Perhaps no single person has had a greater impact on our conception of the natural sciences than Charles Darwin. Indeed, his theories regarding the competition for scarce resources, adaptability, and natural selection have been co-opted by disciplines beyond botany. Amazingly, Darwin was not a professional botanist; rather he read much and taught himself by observing.
Darwin was born 200 years ago today into an illustrious family (his grandfathers were Josiah Wedgwood, as famous a potter as his own father Thomas, and Erasmus Darwin, a physician, poet, inventor and philosopher). He was a modest man, plagued throughout his life by doubts and ill health. His first book, The Voyage of the Beagle, was published in 1839 not long after he returned from a five-year sea journey along the coast of south America. It was on this trip that the young man observed the phenomenon of bio-diversity (in finch populations) that sparked his later thinking. Although Darwin entered his first insights regarding natural selection in his notebook on September 28, 1838, he kept his ideas to himself for virtually the next 20 years. In the intervening decades, Darwin’s beloved daughter Annie died (1851), he was awarded the Royal Medal for his study of barnacles (1853), and Alfred Russel Wallace published an article on the relationship between varieties and species. The latter sent Darwin into a fit of consternation. “I cannot tell whether to publish now would not be base and paltry,” he commented. Nevertheless, the article galvanized him to finish his manuscript. He presented his ideas formally at a meeting of the Linnean Society (named for the 18th century Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus) in 1858. His seminal work On the Origin of Species (by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life) was finally published late the following year. Darwin was 50.
On the Origin of Species laid out the theory of natural selection through copious observation and minutely-recorded data. It was a milestone in naturalist thought, but it was not created in an intellectual vacuum. Extremely well-read, Darwin built his ideas upon those of his grandfather Erasmus, botanist John Stevens Henslow, as well as geologists Adam Sedgwick and Charles Lyell, Thomas Robert Malthus‘ influential work An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798). His contribution postulated that a species’ struggle for survival (competition for scarce resources) led to “natural design, that is survival of the fittest (a phrase actually first coined in 1864 by Herbert Spencer, philosopher and political theorist) and the “principal of divergence,” which suggested that diversification and adaptation led to greater surviving numbers of the species. Although Darwin could show that variation in species indisputably occurred, he had no idea how it happened. That would be left for 20th-century geneticists to explain.
Given the puritanical times in which he lived, Darwin stopped short in The Origin of Species of suggesting that humans had evolved through natural selection from some lesser life form. But he eventually took up the cause in his subsequent book The Descent of Man, published in 1871. One can only wonder what Darwin would think about the ongoing dispute in certain 21st-century quarters regarding his theory of evolution.
Darwin died in 1882. He is buried in Westminster Abbey very close to Isaac Newton.
Happy Birthday Charles Darwin! 12 February 1809—19 April 1882
The Sand Walk, Darwin’s “Thinking Path.”
Portraits of Darwin
The Man Who Wasn’t Darwin (National Geographic)