Yesterday marks the anniversary of Charles Darwin’s death on 19 April 1882. He is celebrated as one of the greatest British scientists who ever lived: his discoveries transformed the way we understand the natural world.
Born in 1809 in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, Darwin was fascinated by the natural world from a young age. He spent his youth reading nature books and collecting plants and insects. His curiosity was a strong character trait that led him to want to learn more and continuously question and ask why.
In 1831 he embarked on a five-year voyage aboard HMS Beagle. On his travels, Darwin collected plants, animals and fossils, and took copious field notes on islands far away from home. These collections and records were crucial for his later development.
Darwin’s theory of natural selection
While many still claim the natural selection is “controversial”, the theory of evolution by natural selection is actually the most widely accepted theory that is commonly recognised as having the best evidence-based explanation for the diversity and complexity of life on Earth.
The theory proposes that the ‘fittest’ individual organisms are more likely to survive and reproduce. They then pass on those desirable characteristics to their offspring, gradually making these desirable features more common in a population. In the long run, species change or even evolve into another new species, as a result of this gradual process.
Finches from many of the Galápagos Islands (off the coast of Ecuador) were crucial to Darwin’s formulation of natural selection. These finches had different traits: some had stout beaks for seeds while others focused on eating insects. When they moved and evolved on different islands, the birds adapted to the environment in order to survive. In the end, natural selection occurred and produced 13 different species of finch.
Experiment: Darwin’s pigeons
Like all other great scientists, Darwin understood the importance of testing a hypothesis with experiments. He chose to experiment with pigeons. By artificially selecting features – crossing birds with particular characteristics to generate different offspring – he gathered valuable evidence for evolution by natural selection. Eventually, Darwin was able to artificially select the birds so that they had exaggerated features. This corroborated his suspicion that the environment might naturally manipulate species, causing them to ‘evolve’ over time.
The great book: On The Origin of Species
On The Origin of Species was published in 1859. While it is now considered to be the foundation of evolutionary biology, at its time it provoked outrage from across society and from members of the Church of England. The belief that men were not created by God, but were products of natural selection was unacceptable.
Despite the attacks, Darwin’s conviction in the scientific explanation that best fitted the available evidence, remained unshaken. He was keen for his ideas to reach as many people as possible and for his books to be read in many different languages. Part of his success has been attributed to his conversational and approachable writing style – he recognised the influence and power of effective communication.
In fact, On the Origin of Species was so influential that within a year it had been published in German. In Darwin’s lifetime, his book was also translated into Danish, Dutch, French, Hungarian, Italian, Polish, Russian, Serbian, Spanish and Swedish!
Although Darwin’s theory of evolution has been modified over time, it remains fundamental to the study of the natural world. Darwin’s theory changed not only the way we see all organisms, but also the way we see ourselves. His curiosity and passion for science also inspired countless individuals to embark on their own journey of the pursuit of knowledge.