Real Men of Genius discusses Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, interest in which was excited considerably by the discovery at Lyme Regis during the early part of the 19th century of the remains of giant dinosaur bones by Mary Anning.
Until then scientists at London’s Natural History Museum had been regularly misconstructing fossil remains.
Charles, I think you had originally planned to enter the church. Tell us, please, a little about your early life?
I am from Shrewsbury. I read medicine at Edinburgh University and went from there to Christ’s College, Cambridge. It was there that I developed my interest in biology.
It is said that your father was a little disappointed in you while you were a student?
I am afraid so. He said to me one day: “You care for nothing but shooting, dogs and rat catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family.” I think that turned out to be a rather harsh judgment.
And he wasn’t so keen either, was he, on your proposed voyage on HMS Beagle?
No, he thought it was a waste of time, but my uncle talked him into it, and I am glad he did. It was 1831 when I became a naturalist on HMS Beagle. I would have been around 22 then.
That became almost a 5 year trip. I remember during that mission visiting Brazil, Montevideo, Buenos Aires, Patagonia, Chile, the Galapagos Islands, Tahiti and New Zealand.
I made a point throughout of keeping copious notes of what I had seen of flora, fauna and geology. Those notes were the foundations for my future investigations.
Your publications when you returned did much to establish your scientific reputation, didn’t they?
I believe so. I was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1839.
And then shortly afterwards you moved to Kent and lived the life of a country gentleman?
I continued gathering notes of my observations for the next 15 or 16 years but I was reluctant, at first, to publish my theories because I had no wish to offend religious communities.
But there came a time when you felt you had little choice, I think?
Yes. I read a paper by Alfred Wallace foreshadowing the theory of natural selection when my own work was partly written.
My paper The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life was published in 1859.
And, as might be expected, it was greeted with some controversy?
Particularly by the church, of course. My main premise was that evolution occurred as a result of natural selection. I think what I observed on the Galapagos Islands assisted me greatly.
I noticed that there were closely related finches on each of the islands, but which differed in significant respects. It seemed to me that animals or plants that are suited to their environment are more likely to survive and reproduce.
They will then pass to their descendants those characteristics that helped them to survive. Gradually, over considerable periods of time, the species will change.
The views expressed by the Church of England were not all one-sided. Some felt that natural selection was merely the way God designed it.
Sections of the media suggested that mankind was descended from apes?
I think that followed publication of The Descent of Man where I referred to man’s immediate ancestor, biologically speaking, as a ‘hairy quadruped, furnished with a tail and pointed ears, probably arboreal in its habits.’
You must be greatly comforted by the work of Watson and Crick, well after your own death, in the 1950s?
The work they expounded in Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids: A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid – what is shortly referred to as DNA – explained clearly how genetic instructions were stored in organisms and passed from generation to generation.
You were an extremely hard worker and that affected your health at some stage, didn’t it?
Yes, I was diagnosed with heart problems and advised to rest. My grandfather was Josiah Wedgewood, and I returned to Shrewsbury to stay with the Wedgewoods for a while.
That, and other ailments, plagued you for the rest of your life didn’t they?
Yes, but they were always worse when I was under stress of some kind.
What about marriage?
I considered it carefully. I had been used to making detailed notes and
analysing, so I did the same with marriage.
I wrote down the advantages and disadvantages of marriage and came down on the side of marriage. In due course I married my cousin, Emma Wedgewood.
You were a devoted father and husband, we are told?
I like to think so. We were fortunate enough to have ten children although two were lost in infancy and our daughter, Annie, died when she was ten years’ old. We were both utterly devastated by her loss.
This led me to consider the dangers of inbreeding, and I wondered if there might be inherited weaknesses because of my close family relationship with Emma. I wrote about it afterwards and pointed out the advantages of crossing with many different organisms.
Your sons did rather well though, didn’t they, three of them becoming Fellows of the Royal Society?
Yes, they did, distinguishing themselves in astronomy, botany and civil engineering. They were George, Francis and Horace. Leonard was a soldier, politician, economist and eugenicist.
Although some were critical of your findings, you did receive considerable recognition from other quarters during the course of your lifetime, didn’t you?
Water adjoining the Beagle Channel was named Darwin
Sound, and a nearby Andes mountain named Mount Darwin.
A natural harbour in Australia has been called Port Darwin and an adjacent settlement, which subsequently became capital of Australia’s Northern Territory was renamed Darwin.
I think you have mentioned just a few. Just before you died on 19 April 1882, you told Emma that you were not afraid of death?
That is so; there is nothing in death of which to be afraid. I am honoured that although I expected my remains to be buried at Downe, they are instead buried in Westminster Abbey.
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