Darwinian  Evolution: Its discovery and Acceptance

 

As we approach the bicentennial (2009) of Charles Darwin’s birth, we encounter numerous articles about Darwin’s great discovery in the Galapagos Islands.  Having visited these ‘Enchanted Isles’ on two occasions, I am intrigued by them, by Darwin’s achievement, and also by the various human responses to his writings.  I am also grateful to this gentle man, for giving us perspective.

First, let us pare the Theory of Evolution down to its barest essentials.  When we do so, we have to marvel at its simplicity.  Unlike Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, there are no equations, no requirements of imagined objects moving almost as fast as the speed of light or of space that curves.  It simply claims that new variations in the hereditary material arise continuously; -- some beings survive and reproduce better than others, thereby evolving organically.  It is so elegant in its simplicity that its argument is disarmingly convincing.

There is no doubt that Darwin shocked the world.  It deprived everyone of their need of a divine explanation for Natural things not previously understood.  But beyond that, the romantic world view in the 19th century feared science, claiming that it imprisoned the spark of artistic genius and could unweave a rainbow.  Now, with the molecular insights of the 21st century upon us, many accept Darwinian evolution as an established fact.  Still, there is strong resistance from the religious right.  They will not give up easily, but sooner or later their appreciation of DNA forensics in crime-solving will help them to incorporate evolution into whatever form of religion that has captured their minds.

But let us return to Darwin and his discovery.  Was there a ‘Eureka’moment on one of the Galapagos Islands when he saw a flightless cormorant or a clever, worm-probing finch, and the theory suddenly became self-evident?  The record (Darwin’s diary) suggests otherwise.  His entry, upon landing on Chatham Island (Sept. 17 – 22, 1835) stated:  “Nothing could be less inviting than the first appearance.”  A month and 4 islands later, as he left the archipelago, his diary and journal concentrated on lava formations and the ever-threatening volcanoes.  However, after camping on James Island for a week with the ship’s surgeon, he had collected enough specimens (26 bird species alone) and impressions to feed his fertile mind for the rest of the Beagle’s voyage home.  It was not until 1837, a year after his return to England, that Darwin recorded his changing belief that life was created, not by a single exercise of divine power, but by the infinitely slow process of evolution.

This is consistent with what we know about Darwin’s background.  He was steeped in the culture of 19th century England, his degree from Cambridge was in divinity, and he shared a cabin during almost 5 years on the Beagle with Captain Fitzroy, one of the most devout men of that time.  Thus, each piece of evidence in favor of evolution must have weighed heavily on Darwin’s mind before it was sorted into some logical sequence.

In 1842 Darwin drafted his first summary of his theory in 35 pages.  Two years later he expanded this to 230 pages, and then in 1845 he brought himself to publish piecemeal some comments, which showed the world his preliminary observations and what conclusions must be drawn.  The slow and painstaking development of his theory eventually led Darwin to the proposition that man had evolved from a creature even more primitive than the apes of modern times.  This was regarded as the most blasphemous outrage of all when he finally published On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection in 1859.  It is hard for us to appreciate today that not only Christian believers, but the vast majority of humans able to read, if asked, would have preferred the idea of being made in the image of God to Darwin’s proposition that they had descended or evolved from ape-like creatures.

Of course, Darwin was well aware that his theory would be shocking to the public, to the Church and to most scholars.  Certainly he dreaded the reaction of his wife, who was deeply religious.  In a sense, his views were even unpalatable to himself!  In 1844 he wrote to a friend: “…I am almost convinced…that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable.”  He had ceased to believe in Christianity as a divine revelation years before, but he never lent support to those who wished to attack religion frontally.

Darwin was not the first person to be affected by a visit to the Galapagos Islands. As early as 1709 the privateer Captain Woodes Rogers was forced to speculate: “There are guanas in abundance …’tis strange how they got here because they can't come of themselves, and none of that sort are to be found on the Main.” Although evidence for evolution abounds world wide to modern eyes, it was upon the almost empty heaps of lava of the Galapagos that the evidence was perhaps easiest to comprehend.  Nonetheless, it took a mind free from the rigidity that might have followed his orthodox training, it took remarkable industry, intellectual integrity and single-minded concentration to devote his whole adult life to refining those inspirations which first came to him at the age of 26 in the Galapagos.

Thank you, Charles!