21st Century : Masters : Charles Darwin
Charles Robert Darwin was born in 1809, the second son of a successful and wealthy physician, Robert Waring Darwin. His grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, also a physician, was internationally known for his poetic descriptions of the natural world. In Zoonomia; or The Laws of Organic Life, his verse epic, Erasmus Darwin introduced the idea of evolution. Charles' mother was a daughter of Josiah Wedgwood, founder of the famous pottery, an active supporter of the intellectual life of his times that linked him not only to Erasmus Darwin but also to Joseph Priestly, the famous chemist. Throughout his adult career Darwin lived on the income from investments while he pursued his career in natural science.
Young Charles Darwin disliked his medical studies in Edinburgh. He took a greater interest in geology. After leaving Edinburgh he enrolled at Cambridge to prepare for the life of a cleric. He studied classics, divinity and maths at Christ's College and attended lectures on biology. He was an ardent bug collector. After going down from Cambridge he accompanied Adam Sedgwick, Professor of Geology at the university, on a momentous summer expedition to study the geology of North Wales. In 1831 Darwin, through the recommendation of friends, got the position of naturalist on HMS Beagle's voyage to chart the coasts of South America and the South Sea Islands. On this five year mission Darwin assiduously collected specimens of natural fauna, noted geological formations and fossils and visited the Galapagos Islands.
On his return to England in 1836 he began to work on establishing his scientific credentials. Ill health led him to retreat from a public life in science. He removed to the quiet of Down House in Kent in 1841 from were he patiently continued his researches. Darwin opened his first notebook on the transmutation of species in 1837. His first reasonably comprehensive outline of the theory of natural selection was written just before the move to Down House. In 1844 he wrote a 230 page essay covering the topics dealt with in Origin, leaving instructions with his wife that it was to be published in event of his untimely death.
By 1856 Darwin was being encouraged by his closest associates to publish his ideas. He had completed 10 chapters when in 1858 he received a paper written by Alfred Russell Wallace, a young naturalist working in Borneo, containing his independently conceived idea of natural selection. Joint papers were read at a hastily assembled meeting of the Linnean Society, including an extract from a letter by Darwin to the American botanist Asa Gray, as proof of Darwin's claim to chronological priority on the idea. Darwin then completed Origin of the Species, it was published on November 24 1859 and sold out on the first day.
Darwin's career is a subject of heated debate about ways of understanding science and scientists. Is the scientist is a lonely seeker after Truth, observing measuring, testing, experimenting and driven to conclusion only by facts. Or is the scientist, while observing, measuring and testing, involved in and a product of the social construction of knowledge, influenced by the society in which he or she lives and its ideas, ideas that shape the questions asked and answers given to problems in science. In which case the scientist is in an active sense an inventor rather than a passive discoverer, imposing a pattern informed by many strands of cultural influence on phenomenon they study. The growth of the Darwin industry, the study of the enormous volumes of his correspondence and writings, mean it is possible to see how he worked, what he read, what influences he acknowledged.
Darwin pursued meticulous researches on corals, barnacles, domesticated animals, corresponded with animal breeders, pigeons were of particular interest. There was a great deal of biological investigation. From the quiet life of seclusion in Kent Darwin was in active correspondence with all the leading names in science and gradually began cultivating those who would be influential in the acceptance and success of his ideas. He was, in contemporary terms, a superb networker. He followed a systematic programme of reading that made him well versed in the intellectual currents of his time.
Darwin himself acknowledges his debt to Malthus in conceiving the idea of natural selection. In his D notebook of September 1838, Darwin first refers to political philosopher and parson, T.R.Malthus and his Essay on the Principle of Population. As Bowler has observed "There can be little doubt that in the end the concept of the 'struggle for existence' described by Malthus played a major role in switching his thoughts onto the path that led towards natural selection." . Or as Darwin himself wrote: "Towards the close I first thought of selection owing to struggle."  Malthus' book was preoccupied with the Poor Law and the burden on society of a growing population of the poor, whose numbers increase geometrically while the food supply increases only arithmetically.
Malthus refers to the struggle for existence when discussing competition among primitive tribes, harking back to the old Hobbesian ideas of the 'nasty, brutish and short' life of the savage. Wallace also credited this same source with sparking his own ideas on natural selection. In 1855 Darwin notes that he considered his ideas on natural selection as analogous to the 'division of labour', we know that he also read Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations. Influence does not mean lack of originality or creative thinking. Darwin took the metaphor of the struggle for life from Malthus and made of it something that was not in Malthus at all, struggle as a creative process by weeding out the unfit in every generation.
The creative aspects of Darwin's thought were, however, impelled by ideas about human society in a context where social thought was and had long been developmental, adaptive and deeply wedded to the concept of arising from primitive form. There was also much detailed criticism of whether Darwin had in fact made a cogent and acceptable scientific theory, whether or not that drew Christian belief into question. Perhaps the most telling antidote to hagiography and the mythic view of Darwin is to consider his end.
Darwin died in 1882, 23 years after the publication of Origin, and a mere nine years after the publication of the Descent of Man. A campaign was immediately started, with support from 19 Members of Parliament, and quickly succeeded in gaining permission from the Dean of Westminster for Charles Darwin to be buried in Westminster Abbey, close to Newton and Faraday. Not usually the fate of a scurrilous controversialist who had overthrown established religion.
Adapted from 'Darwin and Fundamentalism' by Merryl Wyn Davies, published by Icon Books.
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21st Century Science - The Theory of Natural Selection