As the 200th birthday, February 12, 2009, of Charles Darwin rapidly approaches, I find myself reflecting on the man, his work, and his sheer intuitive nature and depth of perception. I am not alone in these reflections as articles touting his work and ideas have appeared in Smithsonian, The Scientist, and Scientific American in the past month. Darwin, educated as a theologian, knew the idea of evolution was controversial and delayed publishing his work for nearly twenty five years. Not until the ideas of Alfred Russell Wallace came to Darwin’s attention did he realize he must share his work with the world to establish his priority.
As a young man upon the now famous voyage of the British ship the HMS Beagle, Darwin began to formulate his idea of evolution via the mechanism of natural selection. As Darwin traveled among the diverse regions of the world he realized that organisms showed very specialized traits that allowed for their survival in these diverse habitats. No where were these traits more obvious to Darwin than on the Galapagos Islands off the coast of South America. The giant tortoises, the finches, the aquatic iguanas, and the myriad of insect species sparked in Darwin the idea of descent with modification. He began to formulate the concept of a tree of life with a common ancestor from which all others diverged. Having been immersed in a society who believed and upheld the idea of special creation, these ideas conflicted Darwin.
Upon his return to England, he stepped back into normal life, married and had a family, but Darwin was far from the normal husband and father. He conducted breeding experiments with domesticated animals and plants. Through these experiments he showed that artificial selection through selective breeding could lead to desired characteristics in organisms. This provided Darwin with support for natural selection. Organisms who possess an advantageous trait would be more likely to survive and reproduce passing on this trait to their offspring. Not only did Darwin experiment, but also, he lectured and attended lectures sharing his experiences from the Beagle. He corresponded with many of the great thinkers of the day.
As a biologist, I value his insights, but mostly I admire his courage and his ability to express himself. He stated his ideas in fluent and poetic prose in On the Origin of Species. For example, the beauty of the last paragraph:
“It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. . . .There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.”
Darwin’s vision of the natural world can be compared to the work of the great Michelangelo as he saw David in a slab of rock. He saw the inner workings of nature that remained hidden to the rest of us. Ridiculed and reviled by many, Darwin stood up for what he knew to be an idea that had to be shared with the rest of the world. In so doing he revolutionized the field of biology and provided future generations of scientists with the intellectual fodder needed to inspire scientific inquiry.