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Why was Charles Darwin a giant of science?


When Charles Darwin announced his theory of evolution by natural selection, he did more than transform biology. Before his great work, humans were comfortably different from other life, a special creation. By showing how life on Earth evolved, Darwin told us that humans too are part of nature.

Science looks forward: it anticipates rather than remembers. As a result, while the scientific future catches our imagination for its remarkable challenges and potential solutions, the scientific past becomes a hazy landscape, monochrome and flat, and almost never looked at by those who work in a laboratory.

Darwin is different. Darwin’s name has never faded. When he died in 1882 he was the most celebrated scientist of his day, and he remains a vivid figure whose work still shapes biology and influences the way we know ourselves. His life was a combination of early adventure, of ‘seeing everything’, followed by years of contemplation on his favourite scientific problem: the formation of new species. He pursued his ideas with remarkable insight and diligence; Darwin is a giant not simply for the significance of his ideas, but also for the personal qualities he brought to science.

What marks out Darwin’s imagination? For him there was no ‘flash of genius’. He liked to work slowly and methodically on a range of particular but varied scientific problems – as various as the origin of coral reefs and the behaviour of bees. A cautious man, he built up intellectual credit over many years, which in turn sustained him as he carefully, almost secretly, moved towards a solution to the problem that preoccupied him above all others.

Darwin had an interesting mix of qualities. He was sensitive to others’ feelings, yet candid about what he thought of people. He was fearful of causing controversy, yet spent a life drawing up one of science’s most radical theories. He could be lively and sociable, but also reclusive and depressed. It was his great good fortune to be wealthy enough to live as a country squire, enjoying family and work for more than forty years in his rural fastness, Down House. He could pull on his boots and be tramping through the countryside in an instant, a valuable counterpoint to the intensiveness of the study where he wrote his books. His imagination depended on those walks, but he was near enough to London for scientific friends to visit him for enjoyably talkative dinners and weekends. He was prodigiously creative and hardworking, while also hampered by illness for long periods.

Darwin was far from the conventional image of a stern Victorian patriarch. He was a perceptive and loving father: he had ten children, and seven survived childhood. The illnesses that struck his family with fatal effect were devastating to him. More usually, as the children crashed around the house, Darwin absorbed their lively spirit and was a playmate. He never saw himself as impressively academic, and his formal education had a discernible limp. Yet he was always interested in nature and from the beginning flavoured his schooling with his own studies of science. By his late teens, he had expertise in botany, zoology and geology, a serious training in natural history which for years ran alongside his studies of the classics, medicine and divinity.

It was his own programme of learning, not his university degree, that got him a place on the scientific survey ship HMS Beagle for a five-year round-the-world trip. Once aboard, his relaxed and secure temperament helped him thrive in those cramped and stringent oceangoing conditions. He even managed to get on well with Captain FitzRoy, one of the Royal Navy’s most difficult and intransigent characters.

The Beagle voyage lasted five years, taking him to South America, Australia and all points between. Those years, 1831 to 1836, were the making of Darwin: a raw mix of adventure, physical challenge and exciting intellectual and emotional discovery. It was on the Beagle that he first began to ask about the origin of species, questions that set him on his lifetime’s path. And his account of this time, ‘The Beagle Diary’, is one of the great descriptions of travel - and of youthful endeavour.

Darwin made a name for himself during that trip. People he admired noticed his astute scientific commentaries, which he posted back to England during the voyage. When he eventually returned to London, and began to sort and describe his specimens, he could activate a ready-made network of scientists, roping them in for their expert opinions and for their patronage. Over and above all this, he came home with his own big idea: a vast project in mind, a more-or-less secret urge to explain how life on Earth had changed over time.

Darwin was a pioneer biologist but he didn’t work alone. Fourteen thousand letters exist in the archives, and are available online. There is much documentation besides this correspondence. A collector from a young age, he was always meticulous in his record keeping – his household accounts are preserved, for example, as are his books, with all their revealing marginalia. The archive of ‘Darwiniana’ is vast. It is the reason we know so much about the way he lived and worked. And it is an archive which proves that science cannot be split from personality, or from society.

Darwin groaned when he wrote his books, and there are vivid descriptions of his toils. But on the Beagle voyage, with so many ideas pressing in, writing became an important part of his life. He could not draw well and photography did not exist yet. FitzRoy and Darwin discussed their ideas about science, but their conversations were sometimes fraught, for it turned out that Captain FitzRoy’s political views included a tolerance of slavery, a practice Darwin and his parents had always abhorred.

He took to writing down his ideas, and his intellectual development can be traced in the filling of notebook after notebook, the compilation of his great journal and in letters that might take days to write and six months to reach home. The climax of this endeavour was his book On the Origin of Species, published suddenly in 1859 after two decades of gestation and hesitation. Already a renowned scientist before the book was issued, On the Origin of Species was of such wide interest to society that Darwin quite quickly became world famous.

By Stephen Webster

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