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One of Darwin’s personal microscopes

One of Darwin’s personal microscopes, as seen in the elaborate reproduction
of his study at Down House—a centerpiece attraction in DARWIN: Evolution|Revolution.
©Denis Finnin, American Museum of Natural History

Darwin: The Man Behind the Theory

By Margi Dykens, Director, San Diego Natural History Museum Research Library

A man who revolutionized the study of biological systems for all time, yet was an indifferent student whose father feared would never make something of himself. A budding theologian who brought the Bible along on his voyage on the Beagle, yet was castigated during his lifetime and beyond by followers of religion.

A college student who found geology lectures so boring that he determined“never as long as I lived to read a book on Geology or in any way study the science,” yet later found the new discoveries about the dynamic nature of the Earth a fascinating topic.

Who was Charles Darwin? He was a man of his time, a time in which the Earth was still viewed largely as a static entity, with all plant and animal species appearing fully formed in their present state by God. But Darwin was also a man of prescient and revolutionary thought. He laboriously gathered data and marshaled his arguments during years of research, in order to make the most cogent summary publicizing his theory, which he knew would be the philosophical equivalent of dropping a bomb into the polite society of the time.

Like many scientific discoveries, when we look back on the emergence of Darwin’s theory of natural selection and evolution, it seems inevitable that this radical synthesis occurred when it did. The late 1800s was a time ripe for an enormous leap forward in scientific thought. More and more naturalists were discovering strange species of plants and animals and bringing them back to England from all corners of the Earth. Geologists were making huge strides in understanding the evolving forces of the Earth itself. Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology was one of the books Darwin took with him on his voyage on the Beagle, and it made a tremendous impact on him. Malthus had published his famous essay in 1798 revealing that if human populations kept increasing over time, people would soon outstrip food supplies, resulting in a perpetual struggle for survival. The separate threads of all these concepts informed Darwin’s thoughts, and, integrated with his own experiments, journeys, and acute observations, resulted in the description of evolution through the process of natural selection published in 1859 as The Origin of Species.

Darwin was not the first, nor the only person to conceive of the idea of evolution. His own grandfather, the well-respected physician and scientist Erasmus Darwin, had proposed an evolutionary theme in some of his writings:“Other animals have marks of having in a long process of time undergone changes in some parts of their bodies, which may have been effected to accommodate them to new ways of procuring their food. Perhaps all the productions of nature are in their progress to greater perfection?” In 1844, a book called Vestiges of Creation, which described a form of evolution governed by God-given laws, was published anonymously and became an enormous best-seller in England. Darwin had been privately refining his writings since 1842, but had not published his ideas partly due to his desire to continue to amass evidence, and partly out of his aversion to the inevitable shock it would cause among believers. Darwin had long suffered from ill health, and one of the more arresting artifacts seen in the DARWIN: Evolution|Revolution exhibition is the“Pencil Sketch of 1842,” a hastily written summation of his theory which he jotted down in pencil, fearing he might die before publishing the longer version.

In a bizarre case of scientific coincidence, after extensive travels and the collection of thousands of specimens of birds, insects, and other organisms in the Amazon River basin and Indonesia, Alfred Russel Wallace, another English naturalist, had come to conclusions about evolution that were almost identical to those of Darwin. In fact, his ideas were so close to those of Darwin that Darwin wrote in a letter to Lyell that Wallace“...could not have made a better short abstract...” if he had been able to read Darwin’s own manuscript! However, Wallace was 14 years younger than Darwin and had arrived at his conclusions years after Darwin’s first documented summary in 1842. In 1858 Darwin received a letter from Wallace describing his largely identical theory of evolution, and Darwin, realizing he must act to lay claim to the work, was pushed into publication much earlier than planned. To reach an“honorable” resolution for both scientists, Lyell arranged for the joint publication of Darwin’s abstract and Wallace’s paper before the Linnean Society in London in July 1858. Yet Darwin remains the name that is associated with this ground-breaking theory, and Wallace himself later wrote books expanding on his own ideas about what he graciously referred to as“Darwinism.”

In 2009, we celebrate the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth, as well as the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species. Time’s passage has only served to emphasize the timeless validity and incredible power of Darwin’s ideas. In 1882, nearing the end of his life, Darwin wrote“I could not employ my life better than in adding a little to Natural Science. This I have done to the best of my abilities, and critics may say what they like, but they cannot destroy this conviction.” This year we celebrate the vast contributions of Charles Darwin not only to“Natural Science,” but to that most basic of human inquiries—our understanding of our world, and our place within it.

DARWIN: Evolution|Revolution will be at the San Diego Natural History Museum from November 7, 2009 through February 28, 2010.


San Diego Natural History Museum field paleontologists mapping bones at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law construction site. Underneath the grid is 
a tusk (upper) and atlas vertebra of a mammoth (lower right).
One of the treasures of the rare book collection of the San Diego Natural History Museum Research Library is the 1872 edition of Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology, which is inscribed on the fly-leaf with the signature of Alfred Russel Wallace.

SAN DIEGO NATURAL HISTORY: FIELD NOTES,  November 2009

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