The year 2009 is the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Darwin. Outline his career, and assess his achievements and importance
How did life originate? Why is it so diverse? What is the purpose of our existence? For many intelligent people, Charles Darwin (1809-1882) produced the most credible answers to these questions and is therefore is a man of huge importance to history.
Darwin initially studied medicine, but disappointed his father who sent him to study theology at Cambridge. Instead of being ordained, he then took a post as a naturalist on board HMS Beagle, which set sail to chart the South American coastline. He spent the five-year voyage collecting rocks, fossils, animals and plants, which he sent back to Cambridge.
The geologist Charles Lyell had already convinced Darwin that the Earth was much, much older than the few thousand years biblical scholars had predicted. During five weeks in the Galapagos, Darwin noticed differences in the shells of giant tortoises and between mocking birds from different islands. They were clearly descended from a common ancestor and had spread to different islands where they had adapted to eat the food available.
In England, Darwin’s collection was analysed by a team of experts. The ornithologist John Gould helped him notice the finches from the Galapagos. Some had stout beaks for eating seeds and nuts; others had beaks ‘designed’ to eat insects or fruit. It appeared that animals had evolved to eat what they could and had adapted to their diverse environments. Yet he still did not know how evolution worked.
The ‘eureka’ moment came in 1838 when he read an essay by economist Thomas Malthus on human population growth and food supply. Darwin suddenly realised that all life was a competition for survival. Characteristics that enhance the change of reproduction spread and those that are at a disadvantage die out. Just as a farmer selects certain characteristics when breeding livestock, nature applies a similar process, albeit a much slower one. He called this process ‘natural selection.’
In 1842 the Darwins moved to Down House, Kent, where Darwin studied everything around him, from climbing plants to barnacles, from earth worms to fancy pigeons – all whilst bringing up seven children! Despite chronic illness picked up in South America, he worked prodigiously hard, building up evidence for ‘transmutation’, as he called evolution at the time.
He was in no hurry to tell the world of his vision, so at odds with religion. He feared for his friendships and for his devout wife, Emma, who feared for his soul. ‘It would be,’ he said, ‘like confessing to a murder.’ But he stopped attending church.
In 1858, Alfred Russell Wallace, another naturalist, sent him a similar idea about natural selection. Darwin now had to hurry to write ‘On The Origin of the Species…’ which was published in 1859.
Darwin’s notable enemies included Richard Owen, the driving force behind the Natural History Museum, and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, who intervened to prevent him getting the knighthood recommended for him by Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston. However, when he died in 1882 he was buried in Westminster Abbey – twenty feet from Sir Isaac Newton.
Since Darwin, science has begun to reveal the mechanics of evolution. At the end of the 19th Century, Mendel discovered laws of inheritance and in 1953 Crick and Watson discovered the structure of DNA, the genetic material. In 2003, a complete map of the human genome was completed. However, it his hard to imagine that any future scientific discovery will overshadow Darwin’s Big Idea: the coherent explanation of life itself.