National Geographic : 1949 Apr
Charles Darwin (1809-82) T HE REMARKABLE FACT about Dar win is-how un-Darwinian! This frail, scholarly scion of two famous families (his grandfathers were the scientist Erasmus Dar win and Josiah Wedgwood, the great English artist-potter) was far removed indeed from any conception of a creature that could fight ius way up from the jungle. Darwin proved beyond reasonable doubt that man, like all living things, is a product of natural selection through what he called "survival of the fittest." How troubled Darwin must have been when the whole structure of theology was shattered by his simple thesis that man was a child of animal evolution, subject to the same processes of modification as other of Nature's animals: not fallen from Adam, but risen-if such could be the right word for evolutionary descent from the ape. Darwin the patient naturalist, as the re sultant of the Darwin and Wedgwood breed lines, exemplified in his own person the fact that, unlike the wild animals, man can con sciously control his own evolution if he so wishes. After taking his degree at Cambridge in 1831, Darwin volunteered to accompany a surveying expedition on H.M.S. Beagle to circumnavigate the Southern Hemisphere. He felt he was too physically sensitive to follow his father's profession of physician (an unanesthetized child bound to the operating table drove him from the building with its shrieks); the only possible useful knowledge he possessed was a grounding in geology and the sense of geologic time. And his strength proved barely able to sur vive the five years at sea, which marked him for a lifetime of pain. Nature would have culled him as a mistake if it had not been for his cousin-and-wife Emma's constant sacrifice. Every sentence written into Darwin's note books marked an hour or a day which Emma had given to guarding his failing strength. Thus sheltered in infinite leisure and care, the invalid Darwin confided to a private note book and even-more-private letters the evolv ing theory which the island-isolated life on the GalApagos group had first set stirring within him, a theory which he knew would murder many established scientific concepts. He might well have died without the world generally ever being the wiser if in 1858 he had not received suddenly in his country retreat at Downe House in Kent a letter from a professional plant collector, Alfred Russell Wallace, written from Ternate in the Malay Archipelago. In this letter Wallace had set down some theses: "There is no limit of variability to a species, as formerly supposed. .. . The life of wild animals is a struggle for existence. . . . Useful variations will tend to increase. . . . Superior varieties will ultimately extirpate the original species." He asked for comments. Darwin wrote to his friend, the famous geologist Charles Lyell: "Wallace has today sent me the enclosed. . . . I never saw a more striking coincidence; if Wallace had my MS. sketch written out in 1842, he could not have made a better short abstract!" Had Darwin been the king of a scientific jungle, here he should have felt it necessary to forestall the young challenger by hastening into print for the prize of "prior publication." But Darwin was most un-Darwinian. He wrote: "I should be extremely glad now to publish a sketch of my general views in about a dozen pages or so: but I cannot persuade myself that I could do so honourably. . .. . would far rather burn my whole book than that he or any other man should think that I had behaved in a paltry spirit." Acting on their own responsibility, Darwin's friends, Lyell and Joseph Hooker, presented before the Linnean Society on July 1, 1858, and then published, the joint papers of Wal lace and Darwin. A year later Darwin filled in the details in his book Origin of Species. It cleaved the thought of Britain and the traditional civilized world in twain. Nothing about Nature would ever look quite the same again. The author of The Descent of Man was not too proud to make his last published book the study of how each inch of the earth's surface loam has passed and will pass again through the bowels of earthworms. No life was too lowly for him to learn from. Darwin's account of his voyage, with his descriptions of the people, natural history, and geology of South America and of Pacific and Atlantic islands, makes his Voyage of the Beagle even today a most entertaining narra tive. He concludes: "A traveller should be a botanist, for in all views plants form the chief embellishment." During the years that Darwin was putting the finishing touches on his theories, Gregor Mendel, an obscure Austrian monk, was dis covering in his experiments with hybrid peas the mechanism of heredity which was un known to Darwin. This forced abandonment of some of Dar win's ideas and modification of others, but modern geneticists have placed on an even sounder basis the central concept of evolution.