Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, that all life on Earth is related and that it changes to better suit its environment over time, is just as important to science today as it was when it was first introduced over 150 years ago. All plants and animals (humans included) experience small genetic changes with each new generation and over thousands of years evolve. Some mutations are an advancement and have given certain species better odds of survival. In Darwin’s famous Galápagos finches example, he noted how birds on the island closely resembled each other but their beak shapes differed. It had given some an advantage for hunting.
Darwin was born on February 12th, 1809, to a wealthy family in Shrewsbury, England. They were unconventional because they rejected social systems of the day, such as slavery. Darwin was educated in his hometown before being sent by his father (Robert Waring Darwin) to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh. Darwin hated his time at the university but did gravitate toward students who introduced him to the natural sciences, some of which had theories that were cutting-edge and heavily criticised. Robert was annoyed that his son was ignoring his medicine commitments, so he had him transferred to Christ’s College, Cambridge, to study a Bachelor of Arts.
It was during this period in 1831 that the opportunity to sail on the HMS Beagle presented itself. Darwin was intrigued with the idea of exploring the world and worked out a financial arrangement with the ship’s captain. He was listed on the crew as a natural history scientist. His father disliked the plan and the voyage put a strain on their relationship. The Beagle left England on December 27th and would not return for the next five years. The ship travelled to South America and Australia, and ventured to numerous small islands in both regions. Darwin explored where possible and gathered as many samples as he could. He was fascinated by the animal variety and uniqueness he encountered and began to hypothesise why they were so different.
When he returned to England, Darwin released a book about his time spent on the Beagle and it became a bestseller. He knew some of his evolution theories would be considered radical so he spent the next twenty years gathering more research. He wrote a small number of academic papers and became a well-known natural-history expert during the period.
In 1858, Darwin was contacted by Alfred Russel Wallace who, at the time, was in the Amazon and had theories that were very close to his own. Wallace admired and was inspired by Darwin’s work. Darwin didn’t want to be beaten to print so both men’s theses were released together. The following year Darwin’s masterpiece, On the Origin of Species, was published.
The book was praised by the scientific community. It was criticised by some who felt areas of Darwin’s theories lacked convincing evidence, especially when it came to human evolution. Science was still asserting itself at the time and many scholars still reverted to religious mythology to explain the history of the universe. Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli famously asked ‘is man an ape or an angel’ and answered that he was ‘on the side of the angels’. Archaeologists filled in Darwin’s ‘missing links’ with the discovery of the Neanderthal Man in Germany in 1864 and many other specimens since.
‘Survival of the fittest’ is mentioned in part of Darwin’s natural selection theory. By this he meant animals and plants that evolved better suited for survival in their environment would thrive and those that didn’t would slowly die out. Political and social movements have misunderstood the idea and have applied it to their own agendas. They have used it as an excuse for conquest, racism and inequality against what they considered inferior civilisations. It was known as Social Darwinism. Nazi Germany applied it to justify the genocide of the Jewish people during World War II.
Darwin’s theories have had a big impact in the fields of palaeontology and geology. His theories also paved the way for genetics in the early 20th century. By the time of his death in 1882, Darwin had written over ten books, numerous science papers and countless letters in the science community.
This article was originally posted on the now defunct Science Niche website on February 12th, 2019.
Charles Darwin (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Charles-Darwin)
Darwin’s Theory Of Evolution (https://www.darwins-theory-of-evolution.com/)
Social Darwinism (https://www.history.com/topics/early-20th-century-us/social-darwinism)
What Darwin Didn’t Know (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/what-darwin-didnt-know-45637001/)
What is Darwin’s Theory of Evolution? (https://www.livescience.com/474-controversy-evolution-works.html)