The New International Encyclopædia/Darwin, Charles Robert
DARWIN, Charles Robert (1809-82). The greatest English naturalist of the nineteenth century. He was born at Shrewsbury, February 12, 1809, the son of Dr. Robert W. Darwin, F.R.S., and grandson of Erasmus Darwin (q.v.). His mother was a daughter of Josiah Wedgwood, the famous manufacturer of pottery. After attending a public school at Shrewsbury for some years, he studied at Edinburgh University for two sessions, and then at Christ College, Cambridge, where he took his degree of B.A. in 1831. His father had originally intended him for the Church, but hereditary tendencies toward natural history led him in another direction. Shortly after graduation he seized an opportunity to go around the world as naturalist in H. M. S. Beagle, commanded by Captain Fitzroy, R.N. This expedition, which continued from December 27, 1831, to October 2, 1836, and spent much time in making surveys of southern South America, afforded Darwin a great opportunity for making original observations and for contemplation. It was, indeed, his studies on the fauna of the Galapagos Islands that planted the germ of his evolutionary studies. The account of his voyage, finally (1860) entitled Voyage of a Naturalist on H. M. S. Beagle, which has passed through many editions, is a classic work, and shows a degree of intelligence in the author that promised great things for his future. This voyage had a marked effect on Darwin's health, leaving him with a tendency toward nausea which during life permitted of only a limited amount of work each day. In the seclusion of his country place at Down, the great thinker was able, by steady application, despite his disability, to produce his great works.
The scientific outcome of his voyage was a series of important books. In 1839 was published his first Journal of Researches; and in 1840-43 the Zoölogy of the Voyage of H. M. S. Beagle, published by the Government and edited by Darwin; in 1842 The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs, in which was proposed the theory of the origin of coral reefs that is most generally held to-day, in 1844, Geological Observations on Volcanic Islands; and in 1846, his Geological Observations on South America. Darwin's valuable Monograph of the Cirripedia (1851-55) was the immediate outcome of his voyage, and remains to-day the standard systematic work on this group.
It had long been known to a number of scientific friends that Darwin was working on a theory of evolution when, in 1858, he received from A. R. Wallace, then in the East Indies, the manuscript of a paper containing precisely the same explanation of adaptation that Darwin had hit upon. Darwin was naturally much embarrassed, but seemed willing to throw aside the work of years and give precedence to his friend's paper. On the advice of friends, however, his paper and Wallace's were read at the same meeting of the Linnæan Society of London, and were published in their Transactions for 1858. In 1859 Darwin's book, The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle of Life, appeared. It at once created the greatest interest, and, largely through the extraordinarily able championship of Huxley, its ideas soon gained widespread acceptance. Although Darwin's theory of natural selection is primarily only an explanation of adaptation, yet adaptation is of such fundamental importance that its explanation paved the way for the acceptance of the general theory of evolution; for Darwin contributed a mechanical or natural explanation of what had before required a supernatural explanation. Development by natural law took the place of the special-creation hypothesis. Darwin's mechanical theory is that of the struggle for existence, the annihilation of the unfit, and the consequent “survival of the fittest.” It rests upon the evident fact that every species of animal produces more young than will develop to maturity and breed; for if all the young produced by any species bred the world would soon become filled with that species to the exclusion of every other. The vast number of individuals that are killed off are, on the whole, below the average of those that survive. The latter have been preserved on account of a certain, perhaps slightly, greater fitness to their environment, which may protect them from their enemies or give them greater power in gaining food or reproducing their kind. Their slight advantage will be inherited, and so the next generation will start from a fitter plane, and by a continuance of the selective process in successive generations, perfect adaptation will result. The theory of natural selection has been subjected to the most rigorous criticism, but it still remains a useful explanation of certain phenomena. See Natural Selection; Evolution.
The importance of the change wrought by Darwin's book cannot be overestimated. First, it revolutionized the method of work and the aims of natural history. The aims of zoölogical investigation were thenceforth the retracing of zoölogical history, determining the stages through which plants and animals have passed in their development. Before Darwin's time systematic work was the mere enumeration of species; since, it has been the study of relationships. Before Darwin, embryology was the description of the earlier stages of development; since, it has been the reading of the phylogeny in ontogeny. Before Darwin, comparative anatomy was the comparison of types; since then it has become the study of the effect of function and environment in molding the bodily form.
But the influence of Darwinism was by no means confined to natural history. Darwin himself early extended his general theory to man, especially in The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871). Thus extended, Darwin's theory came into opposition to the Bible, literally and narrowly interpreted, and so it aroused a vast storm of opposition from Church officials. In fullness of time not only ecclesiastics but philosophers of every sort have come to base their teachings and doctrines on evolution. Darwin taught that the mind of man in its lowest stages was essentially an animal mind, and the upward progress of man is viewed as effected by natural causes, chief among which is the action of natural selection. He does not inquire into the exact way in which the mental and bodily are connected. He simply assumes that, just as the bodily organism is capable of varying in an indefinite number of ways, so may the mental faculties vary indefinitely in correspondence with certain physical changes. In this way he seeks to account for all the higher mental powers, as the use of language and reason, the sentiment of beauty, and conscience. Finally, Darwin seeks to give a practical and ethical turn to his doctrine, since he defines the general good—the proper object of man's action—as “the rearing of the greatest number of individuals in full health and vigor, and with all their faculties perfect under the conditions to which they are subject.” It is well to observe that if Darwinism confined itself to a strict following of the great investigator, it might involve less of philosophic and metaphysical theory than has become popularly associated with it, for much of which Darwin is not to he held responsible. For further exposition of Darwin's views, see Evolution and Natural Selection, and the discussion of special phases of his doctrine and investigations under other titles there indicated. Darwin's later life was devoted to the demonstration of his theory by a series of studies, the results of which appeared chiefly in the following books: Fertilization of Orchids (1862); Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication (1868); Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872); Insectivorous Plants (1875); Climbing Plants (1875); The Effects of Cross and Self Fertilization in the Vegetable Kingdom (1876); Different Forms of Flowers in Plants of the Same Species (1877); The Power of Movement in Plants (1880); and On the Formation of Mold by the Action of Earthworms (1881).
Personally Darwin was characterized by a kind disposition, gentle manners, and brilliant conversational qualities. His warm-heartedness, added to his genius, made for him strong friends, many of which were of great assistance to him in gaining an acceptance of his theories. His methods of study were interesting. He was a voluminous gatherer of notes on topics which interested him; in experimentation he was quick in his movements and accurate. As in the case of many other leaders of science, his brain was fertile in hypotheses, which were readily rejected when experiment had shown them to be faulty. Although his correspondence was voluminous, he attended to it all with scrupulous care, replying courteously even to a request from a young man who was preparing a lyceum lecture for an abbreviated statement of his views, as the writer had no time to read his books.
He died April 19, 1882, full of years and honors. He was awarded the Prussian Order Pour le Mérite (1871), and was made a member of the French Academy in 1878.
Consult Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, including an autobiographical chapter, edited by his son, Francis Darwin (3 vols., London, 1887; reprinted in 2 vols.. New York, 1893).