On Darwin and evolution Science

The letters that changed Darwin’s life

Two letters played a crucial role in Darwin's life. The first one sent him on the voyage that led to his idea on evolution. The second one helped him make this idea public...  

Have you ever found yourself in a position where you want to do something badly but your parents don’t approve of it? If your answer to that question is yes, you might be mighty impressed with what Charles Darwin did when confronted with a similar situation.

Born to Robert Waring Darwin, a society doctor, and Susannah Wedgwood, Darwin lost his mother while he was only eight and was brought up mostly by his elder sisters. Darwin looked up to his father, from whom he learned the importance of astute observations.

Darwin’s father sent him to study medicine at Edinburgh University when he was 16. Though Darwin learned a lot in the intellectual environment that the university fostered, it was clear to his father that Darwin didn’t harbour any intentions of continuing with medicine. So he sent him to Christ’s College, Cambridge, realising that the Church might be better place for his son than being a naturalist.

The first letter

By 1831, Darwin had a Bachelor of Arts degree from Cambridge. Following a geology trip to Wales in August, Darwin returned home, eager to join the Wedgwoods for two weeks of partridge shooting. But there waiting for him, on August 29, 1831, was a letter from John Stevens Henslow, his professor and mentor from Cambridge.

The letter contained an invitation to go around the world on the HMS Beagle as a naturalist. For someone dreaming to travel and explore tropical lands and their natural history, it was the chance of a lifetime.

While Darwin was ready to pack his stuff and set sailing, his father disapproved of the entire scheme. Robert believed that it was time for Darwin to settle down and pursue a career as a clergyman.

The lifeline

Robert, however, handed his son a lifeline. If Darwin could find a man of common sense who’d back him to go, then Robert was willing to give his consent.

Darwin went straight up to his uncle Josiah Wedgwood, whom his father respected and held in high regard. Josiah did side-up with Darwin and together they came up with a point-by-point response, addressing each and every concern that Robert had.

Robert stood by his word and funded all of Darwin’s expenses throughout the trip - a major concern considering Darwin’s job was an unpaid position. What was to be a two-year voyage panned over five years, with Darwin exploring the continent and islands of South America, collecting thousands of specimen samples, which he crated home in advance.

Darwin took copious notes along the way, filling out many notebooks with observations on animals, plants and geology. Back in 1836, Darwin formulated his bold theory in private between 1837-39, but it wasn’t until 1859 when he finally made it public with his groundbreaking book On the Origin of Species.

If you are mulling over the last paragraph, wondering what took Charles Darwin a couple of decades to make his ideas public, spare a thought for the man himself. Having arrived at his theory based on his observations, Darwin struggled to come to terms with it and even described writing his book On the Origin of Species as ‘like confessing a murder’.

Natural selection

Back in 1836, Darwin started writing up his travels and showing the specimens that he’d brought home to his fellow biologists. He realised that animals more suited to any environment had more young and survived longer - a process he called ‘natural selection’.

His proposed theory as to how transmutation happens troubled him immensely, as it was totally against the Christian world view that he’d been brought up with. The fact that his grandfather Erasmus Darwin wrote about transmutation and hence had been ostracised by the society didn’t help him either.

Poor health - his own and that of his kids - delayed him further. Darwin was married to his cousin Emma and they lost three of their ten children to illness, and the others weren’t healthy either. Darwin knew that when orchids self-fertilised, they were less healthy. Hence he was concerned whether inbreeding within his own family was causing problems to his children.

The second letter

On September 5, 1857, Darwin penned a letter to Harvard botanist Asa Gray, discussing and detailing his theory. The encouragement that he received from Gray, who had helped him with information pertaining to American plants, was crucial in finally getting the theory published. Gray, who had become the first person in North America privy to Darwin’s ideas, would go on to staunchly support Darwin and represent him in America’s initial engagement with natural selection, despite being a devout Christian.

In 1858, Alfred Russel Wallace, who had set off travelling inspired by Darwin’s voyage, arrived at a theory of natural selection and wrote to Darwin seeking how best to publish his ideas. This was the push that Darwin required, who finally went public with his ground breaking theory, while at the same time ensuring that Wallace received his due credit as well.

On the Origin of Species was published in 1859, and remains one of the most important books ever written. Though Darwin himself was reluctant to defend his ideas in public, others joined the debate and the idea gradually gained acceptance.

‘Survival of the fittest’

In the fifth edition of the book published a decade later, Darwin used ‘survival of the fittest’ for the first time, a phrase he had borrowed from philosopher Herbert Spencer, to denote his idea. The phrase moved Darwin’s idea further away from divine intervention, a major stumbling block with regard to acceptance in those circles.

With The Descent of Man in 1871, Darwin went a step further in presenting his ideas regarding man’s evolution, making it clear that human beings shared an ancestor with apes. When ill health eventually led to Darwin’s death in 1882, there were still doubters, but his theory on evolution had largely been agreed upon. Modern evolutionary studies has never been the same again.

This article appeared as a two-part story in The Hindu In School newspaper.

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Printable version | Aug 5, 2021 11:54:59 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/in-school/sh-science/The-letters-that-changed-Darwin%E2%80%99s-life/article14634856.ece

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