I started writing a different post this morning, one that highlighted some of my own research, but I realised a paragraph and a half into my post that it wasn’t going to happen for me today – so you will have to wait for that one. In the mean time, it was Charles Darwin’s birthday yesterday (in UK time, the day before here in Australia), and seeing as I said I would introduce you to some of the great scientists of the world, it seems only fitting to begin with a man whose legacy is now larger than life. This is less a scientific piece and more of an admiration/reflection, but I hope you enjoy it anyway.
“When on board the H.M.S. Beagle, as a naturalist, I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the inhabitants of South America, and the geological relationships of the present to the past inhabitants of that continent. These facts seemed to me to throw some light on the origin of species – that mystery of mysteries, as it has been called by one of our greatest philosophers. On my return home, it occurred to me, in 1837, that something might perhaps be made out on this question by patiently accumulating and reflecting on all sorts of facts which could possibly have any bearing on it.” – Charles Darwin, 1859.
This is the introduction to one of the world’s most influential, and indeed most controversial, books of all time. Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection: or, the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life’ – now known simply as ‘The Origin of Species’ transformed our understanding of life on Earth, and established the foundation of evolutionary theory. In 2015 I was lucky enough to partake in the Charles Darwin Scholarship Programme in the UK, which allowed me to visit many places which were key to the creation of The Origin of Species, but also gave me the opportunity to learn about Darwin the way most other people cannot.
On the Origin of Species
Darwin was a true academic and natural philosopher. Coming from a wealthy family he was gifted with a vast amount of property and inheritance, which allowed him to spend much of his time deliberating, arguing and grappling with his ideas, rather than adopting what we would classify now as a ‘job’. From my visit to Shrewsbury, England, it was clear to me that Darwin had somewhat of an enchanted childhood. His family home, The Mont, was littered with exotic plants his father and grandfather had collected from across the globe, while his home backed onto the River Severn (and still does), surrounded by forest, grass paddocks and an incredible view from the top of Shrewsbury. Exploring around his father’s property seemed to spark his interest in the natural world.
I won’t cover much biographical information here, because you can read that on other sites, but just quickly – Darwin dropped out of medical school and instead went on to study at Christ’s College, under the guidance of his father who encouraged him to become a parson. This is where he met his mentor John Stephens Henslow, who recommended he accompany Captain Robert Fitzroy on a five year journey aboard the HMS Beagle. Infamously, this is the trip that cemented Darwin’s interest in what is now evolutionary theory, but there are some misconceptions about how his theories formed – the most persistent of which is the story of the finches. It is a broad misconception that the finches served as Darwin’s ‘aha!’ moment (aha! in this case meaning the point of revelation or epiphany; a celebrated science term, of course). The Finches were undoubtedly an interest of Darwin’s, but far more of his theories and keen interest arose from studying bivalves, geology, fossils and grass (I will revisit this last one in a moment). By the time Darwin’s finch analysing days had begun, his theories on evolution and natural selection were already forming. His collection and study of finches provided further evidence to his theories of natural selection, but were not the smoking gun, as we are often told today. (Pers. comm. Museum of Natural History, London).
Many of Darwin’s collections still reside at the Museum of Natural History in London, where I was lucky enough to visit ‘backstage’ and see his personal collections. One of my favourite stories, told by a museum collections officer, was of the near loss of the Darwin collection during World War 2. During the War, the museum was bombed, and consequently many collections were decimated. The story goes, however, that the Darwin collection was sitting in a stairwell in the museum, awaiting cataloguing and storage when the bombs fell. The strength of the stairwell saved the majority of the Darwin Collection, which we would not have today if someone was more diligent!
The Grass Paddock
One of my favourite moments from my Darwin trip was my visit to Down House to see Darwin’s Thinking Path (the path he walked every day), as well as a big, empty grass paddock. These two things may not seem equally glorious, but let me assure you, I have a selfie with each of them, and I hold them to equal esteem. One of Darwin’s most indisputable collections of evidence to support his theories came from studying the grass paddock across the way from Down House, which he walked past every day when visiting his Thinking Path. He could easily study sections of the grass, recognising that the species richness and abundance of identifiable grasses within certain plots would change often, depending on certain pressures. Darwin spent much of his time intently studying the grass within his plots, which provided substantial evidence for natural selection and succession theory, which was critical to the production of his work.
Natural Selection and God
One of the most important aspects of The Origin of Species that many people forget today, is that it took Darwin over 20 years to publish. Apart from taking many years to collect specimens, collate ideas and communicate with his peers, Darwin also struggled substantially with the conflicting nature of his theory of evolution and his identity as a Christian. More so than this, he struggled with the devout nature of his wife, Emma’s dedication to the Church; he was acutely aware of upsetting her, and damaging their reputations in the broader community. One can only imagine the inner conflict that plagued Darwin during this period, but interestingly enough, it was not solely his dedication to his scientific theories that deteriorated, and eventually ended, his Christian identity. While I was in Down House in Kent, not far from London, we heard countless stories from Darwin’s personal life. One of these stories was that of the death of his youngest daughter, Anne. With the passing of Anne, Darwin began to question the legitimacy of a God who would not protect his young child, and ultimately, the grief and anger Darwin felt at the loss of his daughter shredded his faith in God.
The impact of the role of Church and God in Darwin’s life severely bridled the progress of The Origin of Species and the associated theories of evolution by natural selection, particularly when Darwin suggests that apes and people share a common ancestor. It is incredible (to me, at least) to think that this book, which was labelled as inflammatory and deceptive over 150 years ago is still hotly debated and despised in certain parts of today’s community. There are still many religious spokespeople and interest groups, as well as media outlets and organisations who vehemently depose modern evolutionary theory, and often Darwin is blamed. Recently, the current Pope has recognised that evolution is indisputable, though with some notable entanglements with theology. Throughout my posts I will certainly attempt to stay objective about my subject matter, however in some instances I will share my appreciation for certain aspects, and this is certainly one of them. The consolidation between church and science, particularly one that can integrate science into the deep values and beliefs of the religious community, I feel can only be a positive thing.
Alfred Russell Wallace
This aspect of Darwin’s story is perhaps the most debated. One of the stories I was lucky enough to hear while in the UK, came from Darwin’s Great Great Great Grandson (or F4 in his words – genetics joke!) Randal Keynes. The stories surrounding Alfred Russell Wallace vary widely, from Wallace being the first to unravel the origin of species, to being a vicious rival of Darwin’s – racing to complete their manuscripts. Alternatively, you can believe the story we heard from Randal, which seems to hold a little more substance, and certainly more heart than the bitter rivals story. Wallace held Darwin in the highest esteem, which I believe is a notable truth from the many correspondence they shared. It is also recorded that Wallace and Darwin both exchanged ideas and theories (along with a man called Huxley) while establishing their theories of natural selection together, as well as jointly submitting a tremendous amount of notes and records on the evidence they had collected to support their theory. In the end, it was told to me, Wallace insisted that Darwin submit his manuscript of The Origin of Species to the Academy of Science, as Wallace’s admiration for Darwin outweighed his hunger for scientific and academic kudos. So perhaps all those people who argue that Darwin stole Wallace’s limelight have a point – but in reality, Darwin and Wallace were very close friends. Wallace seems to have been a gentleman in the highest order, and perhaps my Eastern long neck turtle Charlie (Charles!) should have been called Wallace. But I can guarantee that the very next turtle I adopt will certainly be called Wallace, because Darwin without Wallace is no Darwin at all.
Throughout this enormous musing, I assume you have noted my admiration and scientific ‘soft spot’ for Charles Darwin, the father of modern evolution theory. He was a naturalist in the purest sense of the word, in that he could find inspiration from many aspects of his life, and accumulated and devised tremendous thoughts through interacting with the natural world. He was also a dignified and careful scientist, who methodically collected data and observations to carefully craft his theories. He may not have correctly predicted every aspect of evolution (natural selection for example), which we are now coming to recognise, but he certainly blazed a fantastic trail to follow. One of my favourite concepts to consider when thinking about evolution and the theory of natural selection is the concept of chance and the role of chaos, probability and mutation in evolution. This concept is discussed eloquently by my absolute favourite Scientist Dr Greg Graffin, but that is a post for another day.
If you are interested in a little clever writing, I found this google book in my travels this morning. It is on my ‘to read’ list, and from the little I have read, it seems clever. Have a look at Dear Mr Darwin, and see what you think.
Natural History Museum Staff, London.
Down House and The Mount Staff and Historians.
Mr Randal Keynes.