Darwin Discovers The Secrets of Life

Photograph of Charles Darwin aged about 65 taken by his son Leonard
Photograph of Charles Darwin aged about 65 taken by his son Leonard

by Ray Setterfield

December 27, 1831 — Royal Navy ship HMS Beagle set sail from England on this day on a five-year voyage of discovery to South America. The plan was to survey the coastline in detail and chart the harbours, enabling more detailed maps of the region.

But maps and charts were not the principal interest of one person on board. Charles Darwin had seized the chance of making the trip so that he could study the area’s animals, fossils, rocks and plants.

Darwin had been recommended for the post of naturalist on the voyage by one of his professors at Cambridge University. Taking full advantage of the opportunity he spent much of the trip on land collecting samples from regions including Brazil, Argentina and Chile, as well as the Galápagos Islands.

He carefully packed his specimens into crates and one by one sent them back to England. When he returned home in 1836 he began studying and analysing the plants and animals that he had collected – a task that would take many years.

At the end of it he was able to make the groundbreaking – and controversial – declaration that evolution occurs by a process of natural selection.

He believed that all living things on Earth, including plants, animals, and microbes, come from a common ancestor and have slowly changed over generations. They have changed over time, he suggested, through natural selection.

This meant those that fitted best into their environment had the best chance to survive and breed. Those less well adapted tended not to survive. Philosopher Herbert Spencer later coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” to describe the process.

Darwin explained his theories in his famous book, "On The Origin of Species", published in 1859. It was controversial because although today the theory of evolution by natural selection is accepted by most scientists as the best evidence-based explanation for the diversity and complexity of life on Earth, in Darwin’s time it flew in the face of the Church’s doctrine of divine creation.

Despite accusations of blasphemy Darwin was to antagonise the Church even further in 1871 with another book, "The Descent of Man". It triggered outrage in some quarters by suggesting that humans are descended from apes.

It was just too much for some American lawmakers who decided in several states to make it illegal to teach Darwin’s theory in schools. This led to the famous “Monkey Trial” of 1925 after biology teacher John T. Scopes was arrested for teaching Darwin’s theories to his students at Dayton, Tennessee.

Represented in court by top lawyer Clarence Darrow, Scopes won the argument but lost the case and was fined $100 (about $1,400 in today's money).

In the UK, the Bishop of Oxford was accused of lowering the tone of the debate when he publicly asked the biologist and anthropologist Thomas Huxley, one of Darwin's most enthusiastic supporters, whether it was through his grandfather or grandmother that he claimed descent from a monkey.

Charles Robert Darwin was born in England on February 12, 1809 – the same day that Abraham Lincoln was born in Kentucky. Darwin’s father was a wealthy society doctor and his mother Susannah was the daughter of famous potter Josiah Wedgwood.

At the age of 16 Charles became an apprentice doctor, helping his father. He then attended the University of Edinburgh Medical School before going to Cambridge University three years later.

A statue of Darwin has graced the main hall of London’s Natural History Museum since 1885. The museum’s website declares: “Darwin transformed the way we understand the natural world with ideas that, in his day, were nothing short of revolutionary.

“He gave us insight into the fantastic diversity of life on Earth and its origins, including our own as a species. He is celebrated as one the greatest British scientists who ever lived.”

Darwin died of heart failure in 1882 at the age of 73. Thousands attended his funeral in London when he was buried at Westminster Abbey.

Published: December 5, 2021
Updated: January 5, 2022

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