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Charles Darwin

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Biography abridged from Wikipedia and other sources.

Born: February 12th, 1809

Charles Darwin was born in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England on 12 February 1809 at The Mount, the house his father built in 1800 near the River Severn. He is most renowned for convincing the scientific community that all species develop over time from a common origin. Charles and his siblings attended the Unitarian chapel with their mother, and early in 1817; Charles joined the day school run by its preacher. In July of that year, when his mother died, he was only eight years old. From September 1818, he attended the nearby Anglican Shrewsbury Boarding School. He spent the summer of 1825 as an apprentice to his father, who was a doctor treating the poor of Shropshire.

In the autumn, Darwin went to the University of Edinburgh to study medicine, but was revolted by the blood and brutality of surgery and neglected his medical studies. He learned taxidermy from John Edmonstone, a freed black slave who told him exciting tales of the South American rainforest. Later, in The Descent of Man, he used this experience as evidence that “Negroes and Europeans” were closely related despite superficial differences in appearance. Darwin was fascinated by natural history and geology, and sat in on a number of classes, and joined several professional societies. He helped out at the Museum of Edinburgh University and he also studied and collected beetles.

In the summer of 1831, Darwin received a letter from John Stevens Henslow recommending him for the unpaid position of gentleman’s companion to Robert FitzRoy, the captain of HMS Beagle, which was to leave in four weeks on an expedition to chart the coastline of South America. The Beagle survey took five years, two-thirds of which Darwin spent on land. He carefully noted a rich variety of geological features, fossils and living organisms, and methodically collected an enormous number of specimens, many of them new to science. On the Galápagos Islands, he collected mockingbirds and noted that they were different depending on which island they came from.450pxvoyage_of_the_beagle_3

Darwin had found the basis of his theory of natural selection, but was aware of how much work was needed to make it credible to his fiercely critical scientific colleagues. He wrote a “pencil sketch” of his theory which soon expanded into a 230-page essay. There was little immediate attention paid to this announcement of the theory–the president of the Linnean left the meeting lamenting that the year had not been marked by any great discoveries. Darwin struggled for thirteen months to produce an abstract of his “big book”, suffering from ill health but getting constant encouragement from his scientific friends. Lyell arranged to have it published by John Murray. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (usually abbreviated to The Origin of Species) proved unexpectedly popular, with the entire stock of 1,250 copies oversubscribed when it went on sale to booksellers on 22 November 1859. His theory was put in lambency terms at the beginning of the book as follows:

“As many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive; and as, consequently, there is a frequently recurring struggle for existence, it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally selected. From the strong principle of inheritance, any selected variety will tend to propagate its new and modified form.”

180pxdarwin_ape [Caricature from Hornet magazine portraying Charles Darwin as an ape after Origin of Species was released.]

Darwin’s theory was considered by some as proof of God’s natural order–a stark contrast to the evolution-deniers of today. In 1860, the publication of Essays and Reviews by seven liberal Anglican theologians diverted clerical attention away from Darwin. An explanation of higher criticism and other heresies, it included the argument that miracles broke God’s laws, so belief in them was atheistic—and praise for “Mr Darwin’s masterly volume [supporting] the grand principle of the self-evolving powers of nature.” This is astounding, especially given the complete reversal of that belief for many modern Christians.

Variation of Plants and Animals Under Domestication, the first part of Darwin’s planned “big book” (expanding on The Origin of Species) grew to two huge volumes–forcing him to leave out human evolution and sexual selection–and it sold briskly despite its size. He was a prolific writer, and had many other works published dealing with everything from evolution to geography– in addition to an autobiography.

Darwin married his cousin, Emma Wedgwood. The Darwins had ten children: two died in infancy, and his daughter Annie’s death at the age of ten had a devastating effect. 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. He examined this topic in his writings, contrasting it with the advantages of crossbreeding amongst many differing organisms. Despite his fears, most of his surviving children were healthy and went on to have distinguished careers as notable members of the prominent Darwin — Wedgwood family.

George, Francis and Horace became Fellows of the Royal Society, distinguished as astronomer, botanist and civil engineer, respectively. His son Leonard went on to be a soldier, politician, economist, eugenicist and mentor of the statistician and evolutionary biologist Ronald Fisher.

When investigating transmutation of species he knew that his naturalist friends thought this a bestial heresy undermining miraculous justifications for the social order, the kind of radical argument then being used by Dissenters and atheists to attack the Church of England’s privileged position as the established church. Though Darwin wrote of religion as a tribal survival strategy, he still believed that God was the ultimate lawgiver. His belief dwindled, and with the death of his daughter Annie in 1851, Darwin finally lost all faith in Christianity. He continued to help the local church with parish work, but on Sundays would go for a walk while his family attended church. He now thought it better to look at pain and suffering as the result of general laws rather than direct intervention by God.

Darwin wrote that he considered himself more of an agnostic than an atheist. But because of his role in discovering the theory of evolution, he remains a symbol for atheism and freethought all over the world.

He died in Downe, Kent, England, on April 19th, 1882. In recognition of Darwin’s pre-eminence; he was buried in Westminster Abbey, close to John Herschel and Isaac Newton. He was one of the greatest thinkers of all time. His scientific research touched and refined a great many fields including biology, anthropology, psychology and philosophy.


Comments (6 comments)

Doris Tracey / February 12th, 2007, 7:19 pm / #1

Happy Birthday Charles Darwin & Abraham Lincoln !!!

Aaron Kinney / February 12th, 2007, 11:05 pm / #2

Happy birthday, Charles D!

And Sean, love the new site and look. :)

blacksun / February 12th, 2007, 11:40 pm / #3

Doris, it’s kind of interesting that Darwin’s theory was published almost exactly at the time of the Emancipation Proclamation. I wish I knew my history better, but no doubt this discussion made Lincoln and the anti-slavery thinkers of his day even more determined to end the injustice. Even more stunning that these men were born not only on the same day, but the same YEAR!

Cool, Aaron, thanks!

Doris Tracey / February 13th, 2007, 1:26 pm / #4

Hi everyone,

It is amazing that these two gentleman also were born in the same year. They have the minds of Liberation, these two Aquarians and I,m proud to be one myself.

blacksun / February 13th, 2007, 3:59 pm / #5

The birth year and astrological signs are both simple coincidence. It’s interesting, but not factually significant. Correlation is not causation, and all that jazz…

say no to christ / February 16th, 2007, 8:19 am / #6

Happy belated birthday Darwin!

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