Charles Darwin: The Founder of Evolutionary Biology

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Charles Darwin was a man who possessed an incessant curiosity about the world around him. A naturalist, geologist, and man of letters, Darwin is a revolutionary figure in human history. By changing the way humans perceive themselves, their relationship to nature, and the essential oneness of life, Darwin’s body of work has impacted, first and foremost, biology, as well as philosophy, the social sciences, literature, and art. Darwin’s life and work are an example of the power of science to drive and transform the human experience.

Charles Darwin was born in 1809 in Shrewsbury, England to wealthy parents, his father was a physician and investor whose prowess obtaining capital served Darwin well in his later career as an independent scientist. Darwin obtained a Christian education in his youth, and later apprenticed under his father to be a doctor. He pursued a medical degree, and then switched to an ecclesiastical degree, but he was distracted – a mediocre student. Rather than study medicine, the young Charles Darwin instead “preferred to wander the countryside examining rock outcroppings, collecting shells and insects, and observing (and shooting) birds” (Lewis, Gaffin, Hoefnagels, & Parker, p. 274). His true interests, even then, lay in pondering the endless beauty and complexity of nature and the living beings it contains.

These valuable early experiences undoubtedly shaped his career, as he joined geological societies and went on field studies with local prominent geologists (Lewis, et al., p. 274). Geology would form the scientific basis for Darwin’s academic pursuits. He obtained a copy of Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology, which proposed an Earth far older than commonly accepted at the time: the possibilities provided by the immense time-scales of geology factored into Darwin’s later formulation of the theory of natural selection. Lyell’s idea of uniformitarianism, the concept that the current state of the Earth can be accounted for by gradual geological forces which continue today, such as erosion, stood in contrast to the prevailing idea at the time, catastrophism, which stresses fast, powerful changes, as exemplified by the biblical story of Noah and the flood (Lewis, et al. p. 274). Synthesizing two ideas, Darwin applied the principle of a gradual change from the geological theory of uniformitarianism to the biological theory of natural selection, proposing that original populations of living creatures undergo minute incremental changes over generations, eventually transforming into new species.

Lyell’s text in hand, two days after Christmas in 1831, Darwin embarked as a volunteer naturalist on the 5-year voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle, on what would be viewed, in hindsight, as “arguably the most famous voyage ever taken by a biologist” (Lewis, et al. p. 274) (Genetics and heredity: the blueprints of life, p. 14). Darwin sailed around the capes of both Africa and South America and made critical natural observations for the one month they spent on the Galápagos Islands, located west of Ecuador. He wondered why certain species of birds had beaks similar in form, despite being separated by geographical boundaries, including resemblances between old world birds Darwin was familiar with and new species which had never been studied found in the Galapagos. Darwin’s finches were a clue to the nature of speciation and the essential question underlying evolutionary theory: why does diversity exist?

Throughout his voyages to South America, Oceania, and the Galápagos Islands, Darwin became fascinated by the myriad possibilities of life found in the different species of birds, namely finches, barnacles, beetles, and plants there. He was only twenty-eight years old in 1837 when he first transcribed the grain of an idea which would become the theory of evolution: a drawing of a tree of life, and the statement “one species does change into another” (Hayden). He was especially concerned with “biogeography” or the distribution of life across different geographical areas (Lewis, et al., p. 274).

The theories of evolution and natural selection were not developed in a vacuum, they number-theoretical predecessors among classical and renaissance thought, in the ideas of Anaximander, Empedocles and Epicurus and Maillet, Maupertuis, Buffon, and Linnaeus respectively. Even Charles Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, proposed a pre-evolutionary theory which proposed that all life on earth arose from simple organisms. Writing “100 years before Darwin, Buffon, in his Historie Naturelle, a 44 volume encyclopedia describing everything known about the natural world, wrestled with the similarities of humans and apes and even talked about [their] common ancestry” (University of California Museum of Paleontology). Comparing his research with that of contemporary thinkers such as Alfred Russel Wallace, who also developed a theory of Natural selection including the descent of man, and fear of being beat to publication, helped motivate Darwin to join with Wallace to formulate his final theory of evolution and publish it in The Origin of the Species in 1859 (Genetics, p. 14). Whereas Aristotle proposed that the categories of living things were essentially unchanging, shaping thought for centuries to come, Darwin formulated the revolutionary idea that species can diverge, go extinct, or gradually change into new species over time through natural selection and inheritance. By providing a “simple, clear explanation…that accounted for the observations,” Darwin was able to overthrow previous biological paradigms and supplant them with his theory of evolution, which now reigns as the “underpinning of life science” as a whole (Lewis, et al., p.276-277).

A prolific writer, Darwin’s high-quality prose explained many other fields ranging from geology to biology, botany, and psychology. He became famous in his own time after the publication of The Voyage of the Beagle, originally published in 1939 as Darwin’s Journal and Remarks. This book described the land, flora, fauna, and people of the various destinations he encountered on this historic trip. The Voyage of the Beagle was a seminal observational work with ramifications for multiple fields. Although he is most well-known for The Origin of the Species, Darwin created other deeply explanatory texts concerning coral atolls, barnacles, plant growth and development and emotional expression in animals and humans. The publication of Darwin’s theory of natural selection caused great controversy in the scientific community and the greater society of the late 1800s. Though traditional views concerning the age of the Earth and the origin of life and mankind had been challenged before, Darwin’s theory entered the popular consciousness to an uproar of religious and scientific discourse which debated the validity of his claims, often misinterpreting them or denying them outright due to strongly held theological convictions.

Writers such as H.G. Wells were influenced by Darwinian ideas, made apparent in his fictional races of humans which had evolved and devolved into distinctly alien beings (Henkin) (Morton). Darwin’s ideas took on a life of their outside of his published treatises, transforming into “a soft-textured subject where imagination could run riot” (Morton, p. 50). A number of non-scientific fields have attempted to co-opt the ideas of evolutionary biology. Social Darwinism was an unfortunate interpretation of Darwin’s ideas of survival of the fittest which pitted different classes, races, and ‘levels’ of human beings against each other in an attempt to create an evolved, utopian society perfected by an artificial weeding out of undesirable members of society. Eugenics, including sterilization of the poor and minority groups, and the atrocities, including genocide, committed by the Nazis during WWII claim inspiration from a twisted view of Darwin’s ideas. Darwin’s ideas have positively influenced society as well, leading to an increased awareness of the need for conservation and the interconnectedness of all life. Henri Bergson interpreted Darwinism as apparent in the creative arts in his 1907 book Creative Evolution. This train of thought follows through to post-modern philosophers such as Deleuze who borrow the vocabulary of biology to explain the territory of mind and metaphysics (Hansen). Philosophers and literary figures alike continue to be fascinated by Darwin’s detailed prose and radical idea about the origins of life.

Despite his voluminous written output, Darwin suffered from biological concerns of his own throughout his life, namely a mysterious, multi-symptomatic disease which confounded the medical experts of his time. Toward the end of his life, he became preoccupied with the place of man along the continuum of life and the world of plants. Having faced fierce opposition from religious fundamentalists already after the Origin of Species, Darwin eschewed his fear of telling the truth, as he perceived it, of man’s natural origins, and published The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex in 1871 and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals in 1872. Reflecting on a peacefulness and spirit of stewardship over the precious living things of the Earth, Darwin’s final works concerned the world of plants, including pollination, movement, and fertilization. Although the lack of a mechanism for inheritance hindered the theory of natural selection’s explanatory power during Darwin’s time, the modern biological synthesis which united genetics to evolution during the first half of the 20th century proved Darwin’s ideas correct (Lewis, et al.).

Charles Darwin never gave up his drive toward seeking knowledge through study, he researched earthworms and their ability to amend soil through their metabolic processes up until his death in 1882. As the foundation of modern biology, evolution stands as one of the greatest scientific paradigms in history, alongside the theory of gravity, the periodic table and atomic theory in terms of elegance and explanatory power. Charles Darwin was the quintessential scientist: teeming with curiosity and possessing the brilliance to thoroughly analyze his observations and present them to the world.

Works Cited

Darwin, Charles. On The Origin Of Species By Means of Natural Selection, Or The Preservation of Favoured Races In The Struggle For Life: John Murray, Albemarle Street, 1859.

Freeman, R. B. The Works of Charles Darwin: An Annotated Bibliographical Handlist. Folkestone: Wm Dawson & Sons Ltd., 1977.

Genetics and heredity: the blueprints of life.. New York, N.Y.: Torstar Books, 1985. Print.

Hansen, Mark. "Becoming as Creative Involution?: Contextualizing Deleuze and Guattari's Biophilosophy." Postmodern Culture 11.1 (2000): Print.

Hayden, Thomas. "What Darwin Didn't Know." Smithsonian Feb. 2009. Print.

Lewis, Ricki, Douglas Gaffin, Marielle Hoefnagels, and Bruce Parker. Life. 5th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2004. Print. pp. 274-282

Morton, Peter. The vital science: biology and the literary imagination, 1860-1900. London: Allen & Unwin, 1984. Print.

University of California Museum of Paleontology. Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788). Web. Retrieved 3/28/2014