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.