Target Health Blog

Charles Robert Darwin (1809 - 1882) Part 1

November 12, 2018

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History of Medicine
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Photo thought to have been taken in 1854 and nearly destroyed by fire; however, salvaged. In this year, he was preparing On the Origin of Species for publication. Three quarter length studio photo showing Darwin's characteristic large forehead and bushy eyebrows with deep set eyes, pug nose and mouth set in a determined look. He is bald on top, with dark hair and long side whiskers but no beard or moustache. His jacket is dark, with very wide lapels, and his trousers are a light check pattern. His shirt has an upright wing collar, and his cravat is tucked into his waistcoat which is a light fine checked pattern.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons-This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1923.

Charles Darwin was an English naturalist, geologist and biologist, whose revolutionary theory laid the foundation for both the modern theory of evolution and the principle of common descent by proposing natural selection as a mechanism. He published this proposal in 1859 in the book The Origin of Species, which remains his most famous work. He established that all species of life have descended over time from common ancestors and, in a joint publication with Alfred Russel Wallace, introduced his scientific theory that this branching pattern of evolution resulted from a process that he called natural selection, in which the struggle for existence has a similar effect to the artificial selection involved in selective breeding. Although Darwin acknowledged a struggle for existence, he made it well known that he considered the success (so far), of the human species to be based, far more, on cooperation than on competition. Toward the end of his life, Charles Darwin, in his letters, discussed the importance of a child's education (as well as having educated parents) in the struggle for survival. Although from a privileged background, Darwin looked at the way in which whole species survived. If alive today, he would have applauded free education for all, from the cradle to the grave.

Darwin published his theory of evolution with compelling evidence in his 1859 book On the Origin of Species, overcoming scientific rejection of earlier concepts of transmutation of species. By the 1870s, the scientific community and a majority of the educated public had accepted evolution as a fact. However, many favored competing explanations and it was not until the emergence of the modern evolutionary synthesis from the 1930s to the 1950s that a broad consensus developed in which natural selection was the basic mechanism of evolution. Darwin's scientific discovery is the unifying theory of the life sciences, explaining the diversity of life. Darwin's early interest in nature led him to neglect his medical education at the University of Edinburgh; instead, he helped to investigate marine invertebrates. Studies at the University of Cambridge (Christ's College) encouraged his passion for natural science.

His five-year voyage on HMS Beagle established him as an eminent geologist whose observations and theories supported Charles Lyell's uniformitarian ideas, and publication of his journal of the voyage made him famous as a popular author. Puzzled by the geographical distribution of wildlife and fossils he collected on the voyage, Darwin began detailed investigations, and in 1838 conceived his theory of natural selection. Although he discussed his ideas with several naturalists, he needed time for extensive research and his geological work had priority. He was writing up his theory, when in 1858 Alfred Russel Wallace sent him an essay that described the same idea, prompting immediate joint publication of both of their theories. Darwin's work established evolutionary descent with modification as the dominant scientific explanation of diversification in nature. In 1871 he examined human evolution and selection in The Descent of Man, followed by The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). His research on plants was published in a series of books, and in his final book, The Formation of Vegetable Mold, through the Actions of Worms (1881), he examined earthworms and their effect on soil.

Darwin has been described as one of the most influential figures in human history, and he was honored by burial in Westminster Abbey. Charles Robert Darwin was born in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, on 12 February 1809, at his family's home, The Mount. He was the fifth of six children of wealthy society doctor and financier Robert Darwin and Susannah Darwin (nee Wedgwood). He was the grandson of two prominent abolitionists: Erasmus Darwin on his father's side, and Josiah Wedgwood on his mother's side.

Darwin spent the summer of 1825 as an apprentice doctor, helping his father treat the poor of Shropshire, before going to the University of Edinburgh Medical School (at the time the best medical school in the UK) with his brother Erasmus in October 1825. Darwin found lectures dull and surgery distressing, so he neglected his studies. He learned taxidermy in around 40 daily hour-long sessions from John Edmonstone, a freed black slave who had accompanied Charles Waterton in the South American rainforest. In Darwin's second year at the university he joined the Plinian Society, a student natural-history group featuring lively debates in which radical democratic students with materialistic views challenged orthodox religious concepts of science. He assisted Robert Edmond Grant's investigations of the anatomy and life cycle of marine invertebrates in the Firth of Forth, and on 27 March 1827 presented at the Plinian, his own discovery that black spores found in oyster shells were the eggs of a skate leech. One day, Grant praised Lamarck's evolutionary ideas. Darwin was astonished by Grant's audacity, but had recently read similar ideas of evolution, in his grandfather Erasmus' journals. Darwin was rather bored by Robert Jameson's natural-history course, which covered geology - including the debate between Neptunism and Plutonism. He learned the classification of plants, and assisted with work on the collections of the University Museum, one of the largest museums in Europe at the time. Darwin's neglect of medical studies annoyed his father, who shrewdly sent him to Christ's College, Cambridge, to study for a Bachelor of Arts degree as the first step towards becoming an Anglican country parson. As Darwin was unqualified for the Tripos, he joined the ordinary degree course in January 1828. He preferred riding and shooting to studying. His cousin William Darwin Fox introduced him to the popular craze for beetle collecting; Darwin pursued this zealously, getting some of his finds published in James Francis Stephens' Illustrations of British entomology. He became a close friend and follower of botany professor John Stevens Henslow and met other leading parson-naturalists who saw scientific work as religious natural theology, becoming known to these dons as "the man who walks with Henslow". Darwin had to stay at Cambridge until June 1831. He studied Paley's Natural Theology or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity (first published in 1802), which made an argument for divine design in nature, explaining adaptation as God acting through laws of nature. He read John Herschel's new book, Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy (1831), which described the highest aim of natural philosophy as understanding such laws through inductive reasoning based on observation, and Alexander von Humboldt's Personal Narrative of scientific travels in 1799-1804. Inspired with "a burning zeal" to contribute, Darwin planned to visit Tenerife with some classmates after graduation, to study natural history in the tropics.

Click on link to check voyage of Beagle (1831-1836) on world map.

After leaving Sedgwick in Wales, Darwin spent a week with student friends at Barmouth, then returned home on 29 August to find a letter from Henslow proposing him as a suitable (if unfinished) naturalist for a self-funded supernumerary place on HMS Beagle with captain Robert FitzRoy, emphasizing that this was a position for a gentleman rather than "a mere collector". The ship was to leave in four weeks on an expedition to chart the coastline of South America. Robert Darwin objected to his son's planned two-year voyage, regarding it as a waste of time, but was persuaded by his brother-in-law, Josiah Wedgwood II, to agree to (and fund) his son's participation. Darwin took care to remain in a private capacity to retain control over his collection, intending it for a major scientific institution. After delays, the voyage began on 27 December 1831; it lasted almost five years. As FitzRoy had intended, Darwin spent most of that time on land investigating geology and making natural history collections, while HMS Beagle surveyed and charted coasts. He kept careful notes of his observations and theoretical speculations, and at intervals during the voyage his specimens were sent to Cambridge together with letters including a copy of his journal for his family. He had some expertise in geology, beetle collecting and dissecting marine invertebrates, but in all other areas was a novice and ably collected specimens for expert appraisal. Despite suffering badly from seasickness, Darwin wrote copious notes while on board the ship. Most of his zoology notes are about marine invertebrates, starting with plankton collected in a calm spell.

On their first stop ashore at St Jago in Cape Verde, Darwin found that a white band high in the volcanic rock cliffs included seashells. FitzRoy had given him the first volume of Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology, which set out uniformitarian concepts of land slowly rising or falling (evolving) over immense periods, and Darwin saw things Lyell's way, theorizing and thinking of writing a book on geology. When they reached Brazil, Darwin was delighted by the tropical forest, but detested the sight of slavery, and disputed this issue with Fitzroy. The survey continued to the south in Patagonia. They stopped at Bah?a Blanca, and in cliffs near Punta Alta Darwin made a major find of fossil bones of huge extinct mammals beside modern seashells, indicating recent extinction with no signs of change in climate or catastrophe. He identified the little-known Megatherium by a tooth and its association with bony armor, which had at first seemed to him to be like a giant version of the armor on local armadillos. The finds brought great interest when they reached England. On rides with gauchos into the interior to explore geology and collect more fossils, Darwin gained social, political and anthropological insights into both native and colonial people at a time of revolution, and learnt that two types of rhea had separate but overlapping territories. Further south, he saw stepped plains of shingle and seashells as raised beaches showing a series of elevations. He read Lyell's second volume and accepted its view of “centers of creation“ of species, but his discoveries and theorizing challenged Lyell's ideas of smooth continuity and of extinction of species. As HMS Beagle surveyed the coasts of South America, Darwin theorized about geology and extinction of giant mammals.

Three Fuegians on board had been seized during the first Beagle voyage, then during a year in England were educated as missionaries. Darwin found them friendly and civilized, yet at Tierra del Fuego he met "miserable, degraded savages", as different as wild from domesticated animals. He remained convinced that, despite this diversity, all humans were interrelated with a shared origin and potential for improvement towards civilization. Unlike his scientist friends, he now thought there was no unbridgeable gap between humans and animals. A year on, the mission had been abandoned. The Fuegian they had named Jemmy Button lived like the other natives, had a wife, and had no wish to return to England. Darwin experienced an earthquake in Chile and saw signs that the land had just been raised, including mussel-beds stranded above high tide. High in the Andes he saw seashells, and several fossil trees that had grown on a sand beach. He theorized that as the land rose, oceanic islands sank, and coral reefs round them grew to form atolls. On the geologically new Galapagos Islands, Darwin looked for evidence attaching wildlife to an older "center of creation", and found mockingbirds allied to those in Chile but differing from island to island. He heard that slight variations in the shape of tortoise shells showed which island they came from, but failed to collect them, even after eating tortoises taken on board as food. In Australia, the marsupial rat-kangaroo and the platypus seemed so unusual that Darwin thought it was almost as though two distinct Creators had been at work. He found the Aborigines "good-humored & pleasant", and noted their depletion by European settlement.

FitzRoy investigated how the atolls of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands had formed, and the survey supported Darwin's theorizing. FitzRoy began writing the official Narrative of the Beagle voyages, and after reading Darwin's diary he proposed incorporating it into the account. Darwin's Journal was eventually rewritten as a separate third volume, on natural history. In Cape Town, Darwin and FitzRoy met John Herschel, who had recently written to Lyell praising his uniformitarianism as opening bold speculation on "that mystery of mysteries, the replacement of extinct species by others" as "a natural in contradistinction to a miraculous process". When organising his notes as the ship sailed home, Darwin wrote that, if his growing suspicions about the mockingbirds, the tortoises and the Falkland Islands fox were correct, "such facts undermine the stability of Species", then cautiously added "would" before "undermine". He later wrote that such facts "seemed to me to throw some light on the origin of species".

Darwin's father organized investments, enabling his son to be a self-funded gentleman scientist, and an excited Darwin went around the London institutions being feted and seeking experts to describe the collections of biological sample. Zoologists had a huge backlog of work, and there was a danger of specimens just being left in storage. Charles Lyell eagerly met Darwin for the first time on 29 October and soon introduced him to the up-and-coming anatomist Richard Owen, who had the facilities of the Royal College of Surgeons to work on the fossil bones collected by Darwin. Owen's surprising results included other gigantic extinct ground sloths as well as the Megatherium, a near complete skeleton of the unknown Scelidotherium and a hippopotamus-sized rodent-like skull named Toxodon resembling a giant capybara. The armor fragments were actually from Glyptodon, a huge armadillo-like creature as Darwin had initially thought. These extinct creatures were related to living species in South America. In mid-December, Darwin took lodgings in Cambridge to organize work on his collections and rewrite his Journal. He wrote his first paper, showing that the South American landmass was slowly rising, and with Lyell's enthusiastic backing read it to the Geological Society of London on 4 January 1837. On the same day, he presented his mammal and bird specimens to the Zoological Society. The ornithologist John Gould soon announced that the Galapagos birds that Darwin had thought a mixture of blackbirds, "gros-beaks" and finches, were, in fact, twelve separate species of finches. On 17 February, Darwin was elected to the Council of the Geological Society, and Lyell's presidential address presented Owen's findings on Darwin's fossils, stressing geographical continuity of species as supporting his uniformitarian ideas. Gould met Darwin and told him that the Galapagos mockingbirds from different islands were separate species, not just varieties, and what Darwin had thought was a "wren" was also in the finch group. Darwin had not labelled the finches by island, but from the notes of others on the ship, including FitzRoy, he allocated species to islands. The two rheas were also distinct species, and on 14 March Darwin announced how their distribution changed going southwards.

In mid-July 1837 Darwin started his "B" notebook on Transmutation of Species, and on page 36 wrote "I think" above his first evolutionary tree. By mid-March, Darwin was speculating in his Red Notebook on the possibility that "one species does change into another" to explain the geographical distribution of living species such as the rheas, and extinct ones such as the strange Macrauchenia, which resembled a giant guanaco. His thoughts on lifespan, asexual reproduction and sexual reproduction developed in his "B" notebook around mid-July on to variation in offspring "to adapt & alter the race to changing world" explaining the Gal?pagos tortoises, mockingbirds and rheas. He sketched branching descent, then a genealogical branching of a single evolutionary tree, in which "It is absurd to talk of one animal being higher than another", discarding Lamarck's independent lineages progressing to higher forms. While developing this intensive study of transmutation, Darwin became mired in more work. Still rewriting his Journal, he took on editing and publishing the expert reports on his collections, and with Henslow's help obtained a Treasury grant to sponsor this multi-volume Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle. He stretched the funding to include his planned books on geology, and agreed to unrealistic dates with the publisher. As the Victorian era began, Darwin pressed on with writing his Journal, and in August 1837 began correcting printer's proofs.

Darwin's health suffered under the pressure. On 20 September he had "an uncomfortable palpitation of the heart", so his doctors urged him to "knock off all work" and live in the country for a few weeks. After visiting Shrewsbury he joined his Wedgwood relatives at Maer Hall, Staffordshire, but found them too eager for tales of his travels to give him much rest. His charming, intelligent, and cultured cousin Emma Wedgwood, nine months older than Darwin, was nursing his invalid aunt. His uncle Josiah pointed out an area of ground where cinders had disappeared under loam and suggested that this might have been the work of earthworms, inspiring "a new & important theory" on their role in soil formation, which Darwin presented at the Geological Society on 1 November. William Whewell pushed Darwin to take on the duties of Secretary of the Geological Society. After initially declining the work, he accepted the post in March 1838. Despite the grind of writing and editing the Beagle reports, Darwin made remarkable progress on transmutation, taking every opportunity to question expert naturalists and, unconventionally, people with practical experience such as farmers and pigeon fanciers. Over time, his research drew on information from his relatives and children, the family butler, neighbors, colonists and former shipmates. He included mankind in his speculations from the outset, and on seeing an orangutan in the zoo on 28 March 1838 noted its childlike behavior. The strain took a toll, and by June he was being laid up for days on end with stomach problems, headaches and heart symptoms. For the rest of his life, he was repeatedly incapacitated with episodes of stomach pains, vomiting, severe boils, palpitations, trembling and other symptoms, particularly during times of stress, such as attending meetings or making social visits. The cause of Darwin's illness remained unknown, and attempts at treatment had little success.

Continuing his research in London, Darwin's wide reading now included the sixth edition of Malthus's An Essay on the Principle of Population, and on 28 September 1838 he noted its assertion that human "population, when unchecked, goes on doubling itself every twenty five years, or increases in a geometrical ratio", a geometric progression so that population soon exceeds food supply in what is known as a Malthusian catastrophe. Darwin was well prepared to compare this to de Candolle's "warring of the species" of plants and the struggle for existence among wildlife, explaining how numbers of a species kept roughly stable. As species always breed beyond available resources, favorable variations would make organisms better at surviving and passing the variations on to their offspring, while unfavorable variations would be lost. He wrote that the "final cause of all this wedging, must be to sort out proper structure, & adapt it to changes", so that "One may say there is a force like a hundred thousand wedges trying force into every kind of adapted structure into the gaps of in the economy of nature, or rather forming gaps by thrusting out weaker ones." This would result in the formation of new species. As he later wrote in his Autobiography:

"In October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic enquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favorable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavorable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of new species. Here, then, I had at last got a theory by which to work"

By mid-December, Darwin saw a similarity between farmers picking the best stock in selective breeding, and a Malthusian Nature selecting from chance variants so that "every part of newly acquired structure is fully practical and perfected", thinking this comparison "a beautiful part of my theory". He later called his theory natural selection, an analogy with what he termed the artificial selection of selective breeding.

Darwin now had the framework of his theory of natural selection "by which to work", as his "prime hobby". His research included extensive experimental selective breeding of plants and animals, finding evidence that species were not fixed and investigating many detailed ideas to refine and substantiate his theory. For fifteen years this work was in the background to his main occupation of writing on geology and publishing expert reports on the Beagle collections. When FitzRoy's Narrative was published in May 1839, Darwin's Journal and Remarks was such a success as the third volume that later that year it was published on its own. Early in 1842, Darwin wrote about his ideas to Charles Lyell, who noted that his ally "denies seeing a beginning to each crop of species". Darwin's book The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs on his theory of atoll formation was published in May 1842 after more than three years of work, and he then wrote his first "pencil sketch" of his theory of natural selection. To escape the pressures of London, the family moved to rural Down House in September. On 11 January 1844, Darwin mentioned his theorizing to the botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker, writing with melodramatic humor "it is like confessing a murder". Hooker replied "There may in my opinion have been a series of productions on different spots, & also a gradual change of species. I shall be delighted to hear how you think that this change may have taken place, as no presently conceived opinions satisfy me on the subject."

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