Saturday, November 24, 2012

November 24: Charles Darwin

On this date in History ... 1859:

Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection” is published in England.  Darwin’s theory argued that organisms and species evolved by means of a process on which adaption to the environment sustained life. He hesitated to publish his findings because it was in contrast to biblical teaching and in fact, when he did publish, scientists embraced it while Christians condemned it as heresy. Darwin was buried in Westminster Abbey, “next to kings and queens”, in honor of his scientific contributions.

While doing his research, he found that a species of bird found on two different islands had 2 different sized beaks. One island-bird grew a longer beak because flowers on that island were deep, cup-shaped and the longer beak was needed to get the bugs that lived inside the flower.  His research was obtained during a 5 yr trip on the ship “HMS Beagle” in the 1830s to places like the Galapagos Islands. 

A variation of Darwin’s theory took hold in the 1870-1890s as “Social Darwinism”, an idea that people evolve socially and those who survive the economic hardships are meant to while those who don’t survive are considered the weaker strain and should die off anyway, justifying political policies that neglected to care for the poor and those who needed assistance. The idea of Social Darwinism gave birth to eugenics, scientific racism, and Nazism.

Darwin came from a well-known family and a line of scientists.  His maternal grandfather was china manufacturer Josiah Wedgwood.  His paternal grandfather was a “leading intellectual of 18th century England” and a botanist and his father was a medical doctor. Growing up as a child with wealth and the privilege that comes with it, gave him the opportunity to spend time studying nature.

Darwin and his wife had ten children; two died in infancy and one died at age ten.  Darwin was constantly worried whenever his children became ill that they may have inherited a weakness from inbreeding due to his close relationship with his wife, Emma Wedgwood, who was also his cousin.  His fears about such weaknesses went unfounded:  three of his children grew up to be scientists and one to be a mathematician.

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