Neliti Faces of Science celebrates the lives and impact of the world’s greatest scientists – those whose thinking redefined the depth of human knowledge. Every month a new scientist is chosen, a 3D model is created of their face, and their lives are celebrated on the Neliti homepage, here in the Breakthrough blog, and in the Neliti Faces of Science NFT collection.
Neliti’s 2nd Face of Science is the father of evolutionary biology and the man who courageously proclaimed the theory of Natural Selection, Charles Darwin.
Only the courageous will publicly dispute long-held beliefs in favour of logical scientific thought. One such person was Charles Darwin, English naturalist, geologist and biologist, famed for his originality and genius in explaining life on earth as a process of natural selection, and not as the work of a Creator. He explained, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.”
The father of evolutionary biology
Darwin’s theory of evolution took the world by storm in November 1859, when he published “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection,” taking to another level the scientific revolution initiated by mathematician and astronomer, Nicolaus Copernicus , who created a model with the sun at the center of the universe, instead of the earth. Darwin completed this revolution with his transformative and controversial perspective of nature as being “the result of fixed laws,” and not as the work of an exalted Creator. He explained, “A grain in the balance will determine which individual shall live and which shall die – which variety or species shall increase in number, and which shall decrease, or finally become extinct.”
Darwin, however, did not stumble upon his theory by happenstance. It was a consequence of a lifetime of observations, with other naturalists having already gathered significant evidence leading to his theory.
Moreover, Darwin later understood that his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, also a naturalist, physician and poet, who died seven years before his birth, was the first person to speak of evolution, in Zoonomia, or, The Laws of Organic Life. In his poem The Temple of Nature, which was published posthumously, Erasmus wrote, “These, as successive generations bloom, New powers acquire and larger limbs assume.” It was an amazing prediction of Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection.
Natural history came naturally to Darwin
Born on February 12, 1809, in Shrewsbury, England, Charles Darwin was the second son of Robert Waring Darwin, a well-to-do country physician and Susannah Wedgwood, daughter of Josiah Wedgewood, a founder of Wedgwood pottery.
Darwin’s mother died when he was 8, leaving his three elder sisters to care for him. That same year, Darwin was sent to be tutored by Reverend George Case in his day school. Darwin notes later, “By the time I went to this day-school, my taste for natural history, and more especially for collecting, was well developed.” In fact, he was trying to identify plants, and spent time collecting shells, seals, franks, coins, and minerals. He never tired of studying the natural world. He reflected, “The passion for collecting, which leads a man to be a systematic naturalist, a virtuoso or a miser, was very strong in me, and was clearly innate, as none of my sisters or brothers ever had this taste.”
As a nine-year old, he was boarded, with his brother Erasmus, at a leading public school, Anglican Shrewsbury School, where most studies were in Latin. He hated learning by rote, and admitted failing at memorizing Latin verse, “for every verse was forgotten in 48 hours.”. He wrote later, “I believe that I was considered by all my masters and by my father as a very ordinary boy, rather below the common intelligence.” Even though chemistry intrigued him, science was considered “dehumanizing” in English public schools at the time, and his headmaster, Samuel Butler, reprimanded him for messing with chemicals, while his classmates called him “Gas.” He was privately tutored in Euclid’s geometry, and also studied Shakespeare and poetry. He said, “I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me.”
Meanwhile, encouraged by a teacher, he began collecting beetles, and came across rare species as well. Ripping the bark of an old tree once, he found two rare beetles. Then he saw a third, a kind he had never seen before. He placed the beetle from his right hand into his mouth, to get at the third, but the stinging fluid the beetle ejected in his mouth forced him to spit it out, resulting in the loss of two beetles.
Although Darwin was an amateur at the time, several of his college observations were cited by James Francis Stephens in Illustrations of British Entomology, attributing them to “C. Darwin Esq.”
When Darwin was 16 years old, his father, believing he was squandering his time, sent him to Edinburgh University to study medicine. But again, Darwin found the lectures “intolerably dull” and loathed watching surgery performed without painkillers. Neither did he hone his skills at dissection, which he later regretted, for it would have helped advance his biology knowledge. He enjoyed ward rounds, diagnosing illnesses, and prescribing medications to patients at the university hospital, but he felt that was not his calling.
Introduction to “evolution”
There is no denying, however, that his two years at Edinburgh were a formative experience. He learned about cooling rocks on primeval earth and classifying plants according to the modern “natural system.” At the Edinburgh Museum, John Edmonstone, a freed South American slave, taught him to stuff birds and to identify rock strata, colonial fauna and flora.
Darwin was also introduced to the concept of “evolution” at Edinburgh, although it remained a vague, mysterious process depending on unknown mechanisms.
Fueling a different perspective was one of Darwin’s zoology professors, Dr. Robert Grant, a follower of French biologist, Jean Baptiste Lamarck. An expert on marine biology, he accompanied Darwin to collect sea slugs at nearby seashores and taught him to observe intricate marine relationships and analyze their deeper origins.
Thereafter, Darwin’s father transferred him to Cambridge to prepare himself for priesthood, because he “was very properly vehement against my turning an idle sporting man, which then seemed my probable destination.”
Consequential meetings with scientists at Cambridge
Darwin’s achievements at Cambridge fell short of expectation, although he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree. He says, “… there were some redeeming features in my life at Cambridge, (but) my time was sadly wasted there and worse than wasted.”
Nevertheless, the “redeeming features” at Cambridge were consequential, especially the opportunity to meet several scientists who influenced his later thinking. Among them was priest, botanist and geologist, John Henslow, who was Darwin’s friend and mentor. There was also mathematician, philosopher and theologian William Whewell, whose greatest gift to science was his wordsmithing, coining among others, words like “scientist” and “physicist.”
During Darwin’s final year at Cambridge, he read two books that deeply impacted his thinking; Alexander von Humboldt’s Personal Narrative of Travels focused on his travels and natural history explorations, and scientist John Herschel’s Discourse on Natural Philosophy dwelt on the methodology of science. As Darwin said, these publications “…stirred up in me a burning zeal to add even the most humble contribution to the noble structure of Natural Science.”
Voyage of consequence
Stirred by Von Humboldt’s fascinating tales of South American jungles, Darwin immediately agreed to Henslow’s suggestion of a sea voyage aboard HMS Beagle, from England to Tierra del Fuego, at the southern tip of South America. Darwin was to be a self-financed gentleman companion to 26-year-old Captain Robert Fitzroy, an aristocrat who feared the loneliness of command aboard HMS Beagle.
In this sea voyage, which began from England on December 27, 1831 and lasted five years, Darwin spent only 18 months aboard ship, leaving to explore natural environs for extended periods. The lush tropical rainforests of Salvador, Brazil, brought Darwin “a chaos of delight,” and the he spent months in the forests, which helped him forget the evils of local slavery he saw. During the days and months, he collected and recorded unusual and bizarre forms of life.
During the voyage, a visit to the Galapagos Islands in 1835, accomplished for Darwin the monumental achievement of being able to express one of biology’s most consequential concepts – the theory of natural selection. On the islands, he came across several species of finch that had adapted to environmental niches, with different beak shapes, different food sources, and unalike ways of feeding.
Nevertheless, other naturalists, since the early 1800s, had been studying live animals, and had uncovered, sometimes accidentally, a lot of evidence to support Darwin’s theory.
Meanwhile, Darwin was quietly working on his theory of natural selection for twenty years since the late 1830s, collecting a mass of evidence before publicly presenting his ideas.
Darwin and Wallace
During this same time, Alfred Wallace, scientist, naturalist, and geographer, had also traveled to Brazil, modern-day Indonesia and the Philippines, collecting thousands of insects, birds and animals. In 1858, when he was still in Southeast Asia, he stumbled on the realisation that species evolve by adapting to their environment.
Knowing that Darwin was working on a similar theory, Wallace sent Darwin his theory, which shocked Darwin into initial despair, because it was almost the same as his theory, and he feared Wallace would claim credit first. However, Darwin’s friends arranged for both men to present their theories together at the Linnean Society in London. Soon thereafter, Darwin published On the Origin of the Species, and Wallace, surprisingly, had no objection to Darwin getting all the credit. In fact, he treasured Darwin’s publication, and Darwin believed Wallace was the only person who really understood the concept of evolution by natural selection.
The scientific friendship between the two, nurtured by personal generosity and high professional esteem, and which lasted for over thirty years, is seen as an extraordinary relationship in scientific history. Darwin told Wallace, in 1870, “I hope it is a satisfaction to you to reflect — and very few things in my life have been more satisfactory to me — that we have never felt any jealousy towards each other, though in one sense, rivals. I believe that I can say this of myself with truth, and I am absolutely sure that it is true of you.” Wallace named his evolution-focused essay collection of 1889, Darwinism.
Besides, both Darwin and Wallace, independent of each other, were inspired by political economist Thomas Malthus’ 1797 publication, Essay on the Principle of Population, where he warned English policymakers that most policies focused on helping the poor would fail because population growth would be in excess of economic growth. Darwin and Wallace applied this theory to animals and plants in arriving at the theory of “survival of the fittest.” If some quality in an animal enables it to reproduce more efficiently and weather the elements better, that animal population will be better off than others, and that quality will become common in following generations. Moreover, Darwin, observing how pigeon breeders selected from among their birds those who could best produce a neck ruffle, concluded that nature unwittingly “selects” individuals better able to survive in their environment.
In fact, both Darwin and Wallace both believed natural selection would, in time, grow new body parts to enable better adjustment to the environment.
Personality and personal life of Darwin
Darwin initially shocked conventional Victorian society with his audacious suggestion that animals and humans shared a common ancestor, something they little expected from the affable country gentleman. And, even though considered one of Britain’s greatest scientists, Darwin’s unorthodox theories directly conflicted with the Church of England beliefs.
In fact, it was a difficult decision for Darwin, a church-going man whose family had strong connections with the community, and who was known to be a kind and gentle person, to go against Christian beliefs. So, he kept his theory under wraps for two decades.
Nevertheless, he was an avid scholar with an insatiable hunger to know more. This led to a lifetime of asking questions and making connections among seemingly unconnected phenomena. His thirst for knowledge and understanding led to insomnia. He once claimed the evolutionary puzzle of the peacock’s tail “kept him up at night.”
Darwin’s contributions to scientific thought
Best known for a life of scientific contribution, Darwin, during his lifetime, wrote 14 books, also the story of his voyage on board HMS Beagle, and 4 monographs on the anatomy and biology of barnacles.
Among his most notable works are the following:
- The Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection (1859), is Darwin’s monumental publication, which suggests that living beings that best adjust to their environment are the most successful in surviving and reproducing. It is primarily an effort to scientifically explain the designs of organisms.
- Through On the Various Contrivances by Which British and Foreign Orchids Are Fertilised by Insects (1862) Darwin explains that an orchid’s beauty is not a fancy flower “designed” by God to please humans, but refined by selection to lure insect cross-pollinators.
- In The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication (1868) Darwin analyzed what causes differences in domestic breeds.
- In The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871) , Darwin states that humans are like all other forms of life, and that in their evolutionary history, have been compelled by natural selection too.
- In The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), Darwin shows that despite refined and cultured human behavior, there is continuity of emotions and expressions between humans and animals.
- The Different Forms of Flowers on Plants of the Same Species (1877) was the outcome of Darwin’s sustained effort at studying the way evolution helped some plants to enable male and female flowers to engage in outbreeding.
- In The Effects of Cross and Self Fertilization in the Vegetable Kingdom (1876) Darwin analyzes the effects of cross and self-fertilization of over 60 plant varieties.
- The Formation of Vegetable Mould, Through the Action of Worms (1881) was Darwin’s final scientific volume, published shortly before his death.
Awards and honours
In 1839, thirty-year old Darwin was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, the world’s oldest national scientific society and Britain’s leading national organization for promoting scientific research. This was in recognition of his naturalist studies on the HMS Beagle voyage, and for being “well-acquainted with geology, botany, zoology and many other branches of natural knowledge.”
Darwin was also awarded the highest distinctions given by the Royal Society; the Royal Medal in 1853 and the Copley Medal in 1864.
Further, he was awarded Fellowship of the Royal Geographical Society, Linnean Society and the Zoological Society.
Happy marriage, sickly family
Darwin’s qualities of being detailed and organized, extended to his personal life as well. In fact, he was so methodical, he drew up a list of pros and cons for getting married. Ultimately, the concept of a “nice wife on a sofa” won and, on November 11, 1838, 29-year old Darwin proposed to Emma Wedgewood, his first cousin he had grown up with. Following a brief courtship, he married her on 29 January 1839.
Emma told her favorite aunt, “He is the most open, transparent man I ever saw, and every word expresses his real thoughts. He is particularly affectionate . . . and possesses some minor qualities that add particularly to one’s happiness, such as not being fastidious, and being humane to animals.”
The couple had a long and happy married life, and had ten children.
However, their happiness was marred by Darwin’s continued long and severe episodes of sickness involving vomiting, gut pain, headaches, severe exhaustion, skin issues and depression, which plagued him for the last 40 years of his life. Treated by 20 doctors, he did not recover from his ailments. Later medical research by Cardiff University in U.K. says that his symptoms matched “systemic lactose intolerance.”
Many tried to explain his mysterious sickness as Chagas disease inflicted on him by South American insects during his sea voyage, arsenic poisoning and psychosomatic diseases. But none were proved.
Darwin was also grief-stricken by three of his kids dying before they were 10, two of them from bacterial diseases. Childhood deaths from bacterial infections are linked to inbreeding. He worried that the long tradition of intermarriage between the Darwin and Wedgwood families, was having a negative impact on the health of his own family. He knew from his scientific research that cross-breeding is much healthier than inbreeding. Moreover, three of the six surviving kids were childless after many years of marriage.
Despite this, it was a solace for Darwin to have sired three illustrious sons, George, Francis and Horace. George, a mathematician and astronomer, also became the world’s leading expert on tides, while Francis was the leading authority on plant physiology. Both were Cambridge University scholars. Horace was a globally reputed instrument maker and founder of the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company. All three were elected Fellows of the Royal Society and knighted.
Facing life’s sunset
Darwin intensely grieved the passing of his only brother Erasmus in August 1881, which appeared to worsen his own poor health. He had several minor heart attacks in early 1882, and grew steadily more sick until he died on April 19, 1882, following a violent bout of vomiting and retching. His long-suffering wife Emma, daughter Henrietta and son Francis stood beside him as he breathed his last.
Darwin and his family had wished for a simple funeral, and he had wanted an unadorned and unpolished coffin. However, on April 26, 1892, Charles Darwin was given a state burial in a beautifully polished coffin, and laid to rest at Westminster Abbey, close to the grave of Sir Isaac Newton.
As the final chapter was written in Darwin’s life, the quality of courage that defined his whole life, came to the fore when speaking his last words to Emma, “I am not in the least afraid to die.”