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Charles Darwin

Charles Robert Darwin (February 12, 1809 - April 19, 1882) was a British Naturalist.

Charles Darwin developed the first theory of a naturalistic mechanism for evolution, that of natural selection, it explains the diversification of life through a lengthy process of change by adaptation. He was born in Shrewsbury, England[?], the fifth of six children of Robert and Susannah Darwin (née Wedgwood), and the grandson of Erasmus Darwin, and of Josiah Wedgwood.

After finishing school, Darwin studied medicine in Edinburgh in 1825. His dislike for dissection and the brutality of surgery at the time led him to leave the medical school in 1827. Whilst there, however, he was influenced by the Lamarckian Robert Edmund Grant[?].

His father, concerned by his son's apparent academic failure, and fearing that he would become a "ne'er do well", enrolled him at Cambridge to read Theology, with the hopes of Charles eventually becoming a parson. While at Cambridge, he came under the intellectual influence of scientific minds such as William Whewell and John Stevens Henslow[?] which (combined with his interest in collecting beetles, which was encouraged by his cousin, William Darwin Fox) resulted in him pursuing natural history.

Darwin planned to visit Madeira with some class-mates upon graduation in 1831. These plans, however, fell through and after Darwin finished his studies, Henslow recommended him for the position of gentleman's companion to Robert Fitzroy[?], the captain of the HMS Beagle, which was departing on a five-year expedition to chart the coastline of South America.

Prior to departure, Darwin spent a few weeks with the geologist Adam Sedgwick mapping strata in Wales. It must be noted that (aside from a few lectures that he endured in Edinburgh) this was Darwin's sole exposure to formal geological study.

Darwin's work during the expedition allowed him to study both the geological properties of continents and isles and a multitude of living organisms and fossils. During his voyage, he visited the Cape Verde Archipelago, the Falkland Islands, the South American coast, the Galapagos Islands and Australia, collecting considerable quantities of specimens.

After returning from the voyage in 1836, Darwin analyzed the specimens he collected, and noticed similarities between fossils and living species within the same geographic area. In particular, he noticed that every island had its own kind of tortoises and birds that were all slightly different in appearance, favored food etc., but otherwise quite similar. This observation was especially apparent among the specimens collected on the Galapagos Islands. He developed the theory that, for example, all the different turtles had originated from a single turtle species, and had adopted to life on the different islands in different ways.

Based on these thoughts, he formulated his ideas about the changes and developments of species in his Notebook on the Transmutation of Species, which was in accordance with Lyell's Principles of Geology and Thomas Malthus' Essay on the Principle of Population, which stated that the size of a population is limited by the food resources available. Although it took him years to collect evidence and formulate the final theory, Darwin recalls a specific place of a road he walked where all major pieces of his theory fell into a place in a single creative insight. (This needs to be seriously revised, as it does not adequately represent the maturation of Darwin's thoughts. John Lynch Agreed. sjc).

In 1842, Darwin formulated a short "Pencil Sketch" of his theory and by 1844 had written a 240 page "Essay" which provides an expanded version of his early ideas on natural selection. Between 1844 and 1858, when he would present his theory to the Linnean Society of London[?], Darwin would modify his theory in a number of ways.

Darwin married his cousin Emma Wedgwood in 1839. After living for a number of years in London, the couple eventually moved to Down House, in Downe, Kent (which is now open to public visits, south of Orpington). Darwin and his wife had ten children, three of whom died early. Between 1839 and 1843, Darwin's Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle was published in five volumes. (Need more on publications)

On July 1, 1858, Darwin's paper about The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection was read to the Linnean Society in London, on the same day as a paper from Alfred Russel Wallace, who had developed a similar theory independently. Like Darwin, Wallace had spend many years observing the diversity of life, and had come to similar conclusions. Having decided to publish, he selected a well known biologist to submit it to for comments, and chose Darwin, encouraging Darwin to finish his own book. (Expand)

Darwin's book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection was published one year later, and was of sufficient interest to have the publisher's stocks completely sold to bookstores on the first day.
In his later books The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication (1868), The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871) and The Expression of Emotions in Animals and Man (1872), Darwin expanded on many topics introduced in Origin of Species.

In spite of some criticism, the value of Darwin's work was appreciated throughout the scientific community. He became a member of the Royal Society of London in 1839 and of the French Academy of Science (l'Académie des Sciences) in 1878. Darwin died in Downe, Kent, England, on April 19, 1882 and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Darwin was given particular recognition in 2000 when his image appeared on the Bank of England ten pound note, replacing Charles Dickens. Reportedly his impressive and supposedly hard to forge beard was a contributing factor in this choice.

Table of contents
1 Views on religion
2 External links
3 External Texts

Before Darwin

Before the nineteenth century, the accepted theory for the extinction of species was called Catastrophism, which stated that species went extinct due to catastrophes that were often followed by the formation of new species ex nihilo (out of nothing). The extinct species can then be found as fossils. The new species were considered unchangeable. This theory was in accordance with the story of the Flood[?] in the Bible. In the early nineteenth century, several new theories started to compete with Catastrophism. One of the most important ones was developed by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829). He observed that every new generation inherits the traits of its ancestors. He suggested that traits or organs become enhanced with repeated use and weakened or removed by disuse in each individual, who will pass these improvements or losses directly to their offspring. In 1830, the British geologist Sir Charles Lyell disproved the Catastrophism Theory, but held on to the theory of species staying unchanged during time. Lyell founded uniformitarianism, a theory stating that the surface of earth changed slowly through eons by constant forces.

The Structure of Darwin's Theory

Darwin's theory of evolution states that all individuals of a population are different from each other. Some of them are adapted better for their actual environment than the others and have therefore better chances to survive and procreate. These advantageous characteristics are inherited by following generations, becoming dominant among the population throughout time (Fig. 2). This gradual and continuous process results in the evolution of species. The four key points of his theory were:

  1. Evolution does occur
  2. Evolutionary change is usually gradual, requiring thousands to millions of years
  3. The primary mechanism for evolution is natural selection
  4. All species alive today originated from a single life form through a branching process called speciation

Figure 2 : Schematic drawing of the evolution process.
(1) Natural selection. (2) Reproduction. (3) Mutation.

The Response to Darwin's Theory

After the publication of Darwin's book, evolution as the means of natural selection was widely discussed (Fig. 3), particularly by the religious and the scientific communities. Though Darwin was supported by some scientists (e.g., T.H. Huxley), others hesitated to accept the theory due to the unexplained ability of individuals to pass their special abilities to their offspring. The last point remained a mystery until the existence of genes was discovered. In 1902 Peter Kropotkin published the book Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution[?], challenging Darwin's Theory as too narrow. In 1874, the theologian Charles Hodge[?] accused Darwin of denying the existence of God by defining humans to be a result of a natural process rather than a creation designed by God. Even today, many Christian and other religious fundamentalists continue to fight the Darwinian theory of evolution. Darwin's theory is now backed up by the comparison of DNA from different organisms which shows the closeness of their relationship.

Contrary to popular opinion, Darwin did not "discover" evolution as it was accepted by many since the beginning of the 1800s. Instead, he provided the first really coherent theory of how evolution occurs (via the mechanism of natural selection).
Other important aspects of Darwin's overall theory were: common descent, sexual selection, gradualism, and pangenesis. It is important to remember that Darwin's version of natural selection was different from that presented by Wallace in that he held that natural selection was continuously operating, whereas Wallace argued that selection only occurred when the environment changed.

Figure 3 : Caricature of Darwin as an ape in the Hornet magazine. (Image in the PD)

Darwin is included in the top 10 of the "100 Greatest Britons" poll sponsored by the BBC and voted for by the public.

Views on religion

It has been claimed that Darwin converted to Christianity on his deathbed. This claim is discussed in The Survival of Charles Darwin: A Biography of a Man and an Idea, by Ronald W. Clark (Weidenfeld & Nicholson 1985), p. 199:

"Shortly after his death, Lady Hope addressed a gathering of young men and women at the educational establishment founded by the evangelist Dwight Lyman Moody at Northfield, Massachusetts. She had, she maintained, visited Darwin on his deathbed. He had been reading the Epistle to the Hebrews, had asked for the local Sunday school to sing in a summerhouse on the grounds, and had confessed: 'How I wish I had not expressed my theory of evolution as I have done.' He went on, she said, to say that he would like her to gather a congregation since he 'would like to speak to them of Christ Jesus and His salvation, being in a state where he was eagerly savouring the heavenly anticipation of bliss.'

"With Moody's encouragement, Lady Hope's story was printed in the Boston Watchman Examiner. The story spread, and the claims were republished as late as October 1955 in the Reformation Review and in the Monthly Record of the Free Church of Scotland in February 1957. These attempts to fudge Darwin's story had already been exposed for what they were, first by his daughter Henrietta after they had been revived in 1922. 'I was present at his deathbed,' she wrote in the Christian for February 23, 1922. 'Lady Hope was not present during his last illness, or any illness. I believe he never even saw her, but in any case she had no influence over him in any department of thought or belief. He never recanted any of his scientific views, either then or earlier. We think the story of his conversion was fabricated in the U.S.A. . . . The whole story has no foundation whatever.'" (Ellipsis original.)

In the introduction of The Descent of Man (1871), Darwin wrote:

"Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science."

Later on in the book he dismisses an argument for religion being innate:

"Belief in God- Religion.- There is no evidence that man was aboriginally endowed with the ennobling belief in the existence of an Omnipotent God. On the contrary there is ample evidence, derived not from hasty travellers, but from men who have long resided with savages, that numerous races have existed, and still exist, who have no idea of one or more gods, and who have no words in their languages to express such an idea. The question is of course wholly distinct from that higher one, whether there exists a Creator and Ruler of the universe; and this has been answered in the affirmative by some of the highest intellects that have ever existed."

"The belief in God has often been advanced as not only the greatest, but the most complete of all the distinctions between man and the lower animals. It is however impossible, as we have seen, to maintain that this belief is innate or instinctive in man. On the other hand a belief in all-pervading spiritual agencies seems to be universal; and apparently follows from a considerable advance in man's reason, and from a still greater advance in his faculties of imagination, curiosity and wonder. I am aware that the assumed instinctive belief in God has been used by many persons as an argument for His existence. But this is a rash argument, as we should thus be compelled to believe in the existence of many cruel and malignant spirits, only a little more powerful than man; for the belief in them is far more general than in a beneficent Deity. The idea of a universal and beneficent Creator does not seem to arise in the mind of man, until he has been elevated by long-continued culture."

His attacks on religion got sharper the older he became, and his posthumously published autobiography contained quotes about Christianity that were omitted by Darwin's wife Emma and his son Francis because they were deemed dangerous for Charles Darwin's reputation. Only in 1958 Darwin's granddaughter Nora Barlow published a revised version which contained the omissions. This included statements such as:

"Whilst on board the Beagle (October 1836-January 1839) I was quite orthodox, and I remember being heartily laughed at by several of the officers (though themselves orthodox) for quoting the Bible as an unanswerable authority on some point of morality. I suppose it was the novelty of the argument that amused them. But I had gradually come, by this time, to see that the Old Testament; from its manifestly false history of the world, with the Tower of Babel, the rainbow as a sign, etc., etc., and from its attributing to God the feelings of a revengeful tyrant, was no more to be trusted than the sacred books of the Hindoos, or the beliefs of any barbarian." (Charles Darwin: The Autobiography of Charles Darwin with original omissions restored. New York, Norton, 1969. p.85)

"By further reflecting that the clearest evidence would be requisite to make any sane man believe in the miracles by which Christianity is supported, --that the more we know of the fixed laws of nature the more incredible, do miracles become, --that the men at that time were ignorant and credulous to a degree almost incomprehensible by us, --that the Gospels cannot be proved to have been written simultaneously with the events, --that they differ in many important details, far too important as it seemed to me to be admitted as the usual inaccuracies of eyewitness; --by such reflections as these, which I give not as having the least novelty or value, but as they influenced me, I gradually came to disbelieve in Christianity as a divine revelation. The fact that many false religions have spread over large portions of the earth like wild-fire had some weight with me. Beautiful as is the morality of the New Testament, it can hardly be denied that its perfection depends in part on the interpretation which we now put on metaphors and allegories." (p.86)

"Thus disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but at last was complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress, and have never since doubted even for a single second that my conclusion was correct." (p.87)

"I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine." (p. 87)

"The old argument of design in nature, as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection had been discovered. We can no longer argue that, for instance, the beautiful hinge of a bivalve shell must have been made by an intelligent being, like the hinge of a door by man. There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings and in the action of natural selection, than in the course which the wind blows. Everything in nature is the result of fixed laws." (p.87)

"At the present day (ca. 1872) the most usual argument for the existence of an intelligent God is drawn from the deep inward conviction and feelings which are experienced by moat persons. But it cannot be doubted that Hindoos, Mahomadans and others might argue in the same manner and with equal force in favor of the existence of one God, or of many Gods, or as with the Buddists of no God...This argument would be a valid one if all men of all races had the same inward conviction of the existence of one God: but we know that this is very far from being the case. Therefore I cannot see that such inward convictions and feelings are of any weight as evidence of what really exists." (p.91)

"Nor must we overlook the probability of the constant inculcation in a belief in God on the minds of children producing so strong and perhaps as inherited effect on their brains not yet fully developed, that it would be as difficult for them to throw off their belief in God, as for a monkey to throw off its instinctive fear and hatred of a snake." (p.93)

External links

External Texts

  • Note: The comprehensive and authoritative web source for Darwin texts (essentially all of them, in a consistent and citable format) is here:

  1. 'Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals' http://paradigm.soci.brocku.ca/~lward/Darwin/darwin00
  2. 'Life and Letters of Charles Darwin' http://digital.library.upenn.edu/webbin/gutbook/lookup?num=2010
  3. 'Descent of Man' http://www.infidels.org/library/historical/charles_darwin/descent_of_man/
  4. 'Formation of vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms' http://digital.library.upenn.edu/webbin/gutbook/lookup?num=2355
  5. 'Geological Observations of South America' http://digital.library.upenn.edu/webbin/gutbook/lookup?num=3620
  6. 'Geological Observations of Volcanic Islands' http://digital.library.upenn.edu/webbin/gutbook/lookup?num=3054
  7. 'Movement and Habits of Climbing Plants' http://digital.library.upenn.edu/webbin/gutbook/lookup?num=2485
  8. 'Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs' http://digital.library.upenn.edu/webbin/gutbook/lookup?num=2690
  9. 'Variation of Plants and Animals Under Domestication' http://www.esp.org/books/darwin/variation/facsimile/title3
  10. 'Voyage of the Beagle' http://www.infidels.org/library/historical/charles_darwin/voyage_of_beagle/
  11. 'Autobiography of Charles Darwin' http://digital.library.upenn.edu/webbin/gutbook/lookup?num=2010

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