In 1831, a young, unknown, amateur English naturalist boarded the tiny ship, HMS Beagle, and embarked, as crew member, on a perilous, five-year journey around the world. His observations and the detailed journal he kept of his various experiences in strange, far-off lands would soon revolutionize man’s concept of himself and his place on planet earth. Darwin’s revelations came in the form of his theory of natural selection – popularly referred to as “evolution.”
Since the publication of his book, On the Origin of Species in 1859, which revealed to the scientific community his startling conclusions about all living things based on his voyage journal, Darwin has rightfully been ranked in the top tier of great scientists. In my estimation, he is the most important and influential natural scientist of all time, and I would rank him right behind Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein as the most significant and influential scientific figures of modern times.
Young Charles Darwin enrolled at the University of Edinburgh in 1825 to pursue a career in medicine. His father, a wealthy, prominent physician had attended Edinburgh and, indeed, exerted considerable influence on young Charles to follow him in a medical career. At Edinburgh, the sixteen-year old Darwin quickly found the study of anatomy with its dissecting theatre an odious experience. More than once, he had to flee the theatre to vomit outside after witnessing the dissection process. The senior Darwin, although disappointed in his son’s unsuitability for medicine, soon arranged for Charles to enroll at Cambridge University to study for the clergy. In Darwin’s own words: “He [the father] was very properly vehement against my turning an idle sporting man, which seemed my probable destination.”
Darwin graduated tenth in his class of 168 with a B.A. and very little interest in the clergy! During his tenure at Cambridge, most of young Darwin’s spare time was spent indulging his true and developing passion: Collecting insects with a special emphasis on beetles. Along the way, he became good friends with John Steven Henslow, professor of geology, ardent naturalist, and kindred spirit to the young Charles.
Wanted: A Naturalist to Sail On-Board the Beagle
On 24 August, 1831, in one of history’s most prescient communiques, Professor Henslow wrote his young friend and protegee: “I have been asked by [George] Peacock…to recommend him a naturalist as companion to Capt. Fitzroy employed by Government to survey the S. extremity of America [the coasts of South America]. I have stated that I considered you to be the best qualified person I know of who is likely to undertake such a situation. I state this not on the supposition of ye being a finished naturalist, but as amply qualified for collecting, observing, & noting any thing worthy to be noted in natural history.” Seldom in history has one man “read” another so well in terms of future potential as did Henslow in that letter to young Darwin!
Charles’ father expressed his opposition to the voyage, in part, on the following grounds as summarized by young Darwin:
-That such an adventure could prove “disreputable to my [young Darwin’s] character as a Clergyman hereafter.”
-That it seems “a wild scheme.”
-That the position of naturalist “not being [previously] accepted there must be some serious objection to the vessel or expedition.”
-That [Darwin] “should never settle down to a steady life hereafter.”
-That “it would be a useless undertaking.”
The young man appealed to his uncle Josiah Wedgewood [of pottery family fame] whose judgement he valued. Scientific history hung in the balance as Uncle Josiah promptly weighed-in with the senior Darwin, offering convincing arguments in favor of the voyage. In rebuttal to the objection from Darwin’s father that “it would be a useless undertaking,” the Uncle reasoned: “The undertaking would be useless as regards his profession [future clergyman], but looking upon him as a man of enlarged curiosity, it affords him the opportunity of seeing men and things as happens to few.” Enlarged curiosity, indeed! How true that proved to be. The senior Darwin then made his decision in the face of Uncle Josiah’s clear vision and counsel: Despite lingering reservations, he gave his permission for Charles to embark on the historic sea voyage, one which more than any other, changed mankind’s sense of self. Had the decision been otherwise, Darwin’s abiding respect for his father’s opinion and authority would have bequeathed the world yet another clergyman while greatly impeding the chronicle of man and all living things on this planet.
On 27 December, 1831, HMS Beagle with Darwin aboard put out to sea, beginning an adventure that would circle the globe and take almost five years. Right from the start, young Charles became violently seasick, often confined to his swaying hammock hanging in the cramped quarters of the ship. Seasickness dogged young Darwin throughout the voyage. I marvel at the fortitude displayed by this young, recently graduated “gentleman from Cambridge” as he undertook such a daunting voyage. Given that the voyage would entail many months at sea, under sail, Capt. Fitzroy and Darwin had agreed from the start that Charles would spend most of his time on land, in ports of call, while the Beagle would busy itself surveying the local coastline per its original government charter. While on land, Darwin’s mission was to observe and record what he saw and experienced concentrating, of course, on the flora, fauna, and geology of the various diverse regions he would visit.
St. Jago, an island off the east coast of South America was the Beagle’s first stop on 16 January, 1832. It was here he made one of his first significant observations. Quoting from his journal: “The geology of this island is the most interesting part of its natural history. On entering the harbour, a perfectly horizontal white band in the face of the sea cliff, may be seen running for some miles along the coast, and at the height of about forty-five feet above the water. Upon examination, this white stratum is found to consist of calcareous [calcium] matter, with numerous shells embedded, most or all of which now exist on the neighboring coast.”
Darwin goes on to conclude that a stratum of sea-shells very much higher than the current water line speaks to ancient, massive upheavals of the earth in the region. From the simple, focused collector of beetles in his Cambridge days, Darwin had now become obsessed with the bigger picture of nature, a view which embraced the importance of geology/environment as key to decoding nature’s secrets.
In a fascinating section of his journal, Darwin describes his astonishment at the primitive state of the native inhabitants of Tierra Del Fuego, at the southern tip of South America. From the journal entry of 17 December, 1832: “In the morning, the Captain sent a party to communicate with the Fuegians. When we came within hail, one of the four natives who were present advanced to receive us, and began to shout most vehemently, wishing to direct us where to land. When we were on shore the party looked rather alarmed, but continued talking and making gestures with great rapidity. It was without exception the most curious and interesting spectacle I ever beheld: I could not have believed how wide was the difference between savage and civilized man; it is greater than between a wild and domesticated animal, inasmuch as in man there is a greater power of improvement.” A separate reference I recall reading referring to Darwin’s encounter with the Fuegians stated that he could scarcely believe that the naked, dirty, and primitive savages before his eyes were of the same species as the sherry-sipping professors back at Cambridge University – so vividly stated.
On 2 October, 1836, the Beagle arrived at Falmouth, Cornwall, her nearly five-year journey circumnavigating the globe complete. Throughout the trip, Darwin recorded life on the high seas and, most importantly, his myriad observations on the geology of the many regions visited on foot and horseback as well as the plant and animal life.
I often invoke the mantra to which I ardently subscribe: That fact is always stranger than fiction…and so much more interesting and important. Picturing Darwin, the elite Englishman and budding naturalist, riding horseback amidst the rough-hewn vaqueros [cowboys] of Chile speaks to the improbability of the entire venture. When studying Darwin, it quickly becomes clear to the reader that his equable nature and noble intents were obvious to those whose approval and cooperation were vital for the success of his venture. That was particularly true of the seaman crew of the Beagle and of Capt. Fitzroy whose private cabin on the ship, Darwin shared. Fortunately, Fitzroy was a man of considerable ability and efficiency in captaining the Beagle. He was, at heart, a man sensible of the power and importance of scientific knowledge, and that made his less admirable qualities bearable to Darwin. The crew made good-natured fun of the intellectual, newbie naturalist in their midst, but spared no effort in helping Darwin pack his considerable array of collected natural specimens, large and small, in boxes and barrels for shipment back to Professor Henslow at Cambridge. Many of these never arrived, but most did make their way “home.”
When Darwin returned to Cambridge after arriving back home at Cornwall, he was surprised to learn that Professor Henslow had spread news among his friends at Cambridge of the Beagle’s whereabouts in addition to sharing, with his university colleagues, the specimens sent home by his young protegee. Darwin had embarked on the Beagle’s voyage as an amateur collector of insects. Now, to his great surprise, he had become a naturalist with a reputation and a following within the elite circles at Cambridge, thanks to Professor Henslow.
Once home, Charles Darwin wasted little time tackling the immense task of studying and categorizing the many specimens he had sent back during the voyage. By 1838, the vestiges of natural selection had begun to materialize in his mind. One situation of particular note that he recorded in the Galapagos Islands fueled his speculations. There, he noted that a species of bird indigenous to several of the islands in the archipelago seemed to have unique beaks depending upon which island they inhabited. In virtually all other aspects, the birds closely resembled one another – all members of a single species. Darwin noticed that the beaks in each case seemed most ideally suited to the particular size and shape of the seeds most plentiful on that particular island. Darwin took great pains to document these finches of the Galapagos, suspecting that they harbored important clues to nature’s ways. Darwin reasoned that somehow the birds seemed to be well-adapted to their environment/food source in the various islands. Clues such as this shaped his thought processes as he carefully distilled the notes entered in his journal during the voyage. By 1844, Charles Darwin had formulated the framework for his explanation of animal/plant adaptation to the environment. Except for one or two close and trusted colleagues, Darwin kept his budding theory to himself for years to come for important reasons which I discuss shortly.
Darwin published his book, Journal of Researches, in 1839. The book was taken from his copious journal entries during the voyage; within its pages resides the seed-stock from which would germinate Darwin’s ultimate ideas and his theory of natural selection. This book remained, to Darwin’s dying day, closer to his affections and satisfaction than any other including On the Origin of Species.
What Is the Essence of Natural Selection?
Darwin’s theory of natural selection proposed that species are not immutable across time and large numbers of individuals. There appear random variations in this or that characteristic in a particular individual within a large population. Such variations, beginning with that individual, could be passed along to future generations through its immediate offspring. In the case of a singular Galapagos finch born with a significantly longer and narrower beak than that of a typical bird in the species, that specimen and its offspring which might inherit the tendency will be inevitably subjected to “trial by nature.” If the longer, narrower beak makes it easier for these new birds to obtain and eat the seeds and insects present in their environment, these birds will thrive and go on, over time, to greatly out-reproduce others of their species who do not share the “genetic advantage.” Eventually that new characteristic, in this example, the longer, narrower beak, will predominate within the population in that environment. This notion is the essence of Darwin’s theory of natural selection. If the random variation at hand proves to be disadvantageous, future generations possessing it will be less likely to survive than those individuals without it.
Note that this description, natural selection, is far more scientifically specific than the oft-used/misused phrase applied to Darwin’s work: theory of evolution. To illustrate: “theory of evolution” is a very general phrase admitting even the possibility that giraffes have long necks because they have continually stretched them over many generations reaching for food on the higher tree canopies. That is precisely the thinking of one of the early supporters of evolution theory, the Frenchman, Lamarck, as expressed in his 1809 publication on the subject. Darwin’s “natural selection” explains the specific mechanism by which evolution occurs – except for one vital, missing piece… which we now understand.
Genetics, Heredity, and the DNA Double Helix:
Random Mutations – the Key to Natural Selection!
Darwin did not know – could not know – the source of the random significant variations in species which were vital to his theory of natural selection. He came to believe that there was some internal genetic blueprint in living things that governed the species at hand while transmitting obvious “familial traits” to offspring. Darwin used the name “gemmules” referring to these presumed discrete building blocks, but he could go no further in explaining their true nature or behavior given the limited scientific knowledge of the time.
James Watson and Francis Crick won the 1962 Nobel Prize in medicine and physiology for their discovery in 1953 of the DNA double helix which carries the genetic information of all living things. The specific arrangement of chemical base-pair connections, or rungs, along the double helix ladder is precisely the genetic blueprint which Darwin suspected. The human genome has been decoded within the last twenty years yielding tremendous knowledge about nature’s life-processes. We know, for instance, that one particular – just one – hereditary base-pair error along the double helix can result in a devastating medical condition called Tay-Sachs, wherein initially healthy brains of newborns are destroyed in just a few years due to the body’s inability to produce a necessary protein. Literally every characteristic of all living things is dictated by the genetic sequence of four different chemical building blocks called bases which straddle the DNA double helix. The random variations necessary for the viability of Darwin’s theory of natural selection are precisely those which stem from random base-pair mutations, or variations, along the helix. These can occur spontaneously during genetic DNA replication, or they can result from something as esoteric as the alpha particles of cosmic radiation hitting a cell nucleus and altering its DNA. The end result of the sub-microscopic change might be trivial, beneficial, or catastrophic in some way to the individual.
Gregor Mendel: The Father of Genetics…Unknown to Darwin
In 1865, a sequestered Austrian monk published an obscure scientific paper in, of all things, a regional bee-keepers journal. Like Darwin, originally, Mendel had no formal scientific qualifications, only a strong curiosity and interest in the pea plants he tended in the monastery garden. He had wondered about the predominant colors of the peas from those plants, green and yellow, and pondered the possible mechanisms which could determine the color produced by a particular plant. To determine this, he concocted a series of in-breeding experiments to find out more. After exhaustive trials using pea color, size of plant, and five other distinguishing characteristics of pea plants, Mendel found that the statistics of inheritance involved distinct numerical ratios, as for example, a “one-in-four chance” for a specific in-breeding outcome. The round numbers present in Mendel’s experimental results suggested the existence of distinct, discrete genetic mechanisms at work – what Darwin vaguely had termed “gemmules.” Mendel’s 1865 paper describing his findings, and the work behind it cements Mendel’s modern reputation as the “Father of Genetics.” Incredibly and unfortunately virtually no one took serious notice of his paper until it was re-discovered in 1900, thirty-five years after its publication, by the English geneticist William Bateson!
Original offprints (limited initial printings for the author) of Mendel’s paper are among the rarest and most desirable of historical works in the history of science, selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars on the rare book/manuscript market. We know that only forty were printed and scarcely half of these have been accounted for. Question: Did Mendel send an offprint of his pea plant experiments to Charles Darwin in 1865, well after the publication of Darwin’s groundbreaking On the Origin of Species in 1859? An uncut [meaning unopened, thus unread] offprint was presumably found among Darwin’s papers after his death, according to one Mendel reference source. Certainly, no mention of it was ever made by Charles Darwin.
It is an intriguing thought that the key, missing component of Darwin’s natural selection theory as espoused in his Origin of Species possibly resided unread and unnoticed on Darwin’s bookshelf! And is it not a shame that Mendel lived out his life in the abbey essentially unknown and without due credit for his monumental work in the new science of genetics, a specialty which he founded?
Darwin’s Reluctance to Publish His Theory Nearly Cost Him His Due Credit
Darwin finally revealed his theory of natural selection to the public and the scientific community at large in 1859 with the book publication of On the Origin of Species. In fact, the central tenets of the book had congealed in Darwin’s mind long before, by 1844. He had held the framework of his theory close to the vest for all that time! Why? Because to espouse evolutionary ideas in the middle of the nineteenth century was to invite scorn and condemnation from creationists within many religions. No one was more averse to a more secular universe which promoted the notion of a less personal creator, one which did not create man and animals in more or less final form (despite obvious diversity) than Emma Wedgewood Darwin, Darwin’s very religious wife. She believed in an afterlife in which she and her beloved husband would be joined together for eternity. Charles was becoming less and less certain of this religious ideal as the years went by and nature continued to reveal herself to the ever-inquiring self-made naturalist who had set out to probe her ways.
To espouse a natural world which, once its fundamental constituents were brought together, would henceforth change and regulate itself without further involvement by the Creator would be a painful repudiation of Emma’s fundamental beliefs in a personal God. For this very personal reason and because of the professional risk of being ostracized by the community of naturalists for promulgating radical, anti-religious ideas, Darwin put off publication of his grand book, the book which would insure him priority and credit for one of the greatest of all scientific conclusions.
After stalling publication for years and with his manuscript only half completed, Darwin was shocked into feverish activity on his proposed book by a paper he received on 18 June, 1858. It was from a fellow naturalist of Darwin’s acquaintance, one Alfred Russel Wallace. In his paper, Wallace outlined his version of natural selection which eerily resembled the very theory Darwin was planning to eventually publish to secure his priority. There was no doubt that Wallace had arrived independently at the same conclusions that Darwin had reached many years earlier. Wallace’s paper presented an extremely difficult problem for Darwin in that Wallace had requested that Darwin pass his [Wallace’s] paper on to their mutual friend, the pathfinding geologist, Charles Lyell.
Darwin in a Corner: Academic Priority at Stake
Over One of the Great Scientific Breakthroughs
Now Darwin felt completely cornered. If he passed Wallace’s paper on to Lyell as requested, essentially making it public, the academic community would naturally steer credit for the theory of natural selection to Wallace. On the other hand, having just received Wallace’s paper on the subject, how would it look if he, Darwin, suddenly announced publicly that he had already deciphered nature and her ways – well before Wallace had? That course of action could inspire suspicions of plagiary on Darwin’s part.
The priority stakes were as high as any since the time of Isaac Newton when he and the mathematician Gottfried Liebniz locked horns in a bitter battle over credit for development of the calculus. It had been years since Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle which began the long gestation of his ideas on natural selection. He had been sitting on his conclusions since 1844 for fear of publishing, and now he was truly cornered, “forestalled,” as he called it. Darwin, drawing on the better angels of his morose feelings, quickly proposed to Wallace that he [Darwin] would see to it that his [Wallace’s] paper be published in any journal of Wallace’s choosing. In what became a frenzied period in his life, he reached out to two of his closest colleagues and trusted confidants, Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker for advice. The two been entrusted with the knowledge of Darwin’s work on natural selection for a long time; they well understood Darwin’s priority in the matter, and he needed them now. The two friends came up with a proposal: Publish both Wallace’s paper and a synopsis by Darwin outlining his own long-standing efforts and results. The Linnean Society presented their joint papers in their scientific journal on 1 July, 1858. Fortunately for Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace was of a conciliatory nature regarding the potential impasse over priority by way of his tacit acknowledgement that his colleague had, indeed, been first to formulate his opinions on natural selection.
Nonetheless, for Darwin, the cat was out of the bag, and the task ahead was to work full-steam to complete the large book that would contain all the details of natural selection and insure his priority. He worked feverishly on his book, On the Origins of Species, right up to its publication by John Murray. The book went on sale on 22 November, 1859, and all 1250 copies sold quickly. This was an excruciating period of Darwin’s life. He was not only under unrelenting pressure to complete one of the greatest scientific books of all time, he was intermittently very ill throughout the process presumably from a systemic problem contracted during his early travels associated with the Beagle voyage. Yes, the expected controversy was to come immediately after publication of the book, but Darwin and his contentions have long weathered the storm. Few of his conclusions have not stood the test of time and modern scrutiny.
The Origin was his great book, but the book that was the origin of the Origin, his 1839 Journal of Researches always remained his favorite. Certainly, the Journal was written at a much happier time in Darwin’s life, a time flush with excitement over his prospects as a newly full-fledged naturalist. For me, the Journal brims with the excitement of travel and scientific discovery/fact-finding – the seed-corn of scientific knowledge (and new technologies). The Origin represents the resultant harvest from that germinated seed-corn.
“Endless Forms Most Beautiful” –
Natural Selection in Darwin’s Own Words
In his Introduction to the Origin, Darwin describes the essence of natural selection:
“In the next chapter, the struggle for existence amongst all organic beings throughout the world, which inevitably follows from their high geometrical powers of increase, will be treated of. This is the doctrine of Malthus, applied to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms. As many more individuals of each species are born that can possibly survive; and as, consequently, there is a frequently occurring 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.
Darwin and Religion
Charles Darwin, educated for the clergy at Cambridge, increasingly drifted away from orthodox religious views as his window on nature and her ways became more transparent to him over the decades. Never an atheist, his attitudes were increasingly agnostic as he increasingly embraced the results of his lifelong study of the natural world. The Creator, which Darwin believed in, was not, to him, the involved, shepherd of all living things in this world. Rather, he seemed more like the watchmaker who, after his watch was first assembled, wound it up and let it run on its own while retreating to the background.
Another viewpoint, which I tend to favor and which may apply to Darwin: God, whom we cannot fully know in this life, created not only all living things at the beginning, but also the entire structure of natural law (science) which dictates not only the motion of the planets, but the future course of life forms. Natural selection, hence evolution as well, are central tenants of that complete structure of natural law. The laws of nature, which permanently bear the fingerprints of the creator and his creation, thus enable the self-powered, self-regulating behaviors of the physical and natural world – without contradiction.
Charles Darwin: Humble Man and Scientific Titan
In writing this post, my re-acquaintance with Darwin has brought great joy. Some years, now, after initially reading the biographies and perusing his works, I re-discover the life and legacy which is so important to science. His body of work includes several other very important books beside his Journal and Origin. Beyond his scientific importance and the science, itself, lies the man himself – a man of very high character and superb intellect. Darwin was gifted with intense curiosity, that magical motor that drives great accomplishment in science. Passion and curiosity: Isaac Newton had them in great abundance, and so, too, did Albert Einstein. Yet, Charles Darwin was different in several respects from those two great scientists: First, he was fortunate enough to have been born to privilege and was thus comfortably able to devote his working life to science from the beginning. Second, Darwin was a very happily married man who fathered ten children, each of which he loved and doted upon. Third, Darwin’s character was impeccable in all respects. His personality was stiffened a bit by the English societal conventions prevalent then, but his humanity shows through in so many ways. His struggle with religion is one most of us can relate to.
Reading Darwin’s works is a joy both because he was an articulate, educated Englishman and because the contents of his books like the Journal and Origin are easily digestible compared to the major works of Newton and Einstein. Like Darwin himself, my favorite book of his is The Journal of Researches, sometimes referred to as the Voyage of the Beagle. What an adventure.
The “sandwalk” path around the extended property of his long-held estate, Down House. Darwin frequently traversed this closed path on solitary walks around the estate while he gathered his thoughts about matters both big and small.