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Charles Darwin: The Evolution of Thought

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Charles Darwin: The Evolution of Thought

By John Robert Henderson

University of Guelph

October 11, 2007

History 1250: Science and Society Since 1500

Professor Dave Smillie

In 1809 a naturalist by the name of Jean-Baptiste Lamark published the book called Philosophie Zoologique, which detailed some of the first concepts of evolution. Lamark was one of the first men of his time to construct a comprehensive theoretical framework for evolution and was regarded by many as the leading evolutionary theorists of his time. Lamark's arguments stressed two main themes in his biological work. The first argument was, simply put, that life is structured in an orderly manner and that many different parts of all bodies make it possible for the organic movements of animals. The second principle was of the notion that the environment gives rise to significant changes in animals. Lamark cited examples such as blindness in moles, the presence of teeth in mammals and the absence of teeth in birds as evidence of this principle. Lamark's ideas and the way in which he structured his theory set the intellectual "tone" for much of the subsequent thinking in evolutionary biology, noticable even in the present day. It is indeed fortuitous and perhaps an odd coincidence that in the same year Lamark published his revolutionary work, the man who would change the face of science through evolutionary theory was born.

Charles Robert Darwin was born of Robert and Susannah Darwin on February 12 in Shrewsbury England. His childhood was recorded as being largely uneventful and devoid of any indications of genius or exceptional insight. Since both his father and his grandfather were respected physicians it was expected that Charles too would follow some resemblance of a medical path. These expectations never came to fruition as the young Darwin found the studies too boring to bare and the pre-anesthesia surgery to gruesome to behold. He abandoned his medical studies and began to work towards his BA at Christ's College, Cambridge. It was during this time that Darwin was offered the position of naturalist on a long naval exploration voyage upon the H.M.S. Beagle.

It is fascinating to imagine a young Charles Darwin when he joined the crew of the Beagle. A young scientific amateur, a believer of the generally accepted creationist views put forth by the church (reinforced by his father and his schooling), the boy would be in the same frame of mind as most scientists of the century. For five years the young naturalist ventured into a wide variety of exotic locals, from riverbeds and jungles of South America to the high mountains and the diverse landscapes of the Galapagos, Darwin studied and documented practically everything that he had found while away. With his toolkit of a lens, compass, clinometer, penknife, blowpipe and acids he discovered fossilized remains of mastodon, megatherium and shellfish, in addition to collecting specimens of birds, insects, reptiles and various flora. The inquisitive mind of the young scientist pondered on the variation of finches within different environments and the relation of one species of ground sloth to another. Even after returning to England a widely respected naturalist, Darwin spent two decades pursuing verification of a hypothesis he'd formed while on the Beagle. He examined breeds of racing pigeons, barnacles and rabbits, discussed the issue with scientific friends and peers and kept detailed notes on transmutation of species. After years of scrutiny, twenty years after the end of the Beagle voyage, Darwin began to write a book that would shake the very foundation of society, his book on natural selection titled The Origin of the Species. On November 24 1859, Darwin published his book and awaited the response.

To the scientific community, the world of the 1850s was regarded as a stable, classical vision in which biologists had already falsely affirmed their positions in terms of their research. Herbert J. Muller wrote "To Aristotle, definition was not merely a verbal process or a useful tool of thought; it was the essence of knowledge. It was the cognitive grasp of the eternal essences of Nature, a fixed, necessary form of knowing because an expression of the fixed necessary forms of Being." Into this world of stability, Charles Darwin, quiet, and kindly, had effectively dropped a psychological bomb which tore preconceived notions of our origins to pieces.

Darwin's theory put more at stake than simply traditional scientific thought. The basic perceptions of the basis of the entire world were being critically shaken. Bishop Ussher had calculated that the Earth

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