Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Charles Robert Darwin

Behold a great man

Charles Darwin was typical of the gentleman savant of 18th/19th century Britain. An amateur meddler who, because he enjoyed financial independence through inheritance and land, could do as he pleased. And fortunately for the furtherance of science he chose biological research.

Charles Robert Darwin was born in 1809 to English landed gentry in the town of Shrewsbury, situated north-west of Tipton. Darwin was originally destined to become a physician, like his father, and began study in 1829 at Edinburgh University. However, Darwin was not enamoured with the profession and had the ungentlemanly (not a real word, but you get the drift)  habit of fainting at the sight of blood. Darwin's father thought that a change in career choice would be in order and Darwin dutifully resumed his studies and prepared for a career in the Church as an Ordained Minister. During this time Darwin developed a passion for natural history and geology and he was fortunate to come under the wing of a succession of eminent scholars. In 1831 he was awarded a BA degree in Theology. Darwin was considered a lack lustre student and perhaps a poor intellect by his father and peers. In Victorian England the route to the parish was paved with the sons of the rich who were considered not bright enough to pursue a conventional career in Medicine or Law.

Darwin's zeal to embark on a life as a 'Country Parson' was non-existent and in 1831 Darwin obtained passage as resident naturalist on HMS Beagle. For the next 5 years the Beagle would explore the Southern Atlantic before traversing the Straits of Magellan and entering the Pacific Ocean. Stopovers were frequent on the mainland and the many islands encountered en route.

As the ship's naturalist, Darwin took a keen interest in the exotic fauna he encountered. I'll not dwell too much on his research as it is not the purpose of this brief post. Needless to say his experiences whilst on the Beagle gave forth to a germ of an idea which when fully matured gave birth to his theories on natural selection and evolution. His famous book: 'Origin of the Species' was finally published in 1859. Even without his work on natural selection, Darwin would be considered an exceptional scientist due to his ground breaking work in geology and biology in general. He was the foremost authority on earthworms, beetles and animal husbandry. What is so astonishing is that he never received a formal education in the sciences. Darwin represents the last of the Great English Gentleman Naturalists.

Darwin rushed his book into print because it became known to him that he was not alone in his conclusions. The Englishman, Alfred Wallace, had also worked out the same thesis. A Gentleman's agreement was swiftly reached and papers written by the two men were presented at the Linnaean Society in 1858. How interesting that these men, working at that time and independently should arrive at the same intellectual place? Curious indeed, but not unprecedented. It is to be remembered that Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibnitz invented infinitesimal calculus at the same time. In the case of Newton and Leibnitz no gentleman's agreement was reached resulting in a nasty, permanent, petulant break between the Great Men.

In regard to the theory of evolution, all the pieces of the puzzle were available to the astute biologist of the mid 19th century. It took a genius to place all the bits of evidence into a comprehensive whole. Actually, the theory of evolution is deceptively simple, so simple that only a genius could have worked it out. So what were the great Darwinian/Wallace insights? It can be considered thusly:

It is an observation that organisms will rapidly breed until a check intervenes. Most likely this will occur due to an exhaustion of available resources, usually food.

Individuals within a species differ in their behavioural and physical characteristics and these characteristics are heritable.

Changes in the environment drive selection. Those organism best suited to a given environment, at a given time, thrive and beget more offspring than their less 'biologically fit' brethren. Thus adaptive traits become fixed in the surviving population. Over eons large scale biological change can occur in a population resulting in the formation of new species. .

That is the quintessence of evolution. The rest is mere commentary- go read.

It is difficult for modern educated folk (most at least) to imagine the impact Darwin’s theory had on the scientific community and Victorian society in general during the mid 19th century. Most scientists welcomed the theory and rapidly assimilated its implications. The established church and those of a conservative nature, or of a pious disposition (often the same thing), recoiled in horror. The advance of science was almost complete in removing the need for a deity to describe nature and natural phenomenon. The ‘God of the gaps’ had nowhere to scurry and shrivelled under the cleansing light of the scientific method (you couldn’t resist waxing lyrical, could you Flaxen?). As for poor Wallace, the man never received the credit he deserved. But this was not of Darwin’s doing. Darwin remained, always a fair, equitable man and it is not Darwin’s fault that history has been unkind to Wallace. Perhaps one day I’ll redeem and redress the balance and give fair credit to Wallace’s contribution. Or perhaps I’ll forget, who can say?

If you would like to gain insight into Darwin and 'Evolutionary Theory', consider the following links and be amazed: Darwin influences   Preamble  Evolution


  1. Good article about a clever bloke from a clever family. Thanks - I'm enjoying your trilogy.

    We used to live near Lichfield, & periodically visited Erasmus (Charles' grandad) Darwin's house. It is open to the public as an independent museum & well worth a visit. One day I'll make it to Charles pad in Kent, too.

    I don't read much fiction, but my daughter gave me a copy of "This Thing of Darkness", by Harry Thompson & I really enjoyed it. It is a historical novel written around a fictionalised biography of Robert FitzRoy - he who took command of HMS Beagle halfway through her first voyage before undertaking the more famous one with Charles Darwin as his companion. If you already have the facts & scientific background this book provides a structure to nail things to. It's easy to spot & forgive the bits of artistic licence for the sake of the overall story.


    1. Thanks for the endorsement. I'll see if I can get hold of a copy of the book you mention.

  2. FS, have you seen this?

    1. Thanks for the link. I wasn’t aware of the biography by A. N. Wilson, until now. The thrust of his book does not surprise me. At every turn he sets out to denigrate Darwin and accuse him of cruelty, plagiarism and racism. He insinuates that Darwin’s theory influenced Hitler’s National Socialism- which it did. But that is hardly Darwin’s fault. Darwin presented his theory as a scientist should. If it does not fit well with modern liberal socialist theories, so be it. Darwin should always be viewed as a product of his time and class.

      A N Wilson is a wretch of a man and a purveyor of cheap, tawdry, sensationalist, journalism. I’ve only managed to read one of his books all the way through, a supposed ‘biography’ of Jesus. Don’t bother to read the book- tis shite and chock full of errors as you would expect from a second rate intellect who can’t be bothered to undertake in depth research.

  3. Darwin also is (one way or another) responsible for the eponymous awards given posthumously to sundry cretins over the years. These have amused me greatly, and were instrumental in my taking up schadenfreude as a pastime.

    1. Aye Ted, the 'Darwin Awards', where the intellectually challenged voluntarily remove themselves from the gene pool- stops them pissing in it. Actually Ted, you have given me an idea for a post: watch this space.

    2. I watch with bated breath - and eager eyes!

  4. "It is an observation that organisms will rapidly breed ..."

    Just adjusted my glasses - organism, yes it's organism. Misread it for a moment.

    1. James, still your dirty mind- it should read: onanism.