Charles Darwin and the evolution revolution

Charles Robert Darwin was born on Feb. 12, 1809, (Abraham Lincoln was also born on this date) and he died in 1882, but the controversy he caused when he published The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859 lives on today. The sometimes heated arguments and debates his book created is referred to as “The Evergreen Conflict” as it never seems to end.

We can state categorically that Darwin’s theory is the great unifying and underpinning foundation of modern biology, and nothing in this vast branch of science makes sense without it. The overwhelming majority of biological scientists accept the basic tenets of the theory as every major discovery in science since Darwin’s time has reinforced his basic ideas, and none has detracted from it.

Darwin was born into a wealthy and influential family in Victorian England and was given every possible advantage. He became intensely interested in natural history as a child and made extensive collections of various types of animal, plant, and geological specimens. He was, however, an indifferent student, preferring to spend his time in the outdoors rather than laboring over some academic assignment. His father was a prominent physician and decided that the son should follow in his footsteps. Charles did not last long as a medical student as the sight of blood made him violently ill. In fact, he once fainted while observing a surgical procedure being performed without the benefit of an anesthetic.

It was soon agreed that medicine was not for Darwin, but every gentleman of that era had to have an acceptable profession, so it was decided he should become a minister. He enrolled at Cambridge, and, in due time, graduated with a degree in theology. But he was a minister who never had a ministry or preached a sermon. He required tutors to get him through his ecclesiastical studies as he spent most of his time in the natural science building discussing natural history with the professors there.

One of these profs recognized his potential and recommended him for the unpaid position of naturalist on a survey ship named the Beagle, which was going on an extended voyage around the world. The voyage lasted from 1831 to 1836 and gave Darwin the opportunity to observe and collect the fauna and flora of far distant lands. It was during this period that he became convinced that species were mutable and did change over time to form new species. This idea that new species did evolve was in direct conflict with a literal interpretation of the Genesis account that all species were created during a six-day period.

Darwin amassed a mountain of evidence to support his ideas, and when he returned to England, he spent the next few years formulating his theory. He knew if he published his theory, a storm of controversy would result, so he left a sum of money and instructions to his wife in his will to publish his work after his death. But another English naturalist, Alfred Russell Wallace, who had come to the same conclusions, forced Darwin’s hand, and Charles reluctantly published his book in 1859. The initial printing was 1,200 copies, and all were sold the first day of publication.

The tenets of his theory are based on six things, which remain unchanged today. (1) Overpopulation: in that more offspring of all species are produced than can survive. This leads to (2) Competion for the necessities of life. (3) Variation: no two living things are alike and some variations may be advantageous in acquiring the necessities of life in a changing and challenging environment. (4) Natrual selection favors those that have the advantageous conditions and eliminates those not having them. (5 )Inheritance: the advantageous variations are inherited and passed on to succeeding generations. (6) Time: Over an extended period of time, new species will evolve as advantageous variations are amassed.

Some people today proclaim Darwin was an atheist, and this is certainly not true. He viewed his theory as not denying the existence of God, but rather as an explanation of how God operates. The final sentence of The Origin of Species belies the idea that Darwin was a non-believer: “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.”

Two men born on the same day greatly influenced human history. Lincoln as President freed men’s bodies while Darwin the naturalist freed their minds.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960-1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

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