Charles Darwin Biography

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DARWIN, CHARLES ROBERT (1809—1882), English naturalist, author of the Origin of Species, was born at Shrewsbury on the 12th of February 1809. He was the younger of the two sons and the fourth child of Dr Robert Waring Darwin, son of Dr Erasmus Darwin (q.v). His mother, a daughter of Josiah Wedgwood (1730—1795), died when Charles Darwin was eight’ years old. Charles Darwin’s elder brother, Erasmus Alvey (1804—1881), was interested in literature and art rather than science: on the subject of the wide difference between the brothers Charles wrote that he was “inclined to agree with Francis Galton in believing that education and environment produce only a small effect on the mind of anyone, and that most pf our qualities are innate” (Life and Letters, London, 1887, p. 22). Darwin considered that his own success was chiefly due to “the love of science, unbounded patience in long reflecting over any subject, industry in observing and collecting facts, and a fair share of invention as well as of common sense “ (l.c. p. 107). He also says: “ I have steadily endeavoured to keep my mind free so as to give up any hypothesis, however much beloved (and I cannot resist forming one on every subject), as soon as facts are shown to be opposed to it “ (l.c. p. 103). The essential causes of his success are to be found in this latter sentence, the creative genius ever inspired by existing knowledge to build, hypotheses by whose aid further knowledge could be won, the calm unbiassed mind, the transparent honesty and love of truth which enabled him to abandon or to modify his own creations when they ceased to be supported by observation. The even balance between these powers was as important as their remarkable development. The great naturalist appeared in the ripeness of time, when the world was ready for his splendid generalizations. Indeed naturalists were already everywhere considering and discussing the problem of evolution, although Alfred Russel Wallace was the only one who, independently of Darwin, saw his way clearly to the solution. It is true that hypotheses essentially the same as natural selection were suggested much earlier by W. C. Wells (Phil. Trans., 1813), and Patrick Matthew (Naval Timber and Arboriculture, 1831), but their views were lost sight of and produced no effect upon the great body of naturalists. In the preparation for Darwin Sir Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology played an important part, accustoming men’s minds to the vast changes brought about by natural processes, and leading them, by its lucid and temperate discussion of Lamarck’s and other views, to reflect upon evolution.

Darwin’s early education was conducted at Shrewsbury, first for a year at a day-school, then for seven years at Shrewsbury School under Dr Samuel Butler (1774—1839). He gained but little from the narrow system which was then universal. In 1825 he went to Edinburgh to prepare for the medical profession, for which he was unfitted by nature. After two sessions his father realized this, and in 1828 sent him to Cambridge with the idea that he should become a clergyman. He matriculated at Christ’s College, and took his degree in 1831, tenth in the list of those who do not seek honours. Up to this time he had been keenly interested in sport, and in entomology, especially the collecting of beetles. Both at Edinburgh, where in 1826 he read his first scientific paper, and at Cambridge he gained the friendship of much older scientific men—Robert Edmond Grant and William Macgillivray at the former, John Stevens Henslow and Adam Sedgwick at the latter. He had two terms’ residence to keep after passing his last examination, and studied geology with Sedgwick. Returning from their geological excursion together in North Wales (August 1831), he found a letter frdm Henslow urging him to apply for the position of naturalist on the “Beagle,” about to start on a surveying expedition. His father at first disliked the idea, but his uncle, the second Josiah Wedgwood, pleaded with success, and Darwin started on the 27th of December 1831, the voyage lasting until the 2nd of October 1836. It is practically certain that he never left Great Britain after this latter date. After visiting the Cape de Verde and other islands of the Atlantic, the expedition surveyed on the South American coasts and adjacent islands (including the Galapagos), afterwards visiting Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia, Tasmania, Keeling cle Verdes and Azores on the way home. His work on the geology Df the countries visited, and that on coral islands, became the subject of volumes which he published after his return, as well as his Journal of a Naturalist, and his other contributions to the Dfficial narrative. The voyage must be regarded as the real preparation for his life-work. His observations on the relation between animals in islands and those of the nearest continental areas, near akin and yet not the same, and between living animals and those most recently extinct and found fossil in the ;ame country, here again related but not the same, led him even then to reflect deeply upon the modification of species. He had also been much impressed by “the manner in which closely allied animals replace one another in proceeding southwards”

collections, first at Cambridge for three months and then in London. His pocket-book for 1837 contains the words: “In July opened first note-book on Transmutation of Species. Had been greatly struck from about the month of previous March and the evidence for the existence of evolution considered last of all. This method of presentation was no doubt adopted because it was just the want of a reasonable motive-cause which more than anything else prevented the acceptance of evolution. But the other side of the book must not be eclipsed by the brilliant theory of Darwin and Wallace. The evidence for evolution itself had never before been thought out and marshalled in a manner hvhich bears any comparison with that of Darwin in the Origin, and the work would have been in the highest degree epochmaking had it consisted of the later chapters alone. In the fifth chapter Darwin incorporated a certain proportion of the doctrines of Buffon,—modifications due to the direct influence of environment; and of Lamarck,—the hereditary effects of use and disuse. Lyell for a long time hesitated to accept the new teaching, and Darwin carried on a long correspondence with him. His public confession of faith was made at the anniversary dinner of the Royal Society in 1864. A storm of controversy arose over the book, reaching its height at the meeting of the British Association at Oxford in 1860, when the celebrated duel between T. H. Huxley and Bishop Wilberforce of Oxford took place. Throughout these struggles Huxley was the foremost champion for evolution and for fair play to natural selection, although he never entirely accepted the latter theory, holding that until man by his selection had made his domestic breed sterile inter se, there was no sufficient evidence that selection accounts for natural species which are thus separated by the barrier of sterility. The theory of natural selection was at first greatly misunderstood. Thus some writers thought it implied conscious choice in the animals themselves, others that it was the personification of some active power. By many it was thought to be practically the same idea as Lamarck’s. Herbert Spencer’s alternative phrase, “ the survival of the fittest,” probably helped to spread a clear appreciation of Darwin’s meaning.

The history of opinion since 1859 maybe summed up as follows. Evolution soon gained general acceptance, except among a certain number of those of middle or more advanced age at the time when the Origin appeared. Although natural selection had been an essential force in producing this conviction, there gradually grew up a tendency to minimize its importance in relation to the causes originally suggested by Buffon and Lamarck, ~which were ably presented and further elaborated by Herbert Spencer. In America a school of Neo-Lamarckians appeared, and for a time flourished under the inspiration of the vigorous personality of E. D. Cope. The writings of August Weismann next raised a controversy over the scope of heredity, assailing the very foundation of the hypotheses of Buffon, Lamarck and Herbert Spencer by demanding evidence that the “acquired characters” upon which they rest are capable of hereditary transmission. The quantitative determination of heredity has been the subject of much patient investigation under the leadership of Francis Galton. The question of isolation as a factor in speciesformation has been greatly discussed, G. J. Romanes proposing, in his hypothesis of “ Physiological Selection,” that the barrier of sterility may arise spontaneously by variation between two sets of individuals as the beginning instead of the climax of specific distinction. Others have fixed their attention upon the variations, which provided the material for natural selection, and have advocated the view that evolution proceeds by immense strides instead of the minute steps in which Darwin and Wallace believed. Others, again, have found significance in the artificial production of “monstrosities” or huge modifications during individual development. All through the period a varying proportion of naturalists, probably larger now than at any other time, has followed the founders of the theory, and has sought the motive-cause of evolution in.” the accumulative power of natural selection,” which Darwin, as his first public statement indicates, looked upon “as by far the most important element in the production of new forms.” They hold, with Darwin and Wallace, that although variation provides the essential material, natural selection, from its accumulative fower, is of such paramount importance that it may be said to create new species as truly as a man may be said to make a building out of the material provided by stones of various shapes, a metaphor suggested and elaborated by Darwin, and forming the concluding sentences of The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication. This, probably the second in importance of all his works, was published in 1868, and may be looked upon as a complete account of the material of which he had given a very condensed abstract in the first chapter of the Origin, together with the conclusions suggested by it. He finally brought together an immense number of apparently disconnected sets of observations under his “provisional hypothesis of paisgenesis,” which assumes that every cell in the body, at every stage of growth and in maturity, is represented in each germ-cell by a gemmule. The germ-cell is only the meeting-place of gemmules, and the true reproductive power lies in the whole of the body-cells which despatch their representatives, hence “pangenesis.” There are reasons for believing that this infinitely complex conception, in which, as his letters show, he had great confidence, was forced upon Darwin in order to explain the hereditary transmission of acquired characters involved in the small proportion of Lamarckian doctrine which he incorporated. If such transmission does not occur, a far simpler hypothesis based on the lines of Weismann’s “ continuity of the germ-plasm “ is sufficient to account for the facts.

The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, was published in 1871; as the title implies, it really consists of two distinct works. The first, and by far the shorter, was the full justification of his statement in the Origin that “light would be thrown. on the origin of man and his history.” In the second part he brought together a large mass of evidence in support of his hypothesis of sexual selection which he had briefly described in the 1858 essay. This hypothesis explains the development of colours and structures peculiar to one sex and displayed by it in courtship, by the preferences of the other sex. The majority of naturalists probably agree with Darwin in believing that the explanation is real, but relatively unimportant. It is interesting to note that only in this subject and those treated olin the Variation under Domestication had Darwin exhausted the whole of the material which he had collected. The Expression of the Emotions, published in 1872, offered a natural explanation of phenomena which appeared to be a difficulty in the way of the acceptance of evolution. In 1876 Darwin brought out his two previously published geological works on Volcanic Islands and South America as a single volume. The widely read Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Wo-rms appeared ~fl 1881. He also published various volumes on botanical subjects. The Fertilization of Orchids appeared in 1862. The subject of crossfertilization of flowers was in Darwin’s mind, as shown by his note-book in 1837. In. 1841 Robert Brown directed his attention to Christian Conrad Sprengel’s work (Berlin, 1793), which confirmed his determination to pursue this line of research. The Effects of Cross- and Self-Fertilization in the Vegetable Kingdom (1876) contained the direct evidence that the offspring of crossfertilized individuals are more vigorous, as well as more numerous, than those produced by a self-fertilized parent. Different Forms of Flowers on Plants of the Same Species appeared in 1877. It is here shown that each different form, although possessing both kinds of sexual organs, is specially adapted to be fertilized by the pollen of another form, and that when artificially fertilized by its own pollen less vigorous offspring, bearing some resemblance to hybrids, are produced. He says, “no little discovery of mine ever gave me so much pleasure as the making out the meaning of heterostyled flowers “(Autobiography). Climbing Plants was published in 1875, although it had, in large part, been communicated to the Linnean Society, in whose publications much of the material of several of his other works appeared. This inquiry into the nature of the movements of twining plants was suggested to him in a paper by Asa Gray. The Power of Movement in Plants (1880) was produced by him in conjunction with his son Francis. It was an inquiry into the minute power of movement possessed, he believed, by plants generally, out of which the larger movements of climbing plants of many different groups had been evolved. The work included an investigation of other kinds of plant movement due to light gravity, &r,, liii of which he regarded as modifications of the one fundamental movement (circumnutation) which exists in a highly specialized form in climbing plants. Insectivorous Plants (1875) is principally concerned with the description of experiments on the Sun-dew (Drosera),although other insect-catching plants, such as Dionaea, are also investigated.

Charles Darwin’s long life of patient, continuous work, the most fruitful, the most inspiring, in the annals of modern science, came to an end on the I9th of April 1882. He was buried in Westminster Abbey on the 26th. It is of much interest to attempt to set forth some of the main characteristics of the man who did so much for modern science, and in so large a measure moulded the form of modern thought. Although his ill-health prevented Darwin, except on rare occasions, from attending scientific and social meetings, and thus from meeting and knowing the great body of scientific and intellectual workers of his time, probably no man has ever inspired a wider and deeper personal interest and affection. This was in part due to the intimate personal friends who represented him in the circles he was unable frequently to enter, but chiefly to the kindly, generous, and courteous nature which was revealed in his large correspondence and published writings, and especially in his treatment of opponents.

In a deeply interesting chapter of the Life and Letters Francis Darwin has given us his reminiscences of his father’s everyday life. Rising early, he took a short walk before breakfasting alone at 7.45, and then at once set to work, “considering the 11/2 hours between 8.0 and 9.30 one of his best working times.” He then read his letters and listened to reading aloud, returning to work at about 10.30. At 12 or 12.15 “he considered his day’s work over,” and went for a walk, whether wet or fine. For a time he rode, but after accidents had occurred twice, was advised’ to give it up. After lunch he read the newspaper and wrote his letters or the MS. of his books. At about 3.0 he rested and smoked for an hour while being read to, often going to sleep. He then went for a short walk, and returning about 4.30, worked for an hour. After this he rested and smoked, and listened to reading until tea at 7.30, a meal which he came to prefer to late dinner. He then played two games of backgammon, read to himself, and listened to music and to reading aloud. He went to bed, generally very much tired, at 10.30, and was often much troubled by wakefulness and the activity of his thoughts. It is thus apparent that the number of hours devoted to work in each day was comparatively few. The immense amount he achieved was due to concentration during these hours, also to the unfailing and, because of his health, the necessary regularity of his life.

The appearance of Charles Darwin has been made well known in numerous portraits and statues. He was tall and thin, being about six feet high, but looked less because of a stoop, which increased towards the end of his life. As a young man he had been active,with considerable powers of endurance, and possessed in a marked degree those qualities of eye and hand which make the successful sportsman.

Charles Darwin was, as a young man, a believer in Christianity, and was sent to Cambridge with the idea that he would take orders. It is probable, however, that he had merely yielded to the influences of his home, without thinking much on the subject of religion. He first began to reflect deeply on the subject during the two years and a quarter which intervened between his return from the” Beagle” (October 2nd, 1836) and his marriage (January 29th, 1839). His own words are, “ disbelief crepf over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress.” His attitude was that of the tolerant unaggressive agnostic, sympathizing with and helping in the social and charitable influences of the English Church in his parish. He was evidently most unwilling that his opinions on religious matters should influence others, holding, as his son, Francis Darwin, says, “ that a man ought not to publish on a subject to which he has not given special and continuous thought “ (i.e. i. p. 305).

In addition to the personal qualities and powers of Charles Darwin, there were other contributing causes without which the world could never have reaped the benefit of his genius. It is evident that Darwin’si’iealth could barely have endured the strain of working for a living, and that nothing would have been left over for his researches. A deep debt of gratitude is owing to his father for placing him in a position in which all his energy could be devoted to scientific work and thought. But his ill-health was such that this important and essential condition would have been insufficient without another even more essential. Francis Darwin, in the Life and Letters (i. pp. 159—160), writes these eloquent and pathetic words:—” No one indeed, except my mother, knows the full amount of suffering he endured, or the full amount of his wonderful patience. For all the latter years of his life she never left him for a night; and her days were so planned that all his resting hours might be shared with her. She shielded him from every avoidable annoyance, and omitted nothing that might save him trouble, or prevent him becoming over-tired, or that might alleviate the many discomforts of his ill-health. I hesitate, to speak thus freely of a thing so sacred as the Jifelong devotion which prompted all this constant and tender care. But it is, I repeat, a principal feature of hi’s life, that for nearly forty years he never knew one day of the health of ordinary men, and that thus his life was one long struggle against the weariness and the strain of sickness. And this cannot be told without speaking of the one condition which enabled him to bear the strain and fight out the struggle to the end.”

Charles Darwin was honoured by the chief societies of the civilized world. He was made a knight of the Prussian order, ‘ Pour le Mérite,” in 1867, a corresponding member of the Berlin Academy of Sciences in 1863, a fellow in 1878, and later in the same year a corresponding member of the French Institute in the botanical section. He received the Bressa prize of the Royal Academy of Turin, and the Baly medal of the Royal College of Physicians in 1879, the Wollaston medal of the Geological Society in 1859, a Royal medal of the Royal Society in 1853, and the Copley medal in 1864. His health prevented him from accepting the honorary degree which Oxford University wished to confer on him, but his own university had stronger claims, and he received its honorary LL.D. in 1877.

Two daughters and five sons survived him, four of the latter becoming prominent in the scientific world,—Sir George Howard (b. 1845), who became professor of ‘astronomy and experimental philosophy at Cambridge in 1883; Francis (b. 1848), the distinguished botanist; Leonard (b. 1850), a major in the royal engineers, and afterwards well known as an economist; and Horace (b. 1851), civil engineer.

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