The Father of Evolution

Young Charles, blessed with a life of privilege, was reared to be a man dedicated to the call of science. His father, Dr. R. W. Darwin, an irreligious medical doctor, began grooming him to follow in his footsteps as a physician, and in 1825, at the age of 16, Charles enrolled in the University of Edinburgh Medical School as an apprentice doctor. Much to his father’s dismay, his foray into the field of medicine was short lived, with Darwin disinterested in his studies and finding himself ill at the very sight of blood.

While still pursuing his medical career, Darwin began to develop an interest in natural history, joining a study group that was dedicated to it, and soon began neglecting his work as a medical student in order to learn plant classification and taxidermy and to assist with the collections in the University Museum. It was around this time – at the age of eighteen – that young Charles first read his grandfather’s book, Zoonomia, greatly enjoying the work. His father, upset by Charles’ lack of interest in his medical studies, sent him instead to Christ’s College, in Cambridge, with his intent being that Charles would learn to be an Anglican parson instead. Still however he was more concerned with leisure activities than studying, and soon became obsessed with the popular pursuit of beetle collecting.

While at Cambridge, Darwin came in contact with notions that would come to shape his future. Among them was a drive for travel and exploration, fueled by, among other things, John Herschel’s suggestion that the highest aim for natural philosophy was to directly observe nature and its laws.(1) After a brief journey pursuing such ideals, his close friend and botany professor, John Stevens Henslow, suggested that Charles would be well-suited to travel as a naturalist aboard the HMS Beagle on its two-year voyage to chart the coastline of South America.

Initially, Charles’s father stood in direct opposition to the notion, declaring it an utter waste of time. Yet, after some persuasion he agreed to Charles’s request, even providing funding for the venture.(2) Though only expected to last for a duration of two years, the voyage of the HMS Beagle persisted for a total of five, during which Darwin spent the vast majority of his time observing geologic formations and collecting specimens, extensively documenting and cataloguing his findings, formulating theories along the way. While he was versed enough to maintain the insects and invertebrates he collected, preserving and dissecting them in great numbers, other specimens he gathered would require an expert’s attention later.

Over time, as he observed more and more of the diverse life across the planet, from the fossils of great, extinct mammals in Patagonia to the finches and tortoises of the Galapagos, onward to the marsupials of Australia, and a number of indigenous peoples across the breadth of his voyage, the first inkling of a new concept crept into his mind, perhaps catalyzed by the work of his long-departed grandfather.

In 1837, with the support of his new friend, the uniformitarian geologist Charles Lyell, Darwin published his first paper, discussing his thoughts on the geological activity that inspired him while in South America.

Soon afterwards, upon discovery that the twelve distinct forms of bird he had collected from the Galapagos were in fact all separate species from within the finch family, Darwin began to consider the notion that one species could transmute into another over time. During the next year, Darwin made much progress with his thoughts on transmutation, actively seeking out anyone that could provide further insight, from expert naturalists to those with experience in animal husbandry.(3) 

Influenced by Thomas Malthus’ writings, which speculated that advancing populations and decreasing food supplies would inevitably lead to a cataclysmic end, and Augustin Pyramus de Candolle’s notions of how life continuously struggled for existence, Darwin began to formulate a new model combining the two ideas. He began to see that, given life’s propensity for abundant, oftentimes unsustainable, procreation, favorable variations would increase the chances of success in those in which they arose, leaving other, lesser forms to be lost. The result of the accumulation of such favorable variations would inevitably be the advent of a new species. Concerning that realization, Charles wrote in his autobiography:

“In October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic enquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population … it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of new species. Here, then, I had at last got a theory by which to work…”(4)

Later that very year, Charles noted how the selective breeding by farmers invariably produced better stock and how nature’s efforts to produce new variations of existing species were undeniably similar, both ultimately fashioning new forms with more desirable attributes. With that, he settled on a name for his theory: Natural Selection. Rapidly, his interests became obsession. So dedicated was he to his work that some have speculated that it may have contributed to the persistent illness that the naturalist battled for years, regularly suffering with abdominal pains, vomiting, tremors, and boils.

In 1851, Charles began to fear that his condition was hereditary, and that he may have in fact passed it on to his precious daughter, Anne. She was, to no small extent, Charles’s favored child, demonstrating more than any of the other children a great and pure affection for her father. After a bout with scarlet fever, and perhaps even tuberculosis, young Annie, only ten years of age, passed away. Darwin wrote of the loss, saying “We have lost the joy of the household, and the solace of our old age…. Oh that she could now know how deeply, how tenderly we do still & and shall ever love her dear joyous face.”(5) The loss was devastating to Charles, and few are confident that he ever fully moved on…

Two years later, after some success in describing various adaptations amongst barnacles, thereby cementing his reputation as a contemporary authority in the field of biology, Darwin continued his work on the theory of natural selection, adjusting the notion as he went. As the culmination of his work drew close, Darwin again suffered a debilitating loss, as his young son was taken by a severe case of scarlet fever. Still, despite the setback and continuing health concerns, Darwin pushed on, encouraged to formally publish his theories by his many influential friends.

On November 22, 1859, Darwin’s most famous work, “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life,” – truncated to “On the Origin of Species” from the sixth edition on – was released to the public, and much to the surprise of Darwin and his cohorts, it was an unprecedented success, with more orders for the work than copies to supply them. Whatever success and influence Darwin had enjoyed in his professional life before now paled in comparison to the attention he was about to receive. Famous or infamous, Darwin was now more than ever in the public eye.

The book immediately drew the attention of a wide audience, and though he had only hinted at the naturalistic origins of mankind in it, he was quickly ridiculed and compared to another author of the day that shared his evolutionist worldview.(6) Darwin soon found his work at the center of a storm of both criticism and praise. Many within the intellectual elite of the day were highly favorable of his work, yet others, such as the influential botanist Asa Gray and the researcher Charles Lyell, were a bit reserved in their public acknowledgment of it. Even well-regarded members of the Church of England viewed the work favorably, embracing natural selection as the means through which God radiated life across creation; this notion is still highly regarded in many circles as theistic evolution.

One of his closest associates, Thomas Henry Huxley, quickly became one of the most outspoken advocates for Darwin’s theory of evolution. With it, Huxley began to viciously attack the church and its authority, seeking no less than an absolute shift in the socio-religious paradigm of the day. He wanted to see the abandonment of the church’s dogma in pure favor of materialistic science. In 1863, Huxley published his own groundbreaking work, “Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature”, in which he, pressing the issue much further than Darwin dared, demonstrated through anatomy that humans were a radiation of the ape family.

Though Darwin had wisely chose to avoid much discussion of human origins in his initial work, the research of Huxley and others fostered additional attention for his theory, inevitably fueling the flames of growing controversy. In due time Charles Darwin himself became the face of all forms of evolution, including that of the ape-to-man scenario.(7) The damage done, Darwin continued his studies into the laws of nature, working towards his next publication. This time however he accepted the mantle given him, delving much deeper into the case for human evolution.

In 1871, Darwin published “The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex.” With it he set out to demonstrate that humans were not special in regard to nature, but rather only a species of advanced animals, and he utilized a wealth of evidence to support his claim, from physiological analyses to mental ability and even cultural attributes. The work further went on to demonstrate that sexual selection was the driving force behind a great many features of life. Darwin declared within that:

“Man with all his noble qualities, with sympathy which feels for the most debased, with benevolence which extends not only to other men but to the humblest living creature, with his god-like intellect which has penetrated into the movements and constitution of the solar system–with all these exalted powers–Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.”(8)

Despite the characterization of many over the years that Darwin was a no-good atheist, hell-bent on the destruction of the church, in truth he initially harbored a reserved appreciation for the Scriptures, believing, during his time at Cambridge at least, in the literal truth of them.(9) In fact, it was his habit during his voyage aboard the HMS Beagle to refer to the Bible as an authority on morality, only later – after much exposure to the indigenous peoples he encountered on his travels – did he began to question the singular authority of the Bible, wondering instead why all religions couldn’t be held in equal regard.(10) 

As the years continued on, Darwin began to question his initial belief in the Bible further, finding no reconciliation between a benevolent God and the suffering and viciousness of nature. Eventually he fully abandoned Christianity, declaring religion in general a tool for survival, yet he did not abandon his belief that there was in fact a god. Ultimately, Darwin wrote of his own belief, saying “I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God. – I think that generally … an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.“(11) 

Like his grandfather Erasmus before him, Charles Robert Darwin, the pre-eminent naturalist and theorist of the nineteenth century, went to his grave on April 19th, 1882, as a man obsessed with what he saw as the natural order of things. Through the actions of his colleagues, Darwin was interred at Westminster Abbey alongside John Herschel and Isaac Newton, and thousands attended to pay their final respects. Today he is regarded by the mainstream as the “father of evolution,” a man who boldly and relentlessly pursued the unpopular truth of his day. In some regards, he has been as beatified by the secular community as a saint of sorts, often regarded with the authority and dignity of a king. In point of fact, since it’s unveiling in 1885, a great statue of Charles Darwin, sitting deep in thought on a throne-like chair, has resided at the Natural History Museum in London, England, reminding all of his influence on the intellectual world.

It would be easy to vilify Darwin for his influence, as many already have and will no doubt continue to do, especially considering how it could be directly traced to the rejection of faith by so many. My own rejection of religion all those years ago was in fact nurtured on godless evolution, and later, as I began to reconsider the prospect of the supernatural and even Christianity itself, my faith in evolution held strong for a time. Still, considering his upbringing, the associations he made through the years, and the influence he received from his peers and professors, one could perhaps conclude that Darwin was, as we all are, the product of his own environment.

Though ultimately it was his choice to abandon faith in the Bible in favor of other pursuits, can we fully place upon him all the blame for what has become of his work, indeed the evil it has led to? After all, Darwin wasn’t completely wrong in his theories…

Notes & References

  1. Knight, David M. & Eddy, Matthew D., “Science and Beliefs: From Natural Philosophy to Natural Science,” Ashgate, Burlington,1700–1900, pp. 141–156 
  2. Desmond, Adrian & Moore, James,“Darwin,”Michael Joseph, Penguin Group, London, 1991,pp 94-97
  3. Desmond, Adrian & Moore, James,“Darwin,”Michael Joseph, Penguin Group, London, 1991,pp. 241–244, 426
  4. Darwin, Charles “The Autobiography of Charles Darwin,” Barlow, Nora, ed, 1958,1809–1882, pg 120
  5. Browne, Janet, “Charles Darwin: Voyaging,” Random House, New York,1995, pg. 499
  6. Browne, E. Janet, “Charles Darwin: vol. 2 The Power of Place,” Jonathan Cape, London, 2002, pg 87
  7. Browne, E. Janet, “Charles Darwin: vol. 2 The Power of Place,” Jonathan Cape, London, 2002, pp 379-379
  8. Darwin, Charles, “The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex,” 1st ed, John Murray, London, 1871, pg 405
  9. Desmond, Adrian & Moore, James,“Darwin,”Michael Joseph, Penguin Group, London, 1991,pp, pp. 73–79
  10. Darwin, Charles “The Autobiography of Charles Darwin,” Barlow, Nora, ed, 1958,1809–1882,, pp 85-96
  11. “Darwin Correspondence Project – Belief: historical essay, “Letter 12041, Charles Darwin to John Fordyce, May 7, 1879

– This was an excerpt fromRemnants of Eden: Evolution, Deep-Time, & the Antediluvian World.” Get your copy here today. God bless! –

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