Identify early ideas about evolution..
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Most educated people in Europe and the Americas during the 19th century had their first full exposure to the concept of evolution through the writings of Charles Darwin click this icon to hear the name pronounced. Clearly, he did not invent the idea. That happened long before he was born. However, he carried out the necessary research to conclusively document that evolution has occurred and then made the idea acceptable for scientists and the general public. This was not easy since the idea of evolution had been strongly associated with radical scientific and political views coming out of post-revolutionary France. These ideas were widely considered to be a threat to the established social and political order.
Picture of Charles Darwin portrait at age 7
Charles Darwin at age 7
Charles Darwin was born into a moderately wealthy family in Shrewsbury, England. His father, Robert, had the largest medical practice outside of London at the time and his mother, Susannah Wedgwood, was from a family of wealthy pottery manufacturers. She died when Charles was only 8 years old. Thereafter, he was raised mostly by his father and doting older sisters. Charles grew up in comparative luxury in a large house with servants. However, this was a socially conservative time in England that set narrow limits on a young man's behavior and future possibilities. The constraints on women in Darwin's social class were even greater. Most were given only enough education to efficiently manage the homes of their future husbands and raise their children. Young men were expected to go to university in order to prepare themselves to become medical doctors, military officers, or clerics in the Church of England. Most other occupations were considered somewhat unsavory.
At his father's direction, Charles Darwin started university at 16 in Edinburgh, Scotland as a medical student. He showed little academic interest in medicine and was revolted by the brutality of surgery being performed without pain relief. Anesthesia was not used for operations until 1842. Darwin dropped out of medical school after two years of study in 1827. However, his knowledge of natural history was incidentally enriched in Edinburgh by the teaching of Robert Grant, a noted professor of anatomy and an avid marine biologist. At Grant's suggestion, Darwin also became a member of Plinian Society for student naturalists at the University of Edinburgh.
Having given up on a medicine as a future career, Charles Darwin's father then sent him to Cambridge University in 1828 to pursue an ordinary degree program with the goal of later becoming an Anglican parson. In Cambridge his life's direction continued its radical change. He became very interested in the scientific ideas of the geologist Adam Sedgwick and the naturalist John Henslow with whom he spent considerable time collecting specimens from the countryside around the university. At this time in his life, Darwin apparently rejected the concept of biological evolution, just as his mentors Sedgwick and Henslow did. However, Darwin had been exposed to the ideas of Lamarck about evolution earlier while he was a student in Edinburgh.
Picture of a portrait of Charles Darwin in his 20's
Photo of Captain Robert Fitzroy in civilian clothes
Captain Robert Fitzroy
Following graduation from Cambridge in 1831 with a Bachelor of Arts degree, Darwin was clearly more interested in biology and geology than he was in a clerical career. Fortunately, John Henslow was able to help him secure a berth on a British Navy mapping expedition that was going around the world on what would ultimately become a nearly five year long voyage. Initially, Darwin's father refused to allow him to go but was eventually persuaded by Charles and even agreed to pay for his passage and for that of his man servant on the journey. They sailed two days after Christmas in 1831 aboard the survey ship H.M.S. Beagle with Darwin acting as an unpaid naturalist and gentleman companion for the aristocratic captain, Robert Fitzroy. Darwin was 22 years old at the time, and Fitzroy was only 4 years older. The Beagle was a compact 90 foot long ship with a crew of 74. There was little space, even for the captain. Darwin shared a cramped 10 X 11 foot cabin with two other men, a cabin boy, and their belongings. Because of the Beagle's design and small size, it was generally thought by naval men that it was ill suited for the rough seas it would encounter, especially at the southern tip of South America. Darwin frequently suffered from sea sickness on the voyage. Fortunately, he was able to spend most of the time on land exploring. In fact, he was at sea for only 18 months during the nearly 5 years of the expedition.
Captain Fitzroy was interested in advancing science and was especially drawn to geology. He had a surprisingly good library of over 400 books onboard the Beagle that he made available to Darwin. It was during the beginning of the voyage that Darwin read the first volumes of Charles Lyell's "Principles of Geology" and became convinced by his proof that uniformitarianism provided the correct understanding of the earth's geological history. This intellectual preparation, along with his research on the voyage, was critical in leading Darwin to later accept evolution. Especially important was his 5 weeks long visit to the Galápagos Islands click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced in the Eastern Pacific Ocean. It was there that he made the observations that eventually led him to comprehend what causes plants and animals to evolve, but he apparently did not clearly formulate his views on this until 1837. At the time he left the Galápagos Islands, he apparently still believed in a traditional Biblical creation of all life forms.