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Few names conjure up as much reaction as the name Charles Darwin does: it brings to mind images of monkeys turned to men, a universe unguided by any Divine hand, and a view of life that is always changing. Few individuals have left an imprint on the world as he, or rather his ideas, have. The father of modern evolutionary thought, Darwin showed the world a new way to explain the origins of living things, including humans. His ideas were also used to show—though it was never his intention that they would—that not only do living things change, so do non-living things. The evolutionary concept has been applied to fields outside biology and natural history. It is now common to read about the evolution of music, hairstyles, and machines. Darwin (1809–1882) helped bring on the realization that all life, culture, and even thought itself is fluid and changes over time whether we like it or not. For this insight he was and is both praised and reviled.
There is much controversy over what is sometimes referred to as Darwin's “dangerous” idea. Most of this comes from people not really understanding Darwin’s ideas. There are also a number of myths attributed to Darwin: that he “invented” evolution; that he hated God; that he renounced Christianity; that he said humans descended from monkeys; and that on his deathbed he renounced belief in evolution. None of these are correct. He is blamed for the notion of social Darwinism—the idea that the strong should conquer the weak—even though he hated his name being associated with a worldview he renounced. This collection of his essential writings offers the reader who is new to the topic a way to examine five of the core works of Darwin’s career. The Darwin Compendium helps to generate an understanding of what Darwin’s potent ideas were and how they affect the very nature of our civilization and understanding of the universe.
Charles Darwin was born in 1809 in Shrewsbury, England, to Robert and Susannah Darwin. He came from a long line of medical doctors, including his grandfather Erasmus Darwin (1731–1802), who wrote Zoonomia, one of the first books to propose a form of evolutionary mechanics. It was expected that Charles would follow the other Darwin men into medical school. He went to Scotland and entered Edinburgh University to earn his medical degree, but soon dropped out because his personality could not handle human dissections or even the sight of blood. He went home to England and entered Christ Church College, Cambridge University, to study for the Anglican ministry. This was a good change for him because, while interested in theology, his real love was natural history. Darwin thought that as a minister assigned to some quiet country parish he could spend most of his time collecting bugs and rocks and skeletons and flowers. It would be a lifestyle that would make him happy. He took classes in zoology, geology, and especially botany, at which he excelled. He did so well that just before he graduated he was offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to sail aboard the HMS Beagle as ship's naturalist on an expedition to study the geology, flora, and fauna of South America. At that time, the British Empire was routinely sending out research vessels to map and explore various parts of the world and bring data and botanical specimens back home.
The trip aboard the Beagle, a small, partially converted warship, lasted from 1831 to 1836. On the journey, recounted in The Voyage of the Beagle (1839), Darwin experienced things few naturalists back in England ever had: he saw exotic plants and animals, he lived through an earthquake, he collected fossils and many different specimens. This book was also known as The Journal of Researches and was part of a popular genre of literature known as traveler’s memoirs. Few Europeans had the means to travel far from the confines of the region in which they were born, so travel narratives like The Voyage of the Beagle gave readers glimpses of worlds they would never get a chance to see firsthand. Darwin saw many sights that amazed and delighted him; he also saw darker aspects of the human condition that revolted him. He saw for the first time the effects of the slave trade and became an abolitionist. He saw cruelties done in the name of religion. He saw things that opened his mind and changed his view of the world.
Of all the sights Charles Darwin saw on the voyage, the most crucial were on the tiny, obscure island group off the Western coast of South America called the Galapagos. On this group of islands, he saw that each island had a different type of closely related finch. There were also tortoises and magpies that seemed the same yet slightly different on each island. This diversity made him think about evolution. Why, he thought, should such an out-of-the-way place have so many different versions of the same birds or iguanas? What purpose did the diversity serve? The conditions on the Galapagos along with all the other data Darwin collected slowly began to form an answer. He kept his idea and growing doubts about the theological explanation of the origin and diversity of life to himself. The captain of the Beagle, Commander Fitzroy, was a devout Christian who, while having befriended Darwin, would not have been happy with what the young naturalist was thinking. (Years later Fitzroy was outraged at Darwin's ideas.) On the trip, Darwin carried a copy of a book called The Principles of Geology (1830) written by Charles Lyell (1797–1875). This book, controversial in its own way, suggested that the geology of the earth had changed slowly, uniformly and over a great period of time, making the earth far older than the accepted –6–10 thousand years commonly believed at that time. This was interesting to Darwin because everything he saw on the Beagle voyage seemed to support the idea that geologic change was gradual, not abrupt and catastrophic. If the earth itself was old and changed slowly, why couldn’t the same hold true for the living things on it? This could explain the diversity of the animals on the Galapagos Islands.
Upon returning home, Darwin was hailed as a hero. He had been sending back reports of the trip and many samples, and as a result he had created a good reputation for himself. His dream of being a full-time naturalist had come true. He quickly married his first cousin Emma Wedgwood, of the pottery family fame, and began writing. The Voyage of the Beagle did very well and promoted Darwin’s reputation outside British naturalist circles. He then began a period of intense study of the materials and specimens he had collected in South America. The more he thought, the more he believed he was right about one thing: that living organisms changed over time.
Darwin was not operating in a vacuum. He was part of a growing trend in Western thought and science that was moving away from supernatural explanations for nature and looking for ones based on reason, facts, and evidence. Darwin read widely and many ideas outside of science became part of his thinking. In addition to Lyell’s work, one of the more crucial books he read was Thomas Malthus’ Essays on the Principle of Population (1798). Malthus (1766–1834) argued that populations were always greater than the food supply necessary to feed them. As a result, a struggle for survival ensued. By incorporating this idea, Darwin had the final piece of the puzzle. This became the concept of natural selection and the heart of The Origin of Species (1859). Darwin’s theory of biological change was that every generation produced offspring that were slightly different from their parents. Sometimes these differences amounted to slight advantages in the ability to survive and procreate. Any group of organisms that could adapt to their environment increased their chances of producing the next generation, which in turn would inherit those advantages and the cycle would begin again. These hereditary differences combined with a changing environment over vast periods of time could result in speciation, part of the group acquiring enough hereditary differences that it would no longer be able to mate with members of the original group. So, natural selection, given enough time and the right circumstances, was the engine of change that accounted for the wide variety of life on earth.
The publication of the Origin of Species caused a furor. Many loved it, others hated it. One of the things most associated with Darwin’s work is that he claimed humans descended from monkeys. He never claimed any such thing. In the Origin of Species he makes only passing reference to humans at the end of the book. The human and monkey link came from a book by Darwin’s staunch defender T. H. Huxley (1825–1895). Inspired by Darwin’s work, Huxley published Evidence for Man’s Place in Nature (1863) in which he argued that the anatomy of primates and humans was so similar that it was evidence that they were related. He argued that humans were part of the animal world, not separate from it. This condition was the result of natural selection and evolution. Huxley argued that humans and primates shared a common ancestor. Darwin, inspired by Huxley’s book, decided to publish one of his own specifically on human evolution.
In 1871, Darwin published The Descent of Man. Taking his cue from Huxley, he argued that there was considerable evidence to show that humans were part of the animal kingdom and had been created according to the same natural laws that had produced all other life on earth. Whereas Huxley had used evidence from anatomy, Darwin looked to behavior. He argued, for example, that when people dress or act a certain way in order to attract a mate they are doing the same thing and for the same reason that brightly colored birds perform for one another. He said that human behavior, like that of other animals, was a result of natural selection. He also saw morality as a product of evolution: if humans behave in a moral way toward one another, the species will prosper and procreate. Most provocative of all, he argued that belief in God was a result of an increase in the human intellect and reason.
To further his thesis of humans as part of the natural world, Darwin published The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). In this work he argued that facial expressions in humans were complex forms of communication performed by intricate musculature that was the result of evolutionary processes. The emotions put forward by facial expressions were themselves the products of natural selection. Individuals who had the ability to communicate information by movements of their faces had an advantage over those who did not. Darwin compared modern facial expressions in various people and found that they were the same basic movements regardless of the person’s ethnic or cultural background. He also compared human and animal expression and found many startling similarities. He thought facial expression was not a learned behavior but somehow innate. This was a rather radical idea for the time and further broke down the wall separating humans and the rest of life on earth.
In 1876, after years of insults and praise over what he wrote about life, Charles Darwin took stock of his own life. He wanted his memoirs to be for private consumption by his family only and never intended his autobiography to be read by the public. He meant it as a model from which his children could learn and gain insight into their father’s beliefs. As such the Autobiography of Charles Darwin is written in an anecdotal style not unlike The Voyage of the Beagle written so many years before. This work did not appear in public until 1887 when his son, botanist Francis Darwin (1848–1925), included it as part of the introduction to The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, which he had edited. Before publishing it, however, Francis excised a number of parts which he thought might cast an inappropriate shadow on his father’s life or that were a bit too personal. In 1958, Charles Darwin’s granddaughter, Nora Barlow (1885–1989), released the Autobiography again and put most of the missing parts back in.
The work of Charles Darwin has been controversial from the moment it was first published. It should not be surprising that his work caused such a furor as he questioned the very foundations of life on earth. His work questions where life came from, it questions how it got here, and it questions the reality of the Divine. It has also undergone an evolution of its own. By the twentieth century, advances in genetics, molecular biology, and biochemistry have given us deeper insight than was available to Darwin. The synthesis of classical natural selection and these modern disciplines have resulted in the appearance of Neo-Darwinism. It also showed just how right Darwin was all along. Still, the controversy continues to this day. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, people around the world, particularly in the United States, have been fighting about evolution. This fight has centered on whether evolution or creationism—the idea that life was made by a supernatural intelligence, God—should be taught in the public-school system. Religious people argue that Darwin was a blasphemer who should be banished from the school curriculum and that evolution has no evidence to support it. They also argue that at least creationism should be taught alongside evolution. Advocates of science say that the only way to really understand how the universe works, without supernatural explanations, is to understand Darwin and evolution. Part of this debate stems from a poor understanding of what Darwin had originally said. While few creationists and anti-evolutionists have taken the time to read Darwin, many non-scientists who support evolution have failed to do so as well. In today’s world, regardless of whether a person accepts or denies such an important principle as evolution, one should do it from an informed position. Reading the original works of Charles Darwin is a good place to start.
Brian Regal holds a doctorate in American history and writes frequently on evolutionary thought and its relationship to religion, culture and politics. He teaches American history and the history of science and technology at the TCI College of Technology in New York City.