Off the Beaten Track

in Vol. 18 - May Issue - Year 2017
Natural Selection

He was amazed at the incredible variety of insects scurrying among the blades of grass. The young man had been lying flat on his stomach for almost an hour, when the earthquake struck. Just as he was capturing a specimen for his collection, he suddenly felt his body heave violently to and fro. The trees waved as if battered by a tropical storm, although the air was perfectly still. The tremor went on for over two minutes, leaving him shocked and dazed on the damp forest floor…


The early nineteenth century was a period of transition in many fields of human endeavor. Long-held beliefs in science, religion and political systems were being questioned and scrutinized under a new light, a light that refused dogma and imposition from above.
It was in this social environment that Charles Darwin was born in February 1809 in Shrewsbury, near the border between England and Wales. His father was a wealthy and brilliant medical doctor who contributed some important studies on the human eye and who was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, while his mother, who died when Charles was only eight years old, came from the rich Wedgwood family, makers of fine porcelain tableware. His paternal grandfather was a free-thinking physician who had published a book on living organisms.
Surrounded by such stimulating sources of inspiration, by logic, Charles should have excelled at his studies, but he hated the rote learning of Classics. Observing that his son spent much of his time experimenting with chemistry, Darwin’s father sent him to study medicine at Edinburgh University. Darwin was exposed to radical thinkers and to scientific methods considered deviant compared to the more traditional environment found at Oxford and Cambridge, where religion heavily influenced teaching. The trauma of seeing a presentation officially censored because it denied divine intervention in matters of human anatomy had a profound impact on Darwin. Many years later, this negative experience would force him to delay the publication of his most famous studies by two decades.
Sickened by the sight of blood and by the fact that surgery was performed without anesthesia, Darwin neglected his studies in medicine. One of his professors at Edinburgh, a radical evolutionist by the name of Robert Edmond Grant, was an expert on sponges and encouraged Charles to turn his attention to the study of marine invertebrates, which Grant believed could explain the origin of more complex creatures. Darwin took to his new studies with enthusiasm, and was soon producing studies worthy of presentation in academic circles.
Thinking that his son was wasting his time at Edinburgh, Darwin’s father switched him again, this time sending him to Cambridge. Here Charles experienced a complete change in environment, learning to become a perfect gentleman and attending lectures by conservative professors who believed in the presence of divine design in the animal world.
At the age of twenty-two, Darwin was given the chance of a lifetime when one of his professors suggested that he join an expedition to Tierra del Fuego, at the southern tip of South America. Darwin was to go as a self-financed researcher who would be free to pursue his zoological studies while the ship’s captain explored trade opportunities. HMS Beagle sailed from England on December 27th 1831.
As it turned out, the Beagle sailed up and down both coasts of Patagonia for over three years, while Darwin left the ship for extended periods, free to pursue his own interests. He marveled at the variety of animal species and was baffled by the fact that different islands were home to birds which appeared similar, but which in fact were different species. Charles was astonished to find ancient seashells and marine fossils at the top of the Andes. He personally experienced the great earthquake in Chile on February 20th 1835 that uplifted the coast up to three meters and which created a tidal wave that completely destroyed the city of Concepción. Darwin began to realize that the Earth’s surface was continuously changing and that only those animals that adapted to their environment could survive. The first seed of what was to become his groundbreaking theory of evolution by natural selection had been planted in his mind.
The Beagle continued westwards and circumnavigated the globe in a voyage that lasted five years. Darwin landed in October 1836 with 1,750 pages of notes, a diary that counted an additional 770 pages, and 12 catalogs listing his 5,436 animal carcasses, fossils, skins and bones. He published his seminal On the Origin of Species in 1859.

By Giovanni Gregorat, Contributing Editor MFN

Author: Giovanni Gregorat

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