Monthly Archives: February 2009

146 – Charles Darwin: Surprising Truths, part 4

Here is the final part of my series covering some surprising truths about the life and achievements of Charles Darwin.

Part 1 here · Part 2 here · Part 3 here

The Origin of Species was immediately a major success. Darwin continued to revise and expand the book through five subsequent editions, in which he tried to deal with a range of criticisms that emerged. Ironically, these days, it is accepted that the first edition is the best. (For example if you buy the current Penguin version, it is the first edition.) In the process of attempting to strengthen the book he introduced errors and diluted the argument. He basically got it mostly right the first time.

Darwin’s work on natural selection was a stunning achievement, especially when you consider that he had no knowledge of genetics or DNA, no knowledge of plate tectonics, and no observations of natural selection actually occurring in real time. Modern evolutionary biologists have the benefit of Darwin’s shoulders to stand on, a huge body of subsequent additional knowledge, and a range of powerful new analytical tools, so in some senses their work is easier than it was for Darwin.

One thing that probably has not become easier is the need to deal with misguided religious objections, especially in the US. Before reading Desmond and Moore (1991) I had not been aware of a remarkable irony: that, for a while, Darwin himself was destined for the life of a country clergyman. That was explicitly the intent in sending him to study at Cambridge. He actually graduated and signed up to the 39 articles of faith of the Anglican Church, but then the Beagle voyage intervened.

He did, of course, have to confront religious objections. The single most famous religious confrontation in his lifetime was a public debate in which Bishop Samuel Wilberforce asked Darwin’s supporters (Darwin was not there himself), “Was it from your mother’s side or your father’s side that you were descended from an ape?” The reply from T.H. Huxley, as reported and polished up by himself, was one of the best retorts ever: “If the question is whether I would rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man of means and influence who uses these gifts to introduce ridicule into a grave scientific discussion, I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape!” Years later Wilberforce fell off his horse, landed on his head and was killed. Huxley’s comment on the event was, “For once, reality and his brain came into contact, and the result was fatal.” That Darwin was not totally repudiated by the church is reflected in the fact that he was buried in Westminster Abbey. Given his atheism, he probably would not have preferred this but, as The Times wrote, his stature was such that “the Abbey needed Darwin more than Darwin needed the Abbey.”

Darwin’s legacy is enormous. He transformed biological science, both its style and its content. His insight that evolution occurs through natural selection is still the cornerstone of biology as well as being at the cutting edge of areas of psychology. Prior to Darwin a lot of scientific work was descriptive, and deduction and theorising tended to be disparaged as speculation. Darwin was an unusual scientist for his time because he used very detailed observation and data to explore much larger questions. His approach has influenced scientists ever since.

And his enduring influence goes way beyond science. Through his work he transformed the attitudes of humanity to our place in the universe.

Sometimes, when reading about Darwin, I daydream about going back in time to tell him what would happen to his work over the next 150 years. It would be a thrill to be able to tell him about his enormous influence and the great respect accorded to him. And he would be delighted to learn how his radical ideas would eventually be fully vindicated with powerful evidence from many sources that did not exist in his lifetime, and how they would be strengthened and elaborated by an army of scientists following in his footsteps. Oh, and Mr Darwin, don’t bother with those later editions.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

Further Reading

Desmond, A. and Moore, J. (1991). Darwin, Michael Joseph, London.

Darwin, C. (1859). On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. London: John Murray. 1st edition. Available on line here

145 – Charles Darwin: Surprising Truths, part 3

It seems like everybody is talking about Charles Darwin. Here is part 3 of my series covering some of the surprising truths about his life and achievements.

Part 1 here · Part 2 here

Anyone who knows anything of the Darwin story knows that he took 20 years to publish an account of his idea. I guess I had felt that he must have been rather timid, but the reality was much more complex. For one thing, the word timid does not do justice to the anguish he must have faced when thinking about publication. He was very much an upper-class gentleman and, at the time, the idea of species change was strongly associated with radicals and ratbags, given its implication that the toffs were no better than the rest. Then, there were religious considerations. Most of his scientist friends were highly religious and considered the idea of species change to be sacrilegious. Closer to home, his wife Emma was devout and grieved for his soul if he stuck to his shocking ideas. The couple were very close and this must have contributed to Darwin’s reticence. The depth of his feelings may be discerned from a letter to a friend in which he revealed his revolutionary idea with the comment that it felt like confessing a murder.

A second factor is that it did actually take a long time to develop the idea fully and to marshal sufficient evidence to convince what he knew would be a highly critical audience. For most of the 20 years he worked on evolution only as a sideline to his other research. It took him about a decade to complete all of the research and writing that flowed from the Beagle voyage. At that point he had intended to focus on evolution but got distracted by barnacles. He spent the next eight years studying them in great depth and wrote two major books about them. In fact this was not just a distraction. It enabled him to observe the great extent of variation between individuals even within a species, which helped him to better understand natural selection. In addition the books served an important purpose in establishing his credibility for the first time as a biologist, not just a geologist. The degree of his obsession with barnacles can be gauged from a comment overheard from one of his young children at the time, who asked a friend, “Where does your father do his barnacles?”

Thirdly, for much of the 20-year gap, Darwin was chronically ill. His symptoms included violent shivering, vomiting, exhaustion, palpitations, hands trembling, head swimming, sleeplessness, headaches, flatulence, stomach problems, ringing of the ears, fainting, and copious pallid urine. In 1841 he could work for only an hour or two, a couple of days a week. The cause of these ailments was never diagnosed and is still not known with certainty. It may have been a tropical disease picked up during his travels, psychosomatic nervousness, or he may have been poisoning himself with some of the crude medicines of the time.

In fact, far from timidity, Darwin exhibited great courage. During the Beagle voyage, he rode a horse hundreds of miles through bandit-invested areas and war zones in South America. He stuck with the voyage for five years despite extreme seasickness throughout its duration. (Given the misery of sea sickness, that demonstrates incredible commitment.) Back in England, he continued to work to the maximum of his ability despite feeling so sick for much of the time, and the fact that he didn’t actually have to work at all. And despite all of the risks, he was eventually willing to publish The Origin of Species.

The eventual trigger for publication was a letter he received from Alfred Russel Wallace, another Englishman who had spent time in the tropics. Wallace independently hit upon the idea of natural selection and wrote to Darwin to ask his opinion. This led to a brief joint publication in which they outlined the essential idea. Subsequently Darwin finally sat down to write his book with the necessary evidence presented.

Concludes next week.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

Further Reading

Desmond, A. and Moore, J. (1991). Darwin, Michael Joseph, London.

Darwin, C. (1859). On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. London: John Murray. 1st edition. Available on line here

144 – Charles Darwin: Surprising Truths, part 2

This week (February 12) marks the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth. Here is part 2 of my series covering some of the surprising truths about his life and achievements.

Part 1 here

From the Galapagos, continuing the homeward voyage, the Beagle sailed across the Pacific to Australia. One doesn’t often hear much about Darwin’s visit to Australia, but it was in fact a very interesting part of the voyage. They called in at Sydney, Hobart and what is now called Albany in Western Australia. From Sydney he wrote, “On the whole I do not like New South Wales. It is no doubt an admirable place to accumulate pounds and shillings; but heaven forbid that I should live where every man is sure be somewhere between a petty rogue and a bloodthirsty villain.” Some things never change.

He made interesting and thoughtful observations about aborigines and was able to attend a corroboree.

Perhaps surprisingly, given his later obsession with variation in species, he did not even notice the incredible richness of species in Albany, part of an internationally recognised biodiversity hotspot. In fact he found the vegetation rather dull and uninviting. Despite his visit to the Galapagos, he was not yet tuned into diversity and variation.

I lived in Albany for 10 years. Darwin is by far the most important and famous person ever to have visited there, and it is one of the few places in the world that he did visit outside England and South America. And yet there is not a single indication of his ever having been there. No plaque, monument, street name or place name marks the event. The Northern Territory (which he never visited) has the city of Darwin and the Charles Darwin University, but Albany has nothing. It is shameful, really.

When he finally made it back in England, Darwin quickly married and settled down to live the life he had now chosen to lead: that of a country gentleman who was wealthy enough to be able to fully indulge his passion for science – one might say, a passion for surprising truths.

I was surprised to learn how broad a range of issues Darwin’s research encompassed. He was not just an evolutionist. He was not even a biologist to start with. He mainly considered himself to be a geologist throughout the Beagle voyage and for some time afterwards. As well as evolution and the Beagle voyage, his books covered coral reefs, volcanic islands, the geology of South America, barnacles, the expression of emotions, climbing plants, domesticated animals and plants, self fertilisation of plants, orchids, worms, and an autobiography (all available on line here). But of course evolution is what he is mainly remembered for.

The factors that primed Darwin for his insights into evolution by natural selection were many and varied. He collected fossils and consequently knew about extinction. He was an enthusiast for the geological theories of Charles Lyell, which emphasised slow steady change. His observations while on the Beagle convinced him that species do change and appear to adapt, which he may have been predisposed to believe given his own grandfather’s writings on the subject. But it was a book by an economist, Malthus, that finally triggered in him the brilliantly simple idea of natural selection, a couple of years after his return to England.

Darwin was, in fact, not the first scientist to propose that species change over time. He was aware that several other scientists had done so, including the Frenchman Lamarck. The idea was also expounded in a popular but heavily criticised book published 15 years before The Origin of Species. So although Darwin died famous for evolution, it was not really his idea. He merely gave it credibility. On the other hand, his real contribution, natural selection, was still not very widely accepted at the time of his death. Even some of his closest supporters remained unconvinced about it. Only 40 to 50 years after his death did scientists in general fully appreciate his insight and come to appreciate how thoroughly right he had been all along.

Continued next week.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

Further Reading

Desmond, A. and Moore, J. (1991). Darwin, Michael Joseph, London.

Darwin, C. (1859). On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. London: John Murray. 1st edition. Available on line here.

Armstrong, P. (1985). Charles Darwin in Western Australia: A Young Scientist’s Perception of an Environment, University of Western Australia Press, Nedlands.

143 – Charles Darwin: Surprising Truths, part 1

With 2009 being the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species, there is a lot of attention being paid to this great man. It is a good time to talk about some of the surprising truths about his life and achievements.

When I was growing up, my grandfather had a wonderful collection of books about science. There were books about wildlife, astronomy, geography and anthropology, but the one that really captured my imagination was a book about evolution. Whenever we visited I would be sure to spend time poring over that book.

As I grew up I remained fascinated by evolution and natural selection, but for some reason I wasn’t very interested in Charles Darwin. I knew he was a clever bloke who’d had a very good idea but my interest did not go much further than that. Without trying, mainly from television, I picked up the usual stories and myths about his life and work.

When my grandfather died, I inherited his science books, including a very fat biography of Darwin by Adrian Desmond and James Moore. It sat, unread, on my bookshelf for some years until one day, on a whim, I took it down and started to browse through it. Immediately I was hooked. I devoured the book and, when finished, I immediately read it again.

I realised that Darwin was not just clever; he was an amazing person, with an extraordinary story. I also found that many of the stories and impressions that I had collected from the popular media were inaccurate or distorted. The reality was even better, and often surprising.

Darwin was a rather uninspiring character prior to his five-year voyage around the world on the navy ship the Beagle. His performance at school was not outstanding, and he dropped out of medical studies in Edinburgh. His father worried about his apparent aimlessness. The Beagle trip transformed his knowledge, his confidence and his life plans, and his published Journal about the voyage established him as an important figure in natural science.

Darwin was primarily invited on the trip, not as a naturalist, but because of his upper-class background, which would allow him to provide the right sort of companionship to the ship’s captain, Robert Fitzroy. The main purpose of the voyage was to improve maps of the coast and waters of South America. The ship sailed with an official naturalist on board, but it was not Darwin! Nevertheless Captain Fitzroy provided Darwin with a lot of support for him to undertake his research and collect his specimens. Darwin was not paid for the five years of the trip and indeed his father had to cover all his expenses. Then and later, his family wealth and position were crucial to his eventual success.

In reading about his visit to the Galapagos Islands I realised that my impressions about it were quite inaccurate. It was really just a stop off point on the way home from the real work in South America, rather than a main reason for the trip. For Darwin, it was decidedly not the Eureka experience that I had been led to believe. Actually Darwin was hugely homesick throughout the visit and perhaps was not as attentive as he should have been. A key piece of evidence for evolution was the way that turtles varied among the islands, but Darwin himself didn’t even notice this until it was pointed out by others. Even then, he didn’t appreciate the full significance of the observation until back in England over a year later. His first inkling of the idea of natural selection came a further year after that, not while gazing at Galapagos turtles.

Similarly, with the famous Darwin finches, he was two steps behind. The specialised adaptation of finches into many vacant niches on the islands became one of his key illustrations of evolution, but while in the Galapagos Islands, Darwin didn’t even realise that they were all finches. He failed to label the finches he collected properly and later had to rely on better labelled specimens collected by others on the Beagle to sort out the mess.

Continued next week.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

Further Reading

Desmond, A. and Moore, J. (1991). Darwin, Michael Joseph, London.