Charles Darwin – A tribute


February 12th, 2009 marked the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin who holds a rightful place along with Galileo, Copernicus, Newton and Einstein.

(12 February, 1809-19 April,1882)

Darwin’s Evolution Theory Survives, Thrives and Reshapes the World.

When the 22-year-old Charles Darwin sailed into the South Seas in 1831 onboard the HMS Beagle, a survey ship being sent out by the British Admiralty, little did he realise that he had embarked on a path-breaking voyage that would connect up his ideas and revolutionise the nascent field of genetics and then, at an ever quickening pace, with molecular biology, ecology and embryology. Today, 150 years after Origin of Species, Darwin’s legacy is a larger, richer, more diverse set of theories than he could have imagined.

Beagle returned to England in October of 1936 and the young, self-taught naturalist’s treasure trove of the journey was immense: a collection of 368 pages of zoology notes, 1,383 pages of geological notes, a 770-page diary, in addition to 1,529 species in bottles of alcohol and 3,907 dried specimens, not to mention live tortoises caught in the Galapagos.
Milestones along the way included experiencing the great diversity of species in tropical Brazil and discovery of fossils, including a giant sloth 400 miles south of Buenos Aires, which caused him to ponder how these creatures became extinct. Account by gauchos

1831: Darwin leaves on a five-year around-the world journey on HMS Beagle

on the Argentine pampas of their killing of indigenous peoples taught him about the primal, territorial impulses of the human animal. And of course, there was a relatively brief, five-week stay in the “frying hot” Galapagos, where he was able to contemplate how closely related species of turtles and mocking birds inhabited neighbouring islands, implying a common ancestry for both groups.In this anniversary year, Darwin’s greatest bequest can be found in the enormous body of research and theorising that extends directly from his writings. It also serves to underline how evolution itself has undergone radical alteration in the past 150 years, a merger of the original theory with science of the gene, which Darwin had as little understanding of as the ancients did.

 

Charles Robert Darwin. At the age of 51, Charles Darwin had just published On the Origin of Species.

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” — 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.”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. 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.

The Voyage 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.)

As “Darwinism” became widely accepted in the 1870s, amusing caricatures of him with an ape or monkey body symbolised evolution.

It was likely Darwin’s reading of Adam Smith which led Darwin to his decisive breakthrough. (“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.” Personally speaking, Darwin, directly on account of his early adventures (with his evidence and his conclusions: zoological, botanical, geological and paleontological), could no longer subscribe to the teachings of Genesis, viz., that every species had been created whole and have come through the ages unchanged. 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.

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.” (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 …” (Sir Julian Huxley.) The theory of evolution is no longer just a theory; an overwhelming amount of 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.”

Darwin’s book The Descent of Man was published in 1871 in which he tied the human lineage to primate ancestors, provoking outrage in some quarters and the caricaturing of his image. Darwin had avoided discussion of human evolution in Origin of Species, but his The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex attributed human beginnings to Old World monkeys, an assertion that also offended many.

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 fact that evolution occurs became accepted by the scientific community and much of the general public in his lifetime, while his theory of natural selection came to be widely seen as the primary explanation of the process of evolution in the 1930s, and now forms the basis of modern evolutionary theory. In modified form, Darwin’s scientific discovery remains the foundation of biology, as it provides a unifying logical explanation for the diversity of life.”

References: Scientific American (January, 2009), Wikipedia, The Complete Works of Charles Darwin Online, Peter Landry in Biographies.

The Complete Works of Charles Darwin Online can be accessed at:http://darwin-online.org.uk/

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