Darwin: evolution of a man

13th February 2009 at 00:00
This week saw the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth. Yet his controversial work On the Origin of Species still causes a rift between science and religion. What do we know about Darwin the student, explorer and scientist?

False Starts

Charles Robert Darwin was born on February 12, 1809 into a well-to-do family. His grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, a physician, poet and philosopher, was a friend of Josiah Wedgwood and a founder member of the Lunar Society, which met every lunar month. His father, Robert, was a physician who married into the Wedgewood family. Charles's mother Susannah died when he was eight. He went to Shrewsbury Boarding School, where he was often, by his own admission, bored.

Robert Darwin was an intimidating man. The young Charles had taken to hunting, fishing and shooting, much to his father's irritation. After sending 16-year-old Charles to medical school in Edinburgh, his father was annoyed when he didn't progress in his studies, and left after two years. Determined that Charles would have a respectable profession, his father sent him to Cambridge to study theology, but he continued his sporting life.

At Cambridge, he met geologist Adam Sedgwick and travelled to Wales to study geology. After graduating without honours, Charles should have been a country parson, but another tutor, J.S. Henslow, offered him a place on board HMS Beagle.

His father almost prevented it, but Charles's uncle persuaded him. After two false starts, on December 27, 1831, the Beagle sailed and Charles Darwin began his scientific career, not as a biologist, but by surveying the geological importance of the countries on route.

Darwin and Creationism

Darwin's theory troubled many people when it was made public. Some felt he had excluded God from creation and that his theory directly contradicted The Bible and the Book of Genesis, which talked about a separate "special creation" for different types of animals. The idea that apes and humans could be related led to cartoons portraying Darwin as an ape in the press.

The theory of evolution doesn't necessarily exclude a creator. How life first arose is not, strictly speaking, part of the theory. Evolution explains how life has diversified and developed over its 3.5 billion-year history. Another misconception is that humans evolved from apes. In On the Origin of Species, Darwin has only one sentence about human evolution, stating that light may be thrown on this issue in the future. He kept his ideas about human and ape evolution for a much later book, The Descent of Man. Both, he said, had evolved from a common ancestor.

What motivated Darwin to explore the idea of evolution has recently been subject to a new interpretation. His maternal grandfather, Josiah Wedgwood, had been involved in producing the famous cameos (see above) advocating the abolition of the slave trade. Charles too was against slavery and, by showing that humans and apes evolved from a common ancestor, he was trying to dispel the idea that some races were inferior, less intelligent and a lower form of human.

Natural Selection in Action

Evolution is central to the study of biology, and evolution by natural selection is a strong scientific theory. The reason that superbugs MRSA and C. diff cause so much concern in hospitals is the ability of the bacteria to adapt and evolve resistance to the antibiotics meant to kill them - a clear case of natural selection and evolution in action.

But Darwin's theory produced a number of headaches - where did whales come from? He could see that mammals must have had predecessors with legs who walked on land. But fossils couldn't then provide him with evidence. He thought about bears swimming and imagined that in time they could change into an aquatic mammal.

He predicted that the fossil record would eventually yield evidence. Now, 150 years later, we have a better and more complete evolutionary record for the development of whales and many other major groups.

But while Darwin was wrong about whales evolving from bears, polar bears have adapted to living and hunting in the Arctic with an ability to prevent water entering their noses and webbed paws for swimming and diving. Some scientists are now calling for polar bears to be reclassified as marine mammals. Darwin's prediction, it seems, wasn't so far out.

More Darwinian than Darwin

Darwin was almost scooped by the collector and naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, who proposed an almost identical theory. On June 18, 1858, he received a letter and essay from Wallace (pictured above) sent from the Malay Archipelago. Darwin was devastated and ready to admit defeat. "All my originality, whatever it may amount to, will be smashed," he said.

Being a man of integrity, he would rather concede the theory to Wallace than have anyone think he had acted improperly. He asked his friends, the geologist Charles Lyell and botanist Joseph Hooker, for help. They decided to publish extracts from Darwin's unpublished work alongside Wallace's essay. On July 1, 1858, the ideas were read at a Linnean Society meeting in London. Darwin was too ill to attend and Wallace, thousands of miles away in the jungles of Malay, only heard about the arrangement months later.

Wallace never felt cheated or that the theory should be his. He even called his own book on evolution Darwinism, claiming at one point to be "more Darwinian than Darwin".

And Finally

Darwin died in 1882, having suffered years of ill health. His funeral was reported in The Times in detail, a large affair attended by the great and good of the day. He is buried in Westminster Abbey. Alfred Russel Wallace, the man who almost eclipsed him, acted as a pall bearer.

James Williams is a lecturer in science education at the University of Sussex.


  • Evolution isn't about change from simple to complex organisms with humans at the top of a ladder.
  • Although natural selection and the mutation of genes is a random event, it is "directed" by changes in the environment that result in some adaptations being more advantageous than others.
  • Organisms that are well adapted to their environment, such as sharks and some "living fossils", may remain unchanged for millions of years.
  • Evolution has not stopped and many animals show transition features. The sea cow has front flippers with nails and its rear "legs" are now a single paddle.
  • Survival of the fittest doesn't mean strongest, it means most suited to the environment.

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