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Home : Biography : Historical Figures
BIOGRAPHY : Historical Figures

 

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Charles Darwin

Charles Robert Darwin was the fifth child of Robert Waring Darwin and Susannah Wedgewood. He was born on February 12, 1809 in Shrewsbury, England where his father practiced medicine. He attended Shrewsbury Grammar School which was a well-kn own secondary school which concentrated on teaching classic languages. Even as a boy Darwin loved science and his enthusiasm for chemical studies earned him the name "Gas" from his friends. The headmaster at Shrewsbury, Dr. Samuel Butler noted, "Here's a boy, plays around with his gases and the rest of his rubbish and works at nothing useful."  He was also an avid collector. Anything he could get his hands on- shells, eggs, minerals and coins interested him.

Darwin was expected to follow his father and become a doctor and in 1825, at the age of sixteen, his father removed him from Shrewsbury and entered him in the University of Edenburgh to study medicine. He found all of his classes except chem istry dull. After two years at Edenburg, he quit school and went to live with his Uncle Josiah Wedgewood. After he abandoned medicine, his father urged him to attend Cambridge University to study to be a clergyman. At Cambridge he met John Steven Henslow who helped him regain his interest in nature. It was Henslow who was influential in getting Darwin the position of naturalist on the boat The Beagle. In April of 1831, he graduated from the University.

In the fall following his graduation, the government decided to send the H.M.S. Beagle, under the command of Captain Fitzroy, to complete an unfinished survey of Patagonia and Tierra Del Fuego to help map out the shores of Chile and Peru. Th e voyage was to last two years. Darwin volunteered his services without salary and offered to pay his own expenses on the condition that he was allowed to keep all the plants and animals he collected. On Henslow's recommendation, Darwin was chosen to serve as naturalist for the exploration. The Beagle set sail from Devonport on December 27, 1831 and returned on October 2, 1836. Throughout the journey, Darwin shipped back to England crate loads of tropical plants, insects, flowers, spiders, s hells and fossil animals. He was very popular with the crew and was given the name "Fly Catcher."

During the five year journey, he was exposed to different species of birds, insects and reptiles. He noted that in the different environments that he visited changes occurred in the same species that helped them to adapt to their surrounding s. It was as a result of these observations and observations of other naturalists and geologists that Darwin began to formulate his theory of evolution known as "Natural Selection." Darwin had left England as a youthful collector and returned as a dedicated naturalist. Before the journey, he believed like Henslow, that the history of the earth was short and whatever changes occurred were the result of vast catastrophes. By his return, he was convinced that the earth was extremely old and its evolution was the result of many small changes.

Natural Selection, proposed by Darwin, is the most widely accepted theory on evolution today. The theory is based upon five basic principles. The first states that organisms increase at a higher rate than their food supply. However, while there is overproduction of organisms, there is never overpopulation because many young never reach adulthood. The second principle notes that because the resources of nature are limited, all life engages in a struggle for survival in which only thos e with superior characteristics survive. The third principle states that no two individuals are identical. No matter how slight the difference may be, all show some variation from one another. The fourth principle notes that some individuals poss ess variations that are most helpful in adapting to an environment, increasing their chances for survival. This in turn enables them to produce more offspring. Darwin's fifth principle concludes that these offspring will inherit the favored charact eristics of their parents and pass them on to their children. Each generation maintains and improves the characteristics which help them diverge further from the original type. Ultimately the new forms will be so different in structure and behavior from the original, that they will not be able to breed with them and are therefore considered a new species. In summary evolution is based on the survival of the fittest. The individual who's best suited to its environment will have a higher survi val rate. Those not favorably equipped will die preventing overpopulation of the earth. In November, 1859, Darwin published The Origin of Species in which he proposed his ideas of evolution. The first edition was sold out on the day of publicatio n and by 1860 over five thousand copies had been sold. Instantaneously conflict arose and "Darwinism" was put on trial. Darwin was attacked as a blasphemous radical by the church. Scientific journals contained articles critical of his theory. Eve n some of Darwin's closest friends turned on him. Darwin, himself, stayed clear of the debate and arguments knowing he had done his work well and it would be its own best defense. Samuel Wilberforce, the Bishop of Oxford, spoke for the church and c harged that Darwin and his followers were atheists who denied that God was the creator. T.H. Huxley, Britain's leading zoologist, defended Darwin in the debate with the bishop and by using careful reasoning convinced many to at least consider Darwin 's theory as plausible. The idea of evolution became popular with scientist all over the world.

Darwin lived another twenty-two years after the book was published, but the major accomplishments of his life had concluded. However, he continued to work observing earthworms, plants and anything else that seemed interesting. His work beca me the foundation of modern biology and established two new sciences- animal behavior and ecology. When asked what drove him on he answered,"From my early youth I have had the strongest desire to understand or explain whatever I observed and group a ll facts under some general laws..."

On April 19, 1882 Darwin died of a heart attack. The family wanted Darwin to be buried in his home, the village of Downe. However, Parliament requested that he be buried in Westminster Abbey, a cemetery for Britain's kings and queens and i ntellectual giants. This was an indication of how far Darwin had come towards universal acceptance and respectability. Darwin's coffin lies next to Issac Newton which is only fitting because Darwin has been called "The Newton of Biology." Darwin w as modest of his monumental achievements to the very end and said of himself shortly before his death,"With such moderate abilities as I possess, it is truly surprising that I should have influenced to a considerable extent the belief of scientific men on some important points."



 

 



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