Charles Robert Darwin

English Naturalist

Charles Robert Darwin was an English Naturalist famous for his contributions to evolutionary theory, particularly his novel, On the Origin Of Species, which introduced the theory of Natural Selection. Raised in a primarily Unitarian and Anglican household, Darwin was exposed to progressive thinking from a very young age. His parents were prominent abolitionists and his father, in particular, was a "freethinker"—someone who believes that knowledge should be based on reason and not intuition. In 1825, his father sent him to medical school, hoping that he would become a doctor. However, Darwin found medicine dull and slacked off; he was more interested in taxidermy and biology. He joined a society dedicated to the study of natural history, where he fell under the tutorship of Robert Edmond Grant. He achieved his first scholarly publication when he helped Grant researching abnormal markings on oyster shells. It was Grant who first exposed Darwin to the ideas of a man named Jean Baptiste Lamarck who had proposed that species did not have fixed attributes, but rather "evolved" over time.

Darwin's father, upset that he was not focusing on becoming a doctor, forced him to go to Christ's College in Cambridge hoping that Darwin would be able to focus better there. Darwin enrolled in the ordinary degree plan (as opposed to the more difficult tripos degree plan) but the transfer of schools did not make him take up medicine. Instead, he became acquainted with many leading naturalists, including John Henslow, who furthered his interests in the field. Darwin regularly skipped class, opting to go collect beetles. Some of his findings were published in beetle-collecting journals. He ended up graduating tenth out of 178 students in his class, but after graduating, he promptly left England for a quick trip to assist Adam Sedgwick construct a geological map of Wales.

When he returned, he found that John Henslow had invited him on a scientific voyage of the HMS Beagle. The Beagle's primary goal was to map the coast of South America and Darwin's job was to collect geological and zoological samples from the various locations that the Beagle landed. Over the course of the voyage, Darwin kept immaculate notes on the observations and inferences that he made. Reading them now, you can see him slowly recognizing patterns between different species and beginning to develop the theory of natural selection. As he visits more places, he becomes more and more confident in his theory. Near the end of the voyage, he notes that his findings "seemed to me to throw some light on the origin of species."

When the Beagle came back home after having traveled all the way around the world, Darwin got distracted by all the specimens that he had collected. He put off further thought on his theory until he had cataloged everything that he had found. He then published a paper on the geography of South America before finally returning to natural selection. He began drafting a paper announcing this new theory, but at the same time he still had many unfinished papers that he was still trying to write and more that he wanted to write but hadn't started. His workload increased to the point that it started impacting his health. He started having heart problems in September of 1837, which forced him to take time off of working.

During this time, he met his cousin, Emma Wedgewood, and immediately took a liking to her. His health also continued to deteriorate because he could not keep himself from thinking about his theories. While spending time in the hospital, Darwin made a list of the pros and cons of marrying Emma. Among the pros was that she would be a "constant companion and a friend in old age ... better than a dog anyhow. Among the cons was "less money for books" and a "terrible loss of time." Finally, he decided to marry her. They would eventually have ten children together. In 1851, his daughter Annie died from an unknown illness. This was the first of three of his children who would die.

Darwin spent the next seven years working on his publication and was almost finished when, in 1858, Darwin learned that the scientist Alfred Russel Wallace was also working on a theory similar to his theory of natural selection. Darwin wrote to Wallace to point out the similarities between their theories and Wallace invited Darwin to jointly present their findings on July 1, but on June 28, Darwin's son Charles Waring Darwin died from scarlet fever, rendering Darwin too distraught to attend the presentation. The presentation did not attract much attention, and Darwin was able to finish his book. When Darwin published On the Origin Of Species, it was a huge success. The reactions to it are discussed more in other sections of this project.

For the remainder of his life, Darwin continued to do science. Ultimately, this caused his death. In 1882, he died of heart failure. He was buried at Westminster Abbey next to other famous scientists like Issac Newton.
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"I am turned into a sort of machine for observing facts and grinding out conclusions."

"One general law, leading to the advancement of all organic beings, namely, multiply, vary, let the strongest vary and the weakest die."

"[If] my theory be true, numberless intermediate varieties, linking most closely all the species of the same group together, must assuredly have existed."

"I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me."

What was his most important contribution to our country?

First of all, Darwin was British, so he didn't travel to the Galapagos with the intention of contributing anything specifically to America. However Darwin was a scientist and I believe—and I think he also believed—that science is a worldwide endeavor. When you do science, you contribute to the repository of Human knowledge. That was his contribution. Darwin published many papers throughout his life on diverse topics ranging from botany to geology to entomology. In fact the last paper that he ever published was titled The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms.

Often, the magnitude of the importance of a scientific discovery is judged by its impact. By this measure, his work On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life was by far his most important contribution to the world, and by extension, our country. Darwin did not invent the concept of evolution, he proposed the theory of natural selection as one of the various methods through which evolution works. The theory of evolution, of species morphing into other species, creating a sort of tree-like genealogy, was first introduced by Jean Baptiste Lamarck in 1809. The idea that Darwin proposed in The Origin of Species is that of "survival of the fittest"—that the organisms better adapted to their environment are the ones more likely to survive and reproduce, which, over multiple generations, causes populations of organisms to trend towards consisting of the individuals with helpful adaptations. This is in contrast to the Lamarckian theory of evolution, where a nebulous "life force" caused each individual organism to morph over the course of its lifetime into a better adapted version of itself according to which physical attributes are used most often by the organism. The key to both of these ideas is that the adaptations are passed on to offspring so that each new generation does not start back at square one. This is known as "heritability".

Lamarck's ideas were still widely ridiculed, but were slowly gaining acceptance, particularly by other "freethinking" naturalists. In my opinion, the greatest factor in the success of Darwin's theory was that he was already a popular and respected scientist, even among the general public. His reputation allowed him the leeway to explain his ideas and for other people to consider them without immediately rejecting them. His publication served to further feed an already flaming debate over the validity of evolution and it is a testament to the power of his public standing that only two decades after he published The Origin of Species, evolution had been accepted by the majority of scientists.

What moral decisions did he face in order to make this contribution?

The obvious answer to this question is that Darwin faced intense opposition from religious leaders, citizens, and scientists. In reality, it is more complicated than that. Darwin himself was raised as a deeply religious man. It is evident, however, that over the course of his lifetime, his religious attitude dwindled until, near the time of his death, he pronounced himself an agnostic. (There are two interesting things about this. First, the word "agnostic" wasn't even coined until 1869 by Thomas Huxley. Second, this decline from religious fervor to widespread agnosticism can be seen a mirror of greater British society on a larger timescale.) When Darwin returned from his voyage on the Beagle, he already claimed to believe that the events delineated in the Old Testament were allegorical. He indicated that a major contribution to his declining religious beliefs was the sight of slaves suffering on an island named Tierra del Fuego.

Most people at that time period believed that species were created by God and were perfectly adapted for whatever environment they were in. Darwin knew from Lamarck's experience that any attempt to propose a theory that called this into question would be subject to resistance from the scientific community. He worked tirelessly to address every criticism that he could think of before he published his theory. Even so, when he did publish it, he got lots of criticism. Darwin took a defensive approach to this criticism. Some misconceptions of Darwin today cast him as someone who aggressively pushed his views onto religious figures out of contempt for the Church, but I think that this is the result of unfairly associating the attitudes of Darwin's (more vocal) modern day supporters with that of Darwin himself. Darwin was enthusiastic about his work, but he was not adamant about pushing his views onto people. In fact, Thomas Henry Huxley was the one who staged the first "Evolution vs. Religion" debate.

Another point that plagued Darwin was the idea that atheists would use his theory as evidence for the non-existence of God. He said "In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God." In 1842, he made a list of reasons why he was not yet ready to publish On the Origin Of Species. Three of his six reasons were that atheists would use it for their own agendas, that the Church would criticize him, and that he did not want to be thought of as an atheist.
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Compare and contrast his acceptance, choices, and impact on a different time period.

The time period that I chose was the modern day, mostly because if he defied the Church too long before his own time, he would have simply been killed for heresy. Because religious tolerance varies from country to country and from person to person, I'm going to assume that he's still in Great Britain.

How would he have been perceived by the people of this time period?

The most relevant difference between his time and our time is that, in today's Great Britain, the majority of people are non-religious (50.6% of the population according to a 2013 census). Because of this, agnosticism and atheism have a much smaller effect on a person's reputation. If we took Charles Darwin and placed him directly into modern day London (ignoring the culture shock that would induce), society would almost certainly accept him, an agnostic biologist, as a relatively normal British citizen.

The thing is, Darwin didn't go out and intentionally search for controversial topics to research. What he did demonstrate is that he was willing to publish controversial results if he believed that they were true. An interesting difference between our times is that back then, science was a lot less specific. Darwin went on the Beagle as a combination of a marine biologist, a geologist, a taxidermist, a naturalist, and numerous other professions. He didn't know what he was looking for, he simply looked for things that he thought would be "of interest to the scientific community." Today, scientists almost always know what they're looking for. They perform experiments and have expected results. There are very few unexpected discoveries. I believe that Darwin, if he was doing modern science, would stay away from researching the controversial topics because it was not his intention to be controversial.

Another way of looking at this argument yields a very different reaction. Even though Darwin didn't intend to be controversial, it was still his defining feature. I don't think that ignoring his controversiality via an argument about the progression of science is really in the spirit of the question. So, the question now is: regardless of society's view of atheism/agnosticism specifically, have we gotten any better at handling controversy in general?

The answer, in my opinion, is...maybe? A great example of this is the recent news story about a team of Chinese scientists successfully editing the DNA of a non-viable human embryo. This is very relevant because it has the same science vs. religion aspect that natural selection did. There has been a huge reaction within the scientific community and society surrounding this experiment, with commentary from biologists, ethicists, religious leaders, and members of the public. Some people are supportive and other people are vehemently against the concept of human genetic modification. All of this mirrors the debate over natural selection to a very close degree. Furthermore, the debate about both the DNA experiment and natural selection have both remained relatively civil, despite the strong opinions held by both sides. This leads me to the conclusion that, while society has made progress on specific social issues, our handling of more overarching human-nature issues like controversy has remained fairly stagnant.

If I had his skills, how would I put them to use?

Charles Darwin's most helpful skills were his curiosity, his ingenuity, and his perseverance. His personality was very conducive to science—all three of these traits are almost required in a good scientist. If I had these skills (which, honestly, I'd like to believe that I do, at least to some extent), it would be a shame if I did anything other that science. Because the skills are so general, I could apply them nicely to whichever field I wanted to. Finally, like Darwin, I would be a researcher, not an activist.
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Parallels and conclusions considering the time period that he grew up in and the person he became.

Darwin lived in a time period where scientists were first starting to accept what might have only a few decades earlier been referred to as "heresy." Lamarck's idea of evolution was widely criticized, but only in verbal debates, no legal repercussions arose from his radical proposal. I believe that Darwin was born in the perfect time to introduce a theory that indirectly questioned the Bible.

Darwin spent a lot of time considering his theory before he released it to the public. Before he did, he only mentioned it to a few of his closest friends, especially those who he believed would be accepting of the theory. On July 1, 1858, when Alfred Russel Wallace presented his and Darwin's findings to the Linnaean Society, there was a very mixed reception from the audience. Some people were excited about the innovative new ideas, others flatly refused to accept such radical ideas, and still others were shocked that someone would be so audacious as to defy the Church.

I do believe, however, that it was inevitable that someone would eventually popularize a theory that defied the prevalent religious views. Darwin was not particularly special in his scientific abilities: Wallace independently discovered a very similar theory. If British society had taken 50 years longer to start accepting the questioning of religion, I am sure that some other popular scientist would have served the same role that Darwin did, as someone to catalyze the debate and make the questioning more acceptable.

It is also interesting to note that this time period is the Victorian Era in Great Britain, which spans quite a large period of time, but for reference, On the Origin Of Species was published not long before the start of the American Civil War. In fact, John Brown raided Harper's Ferry about a month before the paper was published. (He was hung for it about nine days after the paper was published.)
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Historical Summation - Was Darwin Wrong?

Was Darwin Wrong?
David Quammen

In this essay from National Geographic Magazine, David Quammen argues in favor of the validity of Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection and the general theory of evolution. Quammen begins by defining the word "theory" as used in a scientific context. Explaining that a scientific theory is not a tentative hypothesis, but rather a heavily tested explanation that it is regarded as a fact, he implies that the essay is aimed more towards people who are not very familiar with science.* He concedes that the theory of evolution is hard to accept then he lists some statistics from which he concludes that almost half of the American public does not believe in evolution. After stressing that understanding evolution is critical to Human welfare, he begins explaining and giving some history behind Charles Darwin and his publication, On the Origin Of Species. Quammen breaks Darwin's book into four main topics, biogeography, paleontology, embryology, and morphology, corresponding to the four fields of science that Darwin used to provide evidence for his theory. He explains each of these, being careful to keep the explanations simple and making use of rhetorical questions which give the reader the same sense of curiosity that Darwin might have felt. The rest of the essay is devoted to another field that wasn't around in Darwin's time, but Quammen believes is central to the study of evolution today: genomics. He recounts multiple interviews with scientists who work in this field, each of whom provide a different, but consistently supportive, perspective on genomics in relation to evolutionary research.
He ends with a quote from a paleontologist who assures Quammen, and by extension, the reader, that "the evidence [for evolution] is there." Overall, by appealing to authority, logic, and emotion, and by keeping the scientific jargon to a minimum, Quammen succeeded in writing an essay that effectively communicates its point to its target audience.†

* Participial phrase
Periodic Sentence

Synthesis Question

The publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin Of Species was part of a debate that many historical figures have taken part in. Because of its highly emotional nature, the debate over the validity of evolution has garnered impassioned argument from both sides. How adamant was Charles Darwin in convincing his opponents that his view was correct?

Read the following sources carefully. Then, in an essay that synthesizes at least three of the sources for support, take a position that defends, challenges, or qualifies the claim that Charles Darwin preferred continuing his research to debating about evolution.

(Source A) Huxley: Darwin's Bulldog

Just as the writer of a song may not be its best performer, Charles Darwin's genius lay more in developing the theory of natural selection than in forcefully promoting it in the world. For that, there was Thomas Henry Huxley, such an aggressive defender of evolution that he was known as "Darwin's bulldog."


Like Darwin, Huxley studied natural history while traveling on a naval ship. Initially, Huxley did not accept evolution at all. But Darwin converted him with the On the Origin of Species, and Huxley mused afterwards, "How extremely stupid not to have thought of that!"

Although he was much more than a defender of Darwin -- he led the movement toward the professionalization of science, for example -- Huxley is best known for his public exchange in 1860 with Bishop Samuel Wilberforce. The bishop, a clever, witty debater, opened himself to attack by making a gentle joke about Huxley's ancestry. Huxley, furious, replied famously to the effect that he would rather be descended from an ape than a bishop.

(Source B) Darwin, C. R. to Hooker, J. D.

This excerpt is from a letter that Charles Darwin wrote to his friend after a critic reviewed On the Origin Of Species negatively.

My dear Hooker,

I cannot help it, I must thank you for your affectionate & most kind note. My head will be turned. By Jove I must try, & get a bit modest. I was a little chagrined by review. I hope it was not Woodward. As advocate he might think himself justified in giving argument only one side. But the manner in which he drags in immortality, & sets the Priests at me & leaves me to their mercies, is base. He would on no account burn me; but he will get the wood ready & tell the black beasts how to catch me.— I will not say to soul that he is author.

(Source C) Is Darwinism Atheistic?

Emma certainly influenced Darwin to temper his writings, but I believe there was a more significant reason behind Darwin’s ambiguity. Darwin witnessed the “crucifixion” of many materialists in his day. Even Robert Chambers, who spoke repeatedly of God in his 1844 book on evolution, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, was severely criticized and labeled a materialist.33 If Chambers couldn’t achieve acceptance, how much more difficult would it have been for Darwin, whose theory was materialistic to the core? Darwin wasn’t fond of controversy, which may account for Origin’s late publication. When it finally was forced into publication many rejected its theory for religious reasons. It was always possible to reconcile God with his theory, however, and so I believe Darwin spiced up his God-talk to overcome this chief objection.

(Source D) Thomas Nast

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(Source E) Darwin, C. R. to Doedes, N. D.

This is an excerpt from a letter in which Charles Darwin explains his position on the existence of God.

But I may say that the impossibility of conceiving that this grand and wondrous universe, with our conscious selves, arose through chance, seems to me the chief argument for the existence of God; but whether this is an argument of real value, I have never been able to decide. I am aware that if we admit a first cause, the mind still craves to know whence it came and how it arose. Nor can I overlook the difficulty from the immense amount of suffering through the world. I am, also, induced to defer to a certain extent to the judgment of the many able men who have fully believed in God; but here again I see how poor an argument this is. The safest conclusion seems to be that the whole subject is beyond the scope of man's intellect; but man can do his duty.

Political Cartoon

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"...and on the 1.65 * 10^12 day, evolution created Man."

Works Cited

"Charles Darwin." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 01 May 2015.

"Reactions to On the Origin of Species." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 01 May 2015.

"Religious Views of Charles Darwin." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 01 May 2015.

"Religion in the United Kingdom." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 01 May 2015.

"" N.p., n.d. Web. 01 May 2015.

Cyranoski, David, and Sara Reardon. "Chinese Scientists Genetically Modify Human Embryos." Nature Publishing Group, n.d. Web. 01 May 2015.

Source A
"Huxley: Darwin's Bulldog." PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 01 May 2015.
Source B
Darwin, Charles R. Letter to Joseph Dalton Hooker. 22 Nov. 1859. Darwin Correspondence Project. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 May 2015.
Source C
Johnson, Bill. "Is Darwinism Atheistic?" Christian Research Institute. Christian Research Institute, n.d. Web. 01 May 2015.
Source D
Nast, Thomas. "Mr. Bergh to the Rescue." Harper's Weekly 19 Aug. 1871: n. pag. Print.
Source E
Darwin, Charles R. Letter to Nicolaas Dirk Doedes. 2 Apr. 1873. Darwin Correspondence Project. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 May 2015.
Quammen, David. "Was Darwin Wrong?" National Geographic Magazine. National Geographic Magazine, n.d. Web. 01 May 2015.