Target Health Blog

Charles Robert Darwin (1809 - 1882) Part 3

November 26, 2018

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History of Medicine
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Darwin's “sandwalk,“ through large grounds, at his home, Down House was his usual “Thinking Path.
“Graphic credit: This work has been released into the public domain by its author, Tedgrant at English Wikipedia. This applies worldwide.

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved. 1859 Charles Darwin

Evolution seen through Darwin's eyes, changed every aspect of the world.

Darwin died at Down House on 19 April 1882. His last words were to his family, telling Emma “I am not the least afraid of death - Remember what a good wife you have been to me - Tell all my children to remember how good they have been to me“, then while she rested, he repeatedly told Henrietta and Francis “It's almost worth while to be sick to be nursed by you“. He had expected to be buried in St Mary's churchyard at Down House Estate, but at the request of Darwin's colleagues, after public and parliamentary petitioning, William Spottiswoode (President of the Royal Society) arranged for Darwin to be honoured by burial in Westminster Abbey, close to John Herschel and Isaac Newton. The funeral was held on Wednesday 26 April and was attended by thousands of people, including family, friends, scientists, philosophers and dignitaries.

Legacy

In 1881 Darwin was an eminent figure, still working on his contributions to evolutionary thought that had an enormous effect on many fields of science. Portrait by John Collier. By the time of his death, Darwin had convinced most scientists that evolution as descent with modification was correct, and he was regarded as a great scientist who had revolutionised ideas. In June 1909, though few at that time agreed with his view that “natural selection has been the main but not the exclusive means of modification,“ he was honoured by more than 400 officials and scientists from across the world who met in Cambridge to commemorate his centenary and the fiftieth anniversary of On the Origin of Species. Around the beginning of the 20th century, a period that has been called “the eclipse of Darwinism“, scientists proposed various alternative evolutionary mechanisms, which eventually proved untenable. Ronald Fisher, an English statistician, finally united Mendelian genetics with natural selection, in the period between 1918 and his 1930 book The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection. He gave the theory a mathematical footing and brought broad scientific consensus that natural selection was the basic mechanism of evolution, thus founding the basis for population genetics and the modern evolutionary synthesis, with J.B.S. Haldane and Sewall Wright, which set the frame of reference for modern debates and refinements of the theory.

During Darwin's lifetime, many geographical features were given his name. An expanse of water adjoining the Beagle Channel was named Darwin Sound by Robert FitzRoy after Darwin's prompt action, along with two or three of the men, saved them from being marooned on a nearby shore when a collapsing glacier caused a large wave that would have swept away their boats,and the nearby Mount Darwin in the Andes was named in celebration of Darwin's 25th birthday. When the Beagle was surveying Australia in 1839, Darwin's friend John Lort Stokes sighted a natural harbour which the ship's captain Wickham named Port Darwin: a nearby settlement was renamed Darwin in 1911, and it became the capital city of Australia's Northern Territory. More than 120 species and nine genera have been named after Darwin. In one example, the group of tanagers related to those Darwin found in the Galapagos Islands became popularly known as “Darwin's finches“ in 1947, fostering inaccurate legends about their significance to his work.

Darwin's work has continued to be celebrated by numerous publications and events. The Linnean Society of London has commemorated Darwin's achievements by the award of the Darwin-Wallace Medal since 1908. Darwin Day has become an annual celebration, and in 2009 worldwide events were arranged for the bicentenary of Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. Darwin has been commemorated in the UK, with his portrait printed on the reverse of banknotes printed along with a hummingbird and HMS Beagle, issued by the Bank of England. A seated statue of Darwin, unveiled 1897, stands in front of Shrewsbury Library, the building that used to house Shrewsbury School, which Darwin attended as a boy. Another statue of Darwin as a young man is situated in the grounds of Christ's College, Cambridge. Darwin College, a postgraduate college at Cambridge University, is named after the Darwin family.

The Darwins had ten children: two died in infancy, and Annie's death at the age of ten had a devastating effect on her parents. Charles was a devoted father and uncommonly attentive to his children. Whenever they fell ill, he feared that they might have inherited weaknesses from inbreeding due to the close family ties he shared with his wife and cousin, Emma Wedgwood. He examined this topic in his writings, contrasting it with the advantages of crossing amongst many organisms. Despite his fears, most of the surviving children and many of their descendants went on to have distinguished careers (see Darwin-Wedgwood family). Of his surviving children, George, Francis and Horace became Fellows of the Royal Society, distinguished as astronomer, botanist and civil engineer, respectively. All three were knighted. Another son, Leonard, went on to be a soldier, politician, economist, eugenicist and mentor of the statistician and evolutionary biologist Ronald Fisher.

Darwin's family tradition was nonconformist Unitarianism, while his father and grandfather were freethinkers, and his baptism and boarding school were Church of England. When going to Cambridge to become an Anglican clergyman, he did not doubt the literal truth of the Bible. He learned John Herschel's science which, like William Paley's natural theology, sought explanations in laws of nature rather than miracles and saw adaptation of species as evidence of design. On board HMS Beagle, Darwin was quite orthodox and would quote the Bible as an authority on morality. He looked for “centres of creation“ to explain distribution, and related the antlion found near kangaroos to distinct “periods of Creation.“

By his return, he was critical of the Bible as history, and wondered why all religions should not be equally valid. In the next few years, while intensively speculating on geology and the transmutation of species, he gave much thought to religion and openly discussed this with his wife Emma, whose beliefs also came from intensive study and questioning. The theodicy of Paley and Thomas Malthus vindicated evils such as starvation as a result of a benevolent creator's laws, which had an overall good effect. To Darwin, natural selection produced the good of adaptation but removed the need for design, and he could not see the work of an omnipotent deity in all the pain and suffering, such as the ichneumon wasp paralysing caterpillars as live food for its eggs. He still viewed organisms as perfectly adapted, and On the Origin of Species reflects theological views. Though he thought of religion as a tribal survival strategy, Darwin was reluctant to give up the idea of God as an ultimate lawgiver. He was increasingly troubled by the problem of evil.

Darwin remained close friends with the vicar of Down, John Brodie Innes, and continued to play a leading part in the parish work of the church, but from around 1849 would go for a walk on Sundays while his family attended church. He considered it “absurd to doubt that a man might be an ardent theist and an evolutionist“ and, though reticent about his religious views, in 1879 he wrote that “I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God. - I think that generally an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.“ The “Lady Hope Story“, published in 1915, claimed that Darwin had reverted to Christianity on his sickbed. The claims were repudiated by Darwin's children and have been dismissed as false by historians.

Darwin's views on social and political issues reflected his time and social position. He grew up in a family of Whig reformers who, like his uncle Josiah Wedgwood, supported electoral reform and the emancipation of slaves. Darwin was passionately opposed to slavery, while seeing no problem with the working conditions of English factory workers or servants. His taxidermy lessons in 1826 from the freed slave John Edmonstone, who he long recalled as “a very pleasant and intelligent man“, reinforced his belief that black people shared the same feelings, and could be as intelligent as people of other races. He took the same attitude to native people he met on the Beagle voyage. These attitudes were not unusual in Britain in the 1820s, much as it shocked visiting Americans. British society became more racist in mid century, but Darwin remained strongly against slavery, against “ranking the so-called races of man as distinct species“, and against ill-treatment of native people. Darwins interaction with Yaghans (Fuegians) such as Jemmy Button during the second voyage of HMS Beagle had a profound impact on his view of primitive peoples. At his arrival to Tierra del Fuego he made a colorful description of “Fuegian savages“. This view changed as he came to know Yaghan people more in detail. By studying the Yaghans Darwin concluded that a number of basic emotions by different human groups were the same and that mental capabilities were roughly the same as for Europeans. While interested in Yaghan culture Darwin failed to appreciate their deep ecological knowledge and elaborate cosmology until the 1850s when he inspected a dictionary of Yaghan detailing 32-thousand words.

Darwin was intrigued by his half-cousin Francis Galton's argument, introduced in 1865, that statistical analysis of heredity showed that moral and mental human traits could be inherited, and principles of animal breeding could apply to humans. In The Descent of Man, Darwin noted that aiding the weak to survive and have families could lose the benefits of natural selection, but cautioned that withholding such aid would endanger the instinct of sympathy, “the noblest part of our nature“, and factors such as education could be more important. When Galton suggested that publishing research could encourage intermarriage within a “caste“ of “those who are naturally gifted“, Darwin foresaw practical difficulties, and thought it “the sole feasible, yet I fear utopian, plan of procedure in improving the human race“, preferring to simply publicise the importance of inheritance and leave decisions to individuals. Francis Galton named this field of study “eugenics“ in 1883.

Darwin's fame and popularity led to his name being associated with ideas and movements that, at times, had only an indirect relation to his writings, and sometimes went directly against his express comments. Thomas Malthus had argued that population growth beyond resources was ordained by God to get humans to work productively and show restraint in getting families, this was used in the 1830s to justify workhouses and laissez-faire economics. Evolution was by then seen as having social implications, and Herbert Spencer's 1851 book Social Statics based ideas of human freedom and individual liberties on his Lamarckian evolutionary theory. Soon after the Origin was published in 1859, critics derided his description of a struggle for existence as a Malthusian justification for the English industrial capitalism of the time. The term Darwinism was used for the evolutionary ideas of others, including Spencer's “survival of the fittest“ as free-market progress, and Ernst Haeckel's polygenistic ideas of human development. Writers used natural selection to argue for various, often contradictory, ideologies such as laissez-faire dog-eat dog capitalism, colonialism and imperialism. However, Darwin's holistic view of nature included “dependence of one being on another“; thus pacifists, socialists, liberal social reformers and anarchists such as Peter Kropotkin stressed the value of co-operation over struggle within a species. Darwin himself insisted that social policy should not simply be guided by concepts of struggle and selection in nature.

After the 1880s, a eugenics movement developed on ideas of biological inheritance, and for scientific justification of their ideas appealed to some concepts of Darwinism. In Britain, most shared Darwin's cautious views on voluntary improvement and sought to encourage those with good traits in “positive eugenics“. During the “Eclipse of Darwinism“, a scientific foundation for eugenics was provided by Mendelian genetics. Negative eugenics to remove the “feebleminded“ were popular in America, Canada and Australia, and eugenics in the United States introduced compulsory sterilization laws, followed by several other countries. Subsequently, Nazi eugenics brought the field into disrepute. The term “Social Darwinism“ was used infrequently from around the 1890s, but became popular as a derogatory term in the 1940s when used by Richard Hofstadter to attack the laissez-faire conservatism of those like William Graham Sumner who opposed reform and socialism. Since then, it has been used as a term of abuse by those opposed to what they think are the moral consequences of evolution.

Darwin was a prolific writer. Even without publication of his works on evolution, he would have had a considerable reputation as the author of The Voyage of the Beagle, as a geologist who had published extensively on South America and had solved the puzzle of the formation of coral atolls, and as a biologist who had published the definitive work on barnacles. While On the Origin of Species dominates perceptions of his work, The Descent of Man and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals had considerable impact, and his books on plants including The Power of Movement in Plants were innovative studies of great importance, as was his final work on The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms.

Theories of evolution continue to evolve from Lamark to Alfred Russel Wallace; Charles Darwin; JBS Haldane; Theodosius Dobzhansky; Stephen J. Gould; Stuart Kauffman; Richard Dawkins; et al. and beyond. The evolution of evolutionary thought is for sure an intriguing concept.

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