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article imageToday, we celebrate the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin

By Bart B. Van Bockstaele     Feb 12, 2009 in Science
Exactly 200 hundred years ago, a man was born who can easily be considered the most influential scientist of all times. Although he was looking forward to an easy life as a country parson, Charles Darwin would become one of the greatest scientists ever.
As a child born in a well-to-do family, Charles Darwin had –for those days- an easy life. As so many children, he loved being outside, and he liked collecting beetles.
His father, a successful physician, hoped that his son would follow in his footsteps, but the young Charles stopped his medical studies to start theology in which he was fairly successful. In 1831, when Charles was 22 years old, an extraordinary opportunity presented itself and he joined a voyage around the world on a ship, the Beagle. He was mainly there as a companion to the captain, who wanted someone of his own social class, but Charles nevertheless proved to be an ardent and enthusiastic naturalist, even though he was more interested in geology.
Darwin believed in the literal truth of Biblical mythology, such as the two creation myths in the Bible, and he was quite attracted to the idea that the adaptation of species was a sign of God acting through the laws of nature. During this trip, Charles saw, meticulously collected, documented a wide variety of species, and slowly changed his views on what actually causes species to changes.
Well-known are his South-American encounters with rheas, flightless birds that resemble ostriches. He had noticed two slightly different variations and wondered why God had gone through all the trouble of creating two different versions of the same bird, seemingly without purpose.
On the Galapagos Islands, this mystery became even greater when he saw similar, but different, types of finches, tortoises or iguanas on the different islands. He started to think that these animals were somehow related to each other.
Another piece in the puzzle were fossils. Fossils had never made much sense until then. Since God created the planet and all living things for the benefit of humans, why would it bother creating animals that had never even been seen by humans? Some people thought that fossils were simply an expression of God decorating the world it had created while other thought that they were the bones of sinners that had been punished by God.
It soon also became very clear to Darwin that these fossils were often related to each other and to non-fossilized remains. When he saw the fossilized skeletons of giant ground sloths and compared them to the skeletons of modern sloths that, although smaller, were incredibly similar to each other, his belief in Biblical stories and God were shaken.
Because of Darwin’s interest in geology and the works of Charles Lyell and his view that the earth was incredibly old because geological changes just had to occur over very long periods of time, he was familiar with the idea that the earth was probably much older than the 6,000 years claimed by Bible-believers. That led him to understand that species could probably change over long periods of time.
Other clues came from embryology, the study of the development of embryos, which led to the realization that embryos from different species often have strikingly similar developments.
Darwin came back from his five-year voyage a different man. The devout God-believer started to ask heretical questions, and he wanted answers. In that, he became a determined and dedicated research scientist.
In order to test his hypothesis that life-forms could change over time, Darwin studied the domestication of plants and animals and even went so far as to become a pigeon fancier to better understand how animals could be changed in a surprisingly short time by an artificial selection process.
In artificial selection, a human selects which animals or plants will be allowed to breed, and by selecting for certain qualities, entirely new variations are created. But, in artificial selection, a human makes the choice. How would this be done in nature?
That’s where economy comes in the picture. Darwin used the ideas of Thomas Malthus, and realized that any animal or plant, if allowed to propagate freely would be present in such large numbers that it would no longer be able to subsist. Only a few would be able to continue to reproduce, and this is how the idea of natural selection was born. In the words of Charles Darwin himself:
What is natural selection?
What is natural selection?
Charles Darwin
The idea of natural selection was born. Darwin realized that the peaceful and idyllic nature he so admired, was nothing but an illusion. In reality, all animals and plants are continuously fighting to survive another day. Most die young. Only the ones that are somehow able to survive long enough to become adults, will have a chance to have offspring, offspring that will somehow (Darwin knew nothing about genetics yet) inherit its parents superior abilities to survive.
This insight is completely revolutionary for its time. Not only did it explain that life forms could change over time, it also explained the phenomenon of co-adaptation: the ever increasing ability of one species to capture another in connection with the ever increasing ability of the other to evade the first: an inter-species arms race.
As an example, think of lions becoming better at catching antilopes. That very fact will automatically lead to giving antilopes that are better at escaping lions more chances to reproduce than antilopes that are more easily caught and gobbled up by the lions. In turn, the lions will have to become better at catching the antilopes, and on and on…
In the end, certain species will branch off varieties that have become so different that they are no longer able to have offspring with members of the species that have not changed as much or that have changed in a different direction, and a new species is born. This is the “Origin of Species”.
Darwin was a true scientist, and he didn’t rush to publish his ideas. He was hesitant and reluctant to publish, also partly motived by his fear that his ideas were diametrically opposed to those of the Church. He sat on his theory and kept collecting evidence for more than twenty years, and when the Swiss Alfred Russell Wallace sent him a letter in 1858, he was ready to throw in the towel. So, chances are that we would never have heard of Charles Darwin if Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker hadn’t convinced him to publish his theory. On November 24, 1859, his Theory of Evolution was finally published.
That year, thanks to Darwin, science changed forever. No longer were we dependent on a God that created every lifeform, no longer were we living in fear for a God that could destroy us if it wanted. We had become the result of evolution by natural selection, and the way we would look at nature would never be the same.
Let's conclude with the words with which Charles Darwin concluded the Origin:
Conclusion of the  Origin of Species  by Charles Darwin
Conclusion of the "Origin of Species" by Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin
More about Charles Darwin, Evolution natural selection, Origin species
 
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