Happy Darwin Week! (Part 1)

By Sarah Boessenecker (@tetrameryx)

Happy Darwin Week!

Charles Darwin, a name symbolic of evolution and natural selection. Over 150 years ago he published On the Origin of Species, what has come to be known as one of the most well-known papers and founded evolutionary biology as we know it today.

One of the most important scientific papers published, which changed the way we thought about the world. Image from WikimediaCommons.

One of the most important scientific papers published, which changed the way we thought about the world. Image from WikimediaCommons.

This paper and the thinking that came with it has had such an impact on the world that to this day we still celebrate the man and his ideas with Darwin Day, where scientists around the world celebrate his birthday every year and planning events during the week surrounding it.

So who was Charles Darwin?

Charles Darwin around the time of publishing On the Origin of Species. Image from WikimediaCommons.

Charles Darwin around the time of publishing On the Origin of Species. Image from WikimediaCommons.

Charles Darwin was born on February 12, 1809 in Shrewsbury, England. A born naturalist, he enjoyed nature and chemistry from an early age, and began learning the methods of scientific experimentation with his brother with their chemistry lab in the tool shed of their garden. However, Darwin did poorly in his early studies, and was pulled from his schooling by his father who then had him apprentice for him for a summer in his medical practice. He later went to the University of Edinburgh Medical School to study medicine, as his father hoped he would follow in his footsteps, but Darwin didn’t enjoy the classes and didn’t like the sight of blood, and as such neglected his studies once more.

Darwin caught a lucky break when he joined the Plinian Society his second year of university, which was a student organization that focused on natural history, and featured passionate debates about many radical ideas that challenged the current thoughts of the time. He became an assistant to Robert Edmond Grant, a prominent physician and naturalist at the university. Grant was a follower of Lamarckism (a belief that an organism passes on traits acquired through life to its offspring), and shared his views with Darwin, which was audacious for the early 19th century. Darwin was intrigued by these ideas, and had read similar concepts in his grandfather’s journals. He had been taking natural history courses at the university, learning classification of organisms and also worked in the collections at the University Museum.

An example of Lamarckism - the giraffe stretches its neck to reach the leaves, and passes this trait on to its offspring. Image source.

An example of Lamarckism – the giraffe stretches its neck to reach the leaves, and passes this trait on to its offspring. Image source.

Darwin’s continued neglect of studies upset his father and he was pulled from the University of Edinburgh. His father then enrolled him in Christ’s College, in Cambridge to study to work on attaining a BA and also take the first steps toward becoming an Angelican parson. Darwin soon became interested in the collecting of beetles, and even had some of his work published in James Francis Stephen’s Illustrations of British entomology. While at Christ’s College he became friends with professor John Stevens Henslow and many other academics and parson-naturalists who all pursued scientific studies and Natural Theology, contributing to his ideas on the natural world. While here and under the guidance of these mentors, Darwin excelled in his studies, even graduating 10th in his class of nearly 200 students.

Darwin remained at Cambridge until mid 1831, and read William Paley’s Natural Theology or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, which argued for divine design in nature, reasoning that God acted through the laws of nature. He also studied John Herschel’s book Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy, which explained that the highest purpose natural philosophy could attain was understanding the laws of nature through inductive reasoning based on observing one’s surroundings. Reading Alexander von Humboldt’s Personal Narrative which were accounts of his scientific travels from 1799-1804 further inspired Darwin to contribute to science, and planned to join fellow students in Tenerife to study natural history in the tropics. To prepare for this journey, he took a geology course taught by Adam Sedgwick and traveled with him to map the strata of Wales.

All of these courses and readings helped set Darwin up to go on one of the most famous voyages in history, which would further inspire Darwin to publish his greatest ideas. In the next post we will talk about Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle, and the inspiration he got that would eventually lead to the writing and publication of The Origin of Species.

Further Reading:

Freeman, R. B. (2007). Charles Darwin: A companion (2nd online ed.). The Complete Works of Charles Darwin Online. pp. 107, 109. Retrieved 25 December 2014.

Desmond, Adrian; Moore, James; Browne, Janet (2004). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/7176.

Larson, Edward J. (2004). Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory. Modern Library. ISBN 0-679-64288-9.

Desmond, Adrian; Moore, James (1991). Darwin. London: Michael Joseph, Penguin Group. ISBN 0-7181-3430-3.

Browne, E. Janet (1995). Charles Darwin: vol. 1 Voyaging. London: Jonathan Cape. ISBN 1-84413-314-1.

von Sydow, Momme (2005). “Darwin – A Christian Undermining Christianity? On Self-Undermining Dynamics of Ideas Between Belief and Science” (PDF). In Knight, David M.; Eddy, Matthew D. Science and Beliefs: From Natural Philosophy to Natural Science, 1700–1900. Burlington: Ashgate. pp. 141–156. ISBN 0-7546-3996-7. Retrieved 16 December 2008.

Darwin, Charles (1958). Barlow, Nora, ed. The Autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809–1882. With the original omissions restored. Edited and with appendix and notes by his granddaughter Nora Barlow. London: Collins. Retrieved 28 September 2013.

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