Scientist of the Month—Charles Darwin

Charles Robert Darwin was born on February 12, 1809, in Shrewsbury, England. Credited with developing the scientific theory of evolution by natural selection, Darwin was deemed the father of modern evolutionary studies.[1] His theory that animals and humans a shared common ancestor was initially shocking to a religious Victorian society, yet his secular discoveries still appealed to the rising class of professional scientists during this time. Inspiring others to challenge traditional evolutionary perspectives, Darwin was a pioneer of his time.

Early Life and Education

Charles Darwin was the second youngest of six kids. Coming from an affluent family, his lineage was lined with prominent scientists. His father, Dr. R.W Darwin was a medical doctor, and his grandfather, Dr. Erasmus Darwin, was a renowned botanist. As a child, Darwin loved to explore nature and was very fond of animals. At the age of 16, Charles Darwin enrolled in the University of Edinburgh, along with his brother Erasmus, to study medicine. Although the sight of blood eventually led him away from medicine, the University of Edinburgh exposed Darwin to the latest continental sciences. Demonstrating far more interest in natural history, Darwin decided to further his career at Christ’s College in Cambridge. At Christ’s College, under the mentorship of Botanist John Stevens Henslow, Darwin was recommended as a naturalist aboard the HMS Beagle. He embarked on a five-year survey trip around the world, presenting the opportunity of a lifetime to the budding naturalist.[2] Over the course of the trip, Darwin would collect a variety of natural specimens including fossils, plants, and birds.

Most Notable Accomplishments

In the Galapagos, Darwin began to observe principles of botany, zoology, and geology. As part of Captain FitzRoy’s larger narrative, Darwin’s early findings were published in the Zoology of the Voyage of the Beagle. Upon his return to England in 1836, he began to develop a controversial theory about the origin of living things. Darwin’s theory of evolution stated that a species’ existence was based on “natural selection,” in which organisms that successfully adapted to their environment would thrive and reproduce, and those that failed to evolve would die off. Through his observations with finches, tortoises, and mockingbirds– an excellent example being his observation of finch beaks, and how variation in these beaks (combined with factors such as migration) often led to speciation– Darwin published his theory in his best known work, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. Upon the publication of his work, controversy arose surrounding its conflict with Creationism—the religious view that all nature was designed by God. However, it wouldn\’t be long until the advancement of DNA studies provided scientific evidence that supported his theory of evolution.[3]

Societal Impact

Darwin’s ideas made individuals aware of their place in the evolutionary process. In the late 1800s, his ideas on the process of natural selection were adopted to explain social and economic issues. Since then, social Darwinism has been used as a justification for imperialism, labor abuses, racism, poverty, eugenics, and social inequality.[4] A gross misreading of Darwin’s ideas in On the Origin of Species was later deemed scientifically groundless. Regardless of this misuse of ideas, from its publishing to present-day, Darwin’s book about evolution remains one of the best explanations of how life developed on Earth.

References:

  1. Desmond, A. J.. \”Charles Darwin.\” Encyclopedia Britannica, April 15, 2021. 
  2. Biography.com Editors. “Charles Darwin Biography.” Biography.com, April 2, 2014.
  3. The Leaky Foundation Authors. “The Importance of Charles Darwin.” The Leaky Foundation, July 30, 2013.
  4. Hall, P.D. “Social Darwinism and the poor.” Social Welfare History Project, n.d.

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