Charles Darwin was a man who shaped the way in which we think about evolution in modern times. He brought forth and described the theory of natural selection and survival of the fittest. To fully understand modern evolutionary thoughts it is necessary for one to completely understand the early theories of Charles Darwin. In this paper I will provide the reader with a complete background on Charles Darwin, describe his voyage on the HMS Beagle, and discuss his theory of natural selection.
Charles Robert Darwin, the founder of evolution, was born on February 12, 1809 in rural England. Charles was the son of Robert Darwin and Susannah Wedgewood. His mother died when he was seven and his father died when Charles was thirty-nine. Until the age of eight, Charles was educated at home by his sister Caroline. Charles soon thereafter developed a fascination for biology and natural history. The young student began to hoard, collecting anything that captured his interest, from shells and rocks, to insects and birds. Darwins beetle collecting while at Cambridge seems to have been a little more than collecting. His collecting began to control all of his time, and eventually his thoughts. But they proved very useful once on board the Beagle. (Freeman 91) His hobbies laid the framework for a wonderful life of discovery.
In 1825, Robert sent Charles to Edinburgh Medical School to follow in the footsteps of Eras (Charles brother) and himself. It was at Edinburgh that Charles discovered that medicine was not in his future. Charles was extremely squeamish and hated working on cadavers. This sent Charles back to his old ways of collecting and dissecting animals and bugs. Meanwhile, while attending Edinburgh, Darwin was also receiving instruction on taxidermy. This also proved useful on board the Beagle. Also, while attending Edinburgh Darwin became familiar with the evolutionary theories of Lamarck. Darwin gave up his education at Edinburgh after his second year studying medicine, without a degree. Next, Dr. Darwin sent his son to the University of Cambridge to study religion. It was at Cambridge that Darwin developed his new obsessive fascination, entomology (especially with beetles). He struggled through his first three years, but in his fourth he pulled himself together. Charles graduated in 1831 from Cambridge and began to look for a job with the clergy.
In the summer of 1831, at the age of 22, Darwin received a letter from a Cambridge tutor asking him to accompany Captain Francis Beaufort on a voyage around the world. Darwin immediately was interested, but he was sure that his father would object to the idea. His father rejected the scheme on the following grounds: It would be disreputable to his character as a Clergyman, it was a wild scheme, and they must have offered many people before him. (White and Gribben 49). Darwin was desperate to win his fathers approval knowing that it would be his only chance to make this once in a lifetime voyage. There was no way that Charles could afford this pricey expedition. He saw no hope until his best friend Jos Wedgewood, whom Dr. Darwin respected greatly, helped Charles compose a letter to his father pointing out the pluses of the voyage. Soon thereafter, Robert gave his approval.
The Beagles purpose was to secure a final survey of the South American continent for trade safety reasons. The captain of the ship, Robert Fitzroy, and Darwin hit it off immediately. The Beagle was a very small ship, measuring only 90 feet. (White and Gribben 53). On December 27, 1831 the ship left the port of Devonport. Darwin immediately became sick and remained ill for most of the voyage. The trip also had its light points. Upon crossing the equator, the Captain took it upon himself to perform the time old ritual on the 31-crew members. Beginning with Darwin, each sailor was tarred and feathered, which soon after resulted in a huge water fight. Darwin wrote in his diary, Of course not one person, even the Captain got clear of being wet. The ship soon arrived at its destination and remained there for nearly two and a half years. After five years of mutinies, illness, adventures, specimen collecting, and rough sailing the Beagle arrived at the Galapagos Islands. The Galapagos were truly unique, consisting of a wide range of vegetation and creatures. The islands landscapes were different than that of mainland South America or any other place.Darwin first thought that the islands were ugly and barren. But this stop would soon prove to be the most important of his life. On October 2, 1836 the ship landed in England. Darwin returned with 1,383 pages of geology notes, 368 pages of zoology notes, a catalogue of 1,529 species and 3,907 labeled skins. (Sears 84)
Soon after his return from the South American journey, Darwin was introduced to his mentor Charles Lyell. This inspired Darwins books Zoology and Coral Reefs in which he restated his findings of the voyage. Darwin was hesitant to release his young and unpolished theories on evolution. He felt that society was not yet ready for his findings. It was not until 1842 that Darwin expressed his theories. In a letter he told Lyell of his ideas. Lyell rejected the theories stating that they did not support his own geological theories. Lyell spoke of a theory named uniformitarianism, which explained the geology of the earth. He felt that forces such as wind, rain, flooding, erosion, and frost shaped the contour of our planet. Lyell also brought up the idea of deep time. Deep time was the idea that for such slow-acting forces to produce momentous change, the earth must indeed be far older than anyone had previously suspected. In 1844 Darwin wrote a short summary of his ideas that were similar to the ones in Origin of Species released years later. Even at this time Charles felt that his data was insufficient. For the next several years Darwin worked with the data on many of the species found on the Galapagos Islands, especially the finch. Darwin had collected many finches from both South America and the Galapagos Islands. He found that all his varieties shared many structural similarities, but differed in many physical traits, especially the beak. The ground finch ate mainly seeds, and its beak was heavy and strong. The tree finch ate leaves and blossoms, and its beak was thick and short. Woodpecker finches consumed insects, and its beak was stout and strait. He noticed that the finchs beaks all accommodated their eating habits. It was as if one species had modified into thirteen species.
In November of 1859 Darwins book The Origin of the Species by Natural Selection came out. Immediately 1250 copies were bought up. The book begins with an account of the variations that have occurred in domesticated animals and plants, under the eye and guidance of man, then proceeds to discuss those that are known to have occurred in nature. Variability and change it shows to be the rule throughout the realm of living things. Next, came the evidence of the struggle to remain alive and reproduce. The book then follows with the controversial thesis on natural selection. (Sears 39).
Darwins theories were greeted with great controversy. This was a time of religion and politics; the world was not ready for evolutionary thoughts. What nobody knew was that these thoughts would shape the future of science. Natural selection was probably the most important contribution of Darwin. This theory eventually became recognized throughout the scientific world. Natural selection was based on two principles: variation and selection. Individuals in one generation reproduce to produce individuals in the next generations that are not exact copies of their parents. There are a variety of slightly different individuals in every generation. As in the case of the finches, if a longer beak helps them to survive, then it will pass on the characteristic of the longer beak to the next generation. Selection is the ability to create a new species from the varieties found among the already existing species. This would happen if a group from a species became separated from one another and took up different characteristics to survive, as in the case of the finches that were separated from South America and ended up in the Galapagos Islands. In the book Human Evolution, the author points out that The environment itself determines the fate of each and, in destroying a proportion, selects the remainder.(Campbell 10). Along the same lines, the author of A Century of Darwin writes that, Species as we now find them result from processes of evolutionary change and this change was directed by natural selection. (Barnett 316). The fit are basically those who fit their existing environments and whose descendents will fit future environments. The established definition of natural selection as noted in The Essentials of Physical Anthropology states that it is the genetic change, or change in the frequency of certain traits in populations due to differential reproductive success between individuals(Jurmain, et al. 24). This theory of natural selection was first established by Charles Darwin.
Charles R. Darwin was the first man to really bring forth a valid explanation of evolutionary ideas. He crossed controversial lines to deliver a message that he felt obligated to deliver. The message he delivered was on a subject which the public had relatively no knowledge of. He described the way in which an individual of a species reproduced and genetically passed on variations. The species that adapted through variation was the one who survived. This is where the phrase survival of the fittest came from. As pointed out, Charles Darwin was a man ahead of his time, and his work laid the structural basis for how we now look at evolution. On the last page of Origin of the Species, Darwin summarizes his findings, as Natural Selection works solely by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection.
Barnett, Samuel A. A Century of Darwin. New York: Books for Libraries Press, 1969.
Campbell, Bernard. Human Evolution. Chicago/New York: Aldine and Atherton, 1970.
Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of the Species by Natural Selection. 1859.
Gribben, John and Michael White. Darwin: A Life in Science. New York: Dutton, 1995.
Jurmain, Robert; et al. Essentials of Physical Anthropology. International: West/Wadsworth, 1997.
Sears, Paul B. Charles Darwin. New York: Scribners Sons LTD, 1950.