Charles Darwin(1809–1882): Biography, Theories, Contributions
Charles Darwin is primarily known as the architect of the theory of evolution by natural selection. With the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859, he advanced a view of the development of life on Earth that profoundly shaped nearly all biological and much philosophical thought which followed. In this article, we shall discuss Charles Darwin’s life and work, including his famous theory of natural selection as well as some of his lesser-known research on human emotion.
Charles Darwin was a renowned British naturalist and biologist best known for his theory of evolution through natural selection. His theory that all life evolved from a common ancestor is now a cornerstone of modern science, making Darwin one of the most influential individuals in history. It is difficult to overstate the monumental influence his work has had on our scientific understanding of the world.
Biography of Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin was born in Shrewsbury, England, on February 12, 1809. His father was a wealthy doctor, and his grandfather on his mother’s side was the noted potter Josiah Wedgwood. After his mother’s death when he was eight, Darwin began attending boarding school with his older brother.
Darwin originally began his studies at the University of Edinburgh Medical School, but later developed an interest in ministry and botany, eventually receiving his degree from Cambridge in 1831.
His famed voyage to the Galapagos Islands led to the observations that served as the basis for Darwin’s groundbreaking theory of natural selection.
In 1839, Darwin married his cousin Emma Wedgwood. They had 10 children together, with seven surviving to adulthood. In 1859, he published his observations and ideas in his book “On the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection.”
Darwin’s ideas were heavily debated in his own time and continue to spark controversy today. In contrast to this, Darwin himself lived a secluded life at his home in England, where he continued to work as a highly regarded scientist.
Darwin died on April 19, 1882, and is buried at Westminster Abbey in London, England.
For much of his adult life, Darwin had an undiagnosed chronic illness that limited his activities. Symptoms included physical complaints such as stomach pain and dizziness, as well as signs of panic attacks such as shortness of breath and heart palpitations.
One theory suggests that he may have had a panic disorder with agoraphobia. This diagnosis would also explain his secluded lifestyle, difficulty with public speaking, and struggles when meeting with colleagues.
Other proposed diagnoses include mercury poisoning, allergies, Crohn’s disease, and irritable bowel syndrome. However, many researchers now believe that he had an adult-onset mitochondrial disorder.
What Was Charles Darwin Most Famous For?
Charles Darwin is most famous for his theory of evolution through the process of natural selection. Since introducing his ideas in “On the Origin of the Species,” his work has revolutionized the scientific understanding of how species evolve over time. This helped lay the foundation for modern biological sciences.
His Studies on the Galapagos Islands
During a voyage on a ship called the HMS Beagle, Darwin traveled to the Galapagos Islands, a journey that had a profound influence on his thinking and ideas. During this trip, he noticed interesting variations in the different species of finches that lived on the islands.
The beaks of these birds appeared to vary depending on the native food sources where the birds lived. Darwin hypothesized that the variations he observed resulted from natural selection that favored birds with beaks suited to the local food sources.
There are 14 species of finches found on the Galapagos Islands, which are now collectively referred to as “Darwin’s finches.”
In “On the Origin of the Species,” Darwin suggested that all species on Earth, including humans, evolved from common ancestors. The diversity found in all species, he explained, results from changes that occur gradually over very long periods of time, a process he referred to as “descent with modification.” This happens through natural selection, where certain traits that benefit an organism’s survival are more likely to be passed down.
Because these organisms are more likely to survive and reproduce, those beneficial traits are more likely to be handed down. This leads to the adaptation and evolution of species.
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Natural Selection and Evolution
Charles Darwin’s concept of evolution through natural selection suggested that species change slowly over time as a response to their environment. This theory changed our scientific understanding of the diversity of life on Earth and laid the groundwork for the development of modern biology.
How Does Natural Selection Work?
According to Darwin, the individuals within a population possess variations, some of which are better suited to the environment in which they live. As a result, those with these adaptations are more likely to survive, reproduce, and thus pass these advantageous characteristics down to their offspring.
Over time, this process gradually leads the adaptive traits to become more prominent and can eventually lead to the emergence of new species.
The Five Principles of Natural Selection
The five principles of natural selection described by Charles Darwin can be remembered using the acronym VISTA, standing for variation, inheritance, selection, time, and adaptation.
- Variation: In all populations of any species, there are individual variations in different traits. The species’ members can vary in appearance, size, abilities, immunity, and numerous other characteristics. Many of these variations result from genetic inheritance but can also occur due to random mutations.
- Inheritance: The various traits organisms possess can be inherited through genetic inheritance. In other words, when members of a species reproduce, their offspring are more likely to also possess those same traits.
- Selection: Environmental resources are limited, so organisms with advantageous characteristics that make it easier for them to survive are more likely to thrive in their environment and reproduce. This increased chance of reproduction means that their children are more likely to have the same traits that helped their ancestors survive.
- Time: As time passes, each generation continues to produce more offspring with advantageous characteristics. With the passage of time, the beneficial traits continue to accumulate, resulting in significant changes in the characteristics of the entire population.
- Adaptation: Such traits eventually become more common in the population, making the entire species better suited to survive in their environment.
What Does ‘Survival of the Fittest’ Mean?
An important part of natural selection is the idea of ‘survival of the fittest.’ The phrase was first introduced in 1854 by Herbert Spencer in his book “The Principles of Biology.”
The idea suggests that when it comes to each organism’s struggle to survive and reproduce, those with traits that make them the best suited to their environment are the most likely to survive and pass down their genes to the next generation.7
In this context, “fitness” refers to an organism’s ability to survive in its environment and reproduce. It is the traits that help the individual survive that are considered most advantageous.
Fitness does not refer to physical strength. Instead, it means the individual has traits that make them better suited for life in a specific environment. For example, an organism with coloring that camouflages it from predators would be considered a better fit, from an evolutionary perspective, than coloring that makes it more susceptible to becoming prey.
Fitness can refer to a wide variety of characteristics. This might include physical attributes such as camouflage, speed, strength, or agility. It might also refer to behavioral adaptations that confer a greater chance of survival. Migration, hibernation, and courtship behaviors are a few examples of behavioral adaptations influenced by evolution.
Controversies Surrounding Darwin’s Theory of Evolution
Darwin’s theory was considered shocking and controversial after its introduction. While the theory is accepted by nearly all scientists today, Darwin’s ideas are still disputed or rejected by some people.
Darwin and his work have remained controversial in the more than 140 years since his death. One survey found that a third of U.S. adults reject the idea that humans evolved through natural selection, views that correspond with rates of religious belief.8
One critic during Darwin’s time was the English comparative anatomist and paleontologist Richard Owen.9 While Owen agreed that evolution occurred, he was a vocal critic of Darwin’s idea of natural selection. Instead, he proposed the existence of predetermined “archetypes” that guide the evolutionary changes that species experience.
During Darwin’s time, some critics suggested that the lack of transitional fossils (demonstrating the gradual progression of a species over time) was evidence that Darwin’s evolutionary theory was wrong. In the subsequent years, however, many of these so-called “missing links” have been added to the fossil record, providing paleontological support for these evolutionary transitions.5
Other critics focus on their belief that all life results from divine creation. However, it is important to note that Darwin’s theory of evolution does not focus on how life originated. Instead, Darwin’s theory of natural selection explains how life evolved over time and how this explains the diversity of life on Earth.
While there have been debates and criticisms from various sources, it is important to note that Darwin was highly regarded in his own time. Support from the scientific community continued to build over the years, and more evidence supporting Darwin’s theory accumulated from various fields.
Charles Darwin’s Research on Human Emotions
While Darwin is best known for his theory of evolution, he also studied and wrote about a wide range of topics, from plants to sea life. Beyond his work as a naturalist, he also conducted one lesser-known experiment on the study of human emotions, making him one of the earliest experimental psychology researchers.
In archival research looking at Darwin’s letters and other writings, researchers found references to a small experiment that Darwin had conducted at home.10 Darwin had corresponded with the French physician Guillaume Duchenne de Boulogne, who had used electrical impulses to stimulate facial muscles into specific expressions, which were then recorded on photographic plates. Using this method, Duchenne suggested that the human face is capable of expressing at least 60 distinct emotions.
Darwin disagreed. Using Duchenne’s plates, Darwin devised his own experiment, a single-blind study in which he randomized the order of the plates and then presented them to over 20 participants (i.e., Darwin’s guests). He then asked his guests to identify the emotions represented in the photographic slides.
In studying Darwin’s notes, researchers discovered that the participants agreed when it came to basic emotions, such as happiness, surprise, and fear. For more ambiguous photographs, responses were much more mixed.
In Darwin’s view, only those emotions that were readily identifiable and agreed upon by observers represented universal emotions.
Darwin’s observations and conclusions in this and other studies he conducted helped inform his 1872 book “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.” In this book, Darwin emphasized the importance of emotional expression in both humans and animals, suggesting that:
- Some emotional expressions are universal
- Some emotions have a biological, evolutionary basis
- These universal expressions evolved through natural selection because they aid in survival, reproduction, and communication
- Humans and animals display similar emotions, suggesting they have a common evolutionary origin
Darwin’s work offered insights into the importance of emotions, their evolutionary roots, and their universality across cultures and species. His observations also helped lay the groundwork for future research on the psychology of human emotions.
However, Darwin’s ideas about emotion were eclipsed by his more famous theory of natural selection. It wasn’t until the 1960s that psychologist Paul Ekman returned to Darwin’s findings and, using methods similar to those originally pioneered by Darwin, found additional evidence for the existence of basic, universal human emotions.
Try the emotion experiment yourself!
The Darwin Correspondence Project allows viewers to see the original photographic plates Duchenne and Darwin used this in their experiments. You can also give your own response and see how your interpretation compares to those of Darwin’s guests.
What Were Charles Darwin’s Views on Women?
While Darwin revolutionized the field of science, his views on women were far from progressive. His attitudes reflected the prevailing sexist, misogynistic ideas of his time. In his published writings, he echoed the societal and cultural beliefs that women were inferior to men, viewing them as less intelligent.
In his book “The Descent of Man,” Darwin wrote, “Woman seems to differ from man in her mental disposition, chiefly in her greater tenderness and less selfishness.”
Darwin suggested that the purported superiority of men stemmed from sexual selection, a mode of natural selection in which men compete for mates, leading to the evolution of characteristics that improve their reproductive fitness, including intelligence, physical strength, and competitiveness.
He believed that women’s roles were primarily as domestic caretakers and nurturers, which, in his view, did not require strong intellectual capabilities.
There is evidence that Darwin’s ideas changed somewhat over time, often influenced by the women in his life, including his wife, daughters, and women intellectuals. While he could not be regarded as a feminist thinker, research on his private correspondence suggests that his views on women were more complex than what appears in his published writing.
Who Did Charles Darwin Influence?
In addition to his profound influence on the biological sciences, Darwin inspired a number of other scientists and researchers in their own work.
Some of these thinkers included:
- Alfred Russel Wallace: A contemporary of Darwin, Wallace was an English naturalist and explorer who independently introduced the idea of evolution through natural selection. His own ideas were published in 1858 along with some of Darwin’s earlier writings, prompting Darwin to publish “On the Origin of the Species” the next year.
- William James: The founder of the functionalist school of thought in psychology was heavily influenced by the work of Charles Darwin. This school of thought suggests that the functions of the mind exist because they serve a purpose in survival and adaptation. This idea has its roots in Darwin’s theory of natural selection. James was also heavily influenced by Darwin’s writings on the topic of emotions. According to the James-Lange theory of emotions, emotions stem from the physiological reactions people experience in response to environmental stimuli.
- Ronald A. Fisher: A British mathematician and biologist, Fisher is considered a founder of modern statistical science. He also played an important role in what is known as modern synthesis, which involved integrating Darwin’s natural selection with Mendelian genetics in order to explain how genetic variations within a group can be affected by natural selection.
How Does Charles Darwin’s Work Affect Modern Science Today?
It is difficult to overstate the enormous impact of Darwin’s work on modern science. Some of the ways that science continues to be impacted by Darwin’s theory of evolution include:
- Evolutionary sciences: The theory of evolution plays an essential role in biology as well as other fields that explain how life has adapted and changed over time, including genetics and evolutionary psychology.
- Medicine: Researchers continue to use their understanding of evolutionary science to study how diseases originate, spread, and mutate.
- Scientific education: While Darwin’s ideas remain controversial for some, his work has helped advance scientific literacy and understanding among the general public.
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