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Charles Darwin

Published: 29.08.2012, Updated: 04.03.2017
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There was nothing in Charles Robert Darwin’s childhood or youth to indicate that he would become one of the most influential scientists of his own and future generations.  He was not a particularly good student, studying both medicine and theology before he started to concentrate on his passion: natural history. The theories he developed through his extensive research came to alter the world’s view of nature.

Charles Robert Darwin (1809 - 1882)

Charles DarwinCharles Darwin
Fotograf: The Granger Collection
 Charles Darwin was born into a wealthy family of industrialists and intellectuals in Shrewsbury, England. His plan was to become a doctor, like his father, but after experiencing the trauma of seeing a little girl go through an operation without anaesthesia, he changed his mind and started to study theology instead.
When Darwin had finished his education, it was expected that he would become a country parson. But he was offered the opportunity to sail around the world with the survey ship, the H.M.S. Beagle, in 1831. The trip took five years, and Darwin studied the geology, the flora and the fauna of the places they went to. He collected samples of both living organisms and fossils, and recorded many observations that puzzled him. For instance, he found fossils of mammals in a layer of modern sea shells, indicating that they had become extinct relatively recently - with no sign of any kind of climatic change or natural disaster. So why did they become extinct? Another mystery was that each island had its own kind of finch; all closely related, but also different. How and why did this happen?
When Darwin returned home in 1836, he carried out extensive studies in his attempt to find answers to all his questions, and he posed his theory of evolution:  Every individual living being has to struggle for survival. Those who have the best characteristics will survive, procreate and pass on their characteristics to their offspring. In time, most of the population will have these characteristics. This process is called “natural selection”, and if it is allowed to run its course, it can cause such radical changes in a population that a new species will evolve. Whether or not an individual survives depends on its ability to adapt to its environment.  This is what is commonly known as “the survival of the fittest.”  Darwin realized that his theory would be more than controversial, and that publishing it would probably cause his family some distress. It is no wonder that he worked on it for twenty years before publishing “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection” in 1859.
In 1868, Darwin went the whole way and published “The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex.” Here he introduced the idea that homo-sapiens, too, are the result of natural selection. Needless to say, in a society where most people believed that God created man in seven days, many people attacked Darwin vehemently. Even though Darwin himself never discussed the religious ramifications of his theory of evolution, other writers used the theory to justify their own atheist outlook on life. In fact, the theory of evolution had a profound and lasting effect on the future of religious thought.