Quarry fossils Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin: A Celebration

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Often called the Father of Evolution, Charles Darwin is celebrated every year on his birthday, 12th of February. As well as highlighting Darwin’s incredible contributions to zoology, botany and geology, Darwin Day aims to highlight the importance of scientific enquiry and discovery. This is increasingly important at a time where objective research and expert evidence seem to be under attack more than ever. Darwin himself is, of course, best known for his theory of evolution by natural selection, but there was much more to his work than that. His studies ranged from pigeons to earthworms and barnacles to beetles. Read on to find out more about this amazing man.

On the Origin of Darwin

Born in 1809, had Charles Darwin followed the path intended for him by his family, we may never have heard of him at all. It was hoped he would follow in his doctor father’s footsteps and so he enrolled at medical school in Edinburgh. When this didn’t work out, he seemed likely to end up as a country parson instead via a theology degree at Cambridge. He already had a keen interest in natural history, however. This only grew at Cambridge where he became somewhat obsessed with collecting beetles. It was following his degree that perhaps the defining moment of his life occurred, though. He was invited to join HMS Beagle as ship’s naturalist on a voyage to map South America. This was to set him on an entirely different path from the clergy. It is interesting to speculate whether without this trip he would have spent his life as a parson-naturalist in the manner of Gilbert White, perhaps contributing to scientific knowledge but on a much smaller scale.

Swollen-thighed beetle
Darwin collected beetles, like this swollen-thighed beetle, obsessively while at Cambridge University

That fateful voyage lasted five years from 1831 to 1836. Much of the trip focused on mapping the coast of South America. There were also stops at a number of other places including the Cape Verde Islands, Cape Town and, most famously, the Galápagos Islands. Darwin was able to spend much of his time on shore, examining the geology and natural history of the places they visited. As well as making his own collections, he sent specimens back to Britain for experts to study. Crucially, the voyage planted a seed in his mind regarding the way different life forms appeared in different locations. This would develop into his most famous theory, proposing that species evolved through natural selection as opposed to having been placed on Earth as separate, unchanging entities by God.

Large Hairy Armadillo
In South America Darwin found the fossil remains of extinct relatives of modern animals such as this large hairy armadillo

A Revolutionary Theory

On his return to Britain, Darwin presented hundreds of bird and mammal specimens to the Zoological Society. They in turn asked ornithologist John Gould to classify the birds. While examining a group of finch-like birds brought back from the Galápagos Islands, Gould very quickly realised something that Darwin had missed. Because the finches all had different beaks, Darwin thought they were simply varieties of the same species. Gould, though, realised that they were distinct species. He also saw that they were related to birds on the South American mainland. This was just one element of Darwin’s trip that helped crystallise his suspicions about evolution. The basic theory states that natural variation between organisms makes them better or worse adapted to their environment. Better adapted ones survive to pass on these successful traits (what we now know are genes), slowly causing divergence between species. Worse adapted ones often die out.

Darwin saw that humans and apes, like this gorilla, likely had a common ancestor

Although Darwin formulated the bones of this theory on evolution just a year or two after his return, the resulting paper was the culmination of years of specimen study and contemplation. Darwin spent a long time examining further specimens to firm up his theory. In addition, he spent a lot of time on other work, both geological and biological. However, in 1858 Darwin received a paper written by naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace outlining similar conclusions. This prompted him to write a summary of his own ideas. The two theories were presented together to the Linnean Society in July that year. Darwin’s full book on the theory, On the Origin of Species, went on sale in November 1859 and promptly sold out. Some readers were furious at his hints that humans were related to apes in some way. Contrary to popular belief, however, Darwin never said that we are descended from apes.

Swamp wallaby
Alfred Russel Wallace wondered why marsupials, such as this swamp wallaby, existed on one side of a line between Asia and Australia but not the other

Birds, Bugs and Beyond

Darwin’s scientific interests covered a huge range of biological orders, from beetles to botany and everything in between. He spent the years between 1846 and 1854 producing a four-volume monograph on barnacles, for example, and found these tiny crustaceans fascinating. Although acting as a distraction from publishing his work on evolution, these studies weren’t entirely unrelated. By examining the organisms he wrote about so closely, he saw ever more clearly that species showed considerable amount of variation between individuals. This backed up his ideas about the mechanism behind evolution and the appearance and disappearance of species over time.

Darwin wrote a four-volume monograph on barnacles

He also observed the same variations in his own domestic pigeons. In fact, it could be argued that pigeons were just as important in helping Darwin form his ideas as the Galápagos finches. Likewise, close study of the plants in his Kent garden played a role in his evolutionary theory. By selectively breeding his own plants and pigeons, he could see that species were far from fixed. This work also informed his 1868 book, The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication. Here he discussed artificial, as opposed to natural, selection. His final work, published in 1881, was a groundbreaking study of earthworms. The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms showed how complex earthworms are, as well as how important they are for soil quality and therefore plant growth. Incredibly, this seemingly specialist book sold thousands in its first few weeks of publication.

Charles Darwin’s last published work was on earthworms

Darwin and Geology

Charles Darwin wasn’t just a biologist and botanist, however. He was also a skilled geologist. Following the Beagle voyage, he wrote three geological monographs covering his observations. The first centred on coral reefs and atolls, in particular how they formed. This was something of a mystery at the time. Subsequent works covered volcanic islands and South America’s geology respectively. As with his biological thinking, the five-year voyage had a profound influence on his geological understanding. At the time, many scientists believed that the Earth changed as a result of sudden, dramatic events, such as the biblical flood Noah supposedly survived. Darwin’s travels, though, reinforced his belief that the Earth’s surface instead changed slowly over vast periods of time.

Fossil shells
Fossils helped Darwin formulate his ideas about evolution

His study of the fossils he saw on the voyage and elsewhere, meanwhile, showed him just some of the species no longer living. This, once again, tied into his theory of evolution. It suggested that poorly adapted organisms died out without passing on their hereditary traits. Before ill health took its toll, Darwin also travelled to sites of geological interest in Britain. This included a visit in 1838 to a feature known as the ‘parallel roads’ at Glen Roy in the Scottish Highlands. The ‘roads’ are a series of terraces visible on either side of the glen. Their formation was still a mystery when Darwin visited. Theories ranged from their being a manmade feature to marking where a former lake had once filled Glen Roy. Darwin, though, thought they represented ancient marine beaches. Not long after his visit, Swiss geologist Louis Agassiz solved the mystery. He suggested a glacial lake had produced the marks.

Glen Roy Parallel Roads
These parallel lines on the sides of Glen Roy were left by a glacial lake

Celebrating Darwin Day

Charles Darwin died in 1882. Although there have been many refinements to his theory of evolution by natural selection since he published his ideas in 1859, most scientists still accept the basic premiss. It isn’t just his groundbreaking work on natural selection that makes him worthy of celebration, though. Darwin applied the same rigorous scientific analysis to all the areas he studied, making him an important role model for future generations of scientists. His collaboration and support of Wallace is also crucial. While other scientists, before and since, have jealously guarded their theories and seen those in the same field as rivals, Darwin saw cooperation with Wallace as incredibly important. This shows how much can be achieved through collaboration.

Buoy barnacles
Charles Darwin was fascinated by a huge range of organisms, from buoy barnacles to beetles

Today, we live in a world where mistrust of scientific expertise seems to be on the rise. There is also a correspondingly worrying level of support for conspiracy theories and misinformation. As a result, we need to remember the work of those like Charles Darwin more than ever.

Further Reading

Charles Darwin’s most famous work is undoubtedly On the Origin of Species. Here he sets out the evidence for his theory that natural variations within species make them better or worse adapted to their environment, leading in time to the evolution of new life forms.

Voyage of the Beagle, meanwhile, is Darwin’s account of his five-year trip as ship’s naturalist on HMS Beagle. In it he describes the geology, fossils, creatures and people he saw in the places he visited.

Ken Thompson’s fascinating book explores Darwin the botanist. Plants were one of many groups that helped Darwin to crystallise his ideas about species and how they changed over time. Thompson reminds us that they were just as important to Darwin as the birds and animals he studied.

Although not as often credited, Alfred Russel Wallace was just as central to the theory of evolution as Darwin. The Malay Archipelago is an account of his time exploring Indonesia; a trip that led him to the same conclusions as Darwin.

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