Darwin’s The Origin of Species was breathtaking—beautifully written, staunchly defended, defiantly radical. Yet it emerged long before modern genetics, molecular biology, and contemporary findings in paleontology. This remarkable book presents a rich and up–to–date view of evolution that explores the far–reaching implications of Darwin's theory and emphasizes the power, significance, and relevance of evolution to our lives today. After all, we ourselves are the product of evolution, and we can tackle many of our gravest challenges –– from lethal resurgence of antibiotic–resistant diseases to the wave of extinctions that looms before us –– with a sound understanding of the science.
Evolution is an indispensable asset to any serious reader with an interest in the life sciences, a passion for truth in education, or a concern for the future of the planet.
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Darwin and the Beagle
In late October 1831 a 90-foot coaster named HMS Beagle lay docked at Plymouth, England. Its crew scrambled about it like termites in a nest. They were packing the ship as tightly as they could for a voyage around the world, one that would last five years. They rolled barrels of flour and rum into the hold and crammed the deck with wooden boxes that contained experimental clocks resting on beds of sawdust. The Beagle's voyage was a scientific one: its crew would be testing the clocks for the British navy, which depended on precise timekeeping to navigate. Exquisitely detailed maps would be drawn on the voyage as well, so mahogany lockers were installed in the poop cabin and packed with navigational charts. The crew replaced the ship's 10 steel cannons with brass ones so that not even the slightest interference could confuse the Beagle's compasses.
Amid the flurry of preparations, a 22-year-old man picked his way. He moved awkwardly around the ship, not only because his 6-foot frame was oversized for the cramped quarters, but also because he felt profoundly out of place. He had no official position on the ship, having been invited to keep the captain company during the voyage and act as an unofficial naturalist. It was usually up to a ship's surgeon to act as the naturalist for a voyage, but this awkward young man had no such practical skill. He was a medical school dropout who, for want of any other respectable line of work, was considering a career as a country parson when the voyage was over. Once he had stowed away his preserving jars, his microscope, and the restof his equipment in the poop cabin, he had nothing more to do. He tried helping the assistant surveyor calibrate some of the timepieces, but he didn't even know enough math to do the most basic calculations.
The name of this awkward young man was Charles Darwin. By the time the Beagle returned to England five years later, he would be transformed into one of Britain's most promising young scientists. And out of his experiences on the journey, he would discover the single most important idea in the history of biology, one that would permanently alter humanity's perception of its place in the natural order. From clues that he collected aboard the Beagle, Darwin would show that nature had not been created in exactly the form it takes today. Life evolves: it changes gradually but perpetually over vast gulfs of time, driven through those changes thanks to the laws of heredity, without any need of direct divine intervention. And humans, far from being the pinnacle and destiny of God's creation, were but a single species among many, another product of evolution.
Darwin would send Victorian England into a crisis with his theory, but he would offer an alternative view of life that has turned out to have a grandeur of its own. It is clear today that evolution connects us to the dawn of Earth, to showers of comets and death-winds of stars. It produced the crops we eat and now helps insects destroy them. It illuminates the mysteries of medicine, such as how mindless bacteria can outwit the best minds in science. It holds a warning for those who would take from Earth without limits; it reveals how our minds were assembled among lonely bands of apes. We may still struggle with what evolution says about our place in the universe, but that universe is all the more remarkable.
The Beagle is remembered today only because of Darwin's experience on board the ship. But if you tried to tell that to the sailors rolling barrels aboard they might have laughed without even a glance at the young man who was pretending to know what he was doing.
"My chief employment," Darwin wrote to his family from Plymouth, "is to go on board the Beagle and try to look as much like a sailor as ever I can. I have no evidence of having taken in man, woman or child."
In Search of Beetles and Respectability
Darwin had grown up along the banks of the Severn River in Shropshire, collecting pebbles and birds, completely unaware of the fortunes that made his life pleasant. His mother, Susannah, came from the wealthy Wedgwood family, which made china of the same name. Although his father, Robert, came from less wealthy stock, he built up a fortune of his own by working as a doctor and discreetly lending money to his patients. He eventually became rich enough to build his family a large house, the Mount, on a hillside overlooking the Severn.
Charles and his older brother Erasmus had the close, practically telepathic connection that brothers sometimes have. As teenagers they built themselves a laboratory at the Mount where they would dabble in chemicals and crystals. When Charles was 16, Erasmus went to Edinburgh to study medicine. Their father sent Charles along with him to keep Erasmus company, and ultimately to go to medical school as well. Charles was happy to tag along, for the company of his brother and for the adventure.
When they arrived in Edinburgh, Charles and Erasmus were shocked by the squalor and spectacle of the city. These two boys, raised in the genteel countryside where Jane Austen set her novels, encountered slums for the first time. Politics raged around them as Scottish nationalists, Jacobites, and Calvinists jostled over church and country. At Edinburgh University they faced a rabble of rough students shouting and shooting off pistols in the middle of lectures. Charles and Erasmus recoiled into each other's company, spending their time talking together, walking along the shore, reading newspapers, and going to the theater.
Charles realized very quickly that he hated medicine. The lectures were dreary, the dissected corpses a nightmare, the operations often amputations without anesthesia terrifying. He kept himself busy with natural history. But although Charles knew that he could not become a doctor, he had no appetite for standing up to his father...