The History of England

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Charles Darwin, the greatest naturalist

Category: Famous people

Charles Darwin, the greatest naturalistThe famous naturalist and thinker, Charles Darwin, was born on February 12, 1809. The family lived near Shrewsbury, not far from the river Severn. Charles’ father was a well-known physician, a Fellow of the Royal Society and the son of a still greater physician, poet and scientist—Erasmus Darwin. Charles’ father hoped that his son also would become a doctor.

As a boy, Charles liked to go rat-hunting with the dogs or to go out shooting. He walked in the fields and woods observing nature and comparing his observations with every­thing he had read in natural science books. He was also fond of collecting. He collected everything—shells, birds’ eggs (he never destroyed the nests and always took only one egg for his collection), minerals, even leaves. Charles got much pleasure from making “all the gases” in the tool shed. He was, in fact, nicknamed Gas by his family and friends.

His father did not like this “waste of time”, as he called it, especially as Charles school reports were not too good.

At sixteen Charles was sent to Edinburgh University to become a doctor. He had no interest necessary for medicine and classical languages. But he was interested in the natural history. During the hours of low-tide Charles col­lected various sea animals on the shore and then studied them. Even while he was still a student he made two minor discoveries concerning larval leeches and inverterbrate animals of the sea. His report about the discoveries was met with interest by the members of the students’ scientific so­ciety and its chairman, a professor of zoology.

At the end of two years Charles was still not interested in medicine and his father began to think that the only thing to do was to make a parson of him. Charles did not mind this idea since he would still be able to indulge in his favourite sports and continue his collecting.

So he was sent to Cambridge to work for his degree. Once a year, before his examinations, Charles learnt his theology textbooks by heart and thus passed from one course to the next. What he liked most of all at Cambridge was entomology (the study of insects) and botany. At the university he was one of a group of students who were very fond of hunting and sports.

In the spring of 1831 Charles took his degree but he refused to become a parson. Two of his professors encourag­ed him to make a special study of geology, as a naturalist of the time had to know it as well as botany and zoology. Charles decided to follow his professors’ advice and in Au­gust of the same year he went to the Welsh Mountains with a geological expedition.

Some time later he heard that the H. M. S. Beagle was to set off on a trip to South America for a cartograph­ical survey of the coast and wanted a naturalist. His biology professor’s advice was to go. He said the voyage would be just the thing for Charles. So when the Beagle sailed from Devonport in December 1831, Charles was on board.

The Voyage of the Beagle

The expedition was away almost five years. The Beagle made a very thorough study of the waters off the east and west coasts of South America. The Beagle also visited New Zeland, Australia and the Coral Islands in the Indian Ocean and on the way home Brazil and the Azores. Charles collected all kinds of specimens, which he sent home from the various ports he visited.

He saw many new plants and animals, all of the greatest interest to him. But one thing puzzled him more and more. Like most people in those days, he thought that each species had been created thousands of years before and had never changed. But as he went from one part of South America to another he saw that many different species of plants and animals and the fossils in some ways were very much alike. Was it possible that species did change?

When they landed on the Galapagos Islands, some five hundred or six hundred miles off the coast of Peru, Charles found about ten volcanic islands. Most of the birds and ani­mals were of a kind only found there. Even those on the various islands were not entirely alike. Yet all of the appear­ed to be related to the birds and animals on the South American mainland.

Darwin thought much and at last it was clear to him that long ago these animals had been isolated on the islands. Then, in course of time, they had changed to suit their new surroundings. Now there were several different species. So species did change! Perhaps all living things were, in fact, blood relations. In short, Darwin discovered that while living animals and fossils found in the same area were not alike, they did appear to be related. It was this which led Darwin to think that species could and did change.

When he came home Charles was given a warm wel­come by his father, his brothers and sisters and many friends. His former professors came to help him unpack and arrange his cases of specimens.

Then he had to prepare his report for the Admiralty.

Many of his specimens had never been seen in England before and he was very often asked by schools and univer­sities to give lectures about them.

In 1839 Darwin went to live in Kent. There he continued his search of the causes of change in nature. His garden and hot-houses, his pigeons and domestic animals enabled him to continue his studies of variation and interbreeding. He knew, of course, that with the domestic animals man con­trolled the changes.

For instance, his pouter, fan-tail and tumbler pigeons had all come from the wild pigeon. Then all horses were probably descended from two distinct stocks. But what caus­ed the changes in wild nature?

Charles Darwin’s Famous Book

Darwin gradually became convinced that plants and living organisms really changed and so

did their surroundings. This was caused by the struggle for existence which went on all the time; as a result of adapta­bility, new organs develop and one kind of species changes into another. For instance, the food of the giraffe is the leaves of the acacia tree, and it is easy to see that a longer neck would give it a better chance of getting food. Or, in an area which was becoming a desert, a change like the hump could help an animal like the camel to survive, while others died out.

At last, in 1859, Darwin finished his book The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. It caused a sensa­tion. Darwin was violently attacked by bishops, politicians, even some scientists. Copies of the book were burned by people who objected to the idea that men were descended from apes. But later more and more scientists agreed with

Darwin and began to support him. In 1871 he published another book—The Descent of Man, which became almost as famous as The Origin of Species. In this book he explain­ed why he thought that mankind and the anthropoid apes, like the orangutan, chimpanzee and gorilla, had the common ancestry.

There was much argument following the publication of The Descent of Man. Darwin’s poor health prevented his taking part in the discussion.

His best friend and supporter was Professor Thomas Huxley, whose famous answer to the bishop of Oxford’s question is well known. When Huxley was asked whether he, Huxley, claimed descent from an ape on his grand­father’s or his grandmother’s side he replied that he would sooner have an ape for an ancestor than a man who mis­used a great intellect to obscure the truth.

Darwin continued his careful research until his sudden death in 1882. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, near Newton’s grave.

Darwin’s teaching dealt a crushing blow to the teachings of the church about the creation of the world and the immutability of the species of plants and animals. He smashed the belief that all species of animals and plants, and man himself had been made by a creator, that they existed in an immutable form, and that the efficiency of their structure and their adaptation to their environ­ment were the result of a plan adopted at their creation.

All branches of biology began to undergo revision in the second half of the 19th century on the basis of Darwin’s theory of evolu­tion. This theory gave full meaning to a number of phenomena which had previously appeared to he disjointed and without inner connection. This marked the beginning of a new period in the development of biology, the Darwin period, which is still continuing.

Since the publication of The Origin of Species Darwin’s teach­ing has been the focus of bitter controversy. Darwin’s theories have always been attacked by churchmen and supported by progressive scientists. The struggle for and against Darwinism is still going on.

And now discoveries in natural science reaffirm that the teachings of Darwin were correct.

Many outstanding scientists all over the world have applied Darwin’s teaching successfully, but the greatest contribution in spreading and developing Darwinism was made by such Russian scientists as K. A. Timiryazev. I. I. Mechnikov, I. M. Sechenov and, later, I. P. Pavlov and I. V. Michurin.

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