Evolution: The Origin Of Species
An Interesting Charles Darwin Documentary
In Judeo-Christian cultures, the Biblical story of the Creation of the universe was so fundamental to the way people viewed the world that challenges to it were deemed almost unthinkable. The Creation story or Creationism, to give its modern term is basically the belief that the universe and everything in it was created by a supernatural being or god. Jewish and Christian creationists believed that the world was created exactly as stated in the Bible. Based on a literal reading of this, the Church believed that the world was created between 6000-4000 BC, and that the Earth and its species of plants and animals, including humans, are unchanging. The young Charles Darwin was influenced by theologians such as William Paley, who argued that the natural world was too complex not to have had a creator.
However, by the late eighteenth century, this age old belief was coming under attack. Scottish geologist James Hutton proposed that the Earth is being continuously reshaped by steady change, not by Biblical events such as the Creation and the Flood. This ‘steady state’ view was later added to by British geologist Sir Charles Lyell, in his Principles of Geology (1830). Other challenges came from Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, who in 1794 noted a progressional change in animals. French naturalist Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck also proposed a theory of progressive development in his Philosophie Zoologique published in 1809.
The Origins Of Evolutionary Thought
Although the uproar caused by On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection might suggest otherwise, the idea that humankind and animals had evolved from far more primitive creatures was nothing new, even in Darwin’s day. Of course there are the examples mentioned in the previous section, but amazingly, the first evolutionary theory was proposed as early as the 6th century BC. Specifically, it stated that all living creatures are descended from shellfish. Some 2500 years later, in 1844, Scottish encyclopaedist Robert Chambers scandalised Victorian society by anonymously publishing Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. Chambers argued that fossil evidence suggested that animal species had changed over time, contradicting the Biblical notion that they had been unchanged since their creation by God. Chambers’ ideas were unscientific and unsubstantiated, but the very idea of evolution was enough to ensure that the book sold in huge numbers.
Charles Darwin showed little application at school, causing his father to comment: 'You will be a disgrace to yourself and your family.' Darwin studied medicine and law, but dropped out of both, before finally completing a degree in Divinity and later embarking upon a career as a naturalist on HMS Beagle's scientific expedition around the coast of South America. After the voyage he gained wide respect for the papers he published describing his findings and then, plagued by illness, he painstakingly prepared the publication that was to change the course of scientific history. Darwin was respected by his scientific peers, including the biologist T.H. Huxley. Upon his death, Darwin was buried in London's Westminster Abbey alongside the physicist Isaac Newton.
Charles Darwin collected 5500 biological and anatomical specimens during the voyage of the Beagle, the details of which were put in 12 catalogues.
From 1831-36 Charles Darwin travelled as a naturalist aboard HMS Beagle, on a scientific survey of South American waters. During the voyage he found evidence to support the geologist Charles Lyell’s idea that the world had evolved through gradual processes, but it was not until several years later that Darwin began to forge his own theory. In the meantime he read Thomas Malthus’ 1798 ‘Essay on the Principle of Population,’ this argued that the size of an animal population is limited by its food supply. When Darwin’s friend, the ornithologist John Gould, realised that the species of finches Darwin had brought back from his voyage shared common ancestors, Darwin wondered why. He concluded that those animals most suited to acquiring food would survive and pass on their characteristics to their offspring, while the unsuited would die out- a concept that Darwin called ‘natural selection,’ but which British economist Herbert Spencer later called ‘the survival of the fittest.’ Darwin began to work on what he called his theory of ‘transmutation’ in 1842. Two years later he had written 230 pages, but set it aside, partly because of ill health, but also because he was troubled by his conclusions. Darwin finally published when it emerged that zoogeographer Alfred Russell Wallace was working on a similar theory. Charles Lyell persuaded Darwin to submit a paper to London’s Linnaean Society (a biological society), which was read on the 1st July 1858, the same night as Wallace’s essay. Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published in 1859.
Words Of Wisdom
'Man with all his noble qualities...still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.'
Charles Darwin, from 'The Descent of Man,' 1871.
Reassessing Our Place In Nature
The Descent Of Man
The novel element in Darwin’s theory was natural selection. His version, that individuals compete with each other for resources, differed from Wallace’s idea that they competed against the environment. Humanity’s descent from the primates was a minor part of On the Origin of Species, but in his 1871 book The Descent of Man, he argued that it was walking on two legs that led to the eventual evolution of humanity. This was extremely controversial, gaining both support and criticism from scientific and religious figures. Zoologist Ernst Mayr (1904-2005) remarked that it ‘demanded the rejection of some of the most widely held and most cherished beliefs of western man.’
It must be noted though, that Church of England actually reacted rather positively to the theory. This is despite the fact, that a year after the book’s publication, two giants of the religious and scientific worlds, Bishop Samuel Wilberforce of London T.H. Huxley (Darwin’s bulldog) engaged in a fierce debate at Oxford University concerning the merits of the theory. The reality was that most mainstream Biblical scholars in the 19th century viewed the Holy Book as a historical document backed up by archaeological evidence, rather than the literal word of God. This meant that already many Victorian Anglicans regarded the Bible in the same way that their modern counterparts do, as series of moral metaphors.
Interestingly, in the same year as the Oxford debate, Frederick Temple, headmaster of Rugby School and later Archbishop of Canterbury gave a sermon praising Darwin. He said that scientists could have all the laws in the universe they liked, but that ‘the finger of God’ would be in all of them. The influential author Rev. Charles Kingsley also congratulated Darwin, saying ‘Even better than making the world…God makes the world make itself!’
Learn More About Neo-Darwinism
Although Darwin’s theory has been highly influential, and is widely taught, debate over the origin of life on Earth continues to this day, with many people still doubting that complex living things such as human beings could have been created entirely by natural processes. They prefer an alternative theory of ‘intelligent design’. In this theory, God created a universe that would run itself; one analogy is of God as a cosmic watchmaker. This idea originally became popular in the 19th century, before experiencing a revival in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
Interestingly, as Darwin completed his book, Austrian botanist Gregor Mendel was researching heredity in plants. In the 20th century, after years of neglect, Mendel’s work led to the new science of genetics, which explains how the mutations necessary for natural selection occur and are passed on to offspring. Scientists have since formed Darwin and Mendel’s work into the modern theory of ‘Neo-Darwinism.’
© 2013 James Kenny