Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

Let’s be honest, if you honestly believe that the world was created by a bearded white man who lives in the crowds and populated the Earth by getting a man and a woman to produce children who would go on to commit serial acts of incest in order to ‘begat’ more people, then you seriously need your head looking at. But until the mid-nineteenth century no one had a better suggestion. Enter stage left Great Briton Charles Darwin, whose theories on natural selection changed forever how we viewed ourselves in the world.

Charles Darwin, author of the theory of evolution, can claim to be the scientist who has had the single biggest effect on the modern world - not bad for a man who spent most of his time studying fossils, beaks and gooseberries.

Darwin did not begin a revolutionary; rather he was born in 1809 in Shrewsbury into a stolidly middle class family. He gave up a promising medical career to study naturalism at Edinburgh University.

It was his five year voyage on the survey ship Beagle, which set sail in 1831, that made him. Despite suffering almost constant sea-sickness, Darwin made incessant notes about geology and nature at every port of call. He had recently come across the fairly new idea that fossils were impressions made by animals that had been dead for millions of years, and, realising that this fossil record could be very informative, he began to collect them enthusiastically.

In Australia Darwin encountered such creatures as the Platypus and kangaroo, but his really telling observations were made on the Galapagos Islands off South America. Each island had it's own distinct fauna, but each species had close relations on the other islands; Darwin noted, for example, that each small island supported its own species of finch, all similar but differing in this or that crucial aspect, and that you could tell which island a turtle came from by the markings on its back.

On his return to England Darwin settled down to try and make some sense of his observations. He knew that his ideas were going to prove very controversial, so he worked on gathering evidence for them for twenty years before finally publishing his magnum opus, 'On the Origin of Species'.

Here Darwin put down and exhaustively provided evidence for, his 'theory of evolution'. Simply put, this elegant theory was that those animals and plants that were most suited to their environment were more likely to survive, and breed, passing on their useful characteristics - ‘survival of the fittest' - and through this process, gradually, over time, species are formed. For instance, a finch born with the a slightly longer beak than its siblings might be more effective at getting a certain kind of nutritious seed; thus it would be likely to live longer, and pass the gene for a long beaks onto its children; and so, through a subtly incremental process that takes place over many centuries, species are formed, and diverge, becoming highly efficient exploiters of their ecological niche.

This theory succinctly explained not just the beaks on Galapagos finches, but the neck of the giraffe, the eye, the elephant's trunk - indeed, it was the foundation of all natural processes.

And of course, the theory could explain the development of humans - that we were not created in God's image, as the Bible states, but evolved from apes. Darwin had unwittingly (and reluctantly) dethroned man from the centre of creation, and removed God from the universe.

Unsurprisingly, such a controversial idea was often mocked and derided in Darwin's lifetime; a famous Punch cartoon shows an ape-like Darwin cavorting with chimps. During the 20th century more and more evidence poured in to show that Darwin was fundamentally right and his ideas today form the basis for naturalism. Depressingly though, the process of evolution still proves impossible to accept for many of a doctrinaire, narrow-minded religious bent.

Darwin died in 1882. Today, Britons are rightly proud of this pioneering scientist, and he is buried in Westminster Abbey. 2009 is both the bicentenary of his birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. In London, a special Darwin exhibition is running at the Natural History Museum.