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