charles darwin, the theory of evolution
[charles darwin theory of evolution]
darwin, theory of evolution, charles darwin, theory, evolution


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Charles Darwin and
the Theory of Evolution

Charles Darwin was by no means a natural scholar; as a boy of sixteen his father had said to him:- "You care for nothing but shooting, dogs and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family."
Nevertheless, in his late teens and early twenties Charles Darwin fitfully pursued medical studies in Edinburgh as had been largely decided upon by his stern father, (a well-regarded and prosperous medical doctor). His earlier interest in nature developed in Edinburgh leading him to form friendships with other young men seriously interested in natural history and zoology. Darwin proved to be unsuccessful as a student of medicine and his patriachal male parent encouraged him to seek to enter another respectable and gentlemanly career by undertaking a course of training with the intention of becoming a minister in the Church of England.
Darwin was a young man who held sincere religious beliefs and followed his father's wishes. He subsequently attended Christ's College at Cambridge University and after three years of study was awarded a Bachelor of Arts degree appropriate to a future clergyman. During this period Darwin seemed to have little real enthusiasm for his official course studies - he continued to have, however, a deep passion for his hobby, i.e. wide-ranging Studies in Natural History and was highly regarded in this field by J.S. Henslow, a young professor of Botany, with whom Darwin developed a close intellectual friendship.
Darwin loved to collect plants, insects, and geological specimens, he developed a particular interest in collecting beetles, the rarer in species the better. His autobiography quotes one particular beetle hunt in detail:-

  "I will give a proof of my zeal: one day on tearing off some old bark, I saw two rare beetles and seized one in each hand; then I saw a third and new kind, which I could not bear to lose, so that I popped the one which I held in my right hand into my mouth. Alas it ejected some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, as well as the third one".

Such a passionate interest in the natural world led to his being greatly excited after hearing in August 1831, through Henslow's contacts, about an actual invitation to him personally to join a british naval ship as a geologist / naturalist on a projected exploratory voyage surveying the coasts of South America and certain islands in the Pacific Ocean. The position was unpaid but inherently represented a golden opportunity for a gentleman naturalist such as Charles Darwin to follow his interest, and potentially make discoveries that would attract the attention of scientific authorities.
Darwin was keenly interested in putting himself forward for this position but met with fatherly disapproval leading Darwin to write to Henslow regretfully declining the offer. Shortly thereafter Darwin paid a visit to his maternal uncle, the rich pottery magnate Josiah Wedgwood II, who offered moral support in efforts to win parental consent to such an unlikely change in the prospective course of his life.
Charles Darwin's father had in fact sent a letter to his brother-in-law asking his opinion of the possibilty of Charles joining the expedition and Josiah Wedgwood felt able to recommend the opportunity as being ideally suitable for Charles Darwin as a young man of "enlarged curiosity". Darwin's father withdrew his objections and Darwin hurried to see Henslow in Cambridge to make certain of the post. He then proceeded to London to introduce himself to Captain FitzRoy who was to lead the expedition.

Darwin returned from his voyages on HMS Beagle in 1836. During the five years away on the high seas and in distant lands the skeptical attidudes of many of his ship-mates and the various geological and biological phenomena he had witnessed had caused his mind to entertain critical doubts of the biblical explanations of creation he had formerly fully accepted. These doubts were allied, in Darwin's mind, to speculative theory about how it could be possible that what we now know as evolution could give rise to the Origin of Species.
Some of the fossils, rocks and rare species Darwin discovered during the voyage had made their way to England and caused a great deal of interest. A publisher named John Murray offered to bring out Darwin's account of the natural history aspects of the voyage, which had previously been included as the third volume, in Captain FitzRoy's overall three-volume book about the voyage, as a separate edition - which proved to be a best-seller.

A key stage in Darwin's development of an inherently persuasive hypothesis about a scenario where there would be a naturally explicable origin of species being his reading, late in 1838, of an Essay by the Reverend Thomas Malthus.
To use Charles Darwin's own words from his Autobiography.
I happened to read for amusement Malthus on 'Population', and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits 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 the formation of a new species. Here, then, I had at last got a theory by which to work.
Darwin continued to develop a theory expaining the naturally arising development of new species but at the same time had begun to think seriously that life as a scholarly bachelor would be unappealing and decided to attempt to pay court to his sincerely religious first cousin, Emma Wedgwood. By the summer of 1838 Emma agreed to marry Charles Darwin, knowing him to hold skeptical views and even wrote to him soon after their engagement telling him that she was sad that "our opinions on the most important subject should differ widely."
As wife to Charles Darwin Emma continued to hold strong religious beliefs and to be distressed by the absence of God in her husband's theorising always quietly encouraging him to see faith as a matter for "feeling, not reasoning".

Darwin had grown up in and, despite his own skepticism after returning from his voyages, continued to live in a society that generally accepted biblical explanations of creation whereby the Earth and all of its unchanging, immutable, life forms were, as they were and as they ever had been, as a result of Original Acts of Divine Creation.
Against this pervasive cultural background, in a confidential letter of 11 January 1844 to a fellow scientist named Joseph Hooker, Darwin wrote that he was engaged in a ‘very presumptuous work’ which had led to the conviction that ‘species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable’.

During 1844, Darwin, with Emma's editorial advice and participation, extended an initial 35 page abstract of his theory written in pencil in 1842 by preparing a 230 page-long overview of his theory for publication in the event of his death. He also framed an accompanying letter to his wife asking her to seek the aid of several of his scientific friends to that end and setting aside a substantial sum to fund the project!

Thus even though he went to the trouble of gathering his thoughts so as to prepare a manuscript overview of his theorising, Darwin actually preferred to keep his potentially most controversial ideas a private matter because of his reluctance to meet an expected adverse reaction from family, friends, and the wider public.
Despite the time and effort put into its preparation the manuscript overview was placed in storage in a securely sealed packet that was labelled 'only to be opened in the event of my death' that Darwin placed in a cupboard under the stairs of Darwin's home! It was to remain there for some fifteen years!

It may be that Charles Darwin's theories were only widely aired in his own lifetime as a result of his receiving, in June 1858, a letter and manuscript written to by a young, largely self-taught, naturalist named Alfred Russel Wallace, seeking Darwin's assistance in bringing his own, almost identical, theory of evolution by Natural Selection to the attention of a prominent scientist named Sir Charles Lyell.

Darwin subsequently sent Wallace's manuscript to Lyell; with his own covering letter of 18th June 1858 that included the following sentences:-
I never saw a more striking coincidence. if Wallace had my manuscript sketch written out in 1842 he could not have made a better short abstract! Even his terms now stand as Heads of my Chapters.

Please return me the manuscript which he does not say he wishes me to publish; but I shall of course at once write & offer to send to any Journal. So all my originality, whatever it may amount to, will be smashed. Though my Book, if it will ever have any value, will not be deteriorated; as all the labour consists in the application of the theory.
It was this conflicted situation where Darwin knew that his own theorisings were to be possibly overtaken by another theorist that led to Darwin and Wallace's views being publicly jointly aired in academic circles in July 1858.
Following on from Wallace's approach Darwin also made efforts to draw his thoughts together and arranged for the publication of his work on The Origin of Species in 1859.

In this work Darwin noted that within established species slight variations in form often seemed to naturally occur. He postulated that it was in a most critical aspect of existence - that of being physically able to gain the food whereby any individual could be nourished to survive and to breed - that a decisive causal process in the origin of species might be held to lie. Those variations that result in individuals which could win enough nutrition to survive and breed would triumph in the struggle for existence over those individuals whose attributes did not suit the winning of sufficient nutritional support.

To quote from The Origin of Species:-
As many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive; and as, consequently, there is a frequently recurring struggle for existence, it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally selected. From the strong principle of inheritance, any selected variety will tend to propagate its new and modified form.
There were, in fact, only 1250 copies prepared in this first edition and Darwin had protested to his publisher that too many copies were being printed. The book was to be sold at a price at one pound sterling, a high price at the time for most people for what might be thought to be a work of limited and academic interest only - and potentially offensive to those who accepted fully biblical accounts of Creation.

In the event this edition sold out on the first day of issue and other editions were successively published. A storm of controversy ensued but very few books have been as historically influential.

Although we today associate Charles Darwin with The Theory of Evolution the word evolution does not appear in his The Origin of Species. Time has passed and society has adopted the term Theory of Evolution as a convenient, and appropriate, term to refer to the theory which both Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace developed.


 

 

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The Faith vs Reason Debate
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Charles Darwin biography
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Alfred Russel Wallace biography
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Thomas Malthus
Essay on Population
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Darwin quotes
his beliefs about God
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Thomas Henry Huxley
Darwin's Bulldog







 
 

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Charles Darwin and
the Theory of Evolution