Young Darwin

Evolution Explained -Part 13 – Darwin

This is Part 13 of a series of approximately sixty posts that outline evidence, support, and explanations for evolution. Receive updates and notification of all posts from by selecting the follow button on the sidebar of any page. Thanks!

Copyright Dennis Mitton

The Young Darwin

I’ll put it on the table right away: people have earned a fine living writing about the Great Biologist. Their work tends to be thorough, insightful, and points to a larger history than what I will write in the next thousand or so words. But no explanation of evolution can be made without some understanding of Darwin and how he developed his ideas. His work is the seminal basis for evolution, afer all. (Go here to Darwin On-line, the most stupifyingly complete virtual repository of his work. Maybe of anyone’s work.)

Wealth is rarely a prerequisite for success but it certainly helps, especially in the Europe of the early nineteenth century.  Charles Darwin, English-born in 1809, entered the world to wealthy parents that offered him a fair chance of living a life of ease. There were few science jobs in early nineteenth century and the few that existed paid poorly. In fact, so palty was the living that it was not uncommon that university professors charged students fees to come to lectures. Nor did tramping around the countryside or the world pay many bills. Having some amount of money meant that Darwin needn’t toil away at a meager living in hopes of a day off for Christmas or for butterful collecting.

Darwin showed an early love of nature that was surely encouraged by his medically and scientifically trained family. His father was a freethinker at a time when it was hardly popular and his mother died when he was still a boy. He grew up attending local religious schools and entered medical school in 1825. He bombed. Medicine held little interest for him and he avoided the surgery to his detriment. It seems that they sight of blood disturbed Darwin immensely. He was intrigued with natural theology and, at his father’s behest, considered entering the ministry thinking that the life of a country parson might afford much time to aimlessly wander over hill and dale. It’s not the common reseaon one enters the work of faith. He finally earned a BA degree in theololgy but never went on to study advanced theology or to become a minister. One wonders if his respected and erudite family had concerns for their young and directionless beetle collector.

The Beagle

Shortly after earing his BA at university, Darwin was recommended as a naturalist or ‘scientific person’ aboard the survey ship HMS Beagle. For five years the young Darwin explored the geology and natural history of South America and the Pacific islands. He proved to be an excellent choice as the ship’s naturalist and recorded an enormous trove of observations. He collected all types of samples along the way, including fossils, noticing that South American fossils resembled animals of the region more than those of other continents. This is self-evident fact today but, at the time, a novel finding. Many Victorians of the time still wondered if fossils were created by god to test the mettle of believers.

Darwin was interested in the geologist Lyell’s ideas about uniformitarianism after reading his Principles of Geology published in 1830. Lyell argued that ‘the present is key to the past’ and that the natural mechanisms we see at work today have been trudging on unchanged since the earth began. This radical break from Biblical chronology and from catastrophism (see here for Part 6) increasingly intrigued Darwin as he explored the geology and natural history of South America. He wondered how uniformitarianism applied to biology and if natural causes rather than the hand of a creator could explain the diversity and wonder of plants and animals. He returned home after five years of travel with pages and pages of notes, a world of collectibles, and an intriguing idea to explore more fully.

Darwin’s encompassing theory of evolution was still years off. It wasn’t until he took time to mull over his sifted prodigeous notes that he begin to piece together what is now the central theory of the life sciences.

Next, in Part 14, we will look at the development of Darwin’s ground breaking idea.

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Posted in Evolution Explained.