Charles Darwin's Bombshell
The Book that Revealed Evolution as the Master-Key to Nature’s SecretsThe idea of Evolution is so much part and parcel of our thinking that it is hard to realize that up to as recently as the middle of the last century many, perhaps most, scientists looked upon it as being little more than an interesting hypothesis. There might have been an evolution of the rocks, that they were prepared to allow; but they could find little evidence for a similar evolution of plants and animals. While as for the Evolution of Man, the very suggestion was considered to be too far-fetched to be considered seriously. Was it not most clearly stated in the opening chapters of the book of Genesis that all mankind is descended from a single human pair who were specially created as the first man and woman? Why, they even knew when this had occurred, for there in the margin of the big family Bible was given the date, 4004 B.C.
There are people to-day, the so-called Fundamentalists, who still hold to some such view. But there are not many of them. In all the countries of the world the great majority of scientists, as well as the leaders of religious thought and indeed most thinking men, are Evolutionists, and make no bones about acknowledging it. Evolution is no longer regarded as a supposition, but as a master-key for the unlocking of the secrets of Nature. All that we see and know has evolved from something very different from what it is at present, and not least Man himself has gone through an evolutionary process.
Obviously a great intellectual revolution has occurred, one of the most momentous and far-reaching in human history; and if there is one man who was responsible for it more than any other it is an English scientist whose name everybody has heard of, even though by no means everybody has read so much as a line of any of the books that he wrote.
Charles Darwin was born in 1809, and he lived until 1882. He was the son of a doctor in Shrewsbury, who besides marrying a wealthy wife, she was a Miss Wedgwood, one of the famous potter’s family, made a fortune out of his practice. Charles was the second son and nearly the youngest of a family of six. He went to a private day-school, where he learnt very little, and then had seven years at the great public school of Shrewsbury, where again he learnt next to nothing.
He had not the slightest interest in making Latin verses, but he was interested in chemistry experiments and in collecting beetles. He was also good at sport, and his father, in a fit of irritation at his lack of scholastic success, once grumbled, “you care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and to your family!” It is characteristic of Darwin that when he recorded this outburst in his Autobiography he was quick to add that “my father was the kindest man I ever knew”.
Leaving Shrewsbury at sixteen, he proceeded to Edinburgh University to train as a doctor, but the sights and smells of the operation-room proved too much for him and he speedily withdrew. His father then thought that he might as well become a clergyman, and sent him to Cambridge for three years. His time there was wasted, as far as his studies were concerned, just as had been the years at school and Edinburgh. But he read widely and made some good and useful friends, and he still collected beetles. Once he discovered a fresh species, and it was with immense satisfaction that he read one day in a book on British insects that this particular beetle had been discovered by Charles Darwin, Esq.
Then he had a stroke of great good fortune. One of his friends among the dons recommended him for the post of naturalist to accompany an expedition that was being sent out by the Government to make a survey of the coasts of the most southern parts of South America. Darwin nearly lost the opportunity. His father was against his accepting the offer, and Captain FitzRoy, who was to command the expedition in his ship H.M.S. Beagle, when he first met him didn’t like the shape of his nose, since it suggested to him a lack of energy and determination…
But the objections, parental and nasal, were overcome, and in 1831 Darwin sailed from Devonport on the Beagle, and he did not see England again until the autumn of 1836. To begin with, he was most horribly seasick, but before long he was enjoying himself in a crowd of fresh sights and experiences. He wandered in a tropical forest when they first touched land in Brazil, and oh, the wonder of it! “To a person fond of natural history“, he wrote in his journal, “such a day as this brings with it a deeper pleasure than he can ever hope to experience again.” He rode with cowboys across the pampas, and joined in a kangaroo hunt in the Australian bush. He enjoyed the hospitality of slave-holding planters, and took back with him an undying hatred of slavery as an institution. In Tierra del Fuego he saw the human species at its lowest: “The sight of a naked savage in his native land is an event which can never be forgotten.”
He gave full vent to his passion for collecting, and the sailors were so amused that they dubbed him “The Flycatcher”.
Now and again he fell out with FitzRoy, whose temper was none of the easiest, but it is noteworthy that it was the Captain who christened Darwin Mountains and Darwin Sound in Tierra del Fuego, in recognition, as he said, of the young man’s exertions beyond the call of duty. Very shortly Darwin had discovered that “the pleasure of observing and reasoning was a much higher one than that of skill and sport”, and when he went ashore he left his gun behind. Years later when he looked back on the voyage in the Beagle, he declared that it had been the most important event in his life and had determined his whole career.
When at length he got back home he told his father that he had decided on what he wanted to do. “Adding a little to Natural Science,” is how he expressed it, and his father raised no objection; after all, the boy was old enough now to know his own mind, and there was no question of his having to earn his living, with so much money in the family. But Natural Science is a big enough subject in all conscience, and it was some time before Darwin had settled on the particular part of it that he would do his best to add to. Then as he arranged his notes and specimens that he had brought back with him, his mind kept reverting to something that he had often observed and pondered over. On every hand he had seen “organisms of every kind beautifully adapted to their habits of life”. But how had they managed to do this?
The problem, so he tells us, haunted him, and he decided to collect as many facts as he could on the variation of plants and animals both in a state of nature and when domesticated, with a view to discovering just what had made them change and adapt themselves. “My first note-book was opened in July, 1837,” he recorded; this was less than a year after the return from the voyage.
For nearly twenty years he worked on the problem, collecting facts, writing them down, comparing them, evaluating them. He was able to do this because he was supremely fortunate in marrying a woman who was an excellent manager and let him work away undisturbed. She was a cousin, Emma Wedgwood, and all that we read about her is pleasant and to her credit. For some years after their marriage in 1839 they lived in London, but Darwin got tired of dining out and frequent callers and making calls, and in 1842 they moved to a large house that he bought on the outskirts of the little village of Downe, in Kent. For forty years Darwin lived there in the most happy circumstances, but for his health. What he actually suffered from is not clear, but there is little doubt that he was somewhat hypochondriacal. Emma nursed him, read to him, listened to talk which she often did not properly understand, and, not least, bore him ten children in seventeen years.
Year after year went by, with Darwin still plodding away at his note-books. He thought that there was plenty of time, since the subject was not one that had attracted the attention of other workers in the field. At least that is what he thought; in fact, he was wrong, as we shall see. Soon after his removal to Downe he had sketched out his theory in 35 pages; in the summer of 1844 he enlarged this to 230 pages. More years passed, and still he had nothing ready for the printer. The friends with whom he had discussed it urged him to “get a move on”, and in 1858 he had got a book almost ready.
Then one morning in June of that year he received a nasty shock, in the shape of a letter from another British naturalist with whom he had been having some friendly communications on matters of common interest. Alfred Russel Wallace was his name, and he was a naturalist exploring in the East Indies. But for years, it transpired, he had been working on the very problem which Darwin thought he had made his own. And now, accompanying his letter, was a manuscript in which the theory he had arrived at was outlined. In all essentials it was the same as Darwin’s, “if Wallace had had my MS sketch written out in 1842″, he noted, “he could not have made a better short abstract!”
Darwin’s first reaction was to declare that he would rather burn his book than that Wallace “or any other man should think that I had behaved in a paltry spirit”. But eventually (since both he and Wallace were Victorian gentlemen) the matter was satisfactorily arranged. It was settled that a joint statement should be prepared, and this was read at a meeting of the Linnean Society in London on 1 July, 1858. Strangely enough, none of the small audience of thirty fellows who heard the paper read seems to have thought that the theory was at all out of the way. But when at last Darwin’s book was published, in November, 1859, a storm broke about his ears.
The book’s full title was The Origin of Species, by means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.
It was a big book, of nearly 600 pages, and by no means easy reading. But the first edition of 1,250 copies at 15s. each was sold out on the day of publication, and a second edition of 3,000 copies that was rushed through the press was likewise soon disposed of. Four further editions were published in Darwin’s life-time, and the book still sells, since it has long been acknowledged as one of the great classics of Science.
Now, what was the book about, and why did it cause such a furore? In the first place, it should be made quite clear that Darwin did not “discover Evolution”, as is sometimes alleged. There were evolutionists among the thinkers of ancient Greece, and in the eighteenth century Lamarck in France and Darwin’s own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, had advanced theories of an evolutionary character. And among Darwin’s own circle of intimate friends there was at least one, Herbert Spencer, who was quite convinced of the truth of Evolution, even though he was not in a position to prove it. This is where Darwin had the advantage; if he did not prove it beyond any doubt, he could hardly have done so in the then state of scientific knowledge, he made it seem exceedingly probable, and suggested a way by which it might have been brought about.
At the outset he was not a believer in any evolutionary theory himself; like nearly every one of his contemporaries, he thought that each species of animals and plants had been independently created. Even after his return from the voyage in the Beagle he was still far from sure that this had not been the case. Then he happened to read The Principle of Population by the Rev. T. R. Malthus that had been first published in 1798, and this book gave him the clue he had been looking for.
Malthus demonstrated how there was a natural tendency for living creatures to become so prolific that in a few years they would fill the world, that is, if they were left to themselves. But in practice their numbers were kept down by a lack of sufficient food, and they were obliged to struggle among themselves to survive. Darwin had already seen evidences of such a struggle in his studies of plants and animals, and now it struck him 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.” To this process he gave the name of Natural Selection.
“Although much remains obscure, and will long remain obscure,” he wrote in the introduction to the Origin, “I can entertain no doubt, after the most deliberate study and dispassionate judgment of which I am capable, that the view which most naturalists until recently entertained, and which I formerly entertained, namely, that each species has been independently created, is erroneous. I am fully convinced that species are not immutable; but that those belonging to what are called the same genera are lineal descendants of some other and generally extinct species. . . . Furthermore, I am convinced that Natural Selection has been the most important, but not the exclusive, means of modification.”
Well, that was his conclusion; and looking back, it may seem difficult to understand what all the fuss was about. For fuss there was, and plenty of it. As regards the scientific world, quite a number of the leading scientists ranged themselves on Darwin’s side, notably Professor Thomas Huxley, who acquired the nickname of “Darwin’s bulldog” on account of his spirited championship of the Darwinian theory. But the general public, and even some scientists, were greatly worried about the theory’s implications. If the different species of plants and animals had evolved, could they draw the line there and exclude Man? Might it not be argued that Man, too, had evolved? To the Victorian self-esteem Darwin’s book came as a bombshell. “What, us, descended from monkeys? Perish the thought!”
This point was seized upon by Bishop Wilberforce, when at a meeting of the British Association at Oxford in 1860 he crossed swords with Professor Huxley. The Bishop had “crammed” up the subject (runs one account of the famous incident) and knew nothing of it at first hand. He ridiculed Darwin badly and Huxley savagely, and then slipped into banter. “I would like to ask Professor Huxley”, he said, “as to his belief in being descended from an ape. Is it on his grandfather’s side or on his grandmother’s that the ape ancestry comes in?” Nothing of the kind had been alleged, of course, but Huxley rose to the bait. “I should feel it no shame to have risen from such an origin,” he declared, “but I should feel it a shame to have sprung from one who prostituted the gifts of culture and eloquence to the service of prejudice and falsehood.” The effect was tremendous; at least one lady fainted and had to be carried out…
Huxley delighted in such contests; Darwin kept well away from them. He just carried on with his chosen work, and published a new book every now and again. The best known of these is The Descent of Man, published in 1871, in which he definitely applied his theories to the Development of Man. It was quite uncompromising in its assertion that “Man is descended from some lowly organized form… and still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin,” but it created nothing like the angry stir that had saluted the Origin. The first book had broken the ice, as it were, and the idea of Evolution was now pretty generally accepted. When Darwin died in 1882 he was buried in Westminster Abbey, as befitted a man who had added such immense lustre to Science. And the passing of the years have only added to his fame.
This is not to say that his particular theories are accepted nowadays as the final word: they are not. A great deal has been discovered since Darwin wrote, particularly in the field of Genetics, about which absolutely nothing was known in Darwin’s time. He had never heard Mendel’s name so far as we know, and had no suspicion of the existence of genes and chromosomes. If Darwin could come back to-day he would find that his theory had been changed in the light of this new knowledge, although in main essentials it is still accepted as the most likely explanation of the way the evolutionary process has worked. He would not have been in the least surprised or minded. Science must advance, and theories are but stepping-stones to further progress.
What he was chiefly concerned with was the truth of the principle of Evolution, and that stands four-square. So, looking back on his momentous career, we may surely agree with what he himself wrote in his Autobiography about it: “As for myself, I believe that I have acted rightly in steadily following and devoting my life to Science.”