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Charles Darwin changed our view of the world forever

Posted in Discoveries, Exploration, Historical articles, History, Nature, Science on Friday, 28 February 2014

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This edited article about Charles Darwin first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 574 published on 13 January 1973.

Charles Darwin on the Galapagos Islands,  picture, image, illustration

Charles Darwin on the Galapagos Islands by Andrew Howat

Aboard the 10-gun brig, H.M.S. Beagle, a regular feature of Sunday afternoons, as she sailed round the world on a scientific and surveying voyage, was her captain’s entertaining his officers by reading extracts from the Bible.

Captain Robert FitzRoy, only 23 years old and descended from Charles II, was a deeply religious young man, as well as being hot-tempered, eccentric, brave as a bull, just, strict and given to fits of deepest gloom. Like many religious people at that time – the Beagle sailed in 1831 – he firmly believed in the Genesis story of the creation of the world, with Man being made on the sixth day.

Not only that, FitzRoy and millions of others believed that the world was made at 9 am on 23 October, 4,004 B.C., a date worked out by an Irish Anglican archbishop of the 16th century called Ussher. All the ship’s Bibles, like countless others of the day, had a note to that effect. But on board the Beagle was a young naturalist, dressed as a civilian among all the naval officers, who was later to prove that the good archbishop was wrong by millions of years. His name was Charles Darwin.

Darwin, born in 1809, was one of the mildest of revolutionaries, who, in most Victorians’ opinions, was later to break the rules of decency in the most spectacular way by daring to challenge the Book of Genesis.

His beginnings were not spectacular. Though he came of a brilliant family, with a Shrewsbury doctor as a father, a poet and scientist as a grandfather and a mother who was the daughter of the great potter, Josiah Wedgwood, he was rather a dunce at school, was a poor medical student at Edinburgh, and, at Cambridge, seemed destined to become an obscure country parson, a strange beginning for a scientific genius.

It was at Cambridge, however, that he met botanists and scientists, who transformed his outlook on life. One of them, the Rev Professor Henslow, recommended him to FitzRoy as the ship’s naturalist.

When they met, FitzRoy disliked him on sight, mainly because he disapproved of the shape of his nose. It was not the nose, it seemed, to endure the hardships of a trip round the world. But after talking to the keen young naturalist, who was anything but the stuffy-looking Victorian his later photographs suggest, FitzRoy decided that Darwin would do, even with his nose!

On the great voyage, which lasted from 1831-6, Darwin did everything from climbing volcanoes in South America to studying the social life of ants. All of creation fascinated him throughout his life from tiny insects to the fossils of prehistoric monsters, and it was all triggered off for him by the voyage of the Beagle and, especially, the creatures he saw on the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific.

The voyage made him see how every living thing is related. In the Galapagos Islands there were many creatures which existed nowhere else. Even now, after whalers and others have done their worst, there are unique land- and sea-iguanas, large tortoises and unusual birds like the flightless cormorant. Darwin began to brood on what he saw and, down the years, developed a theory which, when it was published, had him accused of expelling God from the universe.

Briefly, before the time of Darwin and a handful of others, most people believed that each species was created separately, but Darwin was convinced that all forms of life must have evolved from earlier forms. We now accept that Man, though not descended from apes like those of today, has ancestors in common with monkeys, and that all living things can finally be traced back to tiny spots of living matter, though exactly how it happened is still not completely clear. But to suggest this in the mid-19th century was sheer blasphemy. Darwin’s theory of evolution was based on what he called natural selection and another scientist called the survival of the fittest, for many species have simply disappeared from the earth. He believed that variations in the same species allowed some of them to survive. Those that could not vary to suit their situation, died out. He noted the variations in different members of the same species and decided that those with favourable variations transmitted them to their offspring, which enabled them to survive.

He based his ideas on what he saw, on studying anatomy, on the sheer range of animals and plants, and on the evidence of fossils. Today, these ideas have been modified slightly because we know far more about heredity than he did, but basically Darwinism is still accepted.

Darwin studied for years, then, when writing a book, was sent a manuscript by a naturalist, Alfred Wallace, who turned out to be working along the same lines, as indeed, occasional thinkers had before them, even if only glimpsing the truth. The two men combined and produced an essay which came out in 1858; then, with things beginning to hum, Darwin published his The Origin of Species the next year, the entire first edition being sold out the first day.

It had most people howling for his blood and his enemies gathered. At Oxford in 1860, a confrontation took place between Bishop Wilberforce and the scientist, T. H. Huxley, Darwin’s champion. At one point, the Bishop asked whether Huxley’s grandmother or grandfather was a monkey. Huxley crisply replied that an ape would be a better ancestor than one who perpetrated and prolonged myths. One of the most furious spectators – Darwin was quietly at home – was Captain FitzRoy, beside himself with rage that he had nurtured a viper in his nautical bosom!

The country was split – the great statesman, Disraeli, later said: “Is man an ape or an angel? I am on the side of the angels!” – and it was split still more when Darwin’s The Descent of Man came out in 1871. He never ceased quietly working and writing, leaving men like Huxley to fight publicly for him. Much loved by his friends, and the father of four brilliant sons, he soon had many supporters. It is important to note that though he destroyed the literal interpretation of the account in Genesis of the creation of the world in six days, he never ceased to admit the mystery of creation. Many of his disciples discarded all religion, but he could not, and not for nothing was he buried in Westminster Abbey. Once, standing in a mighty tropical forest, he said: “No one can stand in these solitudes and not feel there is more in man than the mere breath of his body.”

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