Instead of Mankind having been separately created, as described in the Book of Genesis, Darwin’s theory of evolution suggested that all life forms currently found on our planet came into being through a gradual process of genetic differentiation and selection under environmental pressure, over immense periods of time.
In “The Origin of Species”1 Darwin posed questions fundamental to the life of human kind, but without making our species the centre of his enquiry. The same laws that condition the life of chimpanzees, must also condition the lives of humans and all other mammals, reptiles, fishes, insects and plants, Darwin insisted. Each of these species was in a process of continuous change, driven not by divine purpose, but by trial and error, described in just eleven words: “Multiply, vary, let the strongest live and let the weakest die”2. Over time genetic mutations and recombinations that enhance the individual’s chances for survival are retained in the population as DNA is passed from one generation to the next.
This process of evolution goes on, Darwin argued, at every level from the individual molecule, through the cell, to the separate organ and on to the complete organism. A network of continuous interconnected change. “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, it is the one most adaptable to change”3. Adaptability is the key to survival4. So, too, is mutuality ─ the opportunity offered by change in one species to create a niche, or opportunity, for another organism to flourish. To those who read “The Origins of Species” most carefully it was the cryptic penultimate statement “Psychology will be based on a new foundation… and light will then be thrown on the origin of man and his history”, which was the most challenging idea. It was Darwin’s conviction that our very thought processes had been shaped by evolution that so thoroughly shocked Victorians, and turned the biblical idea of original sin into a biological, rather than simply a theological, concept. A world without god was impossible for most Victorians to comprehend, for without Him their whole social structure fell apart5.
Charles Darwin, whose benign face stares at us from our ten pound notes, was a fascinating personality whose fame owed little to conventional education. “Nothing could have been worse for the development of my mind than Dr. Butler’s School, (Shrewsbury in the 1820’s) which as a means of education to me was simply a blank. When I left… I was, for my age, neither high nor low in it… considered rather below the common standard in intellect”6. Darwin’s inspiration came not from a classroom but from collecting rocks, beetles and plants as a boy. Time at the universities of Edinburgh and Cambridge meant little to him. It was the six years that he spent as a naturalist on HMS Beagle which gave him the inspiration to create the theory of evolution.
It’s important to see Darwin in the context of mid-Victorian thought. Only 1,250 copies of the first edition of “The Origin of Species” were printed7. There was no expectation as being a best seller. A second edition of 3,000 copies followed. Even by 1871 (shortly before Darwin died) only 1,600 copies had been sold. “Self Help” had sold twelve times that number. It is paradox that a society that could produce the genius of Darwin produced relatively few people who could understand him8. Darwin was one of the last polymaths when most of his contemporaries were struggling to establish themselves as single disciplinary experts. It was a measure of Darwin’s genius that he was able to appreciate the possible mechanics involved in genetics before any technology had been invented that could actually identify the gene.
Darwin was a man of enormous humility, and wrote in his seventies that, “I have as much difficulty as ever in expressing myself clearly and concisely”, and he feared that, “my mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain on which the higher senses depend, I cannot conceive. If I had my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once a week… (fiction) had been for years a wondrous relief and pleasure to me, and I often bless all novelists”9.
Perhaps we come closest to this remarkable and very likeable man when we can read in his diary that, “It is not possible to give an adequate idea of the higher feelings of wonder, admiration and devotion which filled and elevated my mind when, as a young man, I first stood amidst the grandeur of a Brazilian forest. But now, wiser and older, the grandest scenes would not cause any such emotions and feelings to rise in my mind. I have become like a man who has become colour blind”10. The scientist who, as a young man, was content to become a country clergyman was, at the end of his life, bemused as to whether the wonder he felt for the universe he probably understood better than anyone, had a conscious creator. He told the Duke of Argyle just before he died, “Well, that (thought) often comes over me with overwhelming force; but at other times”, and here we are told Darwin shook his head vaguely, “it seems to go away”11. Life without purpose perturbed Darwin, as it was to trouble ever more people in generations to come as Darwin’s ideas became better understood12.
Thesis 48: 24th August 2006