Charles Darwin is well known as the father of evolutionary theory and the man who coined the term “evolution.” An interesting fact is that Darwin didn’t coin that term; philosopher Herbert Spenser did. In the original printings of Darwin’s ground-breaking work “On the Origin of Species,” he used the terms “transmutation” and “the development hypothesis.” It wasn’t until the fifth edition of “Origin of Species” – ten years after the original – that he used that now controversial word.
He also wasn’t the only one to formulate the theory of evolution. Alfred Russel Wallace co-discovered the principal of natural selection at about the same time Darwin did. In fact, he almost beat Darwin to the punch by publishing it first. Darwin played close to the vest, confiding his thoughts only to a few close colleagues. Wallace openly sent his theory in a draft paper to Darwin, thinking Charles would be the only scientist who would truly appreciate his beliefs.
In doing so, he tipped his hand and Darwin – who had been hesitating – began rushing his work into publication. He had a horror of being preempted or accused of stealing Wallace’s work. Their writings were just that similar. Darwin had first expressed his theory years earlier in a “pencil sketch,” eventually expanded it into an essay, and upon receiving Wallace’s paper began struggling furiously to write it into a “big book.”
He was still struggling when they decided on a joint presentation to the Linnean Society in July of 1858. Darwin was prevented from attending by the death of his infant son from scarlet fever. (Darwin suffered from ill health most of his life; he also had a young daughter who died, and he feared for a time that his chronic illness was hereditary.) Ironically, the scientific world paid little attention to their landmark announcement of what should probably be called the Darwin-Wallace Theory. The president of the Linnean Society commented later that no revolutionary discoveries had been revealed that year.
Another interesting fact is that for most of his life Darwin was a devout Christian. One reason for his hesitation in publishing “Origin” was reticence over contradicting the Biblical account of creation, though he was convinced he was right. Perhaps it was more the reaction he knew his theories would get that caused his hesitation. His wife Emma, who held very orthodox Christian views, begged him to reconsider.
One reason Darwin was so certain of his work was that he questioned it himself in every possible way. In “Origin of Species” he raised just about every possible objection to his theory before his readers had a chance to. He tirelessly ransacked scientific literature looking for conclusions which contradicted his own. Far from the aloof anti-God figure envisioned by many Christians, he seems to have been reluctantly driven to those conclusions.
One source of this reluctance was an unwillingness to contradict Holy Scripture. Darwin believed (as most Christians of his day did) that the Ussher Chronology notated in most Bibles back then was an original part of Scripture. (This timeline originated by Bishop James Ussher declared the earth to be less than six thousand years old, the creation having occurred in 4004 B.C.E.) That wasn’t nearly enough time for Darwin’s evolution to take place.
He was eventually told that Ussher’s numbers were not part of Scripture but were added by printers as helpful notations because they were generally accepted. A conversation with geologist Sir John Herschel near the end of the Beagle’s voyage informed him that many esteemed scientists believed in a far, far older earth than that. All of the specimens and evidence he was collecting convinced him of earth’s antiquity.
When “Origin of Species” was published (1859), Darwin’s editor was skeptical that it would generate much interest and ordered only 1,250 copies printed. He encouraged Charles to write his next book about pigeons, thinking that would be much more popular. He was wrong. The 1,250 copies sold out the first day, and “Origin” has been in print ever since.
Sensitive to the implications of his theory, Darwin shied away from any discussion of human origins in his first book on evolution. He alluded to the subject, saying “…light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history,” but skirted the topic “so surrounded with prejudices.” Of course, he eventually tackled it with his usual thoroughness in “The Descent of Man” (1871).
Though famous for his writings, he was shy of public exposure and social gatherings, sometimes becoming nauseated at the thought of making a public speech. (Though obviously distraught, he may have been somewhat relieved to miss the Linnean Society presentation.) For forty years, he and his family lived quietly in the countryside of Kent; when telephones became all the rage he refused to have one installed in his home. He organized local charity organizations, contributed to the local church, and served as a justice of the peace. He judged rather trivial issues concerning vandalism, livestock road crossings, reckless driving of horse carriages, and rabbit poaching.
He had settled in Kent after his famous five-year voyage aboard the HMS Beagle (1831-36). For at least ten years his interests lay chiefly in geology. By 1846 he had written three geological books. He spent several years dissecting barnacles due to a fascination with marine invertebrates. In eight years of work on these creatures, Darwin’s evolution theory helped him discern how slight differences in the same body parts were due to adaptation. Adapting to different conditions caused body parts to begin serving new functions. This work won him the Royal Society’s Royal Medal as an outstanding biologist.
In a time when scientific disciplines were not as well defined as they are today, Darwin was a geologist, zoologist, botanist, naturalist, and philosopher, as well as an explorer and a prolific, very popular writer. He had no professional training in biology. In this field he was self taught, though he was college educated at Christ College, Cambridge and on his final exams excelled in – of all things – theology. (He was studying to become a clergyman.) He attended medical school for a time, but quit in horror over the surgeries done without anesthesia, which hadn’t yet been developed.
He wrote seventeen scientific books (in twenty-one volumes containing more than 9,000 pages) and more than 150 articles. Over forty odd years he added almost 10,000 pages of revisions to various editions of his books. His contributions of knowledge to a wide-ranging list of scientific fields have never been equaled. Additionally, several thousand of his letters have been published.
Darwin died of heart failure in 1882, having declared “I am not in the least afraid to die.” Though he had once jokingly confided to a friend that his theorizing against Biblical creation was “…like confessing to a murder,” his religious views had evolved along with his work. He wrote, “I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God. I think that generally…an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.”
It was falsely reported that he renounced his evolutionary thinking and re-embraced conservative Christianity on his deathbed. His family members present at his death denied it, and historians dismiss such a claim as wishful thinking. What he said on his deathbed (among other things) was “I am not in the least afraid to die.”