How the Naturalist Evolved

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), November 16, 2012 | Go to article overview
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How the Naturalist Evolved


Was Charles Darwin the most influential author of the 19th century? One can make a case for Karl Marx, but otherwise it is difficult to find a writer who had greater influence in the Western world than the reclusive English naturalist.

There have been many biographies of Darwin, but here he is the subject of a short, highly readable interpretation by London-based biographer Paul Johnson.

Darwin was born in 1809 into a distinguished and well-to-do family. Although young Darwin was considered to be both personable and bright, he did not easily find the vocation in which he would excel. He had spent years studying first for medicine and then for the ministry when, in 1831, came the opportunity of a lifetime. Through the influence of a family friend, he was invited to join a five-year voyage of exploration that would take him to remote corners of the world.

Darwin's port calls aboard the Beagle included Brazil, Argentina and Chile, but would become most noteworthy for the weeks spent in the Galapagos Islands off Ecuador. There, Darwin's observations on variations among bird specimens would become the basis for his famous writings on evolution. The minute differences he observed in birds from different islands were a revelation. Like many other educated men of his generation, Mr. Johnson writes, Darwin had been slowly, almost imperceptibly ... losing his religious faith. He did not renounce Genesis, but aboard the Beagle he concluded that the process of creation that the Bible attributed to God was not necessary, because nature did it herself.

Back in England, Darwin contemplated marriage, drawing up lists of the advantages and disadvantages of married life. (Under negatives he cited loss of time and cannot read in the evenings.) Nevertheless, in 1839 he married a cousin, Emma Wedgwood, who became his confidante, nurse and mother to his 10 children. So much for evening reading. In 1842, the young couple moved to a house in Downe, Kent, where Darwin would spend the rest of his life.

Darwin at first contemplated a multivolume study of the theory of evolution, but he was not the only naturalist interested in this subject. In 1858, he was shocked to read a paper from another scientist that reached conclusions regarding evolution much like his own. In some haste, Darwin published a single volume titled The Origin of Species aimed at a general as opposed to a scientific audience. In Mr. Johnson's words, The reader is made to feel he is taking part in a great adventure of the mind. Anticipating criticism from the clergy, Darwin wrote that natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being.

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