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Charles Darwin

A Portrait

Darwin is the first of the evolutionary biologists, the originator of the concept of natural selection. His principal works, The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871) marked a new epoch. His works were violently attacked and energetically defended, then; and, it seems, yet today.

Charles Robert Darwin was born at Shrewsbury. His father was a doctor and his mother was the daughter of Josiah Wedgwood. Darwin first studied medicine at Edinburgh. Will as they might, it soon became clear to the family, and particularly to young Charles, that he was not cut out for a medical career; he was transferred to Cambridge (Christ's Church, 1828), there to train for the ministry. While at Cambridge, Darwin befriended a biology professor (John Stevens Henslow, 1796-1861) and his interest in zoology and geography grew. Eventually, Darwin came under the eye of a geology professor, Adam Sedgwick (1785-1873). Just after a field trip to Wales with Sedgwick -- during which Darwin was to learn much from "Sedgewick's on-the-spot tutorials" and was to develop "intellectual muscle as he burnt off the flab"1 -- he was to learn, that, through the efforts of Professor Henslow, that he had secured an invitation to go aboard the Beagle, which, apparently, was being outfitted by the admiralty for an extended voyage to the south seas. In a letter, Henslow was to advise that "you are the very man they are in search of." Desmond and Moore were to write:

"The admirals were scouting out someone to accompany Capt. Robert FitzRoy on his two-year survey of coastal South America. FitzRoy, only twenty-six himself, wanted a young companion, a well-bred 'gentlemen' who could relieve the isolation of command, someone to share the captain's table. Better still if he were a naturalist, for there would be unprecedented opportunities. The ship was equipped for 'scientific purposes' and a 'man of zeal & spirit' could do wonders, Henslow enthused. Charles might not be a 'finished naturalist,' but 'taking plenty of Books' would help, and he was the obvious choice."2
Needless to say, though there was some anxious moments, Darwin was accepted by those responsible for the voyage. The plans for the cruise of the Beagle were extended, in that it was to take place over the best part of five years (1831-36) and was to take in the southern islands, the South American coast and Australia. While aboard the vessel, Darwin served as a geologist, botanist, zoologist, and general man of science. It was rare to have aboard a sailing vessel of the early 19th century a person who could read and write, let alone one, such as Darwin, who could appreciate the necessity of applying scientific principles to the business of gathering data and carrying out research on it. I am sure that the telling of Darwin's travels and observations, while aboard the Beagle, would be an interesting topic in itself, but for my purposes here, I need only say, that Darwin gained an experience which would prove to be a substantial foundation for his life's work; the almost immediate result was the publication of his findings in 1840, Zoology of the Beagle.
"When on board H.M.S. Beagle as naturalist, I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the organic beings inhabiting South America, and in the geological relations of the present to the past inhabitants of that continent. These facts, as will be seen in the latter chapters of this volume, seemed to throw some light on the origin of species- that mystery of mysteries, as it has been called by one of our greatest philosophers. On my return home, it occurred to me, in 1837, that something might perhaps be made out on this question by patiently accumulating and reflecting on all sorts of facts which could possibly have any bearing on it. After five years' work I allowed myself to speculate on the subject, and drew up some short notes; these I enlarged in 1844 into a sketch of the conclusions, which then seemed to me probable: from that period to the present day I have steadily pursued the same object. I hope that I may be excused for entering on these personal details, as I give them to show that I have not been hasty in coming to a decision." (Darwin's opening paragraph to The Origin of Species, 1859.)
It was likely Darwin's reading of Adam Smith which led Darwin to his decisive breakthrough.3 ("Adam Smith was the last of the moralists and the first of the economists, so Darwin was the last of the economists and the first of the biologists.") Darwin read not only about those "laws" that govern the accumulation of wealth, but also those "laws" which lead to being poor. In regards to these poor "laws," Darwin read Malthus' Essay on Population:
"In October 1838, that is fifteen months after I had begun my systematic enquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus' Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence [a phrase used by Malthus] which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be a new species. Here then I had at last got hold of a theory by which to work."4
Darwin, directly on account of his early adventures (with his evidence and his conclusions: zoological, botanical, geological and paleontological), thinking individuals could no longer subscribe to the teachings of Genesis, viz., that every species had been created whole and have come through the ages unchanged.5 All the evidence supports (and none exists that disproves) the proposition that life on earth has evolved; life started out slow and small, and our current state of existence is as a result of some process working upon natural materials throughout a period that consists of millions and millions of years. The question for Darwin is what is this process, a question which, for twenty years, Darwin worked on. He considered his own personal experiences which were considerable and the data that he had gathered. He read and read widely; he abstracted the learned journals; he talked to breeders of domesticated animals. And only after years of work did Darwin feel himself ready to express himself. More years were to pass, during which he gathered more and more evidence, when, in 1859, Darwin came out with his scholarly presentation, The Origin of Species.6

In 1859, Darwin's shattering work, The Origin of Species, came out ("a sell out in one day"); it is now recognized as a leading work in natural philosophy and in the history of mankind. Simply stated, Darwin's theory is that things, and, in particular, life, evolves by a process which Darwin called "natural selection."

"Currently we accept the general idea that biological development can be explained by mutations in combination with natural selection. In its essential parts, therefore, Darwin's theory of development has been accepted. In Darwin's time mutations were not known about; their discovery has led to extensive modifications of his theory, but it has also eliminated the most important objections to it. ...
We are beginning to see that the awesome wonder of the evolution from amoeba to man - for it is without a doubt an awesome wonder - was not the result of a mighty word from a creator, but of a combination of small, apparently insignificant processes. The structural change occurring in a molecule within a chromosome, the result of a struggle over food between two animals, the reproduction and feeding of young - such are the simple elements that together, in the course of millions of years, created the great wonder. This is nothing separate from ordinary life. The wonder is in our everyday world, if only we have the ability to see it."
7 (Alfvén's Atom, Man, and the Universe.)
Darwin's "evolutionary and comprehensive vision" is a monistic one, it shows that our universe is a "unitary and continuous process," there does not exist a "dualistic split," and that all phenomena are natural. Darwin's idea, it is written,
"is the most powerful and the most comprehensive idea that has ever arisen on earth. It helps us understand our origins ... We are part of a total process, made of the same matter and operating by the same energy as the rest of the cosmos, maintaining and reproducing by the same type of mechanism as the rest of life ..."8 (Sir Julian Huxley.)
The theory of evolution is no longer just a theory; an overwhelming amount evidence has accumulated since Darwin. Darwin's theory has never been successfully refuted. Darwin discovered a law just as surely as Copernicus, Galileo and Newton discovered laws: natural laws. Just as the earth is in orbit and has come to be and is depended on the force of gravity, a natural law; so life has come into being and exists and is depended on the force of natural selection. One need not necessarily understand the why or the how of it, but a natural law such as gravitation or selection nonetheless exists, whether a particular puny human being, or group of them believe it or not.

The theory as presented in Darwin's The Origin of Species, I should say, was not new to the world and it cannot be attributed to Darwin. The theory, contrary to popular belief has been around since Aristotle and Lucretius. Darwin's contribution is that he gathered indisputable evidence, and he set forth a theory on how evolution works, the theory of natural selection. Darwin: "It may be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinising, throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest; rejecting that which is bad, preserving and adding up all that is good; silently and insensibly working, whenever and wherever opportunity offers, at the improvement of each organic being in relation to its organic and inorganic conditions of life. We see nothing of these slow changes in progress, until the hand of time has marked the long lapses of ages, and then so imperfect is our view into long past geological ages, that we only see that the forms of life are now different from what they formerly were."9 We will let Julian Huxley sum up Darwin's place in the history of science:

"Darwin's work ... put the world of life into the domain of natural law. It was no longer necessary or possible to imagine that every kind of animal or plant had been specially created, nor that the beautiful and ingenious devices by which they get their food or escape their enemies have been thought out by some supernatural power, or that there is any conscious purpose behind the evolutionary process. If the idea of natural selection holds good, then animals and plants and man himself have become what they are by natural causes, as blind and automatic as those which go to mould the shape of a mountain, or make the earth and the other planets move in ellipses round the sun. The blind struggle for existence, the blind process of heredity, automatically result in the selection of the best adapted types, and a steady evolution of the stock in the direction of progress...
Darwin's work has enabled us to see the position of man and of our present civilization in a truer light. Man is not a finished product incapable of further progress. He has a long history behind him, and it is a history not of a fall, but of an ascent. And he has the possibility of further progressive evolution before him. Further, in the light of evolution we learn to be more patient. The few thousand years of recorded history are nothing compared to the million years during which man has been on earth, and the thousand million years of life's progress. And we can afford to be patient when the astronomers assure us of at least another thousand million years ahead of us in which to carry evolution onwards to new heights."

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1 The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist: Darwin (New York: Warner, 1991) p. 96. Incidently, it's interesting to note that Sedgwick, who was a very accomplished and well recognized scientist (wrote British Pal├Žozoic Fossils, 1854) "strongly opposed" Darwin's theories as expressed in The Origin of Species. (Chambers.)

2 The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist: Darwin, op. cit., p. 101.

3 This proposition, that it was his reading of Adam Smith which led to Darwin's theories in evolutionary biology, has provoked more than one of my readers to write and question me. First, one has to understand the theories of Smith; they are evolutionary. (That Darwin read Adam Smith, there can be little doubt.) "The study of spontaneous orders has long been the peculiar task of economic theory, although, of course, biology has from its beginning been concerned with that special kind of spontaneous order which we call an organism. Only recently [1973] has there arisen within the physical sciences under the name of cybernetics a special discipline which is also concerned with what are called self-organizing or self-generating systems." [Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty (University of Chicago Press, 1973), pp. 36-7. Hayek (a Nobel Prize winner) cites, in a footnote, work done by H. von Foerster & Zopf and more particularly, in regards to the anticipation of the main conceptions of cybernetics by Adam Smith.] Further, at p. 23, ibid., Hayek wrote: "It was in the discussion of such social formations as language and morals, law and money, that in the eighteenth century the twin conceptions of evolution and the spontaneous formation of an order were at last clearly formulated, and provided the intellectual tools which Darwin and his eighteenth-century moral philosophers and the historical schools of law and language might well be described, as some of the theorists of language of the nineteenth century indeed described themselves, as Darwinians before Darwin." In support, Hayek cites, in his footnote, numerous studies, and interestingly, for me as a lawyer, the eminent jurist, Sir Frederick Pollock who in turn makes reference to Edmund Burke and Montesquieu as being 'Darwinians before Darwin'."

4 There is no question that Darwin relied very much on Malthus' theories. In Darwin's introduction to The Origin of Species he refers to Malthus, "This is the doctrine of Malthus, applied to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms." And again in Chapter 3, "It is the doctrine of Malthus applied with manifold force to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms."

5 Of course, Darwin's theory, at first blush, is at odds with the whole notion that there exists a Supreme Being which brought into existence all things. As to the Primary Cause and more generally the existence of a God: "I [Darwin] cannot pretend to throw the least light on such abstruse problems. The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an agnostic."

6 It was entitled On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. For a variety of diverse reasons, even in 1859, Darwin felt little ready to express his theory; but he was spurred on by a fellow scientist, Alfred Russell Wallace (1823-1913). Darwin received a letter from Wallace in the early 1840s, which contained, to Darwin's amazement, the theory of evolution by natural selection. Wallace's theory came about as a result of the same inspiration which Darwin had, a reading of Malthus. Wallace, however, had little evidence for his theory: Darwin did. Darwin and Wallace jointly presented their theories to a learned society in London on July 1st, 1858 and both papers were published by the society shortly thereafter. Towards the end of 1859, Darwin came out with his book (he considered it a mere abstract). The publisher was John Murray in London and the first run of 1,200 copies were sold out in the first day.

7 Hannes Alfvén is a professor of Plasma Physics at the University of Stockhol (San Francisco: Freeman, 1969).

8 This quote of Julian Huxley's comes from his work, Evolutionary Humanism (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus, 1992.) Julian Huxley was the grandson of Thomas H. Huxley (1825-1895). Thomas H. Huxley was an English biologist, teacher, and a defender of Darwin. Darwin was not a conversationalist and he only very rarely appeared in public to defend his theories himself; he was fully represented by Thomas H. Huxley, "Darwin's Bulldog." It is interesting to note what Thomas H. Huxley said about his topic when confronted with the opposition in the form of Bishop Wilberforce of Oxford. Both Huxley and Bishop Wilberforce were on the same stage when during a conference which had as its theme, Darwinism. The Bishop, in a sarcastic manner called out: "I would like to ask Professor Huxley whether it was on his grandfather's or his grandmother's side that the ape ancestry comes in." Darwin after whispering to his dinner companion, "The lord hath delivered him into my hands," took the podium:
"A man has no reason to be ashamed of having an ape for his grandfather. If there were an ancestor whom I should feel shame in recalling, it would be a man of restless and versatile intellect, who, not content with success in his own sphere of activity, plunges into scientific questions with which he has no real acquaintance, only to obscure them by an aimless rhetoric, and distract the attention of his hearers from the point at issue by eloquent digressions and skilled appeals to religious prejudice."

9 Chapter 4 - "Natural Selection." Darwin, incidently, wrote an autobiography.


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Peter Landry