February 12 – Happy Darwin Day!

Today’s Factismal: Charles Darwin was born 205 years ago today.

There are few scientists as well loved in their field and as poorly understood outside of it as Charles Darwin. Born into a wealthy family in England, Darwin was given the best education that money could buy. Unfortunately, he was a poor student and spent more time on horseback than he did in the study halls. The explanation for that might not be too hard to understand; his father had insisted that Darwin study to be a minister or a medical doctor but Darwin wanted to study biology (which was called “natural history” back then). When he was finally allowed to follow his heart, Darwin did well and ended up coming out tenth of 178 candidates for the degree.

This fungus grows only in Tierra del Fuego. (My camera)

This fungus grows only in Tierra del Fuego. (My camera)

Darwin’s training and wealth would serve him well once he left school. He was offered the position of “self-funded supernumerary” (that is, a passenger who could pay for his own equipment, food, and supplies) on board the HMS Beagle. His duties would be to collect geological and biological specimens and to write up a report once the ship returned to England. The ship’s journey, which took Darwin to Brazil, the Tierra del Fuego, the Galapagos Islands, Australia, and Africa, was a great success. Not only did it increase England’s understanding of the southern hemisphere (and tacitly increase their claim to some of the more interesting bits), but it also brought to light several new species and (most importantly) exposed Darwin to several examples of species that differed only by an environment and changes to match that environment.

The Martial Glacier in Tierra del Fuego. If you look on the glacier, you will see an example of evolution in action. (My camera)

The Martial Glacier in Tierra del Fuego. If you look on the glacier, you will see an example of evolution in action. (My camera)

But the most important result for Darwin in the near term was his observation of the local geology. Based on his observations of an earthquake in Chile and its effects on the surrounding landscape, and on his hypothesis for coral reef formation on seamounts (which has since been shown to be correct), Darwin was elected to be a member of the Geological Society of London. This then introduced Darwin to a large number of important scientists in many different fields, which provided him with the wide view needed to completely rewrite biology.

A typical coral reef edge. (My camera)

A typical coral reef edge. (My camera)

And rewrite it he did. Biology in the 1800s was little changed from the time of the Greeks. It was primarily a descriptive science, with few attempts to determine how or even if species changed. There were a few biologists who were attempting to explain the strange similarities and vast differences between the various species, much aided by Linnaeus’ classification just a few decades earlier. But nobody had yet been able to come up with a comprehensive and consistent explanation of biology.

Darwin found that explanation in his Theory of Evolution. Based on four simple principles (all species have variation within the species, all species pass on those variations through their children, all species have more offspring than can be supported, all species must struggle to survive with the most fit having the most offspring), Darwin’s theory was remarkably useful. Not only did it describe how new species could arise from existing ones (which has been seen since his time in species both large and small), but it made predictions that have since been born out (e.g., is there a eusocial mammal? Yes.)

Darwin’s idea continues to be tested and refined today. It is the single most successful idea in biology, and has led to literally thousands of new discoveries. It has improved our lives by making it easier to develop new antibiotics and to discover how certain diseases are spread. It is used to explain the life in areas as small as a belly button and as large as the Amazon rain forest.

If you’d like to join in on the celebrations of one of science’s greatest thinkers, then why not hold a Darwin day party of your own?

One thought on “February 12 – Happy Darwin Day!

  1. Pingback: August 11 – Terrible Lizards | Little facts about science

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