Charles Robert Darwin is considered by many to be the father of modern biology. He introduced the theory of evolution and natural selection to a time in which science was based of the words on the Bible. He revolutionized the way life science was studied.
Charles Darwin was born on February 12, 1809 in Shrewsbury, England. He was the fifth child of Dr. Robert Waring Darwin and Susannah Wedgwood Darwin. As a young child, he developed an interest in hunting and collecting rocks and insects. At the age of eight, barely starting day school, his mother died. His older sister Caroline soon became a mother figure to him. A year later, his father sent him and his older brother to Shrewsbury Grammar School, where they stayed for seven years. Then at the age of sixteen, he was enrolled in Edinburgh University, a highly respected medical school. After two years in the school, Charles found himself incredibly bored with the field of medicine. Also, the idea of surgery without an anesthetic repulsed him.
After his second year of medical school, his father realized that Charles was not cut out to be a doctor. He then sent Charles to Christ s College in Cambridge to become a clergyman. It was here that Darwin s fascination with biology developed. His interest in insects grew to the extent that he would spend all day in the woods looking for new beetles. Cambridge is also where he met and befriended John Stevens Henslow, a professor of botany at Cambridge. After graduating from Christ s College in 1831, Darwin s curiosity in the life sciences was not diminished. He then read Zoonomia, by his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin. He fell upon a chapter concerning evolution, stating that over a period of time, an animal would change based on its surroundings. Unfortunately, his grandfather failed to bring any evidence to support his theory.
Soon after he was offered and accepted an unpaid position as naturalist on the H.M.S. Beagle, captained by Robert FitzRoy. It was originally supposed to be a three-year voyage but eventually lasted five years. It was on this trip that Darwin s ideas and theories about evolution were formulated. The course was set to go around South America to Australia and then back. Darwin was to study the life in these tropical areas. The ship set sail from Plymouth in December of 1831. The first few weeks were rough for Darwin. He suffered badly from seasickness and the captain doubted that he would complete the voyage. But soon he became used to the constant rocking of the ship.
In February of 1832, the Beagle reached Brazil and Darwin s work truly began. He spent two months in Rio de Janeiro observing sea life, plants, animals, and the geology of the area. He saw that there were many species of the same kind of animal. For example, he once collected 68 different species of beetle in one day. He studied fossils found on the coast of South America and noticed that in the same area of rock, there had been many types of animals. He preserved and labeled all his findings. For the next three years, the boat sailed around South America, and Darwin continued to study the specimens he found and sent many home to his colleagues and friends.
Then came what many consider to be the most important and influential part of his trip. This was the landing of the boat at the Galapagos Islands; an archipelago of black, volcanic islands about 600 miles off the coast of South America. Darwin discovered an array of animal life on the island and found that related but different species lived on different islands even though the islands were extremely similar geologically. He discovered many new species on these islands, but what astounded him most, rather than the difference between the species on the islands to the species on the mainland, was the difference amongst species on the islands. He couldn t understand, how animals of basically the same type, within the same environment, could be so differed. For instance, he found a large assortment of finches, small birds on these islands, but on each of the islands, the finches had a different variation of beak; some had thick, strong ones while others had thin, fine ones. It was only after many years of research that he realized that the birds beaks had changed due to the food available. It amazed him that these animals could be in such close proximity and yet be so different. He later recalls, I never dreamed that islands about fifty or sixty miles apart, and most of them in sight of each other, formed of precisely the same rocks, placed under a quite similar climate, rising to a nearly equal height, would have different kinds of animals (source three). Not realizing it at the time, this experience on Galapagos was his first step in creating his theory of natural selection.
After collecting and sending many samples home the ship set sail to Australia, than around Africa, and then home to England. Throughout this time, Darwin s mind had been troubled by the mystery of the Galapagos, and he decided to sort it out when he arrived home. When the boat docked in England on October 2, 1936, five years after departure, Darwin was quite happy to be home. He was homesick throughout the trip and worse he had never truly gotten over the seasickness. Darwin moved to London where he began to sort out the specimens he had sent home, and all his notes. He wrote many scientific papers on coral reefs (which he had investigated in the Indian Ocean), volcanoes, and earthquakes. He wrote a small notebook on his theories of evolution but was afraid to make his views public. He was afraid that the Creationist society would reject his ideas if he had not gathered enough evidence. In 1939, he married his cousin, Emma Wedgwood. They lived in London for three and a half years but a sudden illness that came over Darwin forced them to move to the country.
During the next almost twenty years, Darwin constantly tried to avoid writing about the subject of evolution. He was afraid of opening himself up to criticism. But in 1842 h worked up enough courage to write a 35-page essay on his theories of natural selection. In 1844, he expanded this work to 230 pages. He wrote it in pencil and called it an essay so that he would not be lured into publishing it. It seemed he was about ready to show his finding to the world, but then came a distraction. Darwin had classified all his findings except for one a barnacle. He was so fascinated by the difference in barnacle species he spent eight years of his life studying barnacles from all over the world. Many think this was just another escape for him to put off releasing his ideas to society.
Then finally, in 1854, at the age of forty-five, Darwin began work on his most important work of all: The Origin of Species. For the next year he wrote down many notes about the selection process. First, he studied the way breeders would use selection to make cows that give more milk, or animals with finer fur. But he could not discover a way to show such a process happening naturally in nature. The Creationists of that time stated that all creatures were made perfect the first time around, and that all changes that may occur were for the worse and such a creature would not survive, but Darwin knew this had to be wrong. He knew this because he understood that the environment around animals would change over time, and an animal would have to change, or adapt, right along with the environment to survive. An example of this happened in the mid-1800 in Manchester. Light-colored moths could blend into the light trees, but sometimes they gave birth to dark offspring, birds almost always ate up these dark offspring. But many survived to make more dark offspring. Creationist saw this as a defect. But when factories began making smoke and darkening the trees, these new moths could blend in while the light ones stood out. Darwin saw how a small change in environment would lead to the survival of a species best suited for that environment. He called this theory survival of the fittest .
Now Darwin was fully convinced his ideas were right, but he still feared publishing his works. To publish a book on evolution would be to deny the book of Genesis. Although he was scared he would cause trouble for himself and his family, in 1856 he began to write a large, completely thorough book to be entitled Natural Selection. He was two years into writing it when his dream was almost smashed by a young scientist who also discovered the theory of evolution. Afraid he would not get the credit he deserved, he wrote a new, much shorter book that took him 13 months to write. He called his book, published in 1859, The Origin of Species. The book was a sellout.
But Darwin was right to fear criticism. As soon as it became widely known that Darwin s book challenged Church doctrine, it was viciously attacked, not just by members of the Church, but by fellow scientists. His own colleagues called him a Godless man . Darwin would not enter into these arguments, as he believed that if his work was good, it would defend itself, but eventually he was dragged into it. In 1860, in the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Oxford University, Darwinism was to be on trial. Defending Darwin were his good friends Thomas Huxley and Sir Joseph Hooker. Representing the clergy was Bishop Samuel Wilburforce. He was so confident in smashing Darwin s ideas that he went on and on about how Godless and sinful Darwin was, and how he could possibly believe man could come from so lowly a creature as an ape. And he went as far as to sarcastically remark to Huxley if he was descended from ape on his mother s or fathers side. But when Huxley took the floor, he ripped all of Wilburforce s argument to shreds and at the end of his powerful speech he said to Wilburforce that he would take pride in being related to apes than a man who could do nothing more with his enormous talent than ridicule important scholarly contributions (source two). The bishop as well as the clergy were completely stunned. It was in this way that Darwin s idea became accepted in the scientific field.
The work of Charles Darwin set the stage for a new breed of evolutionary biology. The research and conclusions he discovered throughout his life were accepted and now are the basis of modern day biological science. Though there are still many people who do not recognize Darwin s ideas because his theories do not conform to their beliefs of creation, the majority of society has fully embraced the theory of evolution as fact. He revolutionized the study of life completely by careful research and a curious mind. Darwin lived for another twenty-two years after the Oxford trial and died suddenly of a heart attack on April 19, 1882. At the time of his death he was 73 years old. Before his death he wrote many more books on the subject of evolution and natural selection.