Thursday, December 14

Charles Darwin

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Charles Darwin was an English naturalist who spent his life building his evolutionary theory explaining that all species descended from a common ancestor.[1] He was born into a rich family, thus giving him the opportunity to travel and build upon his theory. Darwin’s life changing trip took place on the HMS Beagle, where he traveled to Cape Verde and the Galapagos along with many other places. Darwin became an avid fan of Charles Lyell’s book The Principles of Geology while on the Beagle and began to look at the world the same way Lyell described.[2] Darwin chose to keep his theory of evolution between only a select few rather than publishing it for fear of what repercussions it would cause. After 20 years of building his theory, a new comer by the name of Alfred Russel Wallace was coming up with a theory very similar to Darwin’s. Darwin knew it was time to make his theory of natural selection public.

                Darwin was born into a very rich family allowing him to receive the best education possible. Darwin’s father, Robert Darwin, wealthy doctor and pushed Darwin to become the same. Robert Darwin sent his son to medical school in Edinburgh in 1825.[3] Darwin was not interested in medicine and soon dropped out and instead attended Cambridge. It was here that Darwin became interested in the study of natural history and biology. While attending Cambridge, he received an invitation to accompany Robert FitzRoy on thee HMS Beagle for a trip around the world.[4]

                Darwin entered the voyage as a conventional British catastrophist following the principles of Adam Sedgwick. It was the captain Robert FitzRoy that introduced Darwin to the uniformitarian views of Charles Lyell with his book The Principles of Geology. The journey was long and boring, thus giving Darwin a great opportunity to immerse himself in Lyell’s book. The first most notable island Darwin came to was St. Jago of the Cape Verde islands. When they approached the coast, Darwin noticed how the rocks in the cliffs had a large white stripe going through the center of them.[5] Upon closer examination he found them to be seashells in the rock. Darwin surmised that the island gradually rose from the sea after layers and layers of rock built up on top of each other.[6] Darwin took up Lyell’s uniformitarianism and began to see the formation of the rocks to be slowly building up over time, rather than the result of a catastrophe.

                The next big advances for Darwin’s theory came from the Galapagos Islands. Darwin noted that the geological structure of the islands were similar to that of the Cape Verde islands he saw prior. Despite having a similar structure, the animals and plants of the two islands were completely different. Darwin began to question why a divine creator would make two different groups of animals for the two islands.[7] After studying the animals and plants on the nearby continent he realized that they were similar to those found on the islands. Darwin came up with the theory that the animals from the nearby continent colonized the newly formed islands and became isolated from the outside world. They then began to evolution as to adapt to the environment of the island.[8] The most commonly known observation of Darwin was that of the finches of the Galapagos Islands. Darwin took several specimens of finches from several of the islands within the Galapagos. He noticed that all the finches were similar in most ways except they had some minor changes. The shape of the bird’s beak was the most crucial to Darwin’s theory. Birds on an island that only had nuts as a food source had large, strong beaks in order to break the shells while the birds from different islands had smaller beaks. Darwin was able to conclude that after colonizing the islands, the species began to adapt to niches within their environment.[9]

                Prior to Darwin was the naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck who came up with the theory that species adapt to their environment similar to what Darwin was observing. Darwin realized that different environments would favor different adaptations, so the evolution of a species would not be linear. It would instead involve the branching of evolution from a common ancestor in order to fill the different environmental niches.[10] The weaker species would begin to die out and would only leave the new, stronger species fit for survival. As Darwin continued his theory, the idea of God became unnecessary. The competition between species did not fit with the idea of a benevolent God figure.[11]

                In 1858, Darwin received a letter from Alfred Russel Wallace describing the same concepts Darwin was keeping secret for the 20 years prior. Differing from Darwin, Wallace grew up poor and was mostly self-educated.[12] Wallace had to pay his own expenses when traveling to distant continents to study the species there. Wallace began to see that the species of neighboring continents were similar to the species of the islands he visited. Both men had come up with the idea of survival of the fittest through interspecies struggle. The elimination of the weak made room for the strong survivors to reproduce, eventually leading to the evolution of the species. Since Darwin had kept his theory a secret for so long, Wallace’s ideas helped to prove that Darwin was correct in his assumption, but it also destroyed the originality of Darwin’s theory.

                Darwin came up with his theory in 1838, but did not publish it until 20 years later. He spent those 20 years anticipating the objects to his theory.[13] Darwin was most concerned about the repercussions his theory would have on religious believers. Darwin’s theory consisted of 5 main factors.[14] The first factor was that one of the prime instincts of all species was to survive and reproduce. Usually this meant that they would reproduce more than the environment could handle. Due to a lack of resources, there would be an increase in competition and thus result in more offspring dying off. The animals that managed to live through this competition were not random. Darwin believed these offspring to be more suited to survive in the environment. Darwin uses Herbert Spencer’s term “survival of the fittest” to explain the competition between the species. The organisms that survive have the superior characteristics that will be passed on to their offspring.

                Charles Darwin spent his entire life to come up with the theory of natural selection that helps to prove the evolution of species. He was inspired to continue his work in the subject of evolution after reading Lyell’s book The Principles of Geology and observing the geological features and the species of the islands he visited on his trip on the HMS Beagle. He kept his theory for over 20 years in order to find a way to deal with the objections that would undoubtedly come. Soon Darwin saw naturalists such as Wallace coming up with similar theories and he knew it was time to tell the world of his theory of natural selection.

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[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Darwin

[2] Larson 59

[3] http://www.blupete.com/Literature/Biographies/Science/Darwin.htm

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Darwin

[5] Larson 59

[6] Larson 59

[7] Larson 61

[8] Larson 64

[9] Larson 65

[10] Larson 69

[11] Larson 70

[12] Larson 72

[13] Larson 70

[14] http://www.biology-online.org/2/10_natural_selection.htm

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