Darwin: The Father of Modern Biology
By Gabriel Blanchard
Charles Darwin permanently altered the basic assumptions of modern science.
Born in 1809, Charles Darwin seemed set up for a pleasantly humdrum Victorian life. By his death in 1882, he had revolutionized the fundamental assumptions of biology, and permanently altered the courses of culture, politics, and religion while he was at it—and all because he rather liked his cousin’s butterfly collection.
Darwin’s parents hailed from prominent Abolitionist families, and his father was a doctor. Charles initially apprenticed with his father before going to the University of Edinburgh, and later to Christ’s College, Cambridge. Most of young Darwin’s studies distressed or bored him; at Christ’s, however, he spent a few months with his cousin William Fox, who introduced him to the study of insects via an impressive collection of butterflies. Darwin himself took to beetles, and from there became a fairly successful undergraduate entomologist. Fox also introduced Darwin to John Stevens Henslow, a priest and botanist who suggested that Darwin accompany him on the famous five-year voyage aboard the H.M.S. Beagle.
Darwin’s discoveries during this voyage were extensive and exciting. He identified several fossils, including ocean life and shoreline trees located in the Andes Mountains, suggesting radical geological shifts relative to the sea over time. His visits to the Galápagos and Falkland Islands were especially instructive, as he was able to note similarities and differences among mockingbirds, finches, and tortoises on the former and foxes on the latter, which helped him formulate a new biological theory about animal life in general.
After his return to England, Darwin spent more than twenty years continuing to research and sketching out scientific theories on a variety of subjects, mostly biological and geological. (He also married, after considerable hesitation, noting that among other things it would mean “less money for books.”) In 1859, he finally published On the Origin of Species, summarizing his theory of species’ differentiation through long chains of natural selection. The effect was electric. Though the author’s persistent ill health kept him from appearing in public, reviews and debates proliferated, and the general reception of the work was positive.
Curiously enough, the depiction of Origin as a major battle in the war between science and religion seems to have been largely the work of a single man, Thomas Huxley, a supporter of Darwin’s theories and avid enemy of the Church of England. Although positive acceptance was slow, many prominent clergy and scientists at the time took an interest in the idea of evolution through natural selection, and several went out of their way to assert the harmony between Darwin’s hypotheses and the creative power of God (coincidentally including Charles Kingsley, the same man whose attacks on the character of St. John Henry Newman prompted the writing of his Apologia Pro Vita Sua). He himself wrote in a letter to John Fordyce, author of Aspects of Skepticism, that he considered it “absurd to doubt that a man might be an ardent theist and an evolutionist,” though he himself was an agnostic. Even Darwin’s later work The Descent of Man, which advanced on Origin by explicitly applying the theory of evolution to, well, man, occasioned far more interest and discussion than aversion or condemnation.
One aspect of the response to his work did fall out of alignment with his own convictions, however: its adoption into the growing eugenics movement. This movement, like Darwin himself, owed something to the overpopulation theory of the late eighteenth-century priest Thomas Malthus, and sought to improve the human race physically through what amounted to selective breeding. Darwin in general was very cautious about applying his theory of biology to social and political realities, and especially to the squelching of human sympathy that some “social Darwinists” seemed ready to not only tolerate, but promote. “Survival of the fittest” was used as a justification for industrial capitalism and imperialism, from child labor to the conquest of supposedly lesser races (an idea Darwin himself, the descendant of two prominent Abolitionist families, vehemently abhorred). Other Darwinists accented other elements of his thought, pointing out that not only competition but mutual dependence were aspects of biological life and the thriving of species. Pacifists, Marxists, and Christian social reformers stressed the importance of cooperation over the dog-eat-dog inhumanity of their opponents.
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Gabriel Blanchard is a CLT staff editor and a freelance writer. He lives in Baltimore.