Aug 24, 2013

Charles Darwin and the Theory of Evolution

Charles Darwin, the son of a wealthy British doctor, was sent as a young man to study medicine in Edinburgh, then to Cambridge to study for the ministry. There he came under the influence of scientists and naturalists who inspired new interests in him. After a few years, his tutors suggested that he sail on a navy ship to South America, Australia, and various islands (most notably the Gblapagos, off the coast of Ecuador) to study the flora and fauna there.

Darwin's five-year voyage (1831-37) aboard the HMS Beagle would not only change his life, but the very way in which we understand life itself. It was on this trip that he made his first fossil discoveries, witnessed a volcanic eruption, and absorbed the concept of "deep time" explored in the recently published Principles of Geology by Charles Lyell. Darwin observed special adaptations organisms had for obtaining food and avoiding predators. He reasoned that organisms evolved from simpler states through what he called "survival of the fittest." Over time, he wrote, "the result of this [natural selection] would be the formation of a new species."
 
In 1858, Darwin was still writing a book detailing his theory of evolution when a letter arrived from Alfred Russel Wallace, an English naturalist, describing a similar theory. A few months later, Darwin presented their collaborative work at a meeting of the Linnaean Society of London, and in 1859 Darwin published ‘On the Origin of Species’. All 1,250 copies of the first edition were sold in one day. Twelve years later, Darwin published a sequel, ‘The Descent of Man’, which described how his theory applied to humans. His books sparked a scientific revolution that has made the theory of evolution a central principle of the life sciences.

The implications of that theory have provoked rancorous debate ever since, particularly from religious groups who protest that it rejects biblical teachings about the creation of the universe and does not acknowledge any role for a divine creator. It may seem ironic, then, that the man most closely associated with evolution was himself raised in a religious home and school, and was very familiar with the Bible and with Christian beliefs. Despite numerous competing theories, public protests, and efforts to ban the teaching of evolution in schools, most scientists today believe that the evidence supporting evolution is overwhelming. (The New York Times ‘Smarter by Sunday – 52 Weekends of Essential Knowledge for the Curious Mind’)