The History of Psychology: Fundamental Questions

By Margaret P. Munger | Go to book overview

15
CHARLES DARWIN

Charles Robert Darwin (1809–1882) was generally regarded as a pleasant and congenial
fellow, with a particularly enthusiastic penchant for collecting samples. A selection from
his autobiography reveals his passion: “One day, on tearing off some old bark, I saw two
rare beetles and seized one in each hand; then I saw a third and new kind, which I could
not bear to lose, so that I popped the one which I held in my right hand into my mouth.
Alas it ejected some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue so that I was forced to
spit the beetle out, which was lost, as well as the third one.” Darwin's family tree is re-
markable, rooted with two famous grandfathers: Erasmus Darwin, a poet-scientist who
proposed an early theory of evolution, and Josiah Wedgwood, who revolutionized the pot-
tery industry with streamlined factory procedures and new marketing techniques for his
Jasper wares. Charles Darwin initially tried to study medicine at the University of Edin-
burgh, but found witnessing surgery nauseating and so turned to theology at Cambridge
University, with plans to combine a country parsonage with an avocation for natural histo-
ry. However, thanks to his rambles with Anglican clergyman and botanist John Stevens
Henslow, Darwin was offered the opportunity to buy a berth on HMS Beagle to study and
collect specimens from around the world. His father eventually agreed to pay his son's ex-
penses, and Darwin began reading on geology, geography, and biology and collecting and
observing with an incredible eye for detail. Though a variety of publications resulted from
his travels, Darwin hesitated to publish his theory of natural selection without sufficient
supporting evidence, realizing that evolution might seem at odds with a literal interpreta-
tion of the biblical story of creation in Genesis. He summarized his notion privately in
1842 and 1844, circulating his work among a few close correspondents. Finally, in 1856,
Darwin began to draft a book with the proper volume of evidence, a tome he expected to
be 3,000 pages. Before the manuscript was completed, however, Alfred Russel Wallace
sent him a brief outline of a new theory of evolution. Wallace had independently, with far
less evidence, developed the same theory and was asking Darwin, known for his conge-
niality and expertise as a naturalist, for a critique. It was arranged that both men would be
credited with the first public announcement of the theory, and excerpts from each work
were read at the next meeting of the Linnean Society in July 1858, to little notice by the
public. Darwin wrote a 490-page abridgement of his planned book, and Origin of Species
appeared in 1859; this time the public noticed. The quantity and quality of Darwin's data
are often not appropriately highlighted, though its seemingly outlandish predictions have
time and again been demonstrated true. For example, in 1861, just after a particularly pub-
lic debate between Thomas Henry “Darwin's Bulldog” Huxley and Bishop Samuel Wilber-
force, the first fossil remains of archaeopteryx, the oldest bird, were unearthed. Darwin
had suggested that birds evolved from lizards, and archaeopteryx, with feathers on its
wings but the fingers and vertebrae of a reptile, provides, from beyond antiquity, the nec-
essary transitional form.

From Charles Darwin, “General Principles of Expression.” In Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (pp. 27–65). New
York: D. Appleton, 1873.

-188-

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