Charles Darwin

"You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching," Charles Darwin recalled his father once telling him, "and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family." It was an inauspicious beginning for one of history's greatest scientists.

From Hunting Dinosaurs by Louie Psihoyos

Charles Darwin's grandfather was Erasmus Darwin, the scientist, poet, inventor, doctor and polymath. One of Erasmus's sons, Charles, planned to become a doctor like his father, but he died from an infection after accidentally cutting himself during an autopsy. So Erasmus's younger son, Robert, dutifully followed in his older brother's footsteps. In turn, Robert expected his own son — whom he named after his late brother — to practice medicine, too. But the Charles Darwin who would become famous couldn't stomach cadaver dissection. He couldn't stomach surgery, either. In his autobiography, he recounted two occasions when he tried and failed to observe operations, and the patients' own suffering played a part, "this being long before the blessed days of chloroform." Perhaps it was then, realizing his son might never turn out to be a doctor, that the exasperated Robert Darwin delivered the rat-catching speech.

Charles Darwin's mother died when he was little and, though he was cared for by his older sisters, and close to his baby sister Catty, he was sent away to boarding school soon afterwards. The school was close to home, however, and the young Charles would walk home on the weekends to conduct chemistry experiments with his fun-loving brother Ras. The two later attended classes at Edinburgh, but Charles moved on to Cambridge, where he found a mentor in the young professor John Henslow. Then Darwin got the chance to set sail aboard the Beagle. Despite misgivings about his son's lack of direction, Robert Darwin consented to let Charles go. Charles expected to return to England and become a country gentleman and parson. (He halfway succeeded — he remained a country gentleman the rest of his days.) His role on the voyage was, in a large part, to serve as company for Captain Robert FitzRoy, who evidently selected the young man after interviewing several candidates.

FitzRoy had a good reason to select his co-traveler with care. The real role that person had to fill was saving him from suicidal despair. The need for such a lifeline wasn't as melodramatic as it might sound. A previous captain of the ship had killed himself at Tierra del Fuego, depressed by worthless charts, a sickly crew, and relentlessly miserable weather. And despite his own privileged background, FitzRoy feared he might do what some of his relatives had done; the family had a history of suicide. He arrived home intact, but many years after the voyage, FitzRoy did indeed take his own life.

Many descriptions of Darwin and FitzRoy have portrayed FitzRoy as pious and disapproving of the unorthodox young Darwin, but that really wasn't the case. Darwin took the Bible pretty seriously at that point, while FitzRoy actually entertained doubts about its accuracy. The captain also presented Darwin with the first volume of Lyell's Principles of Geology. Early on, the biggest obstacle to the young men's friendship appeared to be Darwin's nose. A fervent phrenologist, FitzRoy suspected that Darwin's nose revealed a constitution too weak for an extended voyage, but Darwin later recalled that he persuaded FitzRoy that "my nose had spoken falsely," and the captain relented.

The noise from the insects is so loud, that it may be heard even in a vessel anchored several hundred yards from the shore; yet within the recesses of the forest a universal silence appears to reign. To a person fond of natural history, such a day as this, brings with it a deeper pleasure than he ever can hope again to experience.

So wrote the happy young Darwin after coming ashore in South America. Part of his ecstasy might have been from getting his queasy stomach off a rocking boat.

Darwin enjoyed considerable favoritism under FitzRoy's command. The ship's senior surgeon, Robert McCormick, was supposed to serve as the official naturalist, but Darwin slowly edged him out. On one occasion, FitzRoy sent a couple small boats to inspect a tiny island. Darwin got to ride in the first boat with FitzRoy and see all the delicious sights. Arriving in the second boat, McCormick only got an order to catch some fish for dinner. Even worse, Darwin started assembling his own collection of natural history specimens and, unlike the surgeon, he could retain ownership of what he collected because he was wealthy enough to pay his own way on the ship. (And Darwin collected with relish, bringing back more than 1,500 bottled specimens and nearly 4,000 dried specimens.) McCormick eventually quit the Beagle in disgust. It wasn't the only time Darwin enjoyed preferential treatment; some of his fellow students at Cambridge had resented the favor bestowed on him by Henslow, but Darwin's enthusiasm likely matched the favorable treatment.

Although Darwin once described the captain as "affected with strong peculiarities of temper," the two remained good friends throughout the voyage and for years afterwards. The worst argument Darwin and FitzRoy ever did have was over slavery. Darwin was a passionate abolitionist. FitzRoy, at the time of the voyage, was not. To tolerate sharing such close quarters, the two later avoided discussing the topic. It wasn't until FitzRoy got orthodox religion that he and Darwin had a falling out. The relationship also soured over FitzRoy's feeling that Darwin gave him too little credit for the Beagle trip when the two were publishing their memoirs of the voyage.

Darwin always considered the Beagle voyage the defining experience of his life, and he was right; it provided him with the evidence that would forever change biology. It may also have ruined his health. Some historians have speculated that a bite from a poisonous insect during the trip might have been the cause of his chronic illness in later years, but he could have suffered from another problem (or problems) altogether. He might have had an ulcer, diverticulitis, or gall-bladder disease — or all three. It also became the situation everyone expected, and guaranteed his wife's gentle nursing. One of Darwin's granddaughters recalled, "The trouble was that in my grandparents' house it was a distinction and a mournful pleasure to be ill." Whatever the case, Darwin felt his health was never the same after the Beagle trip.

Though never quite the same, Darwin was well enough long enough to court and marry his cousin Emma Wedgwood. Their courtship wasn't particularly exciting, but they remained devoted to each other for the rest of their lives. At first, they lived in a tall, skinny house in London, nicknamed Macaw Cottage for its too-bright interior decoration. But their rapidly growing family soon prompted a move. They found a "good, very ugly house with 18 acres" about 15 miles outside of London, near the village of Downe, which added an E to its name to distinguish itself from County Down, Ireland. The Darwins didn't care so much about the spelling, and just referred to their home Down House. But they did care about the house, and immediately began making improvements. Many improvements included expanding the living quarters; one improvement involved installing a removable wooden trough down the stairs so the children could slide down it. Outside were orchards, gardens, greenhouses, even a sandwalk where Darwin could mull over his hypotheses on afternoon walks.

Down House. Photo by Michon Scott.

Though happy at Down House, Darwin spent much of the rest of his life fretting over his own poor health and that of his children. He wondered if, being first cousins, he and Emma hadn't passed constitutional weaknesses along to their children. Marriages between cousins were commonplace in the Darwin and Wedgwood clans — as they were in many upper-crust families at the time. For the most part, the situation didn't concern the upper crust, but it worried Darwin, whose botany experiments revealed less vigor in self-fertilized plants than in cross-fertilized plants. In his The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication book, he even titled one chapter "On the Good Effects of Crossing, and on the Evil Effects of Close Interbreeding." He petitioned (unsuccessfully) to include questions on consanguineous marriages in the 1871 census form. As for Darwin's own family, a study of the Darwin-Wedgwood dynasty suggests that marrying within the family did have an adverse effect. Three of Darwin's 10 children died before the age of 10, and some of the survivors later suffered from infertility. Nevertheless, Darwin had 25 grandchildren, and as of 2009, had more than 100 living descendants.

Pure volcano. A mantle of hot bare rock. 'Nothing could be less
inviting. A broken field of black basaltic lava
thrown into most rugged waves and crossed
by fissures.' Lava tubes, tuff cones and bright,
red-orange crabs. A land iguana! One saffron
leathery elbow, powdery as lichen, sticking out
-Ruth Padel
"On Not Thinking About Variation in Tortoise Shell"
Darwin: A Life in Poems

Legend holds that Darwin happened upon one of science's most important theories when the Beagle visited the Galapagos Islands, but if Darwin had a Eureka moment, it probably didn't happen on his trip. Although he observed ground finches with deep and wide beaks, cactus finches with long and pointy beaks, and warbler finches with trim and pointy beaks, he didn't organize his notes about them very well while traveling, and had to rely on others to clarify his records after the trip. Moreover, Darwin was not the first person to propose evolution; it was widely discussed — at least in scientific circles — long before he published any of his theories. The question was, how did evolution occur? Charles Darwin is a household name because he proposed a viable mechanism for evolution, namely natural selection.

Here's how natural selection works: In any population, there will be variations. Individuals born with certain characteristics, e.g., strong legs, keen eyesight, good camouflage, will enjoy an advantage over their peers. If these individuals can pass these traits on to their offspring, their offspring will enjoy the same advantages. If the surrounding environment gradually changes, it may come to pass that new characteristics are more advantageous than old ones, for instance, a new color that makes better camouflage. As the environment changes, individuals with these new characteristics do better, live longer and produce more offspring until the population eventually looks very different from its original version. If the population changes enough to satisfy some taxonomist, it will be classified as a new species. In other words, new species arise when the environment favors new characteristics over old ones.

What sounds pretty simple was in fact controversial for Darwin's time (and it still is today in some parts of the Western world). His theory essentially stated that life on earth is the result of billions of years of adaptations to changing environments. What this theory implied, and what Darwin stated more clearly in his book The Descent of Man, is that humans, like every other organism on earth, are the result of evolution. In short, Darwin's idea was unflattering. Even worse, it contradicted what was known as natural theology, the belief that nature is evidence of God's kindness; Darwin realized that the "struggle for existence" often had cruel consequences, pointing out that sweetly singing birds were always eating insects or seeds, and "constantly destroying life." Thomas Malthus's An Essay on the Principle of Population — a gloomy treatise describing any unchecked population's tendency to gallop past the capacity of its food supply — likely influenced the theory of natural selection.

Darwin's theory also conflicted with the 19th-century confidence in the "designfulness" that organisms exhibited for their environments, a design that looked intentional. Through extensive research, Darwin found many instances of imperfect adaptation, including superfluous organs unable to fulfill their apparent functions (toothbuds in whale embryos, the human appendix). He also found striking similarities across a wide variety of organisms:

We cannot believe that the same bones in the arm of the monkey, in the fore leg of the horse, in the wing of the bat, and in the flipper of the seal, are of special use to these animals. We may safely attribute these structures to inheritance.

Peacock at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Photo by Michon Scott.

Another contemporary notion Darwin disputed was that animals we find attractive — birds with beautiful plumage, for instance — were put on earth precisely for our enjoyment. In Descent of Man, Darwin documented dozens of examples of what is today known as sexual selection. Those pretty features, he found, weren't designed to make humans happy; they evolved to make their avian owners more attractive to the opposite sex.

Darwin could have published his theory of evolution in the early 1840s, but something stopped him in his tracks. In 1844, Robert Chambers anonymously published Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, a quasi-scientific book supporting evolution. The reaction to it was fierce. One of Darwin's own mentors (Adam Sedgwick) and one of his friends (Thomas Henry Huxley, then opposed to transmutationism) wrote scornful reviews. Historians differ on whether this episode caused Darwin to put his own manuscript on hold. Besides the harsh response to Vestiges, another factor in Darwin's thoughts may have been the tumultuous political landscape in mid-19th-century England. Chartists (members of a working-class empowerment movement) were demanding such radical concessions as the right for every adult male to vote, and the abolition of property-ownership requirements for membership in Parliament. Landed gentry, if Darwin and his friends could be called as much, were nervous, and progressive-sounding theories didn't help.

Whatever the cause of Darwin's delay, it likely worked to his advantage as he built a stronger case for evolution. What did he really know, he asked himself, about comparative anatomy? He had to find out. As the years passed, he kept gathering evidence, focusing on barnacles and later on pigeons. (His suspicion that all domestic pigeon breeds likely descended from the rock pigeon, or Columba livia, has been supported by 21st-century studies of pigeon DNA.) He slowly began compiling a massive opus on his theory, something that would fill multiple volumes when complete. Then, in 1858, he was nearly scooped. The eager young Alfred Russel Wallace sent Darwin a copy of his own manuscript on species change. Darwin found himself reviewing a document that read like an eloquent abstract of the book he was still (very) slowly compiling.

United Kingdom Royal Mint £2 Coin, issued 2008

In the late 20th century, a handful of historians started suggesting that Darwin's behavior at this juncture ranged somewhere from less than completely honorable to odious. Their argument is that he received Wallace's letter and manuscript, kept them secret for two weeks while hastily revised his own theory to better fit with the younger naturalist's explanation, then lied to his friends about the delivery date. Few respected historians ever took that story seriously, and a study published at the end of 2011 debunked the claim by documenting the journey of Wallace's letter and essay from Indonesia to England.

All the same, Wallace's manuscript couldn't have arrived at a worse time. Three of Darwin's children were critically ill, and one did not survive the illness. Meanwhile, Darwin despised himself for wanting priority, and still wanted priority. In the midst of all this, his friends tactfully arranged a compromise in which Wallace's paper and some of Darwin's writings showing his own discovery of natural selection were read at the same Linnean Society meeting, on July 1, 1858. Darwin followed up a year later with a book.

Once he finally sat down to write his book, Darwin carefully laid out the arguments against his theory. Rather than setting up a straw man he could easily knock down, he stated the opposing view with care. He then answered the arguments not with sarcasm, but with evidence. Darwin had long made a habit of paying attention to inconvenient facts, and this helped him anticipate his critics.

The book started out as an abstract. He envisioned something like an article for the journal published by the Linnean Society, perhaps a dozen pages long. Then it was 40 pages. Then it was 500. Even that was much shorter than the tome he had originally planned, so he proposed a title that sought to reflect it's scaled-back status: An Abstract of an Essay on the Origin of Species and Varieties through Natural Selection. His publisher removed the "abstract of an essay" bit, which he didn't believe would improve sales. The publisher and Darwin settled on On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. A later edition was simply titled The Origin of Species.

Though there's little doubt that Darwin developed the theory of natural selection independently — and assembled a library of evidence to support it — he was not the first to propose it. After he published Origin in 1859, Darwin learned of others who had described some form of natural selection in obscure publications earlier in the 19th century. In later editions of the book, Darwin acknowledged more than 30 predecessors in evolutionary theory, including Patrick Matthew and William Wells. He even added the name of Richard Owen, a fervent anti-evolutionist, to the list. Recent research has shown that the geologist James Hutton also anticipated the theory, though Darwin almost certainly never knew that.

United Kingdom Royal Mail Mint Stamps, issued February 12, 2009

Despite the evidence Darwin marshaled, his theory didn't enjoy overwhelming acceptance among scientists until the 20th century. Ironically, while some refused to accept Darwin's theories, others were all too happy to accept his teachings — and exploit them. Another myth attached to Darwin is that he coined the phrase "survival of the fittest." He didn't (Herbert Spencer did, and Spencer actually believed in Lamarck's explanation of evolution more than natural selection). Darwin developed the theory of natural selection to explain differences between species, but many of his contemporaries, including Spencer, and Darwin's own cousin Francis Galton, used his ideas to promote Social Darwinism and eugenics. (Social Darwinism maintains that certain groups of people are poorer than others and more likely to be used as slave labor because they're "less evolved" and therefore inferior.)

Modern-day creationists' evolving arsenal against Darwin is to accuse him of racism, and point to Social Darwinism to make their case. But racism masquerading as science didn't get its start with Social Darwinism. Before that, it thrived in the form of the "Great Chain of Being." Moreover, Darwin's work, some science historians contend, took on the issue of slavery; while slave owners conveniently believed that blacks and whites had been created separately, Darwin assembled evidence showing common ancestry. Decades before the idea would be remotely palatable to most of his fellow European naturalists, he proposed that humankind originated in Africa. In The Descent of Man, first published in 1871, he wrote:

In each great region of the world the living mammals are closely related to the extinct species of the same region. It is therefore probable that Africa was formerly inhabited by extinct apes closely allied to the gorilla and chimpanzee; and as these two species are now man's nearest allies, it is somewhat more probable that our early progenitors lived on the African Continent than elsewhere.

Furthermore, he proposed:

Although the existing races of man differ in many respects, as in colour, hair, shape of skull, proportions of the body, &c., yet if their whole organisation be taken into consideration they are found to resemble each other closely in a multitude of points. . . . it is extremely improbable that they should have been independently acquired by aboriginally distinct species or races.

Still, it would be misleading to paint Darwin as something like a modern-day liberal. He deplored slavery, but overlooked the Victorian class system that kept many of his fellow Britons in a state of relentless poverty. He argued that members of the aristocracy looked prettier than the rest because they could pick out better-looking spouses from all the other classes. Like other Victorian men, he considered his own society superior to others, and considered men superior to women — all the while he relied on his daughter Henrietta to edit his manuscripts.

The theory of natural selection wasn't Darwin's only contribution to science. He devoted much of his life to one study or another, and he after he married, he often engaged his family in his research. When his children were infants, he scrutinized their expressions, including his observations in his 1872 book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. When the kids were older, he enlisted their help in conducting experiments; to study cross-pollination, Darwin had them sprinkle bumblebees with flour and chase after the bugs to see where they headed next.

Even as a young man, Darwin made wide-ranging contributions to science. While aboard the Beagle, his observations led him to ponder the formation of coral atolls, and lay the foundations for modern theories on coral reefs. It's possible he might have enjoyed a distinguished career in geology even if he hadn't discovered natural selection; he was elected secretary of the Geological Society of London in 1838 and served three years, editing papers for publication in the society's Proceedings. But he made the occasional geological blunder as well. Darwin was initially critical of Agassiz's Ice Age theory, believing icebergs — not glaciers — were responsible for many modern landforms. In the fact of mounting evidence, however, Darwin eventually recanted and supported Agassiz. (Agassiz never returned the favor by supporting evolution.)

From Darwin and the Barnacle by Rebecca Stott

In 1846, in his effort to develop his competence in comparative anatomy, he began working on monographs about cirripedes (marine invertebrates including barnacles). Darwin's interest in barnacles began during his Beagle voyage, when he discovered a tiny burrowing barnacle, illustrated at right, in a conch shell. Darwin's casual curiosity transmogrified into an eight-year commitment during which he dissected hundreds of barnacles, established friendships throughout the science community, published four volumes and became the world's foremost barnacle expert. His cirripede research won him the Royal Medal and even the admiration of Richard Owen, the man who would become his nemesis later in life. Too bad the tedious project won barnacles Darwin's lasting contempt; at one point he wrote a friend that he hated barnacles "as no man ever did before." Although convinced that species change over time, Darwin shrewdly avoided evolutionary theory in his cirripede monographs, deciding to first establish a reputation as a scrupulous researcher. By the time he published Origin, he had already won the respect of scientists who might otherwise have ignored his work.

10 pound note
Bank of England £10 Note

Despite poor health, Darwin enjoyed a pretty comfortable existence, able to live off the family fortune while he pursued his research. He was indulgent with his children, generous with his friends and kind to his domestic staff. Like many of us, he didn't care for his own likeness, remarking about one photo of himself, "If I really have as bad an expression as my photograph gives me, how I can have one single friend is surprising." After his death, he was remembered more fondly than he could have imagined. In the words of modern paleontologist Richard Fortey, "He is celebrated in Darwin's finch, fish, frog, amphisbaenid, gecko, barnacle, sea slug, snail, beetle, cricket and the lowly thrip (and many more insects besides); two mice . . ." His likeness appears on the £10 note, the £2 coin, postage stamps and trading cards. In perhaps the greatest mark of contemporary chic, Darwin became the topic of a comic-book-format biography, distributed free of charge to students around the time of his 200th birthday.

Darwin's last paper focused on the movement of freshwater bivalves between water bodies, and gave the example of a clam clamped to the leg of a water beetle. Darwin received the beetle and its bivalve cargo from an amateur naturalist named Walter Crick. Darwin died within weeks. Walter Crick's grandson, Francis Crick, would uncover the structure of DNA 70 years later.

Contrary to what some modern creationists contend, Darwin had no deathbed conversion to Christianity, and issued no last-minute retraction of his theory. His daughter Henrietta, who was there when he died, later wrote an article "in the interest of truth" refuting the claims of evangelist Lady Hope, who said she found Henrietta's father reading the Bible and singing hymns during his last days. (His son Francis disputed Hope's claim to have even visited the Darwin home.) Although Darwin's theory of natural selection posed perhaps the greatest challenge to a literal belief in scripture, members of the Royal Society of London arranged for his burial in Westminster Abbey. The move was partly in recognition of his remarkable achievements, and partly to mitigate thorny relations between science and religion. Darwin had always refused to discuss his own beliefs about a supreme being in public, once writing to his friend Asa Gray, "I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton." Yet he closed The Origin of Species on a more inspirational note:

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.

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