Origins
Charles Darwin did not develop his evolutionary theory on the voyage of theBeagle. He’d already been thinking about it before he left England. What the voyage allowed him to do was to carry out extra research and collect data to back up his theories on evolution.
Almost the minute he got off the Beagle when it docked in England, Darwin started thinking about his theory of evolution. His observations on creatures such as the mockingbirds of the Galapagos Islands had convinced him that he was onto something. He theorised that the birds got the way they did through evolution or ‘transmutation’. Transmutation being the belief that species mutate or change over time, to adapt to their environments, and that this was a process that took several successive generations, each one growing bigger, or better, or stronger, or more adept than the one that preceded it.
In 1838, Darwin read “An Essay on the Principle of Population“. It was written by the late (1766-1834) Reverend Thomas Malthus. Malthus was fascinated by populations, demographics and people, and he made the study of population and demography his hobby. In ‘The Principle of Population‘, Malthus observed that no population grows forever. Sooner or later, something happens that checks or culls the population. Famine. Fire. The Black Death in the 1340s. On the subject of sustaining and maintaining a population, Mr. Malthus wrote:
“Must it not then be acknowledged by an attentive examiner of the histories of mankind, that in every age and in every State in which man has existed, or does now exist, that the increase of population is necessarily limited by the means of subsistence, that population does invariably increase when the means of subsistence increase, and, that the superior power of population is repressed, and the actual population kept equal to the means of subsistence, by misery and vice.”
- Rev. Thomas R. Malthus, ‘The Principle of Population’, Chapt. 7.
19th-century writing is hideously convoluted, so what does that all mean? The reverend is saying that in every age and state of human existence, the ability of a population to grow is directly influenced by its means of subsistence – the things needed to survive – food, water, clothing, heat, discount-DVDs etc. If the necessities for survival increase, then the population that depends on them will also increase. But, if a population outgrows its means of subsistence, then it will end up decreasing in size (due to starvation, death, disease and vice), until such time that the population has returned to a level where the available resources can support it comfortably once more.
Darwin must have read this passage when he read the full text of Malthus’s essay in 1838. And it made him think of what is now one of the cornerstones of the Evolutionary Theory.
Figured it out yet?
The Survival of the Fittest.
Darwin’s observations during his voyage on the Beagle, and his research and brainstorming, caused him to suppose that a contributing factor to evolution was the supposition that only the strongest of any species survives when some great event happens, that threatens their existence. These survivors, these fighters, pass on these traits that allowed them to live, to their children, which make them even stronger, and so-on and so-forth, down the generations.
Linked to the ‘Survival of the Fittest’ idea, Darwin came up with another brainwave in 1840. He called it ‘Natural selection’. He possibly linked this to the older theories of naturalism (mentioned earlier), which stated that there were laws in nature that regulated how the earth worked. Surely, these laws regulated not only the plants and air and sky and water, the sun and the moon, but surely…the animals as well! These laws stated that nature selects which animals survive in which environments due to natural traits with which they are born…natural selection…and that the survival of the fittest determined which of these selected, came out on top as the dominant species or creature in a particular part of the world. As they say – Many are called, but few are chosen.
“On the Origin of Species”
Throughout the 1840s and 50s, Charles Darwin worked on his groundbreaking new book on science and the origins of different species of animals. And he took his time about it, too. Nearly twenty years! Wondering when the hell this long-fabled book of his was ever going to come out of the press and onto bookshop shelves, Darwin’s colleague, biologist Alfred Russel Wallace (who was also exploring evolutionary science), sent Darwin a package in June, 1858, to show Darwin that he wasn’t the only scientist out there who was stumbling around and thinking about evolution. The actual package turned out to be a book that Wallace had just recently published on the subject of evolution. Most likely, Wallace sent Darwin a copy of his essay entitled “On the Natural History of the Aru Islands”, which would’ve been his latest published work; it came out in 1857.
This little nudge encouraged Darwin to press on with his book. In 1859, he published:
“On the Origin of Species
by Means of Natural Selection,
or the Preservation of Favoured Races
in the Struggle for Life”
by Means of Natural Selection,
or the Preservation of Favoured Races
in the Struggle for Life”
Now that is one hell of a long title. Fortunately for us, it was shortened to “On the Origin of Species” later on, and by the sixth edition, just “The Origin of Species”.
The ‘Origin’ was a bombshell of a book. It went against everything that science and religion had believed up to that point, and it was the culmination of years of research by Darwin and other emerging evolutionary scientists, all in one package.
‘Origin’ was both a popular and fascinating book, and also a hated book, and was received much better in some countries than in others. In the German states (actual ‘Germany’ as a country did not exist until 1871) of the Prussian Empire, the book was well-received, as well as in the United States and other countries around the world.
For all its popularity, the book also garnered plenty of controversy. The idea that humans were descendant from lower, earlier, more primative life-forms, just like all other animals, as the book suggested, flew right in the face of the Church. After all, God created humans in his OWN image. Not in the image of monkeys and chimps and apes! Darwin’s theories regarding the biological history of humanity were a prickly subject where religion was concerned…150 years later…and it still is.
Darwin after ‘Species’
Darwin followed the consumption of his book by the world’s reading public with great interest. He read letters sent to him, he received telegrams, he read book-reviews, newpspaper-articles and engaged in scholarly debates with colleagues and friends. The outcry over the publication of ‘Species’ was not as great as Darwin had feared, but there were still those who grumbled about it. Some in religious circles dismissed it completely, while others saw evolution as proof of God’s great powers and his abilities to change animals to make them more at home in their environments.
Some people argued that miracles performed by God held no place on earth (linking back to the theory of naturalism again – what doesn’t happen on earth, doesn’t affect earth) and that such miracles would completely go against the natural workings of the world as were understood in the 1850s and 60s. Darwin’s new book, it was claimed, explained the history of the world in a comprehensive and understandable way, that made the best use of all the archeological and biological evidence then available. Perhaps predictably, it was the younger set of scientists and biologists who were more receptive to Darwin’s ideas, and the movement of evolutionary biology was called ‘Darwinism’ in his honour.
By the end of the 1800s, evolutionary explanations and theories had gained a foothold of acceptance in the Victorian scientific community. In 1871, Darwin published his next great work, “The Descent of Man”, in which he discussed his theories of human evolution. Apart from ‘Species’, this was his other great work. Despite increasingly frequent bouts of increasingly bad health, Darwin kept writing and publishing scientific and biological papers and books throughout his life.
The End of Darwin
Charles Darwin died on the 19th of April, 1882. He was seventy-three years old. His last words were to his wife, Emma Wedgewood-Darwin, and to two of his children, Henrietta and Francis Darwin. After petitioning by his friends and colleagues, Darwin was given the honour of a burial at Westminster Abbey in London.
Charles’s older brother, Erasmus, who had fuelled Charles’s early interests in science and biology, died a year earlier in 1881. He remained close and friendly to his younger brother throughout their lives, and Charles’s SEVEN children (originally ten, but three died young) fondly called him “Uncle Ras”. Erasmus was a confirmed bachelor and never married. He could be a rather quiet, sullen, grumpy person when he was alone, but was a bit of a party-animal when he was with friends and family. He received his brother’s book, ‘On the Origin of Species’ with enthusiasm and praised it highly, calling it the best thing he’d ever read. When Erasmus died, it was Charles’s wife, Emma, who broke the news of his brother’s death. Charles confessed joy at this development. He knew that Erasmus had been in poor and rapidly declining health for several years, and was glad that his suffering had finally ended.