Teaching Evolution

A blog devoted to teaching evolution, both in our schools and in our communities.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Charles Darwin: Voyaging Part 3-Naturalist

The third and final part of Charles Darwin: Voyaging shows the human side of Darwin as he makes a name for himself after returning from the Beagle: Darwin the husband (he married his cousin Emma first, fell in love with her later), Darwin the father (newborn William's instincts fascinated him; oldest daughter Anne's death broke his heart), Darwin the snuff addict.

Darwin and Emma had 10 children, seven of whom survived to adulthood. Leonard Darwin was the last survivor of the brood, dying in 1943. Among Darwin's surviving descendents is the British physiologist Richard Darwin Keynes.

Richard Dawkins has famously said that Darwin allows people to be intellectually fulfilled atheists. But Darwin didn't always feel fulfilled. He struggled with his growing sense that natural selection, and not God, made man and all the creatures of earth. Ultimately Darwin felt that he couldn't tell the religious Emma the truth about his doubts of the existence of God.

But most importantly the third part of Voyaging shows Darwin the tireless researcher. "This moment more than any other in Darwin's life deserves to be called a turning point," author Janet Browne writes of Darwin's discussions with zoologists and geologists when he arrived home from the Beagle's voyage. When a zoologist pointed out to him that a rhea he had collected was a distinct species, he started to wonder why different animals would inhabit nearly identical places, and why extinct animals seemed to be connected chronologically to modern species.

Malthusian economics -- the belief that populations will always increase faster than food supplies and that, therefore, certain groups will not be able to provide for themselves -- weighed heavily on Darwin's mind and helped him craft the idea that scarce resources led to only the best-adapted individuals having offspring.

As Darwin finished his species essay he was so confident that he was on to something great that he left explicit instructions to Emma on how to proceed should he die before it was published.

But Darwin was devastated when, before he could publish his ideas about transmutation, someone beat him to it. In October of 1844, an anonymous author (posthumously identified as Robert Chambers) published Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. It caused a stir everywhere, but especially with Darwin, who thought he had lost his chance to make a breakthrough. Fortunately, Chambers made several errors that Darwin could correct, giving him, when he finished, the superior work.

It would be a long time before he finished, though. Instead of immediately publishing his counter-argument to Vestiges, Darwin took his time and studied barnacles. Those tiny crustaceans that attached themselves to ships and therefore spread throughout the world helped Darwin to see how species spread and would prove invaluable to him. As the book concludes, Darwin's studying of barnacles has led him to the brink of publishing The Origin of Species. We'll pick up with Volume 2 of Browne's biography later.

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