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On this day in history in 1882, died Charles Darwin.
Darwin was a naturalist who studied first medicine and then theology and came up with the Theory of Evolution.
Darwin was born in 1809, at Shrewsbury, Shropshire, the son of a physician with a substantial local practice. He was educated at Shrewsbury School but proved to be an uninspired student, preferring to pass his time in the collection of botanical specimens. At the age of sixteen, he was sent to Edinburgh University to study medicine but his progress in this field was equally lethargic. Most of his time was spent studying marine biology on the Firth of Forth and learning the system of categorisation of plants.
Fearing that the young Darwin would have no professional career, his father enrolled him at Christ’s College, Cambridge to read theology, in the hope that he would become a cleric. The clergy in the Nineteenth Century were known for their indulgence in the study of natural history as a part of God’s creation and as an outlet for their abundant free time. At Cambridge, Darwin became acquainted with the botanist, John Henslow, who took Darwin on nature walks and cultivated in him the appreciation of beetles, spiders and assorted insects. Darwin managed to pass his theology examinations but was in no hurry to take Holy Orders.
In 1891, Henslow recommended Darwin for an Admiralty assignment, surveying the botanical features of the coast of South America and the Pacific Islands. In 1831, Darwin set sail on the Beagle, a naval vessel refitted for storage of biological specimens. The anticipated two-year voyage turned into five years, during which time, Darwin scoured the South American Continent and the islands of the Galapagos for specimens of flora and fauna, and made meticulous notes on his discoveries. He was astounded by the variety of new material that he collected. Science had previously thought that there were several hundred species of creature in existence. Darwin personally found thousands of separate distinguishable species and conjectured that there must be thousands more in existence. Darwin also examined rock formations and found fossils of creatures, which no longer existed. The fact that some of the extinct species bore some resemblance to living creatures, set Darwin thinking on whether a species was immutable, or could new species be created and what was the mechanism whereby one species replaces another.
Upon his return home 1n 1836, Darwin became a minor celebrity. He was elected to the Geological Society and the Athenaeum, an exclusive club for the literati and men of science. In 1839, he published his Journal of Researches, detailing his exploits on the voyage of the Beagle. During these years, Darwin was considering what he called ‘the species problem’. Current thinking was that God had created each individual species, and that new species could not be created without Divine intervention. Each species was immutable and incapable of development. This, however, conflicted with Darwin’s findings. Darwin corresponded with naturalists, breeders and gardeners in the hope of finding the solution.
After extensive research, Darwin arrived at the key to the problem. He explained his theory of organic evolution in the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’, which is that a species that cannot compete for food and other necessities, dies out. Furthermore, a species is capable of development. Those members of a species which are better suited to survive, either with stronger limbs, an ability to survive in harsh conditions or some other advantage, will survive whilst its less able siblings die off. Thus, over a period of centuries, a cat develops the keen eyesight, which enables it to catch its prey, the rabbit gains the ability to run and survive and a flower develops intense colours, which attract the bees to sustain its life. It was quite simple but it flew in the face of orthodox religious doctrine, and the theory’s publication could result in prosecution for blasphemy.
In 1859, Darwin decided to publish his beliefs in The Origin of Species, which outlined the principals of ‘natural selection’. The first edition of the work sold out on the first day, and altogether, six editions were required to satisfy the public’s craving for this contemporary wisdom. Darwin’s philosophy was generally accepted in the scientific world, the only significant dissidents being the geologist, Adam Sedgwick and biologist, Richard Owen.
The main opposition came from the church, which felt threatened with a speculation, which apparently contradicted the Book of Genesis. Clerics were not best pleased with the insinuation that mankind was descended from apes and therefore not separated from nature by the creator. Darwin’s publication aroused great controversy and some public debate. At a public meeting, T H Huxley, defended Darwin in debate with the bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, who famously asked Huxley if he were descended from apes on his father or mother’s side.
Darwin went on to publish various other works in the same vein and by the time of his death, his ideas had reached general acceptance. Darwin died at his home, Down House, in 1882. When news of his death arrived at London, Parliament granted him burial in Westminster Abbey. His house is now a museum of his life and work and open to the public. [Down House, Luxted Road, Downe, Orpington, Kent, BR6 7JT]
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