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The Career of Charles Darwin

Updated on April 21, 2012


Charles Darwin, Geologist, Biologist and Botanist, and the work he is most famous for-On the Origin of Species was the culmination of years of meticulous data collection to support the hypothesis of species change through time. An indifferent student, Darwin overcame educational difficulties and his father’s authority while finding an interest in Natural History and Science. Using a modification of the Baconian Scientific Method, the researcher mapped out an model that would revolutionize the field of natural Science, with applications in the pure and applied sciences even in modern society.

Accomplishments

The impact of Darwin’s work can be described as both a collector and connector of information. Darwin collected both geological and biological data throughout his life. While he is known for his meticulous data collection, Darwin was also a connector of information; he drew together data collected by other researchers. He was influenced by the work of earlier researchers such as Malthus and Lamarck, forming a basis for his model with an underlying formula of population variation in response to environmental changes. Darwin was a collector of biological specimens and continued this in his duties as naturalist on the H.M.S. Beagle, a British Navy ship chartered for an exploratory voyage in the Southern Hemisphere, while later in life he experimented with organisms to support his evolution model. Darwin’s scientific method was to gather a tremendous amount of information, think about this information and the implications of his research, and finally write carefully about his conclusions. The work was apparently incomplete, because Darwin intended to publish evidence for the conclusions he made in Origin. In response to numerous criticisms Darwin undertook constant revisions between the book's first appearance in 1859 and the sixth edition of 1872. The later editions thus differ considerably from the first, and the last edition contains an additional chapter dealing with objections to the theory.

Charles Darwin conducted his work with an investigative method similar to qualitative techniques used in the social sciences rather than the experimental techniques now commonly associated with the natural sciences, i.e. formulation of hypothesis followed by experimentation. For his most revolutionary discoveries, Darwin recorded his extensive observations in notebooks annotated by speculations and thoughts about those observations. Although Darwin supported the inductive method proposed by Bacon, he was aware that observation without speculation or prior understanding was both ineffective and impossible. Scientific knowledge is gained in a variety of ways including observation, analysis, speculation, library investigation and experimentation.

Over a period of years, he collected samples of barnacles from all over the world, in an attempt to describe and classify barnacle species. Following this, he experimented with plant seeds, growing seeds under conditions meant to imitate the transportation required to support his conclusions about species variation among the islands of the Galapagos In 1868, he published Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication, which was an analysis of inheritance in domesticated species. In 1871, Darwin published The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, in which he attempted to provide a mechanism for heredity. Darwin’s body of work was generally met with mixed results from the theologians, the educated public, and the scientific communities. His original work in Geology had established him as a leading Geologist. While On the Origin of Species would become the work for which he would be both hero and villain.

Contemporary scientists might question the methods Darwin used in his formulation of his evolution model. Darwin did not allow pre-set goals to limit the field of his experiments, though he was very precise in his method. Darwin synthesized his model from numerous and varied observations, experiments, and the work of others

Though Darwin did not conceive the idea of evolution as a hypothesis and work top-down to prove his hypothesis, evolution was evident in his early writing on variation and selection. In the original edition of the Origin of Species, Darwin did not use the term "evolution"; instead he contended that species are modified over time by natural selection. Even the expression "survival of the fittest," later so important in evolutionary theory and popular usage, did not appear in the first edition of the Origin of Species. Instead Darwin spoke of "descent" and "natural selection."

The reaction to Origin from Darwin's peers is interesting in the regard that his work in Origin was not immediately accepted as science, because of its speculative nature and lack of proof. The main objection had to do with the lack of scientific method and was implicit in the societies' rejection of "speculation", which is ironic considering the contemporary acceptance of supernatural causes for questions of origins. Further, the atheistic explanation for human origin would engender debate which Darwin himself was aware of this hypocrisy.

“I am aware that the conclusions arrived at in this work will be denounced by some as highly irreligious; but he who denounces them is bound to shew why it is more irreligious to explain the origin of man as a distinct species by descent from some lower form, through the laws of variation and natural selection, than to explain the birth of the individual through the laws of ordinary reproduction”. 1

Darwin did address this in Origin, promising to publish data supporting his assertions, resulting in the two major works-Descent and Variation.

Reaction among Darwin's peers is interesting in the regard that his work in Origin was not immediately accepted as science, because of its speculative nature and lack of proof.

“Clearly, Darwin had enough of an intellectual upbringing to understand that unless a theory had been induced from observable facts it could never be more than a hypothesis, and, as such, could have no serious claims for scientific respect. He realized that evolution could not be observed directly and could only be deduced from indirect evidence (Glick 1972:118). Thus, it was perhaps of no surprise to Darwin when, though his work was published (first as an abstract in the Linnean Society Journal and then as a book (Korey 1984:58)), the reaction from the scientific community was silent and often hostile. A great majority of the British learned societies, both in and outside of London took a cautious line”. 2

Darwin addressed this in a reprint of the book:

"The success of the Origin may, I think, be attributed in large part to my having long before written two condensed sketches [in 1842 and 1844], and to my having finally abstracted a much larger manuscript, which was itself an abstract. By this means I was enabled to select the more striking facts and conclusions. I had, also, during many years, followed a gold rule, namely that whenever a published fact, a new observation or thought came across me, which was opposed to my general results, to make a memorandum of it without fail and at once; for I had found by experience that such facts and thoughts were far more apt to escape from the memory than favourable ones. Owing to this habit, very few objections were raised against my views which I had not at least noticed and attempted to answer" [Nora Barlow, 1958, The Autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809-1882: With Original Omissions Restored Edited With An Appendix And Notes By His Grand-Daughter, page 123]. 3

Thomas Huxley, an eminent scientist in his own right and described at times as "Darwin's Bulldog" was Darwin's good friend and colleague. Just before Origin was published, Huxley penned Darwin a note stating "I think you have demonstrated a true cause for the production of species" and Darwin was greatly relieved when he received this approval. 2

As for the reaction from the general public, Darwin’s original publication of Origin sold 1,250 copies in one day. This may be attributed to greater readability in this work compared to the scientific writing of his day. It has been postulated that Darwin waited twenty years to publish owing to his status as a Cambridge-trained scholar, he was reluctant to associate with radical ideas, or that his well-documented chronic illness prevented him from performing the necessary work. Darwin was concerned that his work would not be interpreted correctly, and explains why he wrote in a manner very accessible to the layperson and also why he waited some 20 years to publish.

“It was evident that Darwin’s enormous text would be quite unsuitable for the new purpose of a popular account. With the reading of his and Wallace’s papers at the Linnean Society there was now no real need for a high brow, academic treatise on the theory. What was really called for was a general account, a book which would appeal to the educated public, something both erudite and readable”. Darwin, a Life in Science, p. 193

There is speculation that Darwin published his work when he did was due to the parallel work being done by Alfred Russel Wallace, a self-educated Biologist working as a specimen collector in the Far East. The idea that Darwin did not want to be preempted by a scientist 20 years his junior and from a working-class background is without basis. Darwin and Wallace had actually corresponded for two years prior to publication, and Wallace used Darwin as a sounding board for his thoughts on evolution.

Darwin was well aware of the implications of his work. As was stated earlier, the concept of evolution was known in the scientific circles before Darwin’s time. However, no one had found a mechanism for the change of species through time that was supported by data able to withstand vigorous peer review. While Darwin was the “well-heeled English gentleman”, given his family tradition of liberalism, the reluctance to be associated with radical thinkers could not have outweighed his need as a scientist to further the understanding of species.

Education

Darwin was educated in the tradition of the English Gentleman. His early education was spent in boarding schools, and later he attended the University at Edinburgh. His early school experiences, show in burgeoning interest in the natural world and collecting, even though he was not an inspired student. He found distaste for regimented learning, and had no interest in the classical education, which was the norm for his day. He spent his idle time reading texts on natural history and politics, bird watching, collecting insects and rocks, while he found lectures to be tedious. His father was not enamored of Charles’ educational attitude, and he enrolled him at Edinburgh, intending Charles to enter medicine after his father.

During his first year there, Charles found that he had a squeamish character, after witnessing a gruesome medical operation done without anesthetic. From that point, he drifted through his studies doing everything except his official studies, delivering the bare minimum of work. It was at Edinburgh, however, where Charles would discover the interests in which he would spend his entire life. There he joined the Plinian Society was a student group interested in natural history and science, which fashioned themselves free thinking and progressive. Attending lectures covering progressive views in Geology, Darwin learned much about geology and not much about Medicine. Most significantly, he met Robert Edmund Grant, a progressive and radical thinker who introduced Darwin to the more extreme scientific views of the day.

Robert Darwin by this time had become worried of Charles’ errant ways, decided that his son would enter Cambridge, studying for a position in the Church. In a letter to the young Charles, his father wrote:

wrote:

You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family”. 5

Darwin’s time at Cambridge was spent in a continuation of his pursuits at Edinburgh, namely hunting, specimen collection, and reading texts on natural history. Though studying for a degree in theology, Darwin put his greatest energy into geology and other natural sciences, mixing with some of the greatest scientific minds of the time. During that period he loved to collect plants, insects, and geological specimens, along with his cousin William Darwin Fox, an entomologist. His scientific inclinations were encouraged by his botany professor, John Stevens Henslow, who was instrumental in securing a position for him as the naturalist on the surveying expedition of HMS Beagle.

Despite these pursuits, and the fact that he received an official reprimand for unacceptable scholarship, Darwin decided that graduation with his degree in Theology was the only way he could remain in his father’s good graces, along with the financial support this afforded. Despite his apathetic attitude toward his official studies, through feverish study, he was able to pass the required exams for his degree, placing an amazing tenth out of 178 students. Whether by sheer coincidence or as a result of his scientific acumen, Darwin was recommended by Henslow and another of his tutors, he was offered the unpaid position of Naturalist on the Beagle. Robert Darwin initially objected to this, on the grounds that this was a disreputable and useless undertaking, that this would lead to an unsettled existence, and would mean Charles would again change his profession. Charles needed his father’s emotional and financial support, and he enlisted the help of his uncle and father-in-law, Jos Wedgwood II. Mr. Wedgwood was a close friend of Robert Darwin, and he was able to convince the elder Darwin that the position was worthwhile.

Personal Life

Charles Darwin was born into a large prosperous family, and the circumstances of his birth influenced his attitudes toward society and religion, and afforded him the means to accomplish his life’s work. His father was a physician, and both of Darwin’s grandfathers were known in upper society, his maternal grandfather, Josiah Wedgwood was a successful merchant, and his maternal grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, was a well-known literary figure who dabbled in poetry, technology, and science.

Erasmus Darwin experimented with water vapor and gases (He is credited with supplying a steam engine design to James Watt), along with performing animal studies. Notably, he published Zoonomia, in which he linked heredity and environment, a crucial step in the development of the evolution model. Both men were intellectuals given to liberal, original thinking, and were enamored of technology and science. Furthermore, the family of Josiah Wedgwood subscribed to Unitarianism, with its progressive views of Christianity, which could provide an explanation as to why a man trained for a life in the Church would have the ability to oppose the dogma of the contemporary Christian Church.

When Darwin came of age, he became independently wealthy and was able to devote his time and energies to those pursuits he found interesting rather than on a career to support his family. Upon his father's death, Charles Darwin inherited approximately 45,000 pounds; this amount, combined with the 13,000 pounds he received from his father upon his marriage and the 5,000 pound dowry that Emma Wedgwood brought into the marriage, provided Charles Darwin with quite a bit of capital.

Type of Modeler

Darwin can be described as a predominantly Mapper type of modeler. While ideas about evolution had been postulated well before Darwin’s time, he did not set out on the voyage of the Beagle to support the hypothesis. As the Naturalist on the exploratory voyage, Darwin collected vast amounts of geological and biological data covering everything from taxonomy of birds to sea level change. Through this data collection and the influences of other researchers with which he was familiar, he saw the overall picture and reached a conclusion about species change through time by the connection of the data with the problem, thereby giving the scientific establishment and society as a whole a new way of looking at the problem of differentiation of species.

The period in which Darwin lived his early life was one of great societal change. The Industrial Revolution transformed living conditions and social classifications, and the constraints of religion were being removed. Views concerning the origin of life, the age of the Earth, and species change were considered by many philosophers and scientists, including Lamarck, Malthus, and notably, Darwin’s Grandfather, Erasmus Darwin. Lamarck’s idea was that the fundamental aspect of life is change, but the mechanism in this hypothesis was the inheritance of acquired characteristics. The idea of Erasmus Darwin was that organisms’ characteristics adapted to fit its environment and were passed on to offspring. Hypotheses such as these were influential to Darwin and lacked the mechanism for change, the question he ultimately answered. The ideas of these scientists did not, however, conflict with the influential views of the Judeo-Christian ideas about the origins of life and the Earth. The difference in Darwin’s work was the necessary replacement of the prevailing view with a new one, using a vast amount of meticulously collected data.

Darwin made observations about stratigraphy, land subsidence, and the preservation of fossils, which by themselves were important contributions to the understanding of geological processes. Along with observations concerning biology, he made numerous sketches of rock formations of the islands visited by the Beagle. Based on this work, Darwin proposed a hypothesis on the formation of coral reefs. The observation that fossilized shells of sea life can be found at elevations well above sea level in strata of different thickness and were observed at different elevations, the parameters influencing fossil formation were not uniform and in fact rare. While Darwin’s interest in natural science was originally in geology, the biological observations he made covered every plant and animal found on the trip were cataloged along with specimens to be brought back to England for examination by experts. Moreover, despite the lack of knowledge about zoology, it was from observation of the biological specimens that Darwin began to formulate his explanation for the mechanism for evolution. The range of Darwin’s experimental work shows a sense of the overall picture of the species change model for evolution, and how the different parts –geological, biological, zoological, fit together.

Influence in Modern Society

Darwin’s influence on today’s society can be measured in the ongoing criticism of the question of whether species evolve through time. While in scientific circles the question has been answered, with the refinement of evolutionary theory most importantly furthered by discovery of the basic laws of heredity later discovered by Gregor Mendel, evolution remains a controversial subject. The subject today engenders vitriolic responses in some circles, primarily among religious conservatives who see it as contradictory to their religious beliefs.

Evolution is a fundamental concept in both the pure and applied field of scientific investigation. The fields of conservation, agriculture and natural resources, biotechnology, and anthropology continue to provide answers to problems addressing society’s needs. The concept of evolution is an important feature in our everyday lives, evolution is happening all around us: Studies of the genetic composition of wild relatives of crop species can be used to discover potentially useful new genes that might be transferred into cultivated species. Methods developed by evolutionary geneticists are playing an important role in mapping defective human genes, in genetic counseling, and in identifying genetic variants that alter risks for common systemic diseases and responses to medical treatments. Evolutionary biology has contributed greatly to human understanding of ourselves by describing our origins, our relationships to other living things, and the history and significance of variation within and among different groups of people.

References

1. Paul Halsall, 1997

http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1871darwin.html

2. Angela Pearce,California State University, Chico

http://www.csuchico.edu/anth/CASP/Pearce_A.html

3. Author unknown

http://www.paleontology.arsmatrix.dk/text/dautobio.html#Beagle

4. Darwin, a Life in Science-Michael White and John Gribbon

Dutton, 1995

5. Charles Darwin-Gavin deBeer

Doubleday, 1964

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    • profile image

      i am to cool for this!!! 3 years ago

      yo dPr

    • eec2011 profile image
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      eec2011 5 years ago from California, USA

      Right, thanks.

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      Rhys Baker 5 years ago from Peterborough, UK

      Try breaking up the text with picture capsules or tables - one long pane of text is hard to read.