Did Charles Darwin Discover Evolution?




Ask any group of present-day scientists to name the greatest scientists of all time and the name of Charles Darwin will likely end up near the top of the list.  Although Darwin published several treatises in biology and geology, he is known primarily for presenting a theory of evolution that changed the world in his well-known book On the Origin of Species1 published in 1859.  Even though the foundation of his theory was shaky when he published Origin and its scientific basis is even more questionable today, Darwinian evolution is still aggressively defended by many if not most in the scientific community.  This article will briefly explore Darwin’s life and the events leading up to the publication of On the Origin of Species.

Charles Robert Darwin was born on February 12, 1809 to Robert Waring Darwin, a well-to-do physician and his wife Susannah.  Charles’ father Robert Darwin was the son of a well-known physician and naturalist Erasmus Darwin. Charles’ mother Susannah Wedgwood came from a family known for its pottery. Thus Charles was born into wealth and would never know poverty.  From his grandfather Erasmus and his father Robert, the study of nature was part of Charles’ breeding.

Charles’ mother died when he was 8 years old and Charles was mostly brought up by his sister.  Charles’ father Robert was a physician and hoped that his son would follow in his footsteps.  Toward this end he was sent to Edinburgh University to study medicine.  As it turned out, Charles had no interest in medicine and he was ultimately sent to Cambridge to study theology.

While at Cambridge, Charles met and studied under two Anglican priests who were also scientists, the Rev. John Henslow, a popular professor of botany, and Rev. Adam Sedgwick, a highly respected geologist.  His association with these two priests and scientists did not turn him toward the cloth as might have been expected but rather confirmed his interest as a naturalist.  Charles took a rather “country gentleman” approach to his education at Cambridge, enjoying hunting and country sports while giving just enough attention to his required studies2.  Charles developed an almost unseemly passion for killing birds as admitted in his autobiography.

“In the latter part of my school life I became passionately fond of shooting, and I do not believe that anyone could have shown more zeal for the most holy cause than I did for shooting birds. How well I remember killing my first snipe, and my excitement was so great that I had much difficulty in reloading my gun from the trembling of my hands.”3

According to Croft, Charles

“…presented himself as a humane naturalist, yet at the same time, he could still enjoy a passion for killing game with a shotgun.  He also enjoyed exhibiting his skill at being able to kill birds and rabbits by hurling stones.”4

Charles’ enthusiasm for killing game was such that, according to Browne, he kept detailed records of his kills. His game book was

“…subdivided into partridges, hares, and pheasants, in which Darwin kept a running total of everything he killed through the season.  This sporting ledger was as emotionally important to him as shooting itself: the only time at Cambridge that he kept any kind of careful catalogue… There was little point in shooting, he thought if the tally was not taken.”5

Charles graduated from Christ’s College, Cambridge with a Bachelor of Arts degree in April, 1831, and returned to his home in Shrewsbury for summer vacation.   In early August of that year, Professor Sedgwick invited Charles to accompany him on a geology trip around northern Wales.  It seems this outing, which gave Charles a crash course in geology, cemented his interest in the subject6.

By the time Charles returned home from his geology trip with Professor Sedgwick, a unique opportunity had arisen for him to pursue his interests in natural history.  The H.M.S. Beagle was scheduled to embark on a five-year survey voyage primarily to visit South America but also other parts of the world.  Robert Fitzroy, who would captain the H.M.S. Beagle, saw the voyage as an opportunity to collect useful information to advance his and his country’s interest in science.  Looking for “some well-educated and scientific person 7 to assist him, an inquiry was sent to Professor Peacock of Cambridge University looking for such a person.  Professor Peacock consulted with Professor Henslow who recommended Charles Darwin for the position.  While Charles had little formal education in the sciences, he was well connected.  Darwin would earn no salary on the voyage.  In fact, he was expected to “…pay a fair share of the expenses of my table8 according to the captain.  Charles was faced with the opportunity of a lifetime to pursue his interests as a naturalist, but it would be expensive.  Charles’ father Robert Darwin was initially against Charles taking the voyage primarily because it looked to him like an extended adventure that would further delay Charles’ settling down into real life.  However, after intervention by Charles’ uncle Josiah Wedgwood, Robert agreed to support Charles’ participation in the voyage.  After what must have seemed like interminable delays (the H.M.S. Beagle required major repairs), the ship finally set sail in late December, 1831.

Charles immediately became seasick and remained so during the entire voyage.  In fact the Beagle voyage began for Darwin what would be a lifetime of stomach and other health problems.  Fortunately for Charles, about two thirds of the five-year voyage was spent on land.  The H.M.S. Beagle made numerous stops on both the east and west coasts of South America as well New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and numerous islands including the Galapagos.  These many landfalls gave Charles ample opportunity to study an amazing variety of flora and fauna as well as local geology.  He also had several occasions for sometimes hair-raising adventures.  Throughout the voyage, Charles kept a journal that he would later publish.  He also collected numerous specimens that he sent back to professor Henslow at Cambridge9.

When Charles returned to England in October, 1836, he found that while he had been away Professors Henslow and Sedgwick had been touting his exploits to the scientific community.  As a result, Charles was established as a seasoned naturalist after his 5 years aboard the H.M.S. Beagle.

It is often said that Darwin “discovered” the theory of evolution with the implication that the process began while he was on board the Beagle.  In fact, various theories of evolution had been published well before Darwin boarded the Beagle including work by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck10 in 1809. Lamarck believed that species evolved slowly over time largely due to their response to environmental conditions. However, his theory was considered to have serious flaws including his belief that traits acquired during a lifetime could be inherited.  He also did not believe in the extinction of species but believed rather that the appearance of extinction was the result of a species evolving into a different one.  Nevertheless, Lamarck made significant contributions to the developing theory of evolution or transmutation as it was known at that time.  Note that Lamarck’s work was published in 1809, well before Charles’ voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle.

Charles’ own grandfather Erasmus Darwin published his thoughts on evolution (transmutation) in a treatise he titled Zoonomia11 in 1796 making him one of the earlier intellectuals to tackle the controversial topic.  Erasmus was quite taken with the great similarities in the structure of warm blooded animals, their adaptability to their environment, and the great changes that they undergo before and after birth.  In what turned out to be an interesting preview of grandson Charles’ theory of evolution, Erasmus stated the following in section XXXIX.IV.8 of Zoonomia:

“…would it be too bold to imagine, that all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament, which THE GREAT FIRST CAUSE endued with animality, with the power of acquiring new parts, attended with new propensities, directed by irritations, sensations, volitions, and associations; and thus possessing the faculty of continuing to improve by its own inherent activity, and of delivering down those improvements by generation to its posterity, world without end!12

Erasmus was considered quite radical both for his liberal Whig politics and for his views on transmutation which were considered tantamount to atheism13. Charles had apparently moved even further on the road to atheism than his grandfather and would spend much of his career trying to create a theory of transmutation that would eliminate all need for a “GREAT FIRST CAUSE.”

Another contributor to evolution theory who preceded Darwin was Patrick Matthew.  Matthew clearly suggested the concept of natural selection in an appendix to a book on trees used to build naval ships14.

As nature, in all her modifications of life, has a power of increase far beyond what is needed to supply the place of what falls by Time’s decay, those individuals who possess not the requisite strength, swiftness, hardihood, or cunning, fall prematurely without reproducing — either a prey to their natural devourers, or sinking under disease, generally induced by want of nourishment, their place being occupied by the more perfect of their own kind, who are pressing on the means of subsistence.15

While Matthew’s book appeared in the year that Charles embarked on his voyage of discovery, Charles had studied Lamarck’s work on transmutation as well as that of his grandfather Erasmus before he boarded the H.M.S. Beagle16.  Further, Matthew’s work was published more than two decades before Charles completed The Origin of Species.  Thus any suggestion that Charles Darwin “discovered” the theory of evolution is more than a bit over the top.  In fact in 1860, after publication of Origin in 1859, Matthew wrote a letter to the Gardeners Chronicle magazine in which he noted that the concept of natural selection which Darwin had published after 20 years of investigation was what he (Matthew) had published in 1831.  Mr. Matthew thought that natural selection was such a straightforward idea that it did not merit being considered a discovery.  He considered it “an axiom requiring only to be pointed out to be admitted by unprejudiced minds of sufficient grasp.” 17

In 1844, Robert Chambers published his work Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation.18 Chambers was a journalist, not a scientist. Yet he applied the concept of transmutation to everything from the stars to plant life to man. Perhaps fearing backlash from the theists of the period, Chambers chose to publish anonymously and his identity as the author of Vestiges was not publicly revealed for 40 years.

Knowledge of transmutation was fairly common in the mid-19th century when Darwin was studying the subject, at least among the intellectual elites. Consider that Zoonomia, first published in the late 18th century by Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus, saw 5 editions published in America, 3 Irish editions, as well as translations into German, French, Italian, and Portuguese.19 Robert Chambers anonymous work Vestiges was also internationally popular and was published in multiple editions.

To put a timeline in perspective, Zoonomia was published before Charles’ birth and Patrick Matthew’s work was published about the time that Charles was a freshly minted graduate of Cambridge with a Bachelor of Arts degree. But Robert Chambers’ Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation was published while Charles Darwin was presumably in the midst of documenting his research on transmutation. One would have thought that publication of Vestiges would have built a fire under Darwin to publish his work but that event would wait another 15 years.

Charles Darwin might never have published his thoughts on transmutation (evolution) except that in 1856, his friend and prominent geologist Charles Lyell advised him to write out fully his views on the subject.  Even so, two years later Alfred Russell Wallace preceded Darwin when he sent him an essay entitled On the Tendency of Varieties to depart indefinitely from the Original Type for Darwin’s review20.  According to Darwin the “essay contained exactly the same theory” as his.21 At the urging of his friends Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker, Darwin prepared a joint publication of his views on transmutation along with the essay he had received from Wallace.22 Darwin extracted portions from the manuscript he had started on the subject and submitted his contribution along with Wallace’s essay to the published in the Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society23. He added to the publication a letter he had sent to Asa Gray in September or October of 1857 in which he crudely outlined his thoughts on the role of natural selection in modifying species and speculated on the possibility that over geologic times, new species might be formed.24 In his autobiography, Darwin admitted that his portion of the joint publication with Wallace was badly written while Wallace’s essay was “admirably expressed and quite clear.”25 The addition of his earlier letter to Asa Gray might be interpreted as an attempt to prove that he had begun his work on evolution before receiving Wallace’s essay.

Did Charles Darwin discover evolution? Not a chance. No one discovered evolution. The concept of transmutation or evolution was developed by others who preceded Darwin. However, the romantic notion of a young adventurer who, on a voyage of discovery, has an ‘Aha! Moment’ in which he conceives the notion of evolution through natural selection has great market appeal, particularly to young and untrained minds and so is still promoted by Darwin’s apologists.

Suggested Reading:

The Darwin Myth, Benjamin Wiker, Regnery Publishing, Inc., Washington, DC, 2009.

The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design, Jonathan Wells, Regnery Publishing, Inc., Washington, DC, 2009.


End Notes

  1. Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species, 3rd Edition, John Murray, London, 1861.
  2. Benjamin Wiker, The Darwin Myth, Regnery Publishing, Inc., Washington, DC, 2009. Pp. 20-21.
  3. Charles Darwin, The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 1958, p. 44, edited by Nora Barlow.
  4. Lawrence R. Croft, The Life and Death of Charles Darwin, Lancashire, UK: Elmwood Books, 1989, p. 22.
  5. Janet Browne, Charles Darwin: Voyaging, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1995, p 110.
  6. Charles Darwin, The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 1958, Pp. 69-70, edited by Nora Barlow.
  7. Robert Fitzroy, Narrative of the Surveying Voyages of His Majesty’s Ships Adventure and Beagle between the years 1826 and 1836, Volume 2, London: Henry Colburn, Great Marlborough Street, 1839, page 18.
  8. Ibid, p. 19.
  9. Benjamin Wiker, The Darwin Myth, Regnery Publishing, Inc., Washington, DC, 2009, Pp. 46 – 48.
  10. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Philosophie zoologique, ou exposition des considérations
    relatives à l’histoire naturelle des animaux
    , 1809. (reprinted Macmillan, London, 1914 and University of Chicago Press, 1984)
  11. Erasmus Darwin, Zoonomia, London, 1796. The book can be found online at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/15707, as of 23 Dec 2014.
  12. Erasmus Darwin, Zoonomia, London, 1796, XXXIX.IV.8. The book can be found online at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/15707, as of 23 Dec 2014.
  13. Benjamin Wiker, The Darwin Myth, Regnery Publishing, Inc., Washington, DC, 2009, p. 16.
  14. Patrick Matthew, On Naval Timber and Arboriculture; with critical notes on authors who have recently treated the subject of planting, London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, and Green; and Edinburgh: Adam Black., 1831.
  15. Ibid, p. 365.
  16. Janet Browne, Charles Darwin, Voyaging, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995, p. 83.
  17. Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species, 3rd Edition, John Murray, London, 1861, p. xv.
  18. Robert Chambers, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, John Churchill, London, 1844.
  19. Benjamin Wiker, The Darwin Myth, Regnery Publishing, Inc., Washington, DC, 2009, p. 3.
  20. Charles Darwin, The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 1958, p. 121, edited by Nora Barlow.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Charles R. Darwin and Alfred R. Wallace, On the tendency of species to form varieties; and on the perpetuation of varieties and species by natural means of selection, Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London, Zoology 3, 1858, p. 45.
  24. Charles Darwin, The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin; Letter to Asa Gray, September 5, 1857, Edited by Francis Darwin.
  25. Charles Darwin, The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 1958, p. 122, edited by Nora Barlow.
  26. Image from FotoSearch.