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Charles Darwin

In the introduction to my copy of The Origin of Species there is a remark that I have long pondered upon. The introduction talked of how Darwin trained to be a clergyman, and was rescued from this career by what amounted to a quirk of fate. As L.W. Burrows puts it: "... he was rescued by an accident which seems almost to have been sent by providence in a fit of self-destructiveness, for from it was to spring the work which more perhaps than any other has shaken man's belief in the immediate superintendence of human affairs." This sums up the story of Darwin. Things fell into place for him, and as with many historical stories there was a sense of inevitability about events. Ironically the inevitability of this story, as Burrows says, was to deny what had generally been accepted until that time as a guiding influence in life.

In his early career Darwin was a confused young man, a worry to his father and sisters, who drifted towards a career in the Church after showing little aptitude for the traditional Darwin career of medicine. He was to become a clergyman in the absence of anything better to do. And yet even as he wandered through his hated medical training, and then through training for the clergy, his destiny seemed mapped out.



Christ's College, Cambridge

Darwin's unofficial education began at age sixteen when he was taken out of Shrewsbury School, where he showed little enthusiasm for the classical curriculum. He was more interested in mad chemistry experiments in the garden shed. Darwin was sent to study medicine in Edinburgh, which soon turned out to be a mistake. Witnessing one particularly brutal operation he fled the operating theatre never to return. By 1826 he was unsure of his future; and yet even at this confusing time important foundations were being laid for later years. He joined Edinburgh's Plinian Society, a natural history debating group, which had been penetrated by radical students who thought that science should be based on physical rather than divine causes. The word "evolution" was first used in its modern sense by Robert Jameson, founder of the Plinian Society. The museum Jameson ran happened to be the recipient for half the collections brought home by His Majesty's surveying ships. Through Jameson, Darwin was introduced to geology. Darwin also met Robert Grant, a Plinian and early evolutionist who based his theories on primitive sea sponges which seemed to lie at the boundary between plants and animals. Grant became Darwin's unofficial tutor. Even the loathed and irrelevant medical training introduced Darwin to Augustus de Candolle's "natural system" of classification in nature, and his description of a "war" between competing species.

Darwin left Edinburgh in 1827, and the following year he was sent by his father to Christ College, Cambridge to prepare for life as a clergyman. Cambridge in 1828 was, for all intents and purposes, an Anglican seminary, where the Anglican faith was required for entry, and where half of undergraduates were destined for the Church. A less conducive environment for the future Charles Darwin could not be imagined. Nevertheless in Cambridge, as in Edinburgh, Darwin was pushed towards his later career. A craze known as "beetling" was sweeping the country, and this pursuit was hugely popular in Cambridge. Collectors would compete for the best collection of beetles. Darwin was very keen on beetling, and through this interest he was introduced to Rev'd John Stevens Henslow, professor of Botany. Henslow, like Grant before him, became Darwin's unofficial tutor, and although Henslow was an orthodox anglican he continued to feed Darwin's enthusiasm for natural history. Henslow regretted not travelling more in pursuit of his studies, and suggested that Darwin read Alexander von Humboldt's Personal Narrative describing journeys of discovery in South America. This book entranced Darwin and must have encouraged dreams of his own travels.



Plymouth Sound

n 1831, his theology degree completed, Darwin planned a surveying trip to the Canaries, a trip which never happened. Nevertheless in preparation for the Canaries, Henslow arranged for Darwin to go to Wales for a crash course in geology from Adam Sedgwick, the country's foremost authority on the subject. Darwin returned from Wales to his home in Shrewsbury thinking the Canaries trip was to be abandoned, following the death of his partner in the enterprise. But as Darwin's own little plan fell apart a bigger plan seemed to click into place. Arriving back in Shrewsbury Darwin found a letter from Henslow, telling him that His Majesty's surveying ship Beagle was to embark on a five year voyage, and Captain Fitzroy of the Beagle was looking for a gentleman companion who could share his table and relieve the isolation of command. If he was a naturalist so much the better. By a bizarre kind of design, which worked itself out in the most contradictory circumstances, Darwin was now ideally suited to the job. HMS Beagle sailed out of Plymouth Sound on December 27th 1831.







Darwin's "thinking walk" at Down House, Darwin's home during the long years working on The Origin of Species.

After his strange education Darwin sailed around the world on HMS Beagle for five years, a journey wonderfully described in The Voyage of the Beagle. Then back in England Darwin settled down to a quiet life of writing and research, first in London, and then from 1842 at Down House in Kent. Slowly he came to the conclusions famously described in The Origin of Species. Species were not fixed; they were changing all the time under the force of natural selection. Darwin knew these ideas would cause upset, and delayed publication of The Origin of Species until 1859. At this point it became clear that if he didn't publish, then others would publish similar ideas. Society seemed ready for Darwin. Since 1844 many people had read the popular book, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, published anonymously, but later turning out to be by the publisher Robert Chambers. Many scientists, Darwin included, were snooty about this book, but it introduced to a wide audience the idea that all life on Earth had a common origin, and that life had come about as a result of evolutionary laws. Then in 1847 London Zoo was fully opened to the public and proved to be hugely popular. As A.N. Wilson has pointed out, at London Zoo ordinary day trippers could now study apes at close quarters, and see how similar they were to humans in appearance and behaviour. It was into this world that The Origin of Species finally made its appearance in 1859. The book still caused upset, partly it has to be said through simplistic and misunderstood readings by less able commentators. Darwin did not say that life was all about winning. From the beginning of his book he made it clear that if a plant or animal won all the time then the world would soon be swamped by that one organism. If one organism is too successful it simply outstrips its food supply. Life is about both winning and losing. Both have to be accepted, and indeed winning can become a defeat, just as defeat can sometimes turn to victory. This kind of acceptance is closer to the spirit of Origin than some kind of aggressive philosophy about nice guys finishing last. The novelist Thomas Hardy, for example, found a benign vision in the theory of evolution. After reading The Origin of Species in 1859, Hardy decided that if all life had a common origin as Darwin suggested, it was no longer possible to judge certain forms of life as having less worth than others. Hardy became an early opponent of cruelty to animals. In a similar way he did not dismiss certain sections of human society as having less worth than others, a widespread attitude in stratified Victorian society dominated by Christianity. The whole of Tess of the D'Urbervilles - the story of a milkmaid whose humble family was once one of the country's greatest dynasties - is concerned with this theme.


Plaque at Fish Strand Hill, Falmouth in Cornwall commemorating Darwin's return from his voyage on the Bealge

Down House in Luxted Road, Downe, home of Charles Darwin when he was writing The Origin Of Species, has been restored to its appearance during Darwin's time. In the gardens some of Darwin's experiments have been recreated. At the bottom of the garden there is the Sandwalk, a path which Darwin used to walk daily to help him think.

Items from the huge collection of specimens brought back from the Beagle voyage can still be seen at the Sedgewick Museum in Cambridge,and at the Natural History Museum in London. The Natural History Museum has a Darwin Centre where Darwin's work is illustrated, and talks given. In the Natural History Museum's teashop a statue of Charles Darwin watches over the visitors having their refreshments.







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