Darwinism Throughout time, great minds have produced ideas that have changed the world we live in. Similarly, in the Victorian times, Charles Darwin fathomed ideas that altered the way we look at ourselves and fellow creatures. By chance, Darwin met and learned of certain individuals who opened doors that laid the foundation for his theories which shook the world. Darwin’s initial direction in life was not the same as his final. He grew up in a wealthy sophisticated English family and at the age of sixteen, Darwin went to the University of Edinburgh to study medicine.(Darwin) Two years later, he decided to leave medical school and attended the University of Cambridge to become a clergyman of the Church of England.(Darwin) While at Cambridge, Darwin met Adam Sedgewick, a geologist, and John Stevens Henslow, a naturalist. Henslow built Darwin’s self confidence and taught him how to be an exact and painstaking observer of nature and collector of specimens.(Spruce) After graduating from Cambridge University, Darwin went aboard the English survey ship HMS Beagle, largely because of Henslow’s recommendation, as an unpaid naturalist on a scientific expedition around the world.(Darwin) Before the time of Darwin, most geologists believed in the catastrophist theory that the earth had experienced a succession of creations of animal and plant life, and that each creation had been destroyed by a sudden catastrophe.(Somervell 127) According to this theory, the most recent catastrophe, Noah’s flood, wiped away all life except those forms taken into the ark.

The rest of the organisms were only visible in the form of fossils. “In the view of the catastrophists, species were individually created and did not change over time”(Darwin). This catastophist theory was widely accepted before such scientists as Darwin published their theories. Darwin’s job on the Beagle gave him the opportunity to observe the “different geological formations and climates, as well as a large variety of fossils and living organisms”(Spruce). He was impressed with the effect that natural forces had on the shaping of the earth’s surface.(Darwin) Darwin found himself fitting many of his observations into the theory that the earth is undergoing constant change.(Spruce) He realized that some of his own observations of fossils and living plants and animals cast doubt on the accepted theory that species were specifically created.(Spruce) He noted, for example, that fossils of organisms said to be extinct closely resembled living species in the same area.

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In the Galapagos Islands, Darwin also observed that each island had its own kind of tortoise, mockingbird, and finch; the various kinds were closely related but were different in the aspects of structure and eating habits from island to island.(Darwin) Both observations, raised the ! question, for Darwin, of possible links between distinct but similar species. Darwin’s opportunity of sailing around the world laid the basis for his theories. After returning to England, Darwin began recording his ideas about the changeability of species in his notebooks on the “Transmutation of Species”. Darwin’s explanation for how organisms evolved was brought into sharp focus after he read “An essay on the Principle of Population” by Robert Malthus, who explained how human populations remain in balance.(Darwin) Malthus argued that the availability of “food for basic human survival could not match the rate of growth in the population. The population was altered by natural limitations such as disease, famine, and war”(Darwin). Darwin immediately applied Malthus’s argument to animals and plants.

By 1838, Darwin had arrived at a sketch of a theory of evolution through natural selection.(Spruce) For the next two decades, Darwin worked on his theory and other natural projects. Darwin’s complete theory was published in 1859, in On the Origin of Species. The book was often referred to as “the book that shook the world”.(Somerv! ell 128) Darwin’s book sold out on the first day of publication and it went through six editions. Darwin created many theories which were published in his book. Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is that because of the food supply problem described by Malthus, the young born to any species must compete for survival.(Spruce) Those young that survive to produce the next generation tend to embody favorable natural variations.(Spruce) This process was called the process of natural selection. These variations are passed on from generation to generation. Therefore, each generation will improve adaptively over the preceding generations, and this gradual continuing process is the source of evolution for a species.(Spruce) Natural selection is only part of Darwin’s vast conceptual scheme. He also proposed the idea that all related organisms are descended from common ancestors.(Darwin) For example, humans, gorillas, and monkeys all come from the same species.

He also provided an argument against the idea that the earth is not changing, but evolving. Darwin ! published many theories in On the Origin of Species. The reaction to The Origin was immediate. Some biologists said that Darwin could not prove his hypothesis.(Tingsten 257) Others criticized Darwin’s concept of variation, arguing that he could not explain the beginning of the variations of species or how the variations were passed on from generation to generation.(Tingsten 258) In fact, many scientists continued to express doubt for the next 50-80 years. The most publicized attacks on Darwin’s theories came from the religions.

The thought that living things had evolved by a natural process denied the special creation of humankind and seemed to place humans on the same level as animals.(Tingsten 259) Both of these ideas were serious contradictions to orthodox theological opinion. “Conservative minds saw the upper class as an elite group which had been created by centuries of selection and on these grounds maintained a hierarchical structure within biological conditions”(Tingsten 133). Socialists, using Darwin as a refere! nce, “demanded equality, which would give equal opportunity to all and thus lead to natural selection”(Tingsten 133). Darwin’s theories expressed new viewpoints on economic, religious, and scientific policy. Darwin was directed towards his bold and unique theories through his relations with important people who provided him with the opportunity to study the earth and its creatures. Charles Darwin’s theories altered the way people thought in the Victorian times and ultimately, the way we think today. It takes a brave and great person to display theories so different from those accepted to completely change the way people think.

Works Cited “Darwin, Charles.” Microsoft Encarta 96. CD-ROM. 1996 ed. Somervell, D.C. English Thought in the Nineteenth Century. New York: David McKay Company Inc., 1964.

Spruce, E.J. “Darwin, Charles.” Http://spruce.evansville.edu/~a/22/darwin.html (28 Dec. 1994). Tingsten, Herbert. Victoria and the Victorians. Chatham: W Mackay Ltd., 1965.


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