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Charles Darwin and Victorian Era
Charles Darwin was a British scientist who laid the foundations of the theory of
evolution and transformed the way we think about the natural world.He is
arguably the most important naturalist that the world has ever known.
Charles Robert Darwin was born on the 12th of February, 1809 in Shrewsbury,
England. He was the fifth child of successful doctor Robert Waring Darwin and
Susannah Wedgewood. His father was the son of the famous philosopher and
botanist. His maternal grandfather was china manufacturer Josiah Wedgwood,
while his paternal grandfather was Erasmus Darwin, one of the leading
intellectuals of 18th century England. His father encouraged his son’s interest in
his own hobby, botany, but also made sure that he had a traditional education
in Latin and Greek at the boarding school attended by his brother.
Darwin attended the Shrewsbury School when he was 8 years old. After he
graduated, he tried to follow his father's wishes by studying medicine at the
University of Edinburgh. However, he had little interest in medicine, and he
decided to pursue a different career. In 1828, Darwin went to the University of
Cambridge to prepare for a career as a clergyman. It was in Cambridge that he
met two very influential figures who would set him on the path of becoming a
naturalist. They were geologist Adam Sedgwick and naturalist John Stevens
Henslow. Henslow advised him to travel with the HMS Beagle (British Royal
Navy vessel), so that he would have the opportunity to study nature in different
parts of the world.
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At this time, most Europeans believed that the world was created by God in
seven days as described in the Bible. On the voyage, Darwin read Lyell's
'Principles of Geology' which suggested that the fossils found in rocks were
actually evidence of animals that had lived many thousands or millions of years
ago. Lyell's argument was reinforced in Darwin's own mind by the rich variety of
animal life and the geological features he saw during his voyage.
Darwin returned to England in the year 1836, and he started recording his
observations and ideas in a notebook. In 1859, he published a detailed
explanation of his theory in his best-known work, ‘On the Origin of Species’ by
means of Natural Selection.It was wildly popular and heavily debated from the
moment of its release. Darwin was careful to speak of common descent and not
evolution, but controversy ensued all the same.
Eventually, twelve years after The Origin was published, Darwin did publish his
thoughts on human evolution in ‘The Descent of Man’ in 1871. In this book and
his 1872 book ‘The Expression of the Emotions ‘ in ‘Man and Animals’, Darwin
helped lay the foundations for modern biological anthropology, the study of
human variation and evolution.Charles Darwin died in 1882 at Down House and
he is buried in Westminster Abbey, perceived a national hero.
Darwin's Theory of Evolution :
Natural selection is the gradual, non-random process by which biological traits
become either more or less common in a population as a function of differential
reproduction of their bearers. It is a key mechanism of evolution.
Evolution is the slow process that changes animals and plants. It describes loads
of things in nature like fossils, peacocks' tails, lions’ teeth, birds’ wings and
The theory of evolution is one of the fundamental keystones of modern
biological theory. The theory of evolution, formalized by Charles Darwin, is as
much theory as is the theory of gravity, or the theory of relativity. More than
150 years after Charles Darwin published his theory, evolution remains
controversial. Unlike theories of physics, biological theories, and especially
evolution, have been argued long and hard in socio-political arenas.
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Scientists at the beginning of the 1800s know of some kinds of fossils, and they
were very aware of homologous and vestigial structures. Many scientists
suspected that some kind of evolution had given rise to living things around
them. However, they had no unifying theory to explain how evolution might
have occurred. Two scientists led the way in the search for a mechanism of
evolution. The first was Jean Lamarck. The second was one of the greatest
figures in biology, Charles Darwin so Darwin didn’t discover evolution,he
proposed the mechanism which brought about evolutionary change – natural
Darwin’s theory of evolution entails the following fundamental ideas.
Species (populations of interbreeding organisms) change over time and
space. The representatives of species living today differ from those that
lived in the recent past, and populations in different geographic regions
today differ slightly in form or behavior. These differences extend into
the fossil record, which provides ample support for this claim.
All organisms share common ancestors with other organisms. Over time,
populations may divide into different species, which share a common
ancestral population. Far enough back in time, any pair of organisms
shares a common ancestor. For example, humans shared a common
ancestor with chimpanzees about eight million years ago, with whales
about 60 million years ago, and with kangaroos over 100 million years
ago. Shared ancestry explains the similarities of organisms that are
classified together: their similarities reflect the inheritance of traits from
a common ancestor.
Evolutionary change is gradual and slow in Darwin’s view. This claim was
supported by the long episodes of gradual change in organisms in the
fossil record and the fact that no naturalist had observed the sudden
appearance of a new species in Darwin’s time. Since then, biologists and
paleontologists have documented a broad spectrum of slow to rapid
rates of evolutionary change within lineages.
According to these ideas, Charles Darwin did not think that humans evolved
from monkeys,he said that,humans and monkeys both evolved from an extinct
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Ernst Haeckel's "tree of life", Darwin's metaphorical description of the pattern
of universal common descent .
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On the Origin of Species :
Darwin finished a manuscript, and his book, titled On the Origin of Species by
Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races In the
Struggle for Life, was published in London on November 24, 1859. (Over time,
the book became known by the shorter title On the Origin of Species.
The Origin of Species is an extended argument for the belief that species that
are now living were not created independently by God, but evolved from other,
past species through the process of natural selection. The text of the book is
divided into two purposes: first, explaining what natural selection is and how it
could produce species; second, responding to the objections of those who do
not agree with it.
In chapter I, Darwin uses examples from domestication to explore the causes of
variability and the principles of selection.
In chapter II, Darwin considers individual differences and highlights the wide
degree of variability within species upon which natural selection works.
In chapter III, Darwin describes the competition in nature for limited resources.
In chapter IV and V, Darwin explores the forces influencing the variation upon
which natural selection works.
In chapter VI, Darwin considers organs of extreme perfection and other
apparent stumbling blocks for his theory.
In chapter VII, Darwin faces the issue of how behaviour might evolve.
In chapter VIII, Darwin examines what keeps species apart.
In chapter IX and X, Darwin considers why our palaeontological collections are
full of gaps, and describes how his theory can account for the pattern of
succession from fossils to living forms.
In chapter XI and XII, Darwin demonstrates the importance of geographical
barriers and climate change to explain the distribution of life as we see it today.
In chapter XIII, Darwin considers classification and shows how his theory can be
used to organise the living world along evolutionary lines.
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In chapter XIV, Darwin expounds his "long argument" and addresses the
"mystery of mysteries": why there are so many different species?
The book was written for non-specialist readers and attracted widespread
interest upon its publication. As Darwin was an eminent scientist, his findings
were taken seriously and the evidence he presented generated scientific,
philosophical, and religious discussion.
Darwin's diagram of the "principle of divergence,"
from On the Origin of Species, 1859
Darwin and Victorian Society
The Victorian Age marked a period of great transition in many aspects of
human life. The onset of the industrial revolution changed the way people made
and sold goods, which in turn changed the way people lived. Industry and
agriculture flourished, creating economic prosperity. Laws were passed to
improve the working conditions of the laborers in the mills and factories.
Literature written during this period was changing as a result of the events that
were happening. Religious beliefs were being challenged by many different
viewpoints. The idea of utilitarianism was introduced which believed that
people’s actions should be judged by their moral good, the greatest pleasure for
the greatest number.
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The ideas of historians were also considered where they viewed the Bible as a
record of historical events rather than a spiritual handbook. Lastly, the geologic
and astronomic discoveries made by scientists introduced a new, non-spiritual
belief. By the end of the Victorian period the values that were characteristic of
this time were fading away.
In 1859 (mid-way through the Victorian Age), Charles Darwin published a work
that opposed the conventional way of thinking about religion. The Origin of
Species proposed the theory that man actually evolved from a lower species
rather than having been created by a higher power. The idea of this notion was
devastating to many Victorians. Darwin’s work was responsible for a huge
cultural debate between the old way of thinking and the new. A conflict arose
because Darwin eliminated the possibility of a designing God.
Charles Darwin’s revolutionary idea of evolution sparked dramatic debate in the
scientific and, most especially, religious communities, as well as inspiring a new
wave of thought in the minds of the world.
In this time of the Victorian era, almost all leading scientists and philosophers
were Christian men who believed in creationism and that God had designed
creatures to fit their environment perfectly. Although some liberal theologians,
including the Rev. Charles Kingsley, were not hostile to the theory of evolution,
clergymen accused scientists of impudence, whereas scientists revealed
ignorance of the clergy. This intellectual ferment made the mid- and late
Victorian periods a time of a great reappraisal in both the natural and social
sciences. As a result, traditional natural philosophy professed by amateurs
became transformed into modern science developed by professional scientists
who base their competence and authority on rigid theoretical and practical
Darwin’s theory of evolution appealed not only to eminent scientists, such as
the biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, the botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker, the
anthropologist and eugenicist Francis Galton, but also to novelists and poets. As
a result, many Victorian writers dramatically modified their opinions about
man’s origins and the physical aspect of man’s existence.
Darwin’s works provoked a continuing moral and existential debate which also
found expression in English literature, although it must be admitted that the
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two poems associated with evolutionary theory, Alfred Tennyson’s In
Memoriam and Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”, were written before 1859 —
Tennyson's two decades earlier! A number of Victorian novelists absorbed some
tenets of Darwinian theory and provided varied, often contradictory
interpretations. They introduced to their fictions lay scientists who contested
traditional religious beliefs about the natural world. In her last, unfinished
novel, Daughters and Wives (1866) Elizabeth Gaskell modelled one of her
characters, Roger Hamley, on Charles Darwin, incidentally, a cousin of Gaskell
on her mother’s side. Gaskell’s naturalist hero represents a new moral authority
based on scientific research which is relevant to the modern world.
George Eliot and Thomas Hardy, who had a particular interest in science, were
close readers of Darwin’s works. Eliot’s Middlemarch is regarded by some as an
exemplification of the ideas of social Darwinism. For many late Victorians,
including Thomas Hardy, the traditional teleological interpretation of the world
lost its sense. They realised that religion and science, which were mutually
supportive in the eighteenth century, in the nineteenth century fell into open
conflict. Inspired by Darwin’s biologism, Thomas Hardy showed that man is the
only animal for whom existence is a problem that he has to solve by his own
choice and from which he cannot escape. Hardy adapted Darwin’s ideas to his
later fiction showing characters to be at the mercy of their environment,
heredity and adaptability rather than more in control of fate. His two
novels, Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, depict a ruthless
Darwinian world in which protagonists fail to survive because they cannot
adapt to the changing social environment.
The unveiling of Darwin’s statue at the Natural History Museum 1885