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April - May 2009


Lifestyle

Charles Darwin -The Father of Evolution

by Anil Mehta


Charles Darwin (1809-82), British naturalist and geologist is considered as one of the greatest and most innovative scientists ever lived. He laid the foundation of modern evolutionary theory that changed the way we think about natural world and ourselves.

Born (1809) in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, of a wealthy family, Darwin’s paternal grandfather was the distinguished scientist and scholar Erasmus Darwin, and maternal grandfather, a successful pottery manufacturer and social reformer Josiah Wedgwood.

Darwin was judged a failure at school in everything except sports, though he was fascinated by all living things, collecting plants and insects. He failed to complete his medical training at Edinburgh, and moved to Cambridge to gain a theology degree. However, instead of joining the church, he set off on a journey which was to change his life and the direction of biological science.

Aged 22, Darwin joined the ship HMS Beagle on a 5-year scientific expedition (1831-36) round the world as an unpaid naturalist to pursue his interests in zoology and geology. This gave him the opportunity to observe a variety of geological phenomena in different continents, and the flora and fauna especially of Galapagos Islands in the South Pacific (600 miles off the coast of Ecuador), which formed the basis of his work on animal variation. He collected hundreds of specimen of fossils and rocks during the voyage.

Darwin’s family wealth meant that he didn’t need to find work, so, on his return he spent few years lecturing and writing up his notebooks and expanding the ideas he had begun to develop on his voyage. Like everybody else at the time Darwin believed that species of plants and animals were individually created and remained unchanged for all time. But in Galapagos Islands, he observed that each island supported its own form of wildlife (tortoise, birds etc) which was closely related but slightly different in many ways from island to island.

After much deliberation Darwin concluded that all living (man included) and extinct species were not somehow created in each geological age but were evolved over billions of years from a single tree of life. New species were the descendents of earlier less complex species. These had gradually changed as the environment changed around them (natural selection) acquiring special characteristics (flying, swimming and so on). Species best suited to their environment were more likely to survive (survival of the fittest) and passed on the characteristics which helped them to survive to their offspring.

Darwin didn’t published his findings for the fear of the offence they might cause (his devout wife was horrified!) but in 1858, when he learnt that another Englishman, a young naturalist Alfred Wallace had developed similar ideas to his own, he published his book, ‘The Origin of Species by Natural Selection’ in 1859. It was an instant success though provoked considerable opposition especially from the Church as it contradicted the belief in divine creation. Darwin’s another book ‘The Descent of Man’ (1871) which discussed human creation aroused even greater debate since it suggested that human descended from apes – an uncomfortable thought for many! However, since his ideas were based on enough scientific evidence, they soon gained currency and now very few would question the theory of evolution.

Darwin married in 1839 to his cousin Emma Wedgwood and lived happily with his family in a small estate in Kent. A shy man, he declined to debate his work publicly. He died in 1882 and was buried with great honour along with other greats at Westminster Abbey, London. Although his theory has been modified over time, it remains fundamental to the study of biological sciences. In pecking order he stands neck-to-neck with the likes of Newton and Einstein.

And finally, like to see the portrait of the great man? No problem. You should have it in your wallet – on the reverse of your ten pound note. Got it?

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