199 years ago on this day, the 12th of February 1809, a child was born in the town of Shropshire in the West English midlands, and grew up to change the world.
Charles Darwin spent a unique life studying nature, with the 19th century gentleman’s enviable leisure to pursue his subject with a concentration and material wherewithal never before possible, and which will certainly never be seen again. He lived and worked, as it were, at the ephemeral gateway between an old world on which large swaths of territory remained in an essentially primeval state — some of which he was the first European to see during his seminal voyage aboard H.M.S. Beagle — and a new one beginning to yield to the industrial revolution spreading rapidly over its surface.
Darwin is of course most famous for the revolutionary idea that grew out of his uniquely comprehensive experience with the earth’s inhabitants: evolution by natural selection. The idea was revolutionary because, for the first time in history, it provided a mechanistic explanation for how living organisms develop the characteristics that suit them so astoundingly to their environment, an explanation based on simple and well understood physical and biological processes (indeed, so simple that his colleague and defender Thomas Henry Huxley observed after reading the Origin, “how extremely stupid not to have thought of that!”). And because the explanation fit such a motley range of previously inexplicable observations. One of the types of observations that were unified by his theory was the strange similarities in structure among wildly different kinds of animals, such as whales, mice, and bats — all of which share a basic anatomical structure. The reason of course is that they are descendents of a common ancestor, whose parts have become modified, as Darwin would say, to different ends. We are all, in a very literal sense, family.
For the first time, the natural world made sense.
In hiw own words, “As many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive; and as, consequently, there is a frequently recurring struggle for existence, it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally selected. From the strong principle of inheritance, any selected variety will tend to propagate its new and modified form.”
Of course, Darwin’s materialistic explanation of life’s diversity crashed headlong into the Biblical story of creation that had reigned since the beginning of time, with implications so fundamental and far-reaching that the anthropologist Ashley Montague aptly observed:”Next to the Bible, no work has been quite as influential, in virtually every aspect of human thought, as The Origin of Species.” The reverberations continue to this day, as is clear from reading the newspaper in almost any given week. Darwin is arguably the superlative example in human history of the power of a scientific idea to change the world.
One of the wonderful things about Darwin is that his works are completely accessible to the moderately educated layperson. Even with the slightly stilted prose of the mid-19th century, his writing has an engaging quality, and his account of the Beagle voyage in particular has real drama and some ripping yarns (told, of course, with Darwin’s characteristic modesty) — danger, despair, the thrill of discovery, you name it. You can begin with The Complete Works of Charles Darwin Online (He even has this stuff in podcasts — who knew?)
But what is perhaps less widely appreciated about Darwin, and what I admire most about him, is that he was a consummate naturalist. After literally overturning the philosophical foundations of human thought with the Origin, Darwin did not go off to play golf or spend his life on a celebrity tour. He spent decades in the tedious and methodical tasks of minute dissection and description of the world’s barnacles (yes, barnacles), eventually producing a masterwork that still stands as the seminal, classic foundation of knowledge on this group of animals. Clearly, it was a labor of love.
So let’s raise a glass, virtually speaking, to the gentle naturalist who figured it all out.