Charles Darwin was an English naturalist that lived during the 19th century. He was born in Shrewsbury, Shropshire to a wealthly family. His three older sisters mainly took care of him after the death of his mother in 1817. Even as a young boy, Darwin did not really enjoy school and was not the best student. He preferred being out in nature and loved to hunt.
This did not please his father because he had high expectations for his son. Charles’s maternal and paternal grandfathers were Josiah Wedgewood and Erasmus Darwin respectively. These two men were very influential and left their descendants large shoes to fill. Josiah was an English potter and abolitionist, while Erasmus was respected English physician and contributed to the Enlightenment.
Charles went to Edinburgh medical school at the age 16 where his father once attended. He found that medicine was not his passion and he could not bear the sight of bodies being opened up nor the sight of blood (‘Charles Darwin’, 2018). After a couple years, he left Edinburgh in order to pursue ministry at Christ’s College, Cambridge University per his father’s request. It was at this time that Darwin became increasingly interested in natural science. He got involved with botany and beetle collecting, then geology. He was anxious to explore more so he went to Wales after finishing his degree to map the strata of rocks in that region.
A British Royal Navy survey ship by the name of HMS Beagle had an opening, which Darwin eagerly took when offered to him. The ship went on a five-year trip that visited areas down the coast of South America. The Galapagos archipelago is where Darwin discovered a variety of finches that sparked his curiosity on how they came to be. He collected samples of the birds, fossils, and also flowers during this trip. He wrote took extensive notes on what he observed and his thoughts about them.
Upon receiving more recognition and renown, he began fine tuning his ideas about natural selection. He kept gathering more data and thinking about how this process occurred. Initially he did not make his findings public in fear of backlash, but Alfred Russel Wallace independently came to the conclusion of evolution and this prompted Darwin to publish his decades of findings and research after 20 years. Ready to publish a paper, Wallace sought advice from Darwin about his theories and Darwin confirmed the legitimacy of his claims (‘Charles Darwin’, 2018).
The book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection was published in 1859 and became relevant very quickly. Darwin did not want to upset the religious community so he cautious about what he said in his published works. Talk of human evolution in relation to his theory was left out initially to avoid upsetting people since he was essentially making religion somewhat obsolete. He was formerly a Christian, but later became agnostic due to his findings. In 1871, his book The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex was published. This book unquestionably made the claim that humans had come from apes, which made him the subject of cartoons with his head on a monkey’s body (Brown 2018).
Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection was criticized by many religious people and renown scholars. It was not well received and he faced tons of backlash for it. Adam Sedgwick went as far as to make fun of Darwin’s theory and claimed that he had deviated from the scientific method and all his findings were based on subjectivity (Dousdebes 2017). Many people felt like he was getting rid of the barrier that separated humans and animals. People who believed in creation believed that God gave humans dominion over animals and therefore were special.
When Darwin challenged this belief it caused an outrage. Also the fact that he used scientific evidence to back his claims added to the shock of the discovery. People initially did not want to believe Darwin’s theory and therefore tried to discredit it in any way possible. British religious leaders were quick to denounce this idea that humans had no real significance on earth. That idea takes away from the power that the church has over the people that believe in it, which obviously made them resent Darwin. It was a very hot topic and many debates arose after the publication of Darwin’s work.
A famous debate between Samuel Wilberforce and Thomas Huxley left its own mark on history. After Wilberforce asked on what side Huxley’s monkey ancestor came from, he replied that he’d rather be related to apes than be an intelligent human that uses knowledge to stifle people searching for truth (Liu 2009). Thomas Huxley defended Darwin so vigorously, he came to be known as ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’. This is a testament to how well some non religious people took to his theory. Although there have been and still are heated debates over the claims of Darwin, people actually began to accept them rather quickly as time went on.
Darwin’s claims allowed people to choose what they wanted to believe in a way. The Enlightenment had already begun seeking answers beyond religion and this theory provided many people with something substantial that they could believe in outside of religion. People want something tangible that they can have at all times. People also do not want to feel like they have to follow rules that they do not like. The theory of evolution by natural selection gave people the freedom they desired and something tangible they could have faith in.
Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection also led to a concept known as Social Darwinism. This is when people believe that other humans are where they are in society due to natural selection, which means that there are superior beings. This concept was extremely detrimental to the structure of society. The effects of this school of thought were negative and long lasting. Herbert Spencer was one of the frontrunners of social darwinism and saw Darwin’s theory as an opportunity to implement ideas he already had about society (Bannister 2000).
Social Darwinism allowed people to justify and promote racism and the oppression of other people. Eliminating the distinction between humans and animals went to people’s heads. Luckily that school of thought has been discredited for the most part, but it had a strong grip in America and the effects of it still linger today. This contributed to how Adolf Hitler viewed people. He believed strongly in a superior race and did everything in his power to promote the race while eradicating others. Eugenics was also a byproduct of Darwin’s theory.
People had the belief that they could make superior humans by ‘breeding’ people they saw fit. More extreme people tried to discourage certain people from having children in order to create better and more genetically superior people. Including humans in the same group with animals as Darwin did also skewed morality because animals do not have morals.
Comparative psychology is another thing that falls under Darwin’s umbrella of influence. After his work was published, more people began to focus on how animals compared to humans. It is important to know how processes in humans also work in animals. This has allowed us to better understand how mental processes work in organisms less advanced than humans.
Humans are extremely complex creatures, but studying less intelligent animals shows the more primitive reason behind some human processes. People like Robert Yerkes that studied primates were partly influenced by Darwin. Primates are the closest human relative and behave accordingly. Understanding how these animals grow and develop is essential to being able to figure out how evolution may have occurred. This push to study animals has forwarded science and our knowledge about ourselves immensely.
Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection was a ground breaking scientific discovery. It influenced a revolution of how we think about life on earth and even our place in the universe. It provided an alternative answer to how life on earth came about and changed the course of history. This is something that many people sought after. The theory of evolution is still widely accepted and is continually being built upon as science continues to advance. It is now a staple theory that is taught in schools and universities worldwide. Charles Darwin revolutionized the way we think way we think about our lives and the lives of every organism that walks, flies, swims, or crawls on the earth. His theories and life’s work has left a lasting impact on the world as we know it.