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Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin as a young man (circa 1840)

"It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us."
Charles Darwin

One of the greatest thinkers of nineteenth century science, and a man whose legacy of ideas has so shaped the understanding of the world in which we live, Darwin replacing the static Judeo-Christian cosmos with a dynamic scientific-materialistic one.

A wide-ranging thinker, Darwin made contributions to human knowledge not only in his theory of evolution (surely one of the greatest ideas ever formulated), but also in geology, soil science, experimental botany and the study of animal behavior.

Darwin's ideas can be traced to his experience with domesticated animals (Darwin had bred domestic pigeons) and his familiarity with the work of the geologist Lyell and with Malthus' ideas about populations. Darwin devoted years of study to collecting information about problems within various species. Furthermore, he developed explanations and mechanisms for what he considered the "transmutation of species." In his famous voyage aboard the Beagle, he became aware of geographic variation within species, and kept notes on the natural history and geology of the countries he visited.

Of especial significance was his visit to the Galapagos Islands. This is a group of volcanic islands in the Pacific Ocean on the equator and 600 miles west of Ecuador. The land animals and plants that were able to colonize there in isolation have developed into new species. Many unique species evolved here, such as giant tortoises (many of which have sadly been driven to extinction by the predation of sailors, who used them as source of fresh meat), iguanas, and finches.  Not only are these species different from nearby continents, but they also exhibit differences among the various islands.

The finches are particularly important; these small birds lived on different islands in a complex, inter-related group of species now called "Darwin's Finches." Finches

Darwin and his finches
One of a series of Royal Mail Mint Stamps issued in Darwin's honor
reproduced from Stamp One
click on graphic for finch birdsong

Darwin's study of characteristics of species on isolated islands such as these Galapagos finches, and of fossil animals, led him to conclude that evolution had occurred.  The mechanism for this that he hit upon was termed natural selection. He coined the term because he knew that humans had long taken advantage of natural variation to select for breeds (artificial selection).  When this occurs as a process in nature therefore it is "Natural Selection".   Contrary to popular belief, Darwin himself never used the word "evolution".

On November 4, 1859 his classic work, Origin of Species (full title: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life).   was published.  This work was a great success. The initial printing sold out on the first day of publication, but Darwin's theory eventually lost some of its original popularity. Although field naturalists preserved Darwin's emphasis on the role of geographical factors on evolution, many were tempted by the theory of Lamarckism.  It was some time before the mechanism of variation and inheritance (genetics) was discovered (by Mendel).

There is a rumor - propagated by Christian Creationists, that Darwin renounced his theory on his deathbed.  This rumor, like so many others, is completely false.

Web links Links Web links

electronic books EFF "Evolution" Archive - includes Darwin's Origin of the Species and Decent of Man and Wallace's On New Species and On the Tendency of Variations to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type papers (in simple ASCII format)

web page Charles Darwin by Adrian Desmond - a very interesting essay on Darwin in the context of the tensions of 19th century English society - part of Darwin - the man and his legacy

web pagelinks THE DARWIN PAGE - Biography - Bibliography - Information - Links - Dr Robert A. Hatch - assorted links and material

Web Site Charles Darwin - the Truth?
"what were the true origins of The Origins?  Was it all Darwin's own work, or were there other influences in play?  Why did it take Charles Darwin more than 20 years to publish his ideas on evolution?  And what really motivated him to finally write his magnum opus?  This is the story of not one but four men - Charles Darwin, Edward Blyth, Charles Lyell and Alfred Wallace. Each of them played a crucial role in the development and eventual publication of The Origin, but maybe not the ones we are familiar with."

web page What really happened with Galileo and Darwin? - John Polkinghorne debunks some of the popular myths about Galileo and Darwin.

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page uploaded 15 April 1999, last modified 17 March 2002
checked ATW021219
unless otherwise specified, content by
M. Alan Kazlev
Finch wav from "A Case Study in Evolution: Darwin's Finches"
this material may be freely used for non-commercial purposes