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Darwin, Charles

Category: Scientist

Charles Robert Darwin, FRS (1809- 1882) was an English naturalist. He established that many species of life [but not necessarily all]  have descended over time by an evolutionary process that is a form of stress testing of the 'design'.  Over successive generations he found that the design is evolved in response principally to environmental factors, but also to factors like breeding patterns – in effect changes may be geared towards selection of mates.

Although his work has been widely used, it has also been comprehensively abused as well.  Some commentators have since said that he said all species were derived this way, but Darwin did not say this.  In fact he was very cautious about how he did interpret the results.  Fossil records that he examined on his travels showed huge jumps in species type, where species suddenly appear.  In reality Darwin saw  evolution as simply one part of the strategy of creation – a part that simply tests and tweaks designs, much as one might test and tweak a car design after a new one has been produced.  As he himself said

natural selection has been the main but not the exclusive means of modification”


Furthermore Darwin did not propose the evolution to be related to genes.  Given that Darwin published his theory of evolution  in his 1859 book On the Origin of Species, genes could not have played a part in his theory.  He was also not without some misgivings that the process of evolution was simply that of breeding.  The environment was clearly the driver, as pockets of living things developed differently according to their environment, almost as if the design was being deliberately tested in different ways, but towards the end of his life he still admitted to having severe doubts that breeding was necessarily the mechanism of change.  The idea of 'chance' mutations that matched the environmental circumstances worried him to the end.  The theory was too simplistic 'chance' is not that convenient.

Darwin was a premature baby.  His mother died in 1817, when he was only 8, so he had a very precarious start to life.  He was also sent to boarding school, again not a promising start.  His early interest in nature led him to neglect his medical studies at the University of Edinburgh; instead, he  learned taxidermy from John Edmonstone, a freed black slave and often sought advice from this "very pleasant and intelligent man".  He also learned how to classify plants, and assisted with work on the collections of the University Museum, one of the largest museums in Europe at the time.


His father then sent him to the University of Cambridge, which encouraged his passion for natural science.  Whilst he was there, his cousin William Darwin Fox introduced him to the popular craze for beetle collecting; Darwin pursued this zealously.

As we can see from this Darwin was a meticulous collector and  observer.   He collected and recorded and examined without any preformed hypothesis, but just for the love of collection and observation.  One key influence on his approach was John Herschel's book.  Herschel stated that the principle objective of all studies of nature is to understand the underlying laws by  inductive reasoning based on observation.  Bottom up analysis – the same principle used by Johannes Kepler.  Collect the data first [and as much data as you can], then look for patterns afterwards.

There were two other very key influences on him which were to guide much of his subsequent work.  One great influence was Paley's Natural Theology, which made an argument for divine design in nature, explaining adaptation as 'God' acting through  nature'.  In effect [and this is simplified], the functional design was that of 'God', the form based designs and their subsequent adaptations were that of 'nature', and 'nature' was not God.


Charles Lyell was also an important influence on Darwin, and in his own way as much of a pioneer as Darwin.  Both men were up against the institutionalised church view that stated that the Bible was literally true.  That there was a Father figure God who had created the universe literally in 7 days.  Lyell and other brave men like him had been trying to whittle away this bizarre misrepresentation of biblical allegory and symbolism, by proposing that creation was an ongoing process and that it had taken place over possibly millions of years.  They faced an uphill struggle.  Lyell had been instrumental in getting the ball rolling with “bold speculation on that mystery of mysteries, the replacement of extinct species by others" in other words, this was not a 7 day wonder but that species came and went and had done over some time.

HMS Beagle by Conrad Martens

After graduation,  Darwin returned home to find a letter proposing him as the naturalist for a self-funded supernumerary place on HMS Beagle with captain Robert FitzRoy. After delays, the voyage began on 27 December 1831; it lasted almost five years. As FitzRoy had intended, Darwin spent most of that time on land investigating geology and making natural history collections, while the Beagle surveyed and charted coasts. Darwin true to the principles of Herschel kept careful notes of his observations.  His taxidermy skills became invaluable and at intervals during the voyage his specimens were sent to Cambridge.  Despite suffering badly from seasickness, Darwin wrote copious notes while on board the ship.

In Bahia Blanca,  in cliffs near Punta Alta Darwin made a major find of fossil bones of huge extinct mammals beside modern seashells, indicating recent extinction with no signs of change in climate or catastrophe. It was findings such as this that made him cautious about proposing evolution as the only mechanism of change.  If an entire species, unknown to us, can go extinct so rapidly, evolution is not the only mechanism at work.  On rides with gauchos into the interior to explore geology and collect more fossils, Darwin saw stepped plains of shingle and seashells as raised beaches showing a series of elevations each with a new species appearing. He read Charles Lyell's theories and in the end decided that Lyall was correct, that species can suddenly appear in various  "centres of creation" -  entirely new species.


On the geologically new Galápagos Islands, Darwin found mockingbirds allied to those in Chile but differing from island to island. The observations he collected here were to form the basis of the theory of evolution.  In Australia, the marsupial rat-kangaroo and the platypus seemed so unusual that Darwin thought it was almost as though two distinct Creators had been at work, or to put it another way, creation is not the work of one omnipotent Creator, but a delegated act – 'nature' [what I have called the Intelligences and spirit beings]  is a Creator and Nature is a team.

Charles Lyell eagerly met Darwin for the first time on his return to England and  introduced him to the anatomist Richard Owen, who had the facilities of the Royal College of Surgeons to work on the fossil bones collected by Darwin.  The ornithologist John Gould also helped and soon announced that the Galapagos birds that Darwin had thought a mixture of blackbirds, "gros-beaks" and finches, were, in fact, twelve separate species of finches. Furthermore, he later found that the Galápagos mockingbirds from different islands were separate species, not just varieties, and what Darwin had thought was a "wren" was also in the finch group.


Darwin also consulted farmers and pigeon fanciers, relatives and children, the family butler, neighbours, colonists and former shipmates to help him understand the observations he had collected and their significance.  So in many respects Darwin was greatly helped by other people in the final classification of his observations.

Darwin moved to London to be near his work, joining Lyell's social circle, one of whom was Charles Babbage.  Babbage described God as a 'programmer of laws'. Given that Babbage was the inventor of the computer, this was quite a key idea for Darwin.  Systems of the universe that are programmed, functions that are programs, meaning that evolution may be seen as form based, but might be achieved functionally.

As more results came in from his friends and colleagues, Darwin started to speculate in his Red Notebook on the possibility that "one species does change into another" to explain the geographical distribution of living species.  Note that at this stage, he does not say how.  Later, he sketched branching descent, then a genealogical branching of a single evolutionary tree.  This tree is not the Tree of Life, but a historical view of change.


While developing his theory, Darwin also got involved in the editing and publishing of a multi-volume Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle.  Darwin also accepted the duties of Secretary of the Geological Society. Darwin's health suffered from the pressure,  he had "an uncomfortable palpitation of the heart" and eventually the strain took its toll, and he was laid up for days on end with stomach problems, headaches and heart symptoms. For the rest of his life, he was repeatedly incapacitated with episodes of stomach pains, vomiting, severe boils, palpitations, trembling and other symptoms, particularly during times of stress. Attempts at treatment had little success.

Darwin, however, did not give in.  He continued his analysis of his findings and saw that although species always breed beyond available resources, each environment favours the organism that possesses the characteristics best suited to that environment.  If an island is full of seed producing plants, seed eaters are going to survive whereas non seed eaters are eventually going to starve, even if they breed prolifically.  Put simply they will die because there is nothing for them to eat.  Once an environment becomes 'hostile' to a species, the species will cease to exist within that environment.


In October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic enquiry, 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 new species. Here, then, I had at last got a theory by which to work..."

It is the last sentence however which is still the subject of much discussion  – the result of this would be the formation of new species – because of course it does not explain how this new adaptation came to be in the first place – this new evolved species adapted to the environment.

Darwin's theory was eventually based on the process used by farmers picking the best stock in selective breeding.  Now this theory relies on there being a 'farmer', not on chance, and it also relies on this 'farmer'  selecting from the possible variants.  I think this fairly key part of Darwin's theory has been somewhat selectively forgotten by the promoters of 'Darwinism' these days.

I think it also worth mentioning that the products of our selective breeding are often totally unsuited to survival without our help.  We determine the environment best suited to our designs – a factor not forgotten by Darwin.  His subsequent research included extensive experimental selective breeding of plants and animals, finding evidence that species could be adapted, but in this he recognised that he was playing at being the creator – this was not natural selection or chance selection. 

In 1844 Darwin mentioned his theorising to the botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker.   Hooker replied "There may in my opinion have been a series of productions on different spots, & also a gradual change of species

In effect Hooker believed there were two processes going on here, development of new species suited to each 'island of environment' and then within that environment refinement took place to hone the design to make the best use of the resources.  Again, however, he made no assumptions  about how or who or what did this, and said “ I shall be delighted to hear how you think that this change may have taken place, as no presently conceived opinions satisfy me on the subject."

It gradually became clear however that Darwin could not reconcile himself to the idea that there was a 'farmer' or 'creator' in the picture.  In 1847, Hooker sent notes that provided Darwin with the calm critical feedback that he needed, but  questioned Darwin's opposition to continuing acts of creation as a solution.  Thus at the vital time, Darwin ignored the evidence, he ignored his own observations.

Perhaps what is worst is that Darwin's theories were published in haste in response to a paper from Wallace describing natural selection, and his decision to hand over what was a draft to Lyell and Hooker, was precipitated by a family crisis caused by a scarlet fever outbreak in his village in which many children had died. Darwin's baby son died of the scarlet fever and he was too distraught to attend the release of his theories – presented jointly in his absence with Wallace's. 

But once the theory was proposed there was, as it were, no going back. Darwin struggled for thirteen months suffering from ill health to turn his theory, produced under duress, into a book.  

On the Origin of Species went on sale to booksellers on 22 November 1859.  Its introduction said

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.

So in the end the biggest question – who is the farmer – was carefully avoided.  At the end of the book he concluded that:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.


Darwin continued to work for the last 22 years of his life, despite considerable distress from illness. He pressed on with experiments and research, he covered human descent from earlier animals including evolution of society and of mental abilities, he looked at decorative beauty in wildlife, and  wild orchids, studying how their flowers were adapted to attract specific moths.  As his health declined, he lay on his sickbed in a room filled with inventive experiments to trace the movements of climbing plants. Wallace, his rival in the theory of evolution turned to Spiritualism as the answer to who the farmer was.

But Darwin never did.  Darwin simply never committed himself.  At no stage of his life did he ever openly solve this problem.

In 1882, he was diagnosed with what was called "angina pectoris" which then meant coronary thrombosis and disease of the heart. He died on 19 April 1882. His last words were to his family, telling Emma

I am not the least afraid of death – Remember what a good wife you have been to me – Tell all my children to remember how good they have been to me


What gave him his inspiration?  He was born prematurely with all that entails, he used communing with nature [long nature rambles] to help him think, he suffered considerable grief.  The Darwins had ten children: two died in infancy, and Annie's death at the age of ten had a devastating effect on both parents. Charles was also a devoted father, so love also played a big part.

Religion played no part.  Darwin dismissed the idea of the Bible as history, and religion's idea of a 'benevolent single God' – a single omnipotent deity.  If such a deity existed he said, why all the pain and suffering?  Why is it that the ichneumon wasp paralyses caterpillars as live food for its eggs?  Why the horrors of parasites?  But he did believe in the concept that Babbage proposed of an Ultimate Intelligence and Nature [Intelligences] that created the systems of the universe, but this belief meant that the concept of good and evil had no meaning within this spiritual world. 

So maybe in the end he did know who the farmer was – or more correctly the farmers.


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