Charles Darwin

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An atheist before Darwin could have said, following Hume: "I have no explanation for complex biological design. All I know is that God isn't a good explanation, so we must wait and hope that somebody comes up with a better one." I can't help feeling that such a position, though logically sound, would have left one feeling pretty unsatisfied, and that although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.
Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (1986), page 6[1]

Charles Darwin (1809–1882) was a scientist who studied marine invertebrates, coral reefs and, most famously, was the man behind that dreadful, godless nonsense known as evolution by natural selection.

Darwin is credited as the co-discoverer of the now-accepted theory of evolution by natural selection along with Alfred Wallace, which is the precursor to what is now-known (post-genetics) as the modern evolutionary synthesis. Darwin is best known for writing On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. Origin of Species is arguably one of the few books to bridge the gap between technical science and popular science, being useful to practising scientists to understand both evidence and theory, and to the general public. It became a best-seller that fascinated the Victorian culture that it was published in, following the gradual discovering the concept of deep time, which allowed natural selection to work. Darwin's grandfather, Erasmus, was an early evolutionary thinker who wrote and helped develop the concept of "transmutation of species", which demonstrated the variation that life exhibited in the real world and how such features could be inherited. Charles's extension of this was to apply natural selection to this process, whereby successful variations lived to reproduce and unsuccessful variations perished - leading to evolution. This has lead to him being one of the most influential scientists of the modern era.

Because of his association with evolution, Darwin is often a victim of the phenomenon known as quote mining. Confused by the completely different concepts of personality cult and scientific theory, modern creationists will turn to Darwin, with his comments taken out of context, as overall proof that evolution must be wrong.

Contents

[edit] Biographical overview

Charles Darwin wearing an intelligently designed hat. Note the intelligently designed beard. Note also the intelligently designed signature:
Darwinsig.png
Note: Intelligently designed book not pictured.

Darwin initially studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh, but having lost interest in becoming a doctor, he later enrolled in an Arts degree at Cambridge University, where his father hoped he might study towards a place in the Anglican clergy. In both settings, he gave more attention to his interests in geology, botany and zoology than to his academic studies.

Following his graduation in 1831, and thanks to his reputation as a keen amateur naturalist, he was offered a place on the HMS Beagle, a survey ship charting the coasts of South America. The voyage lasted five years and also took in the Cape of South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Darwin spent as much time as possible ashore at these locations during the voyage, studying the local wildlife while other members of the expedition concentrated on charting the coastlines.

It was during this voyage that Darwin began to develop his theory of natural selection, and over the following decades, he honed the theory, conducting further research and seeking evidence for common descent. Being meticulous in every detail (as evidenced by his earlier work as a botanist and marine researcher), Darwin took a considerable amount of time to write Origin, and actually planned it to be a significantly longer, multi-volume book covering every piece of evidence and each facet of his theory in full detail. He eventually settled on publishing only one volume on evolution in general, saving his work on applying it to human evolution until later.

As a scientific background, much was already known and theorised about evolution when Darwin was collecting data and writing. The ability of animals to alter or mutate over time was well-established - much of this was evident in pre-industrialised agriculture in the form of selective breeding and indeed Darwin's first thought for explaining natural selection was to put it in terms of artificial selection and selective breeding first. This explanatory tactic was repeated a century and a half later by biologist Richard Dawkins in The Greatest Show On Earth; replacing the selection used by humans to create better crops or new breeds of dog with undirected, but equally powerful, natural selection pressures produces the same result. The amount of time required for species to diversify so dramatically was also dawning on the scientific establishment. Victorian England played host to the first serious scientific studies of dinosaur fossils and the birth of modern palaeontology, and the exhibits of dinosaur reconstructions at the Crystal Palace pre-dated Darwin's publication of Origin by six years.

On the Origin of Species was published in 1859, prompted by Alfred Wallace's essay showing that he had hit on the same idea and might steal Darwin's thunder, although of course Darwin had been planning to publish his theory for some years (yes, he really took his time on this). While Darwin's initial papers on the subject of natural selection were only lukewarmly received by the scientific community initially, the book sold tremendously. Though it met with some criticism and scepticism both from within and outside the scientific community, it eventually became accepted as the definitive work of Darwinian evolution, the founding text on evolutionary biology, and something that stood the test of time against countless new discoveries in evolution; from genetics to punctuated equilibrium.

His later publication of The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871) proved much more controversial, since it explicitly placed humans within the evolutionary schema and presented extensive evidence for our animal ancestry. This provoked severe criticism, not least from the Church and its supporters, and ridicule, such as all those caricatures of Darwin as a monkey. This line of criticism remains popular with modern creationists to this day. Many tentatively accept evolution as described, but outright reject a relationship of humans to other animals; from the display in the Noah's Ark Zoo Farm listing reasons that humans and apes cannot be related, to the oft-asked how come there are still monkeys? This has most formally been described as a battle between macroevolution and microevolution - even though Darwin's theory, and its modern formulations, have no room (either theoretically, nor empirically) for such a distinction.

Darwin was married and had ten children, though three died during childhood. He avoided discussing his views on religion publicly, but his private writings (from the Beagle era onwards) show that he was increasingly critical of theology and Biblical literalism, and had many doubts about God, including concerns about the problem of evil. In a letter of 1879, he described himself as an agnostic rather than an atheist, but stated that evolutionism is not incompatible with theism.[2]

[edit] 2009: Darwin Year

Take that, creationists!

The year 2009 was the bicentennial of Darwin's birthday, and heretics everywhere gathered to celebrate. Darwin Day (February 12) joins Evolution Day (November 24) as another pain in the ass for creationism. 2009 was also the 150th anniversary of the publication of his best-seller, Origin of Species.

Happy birthday man.

[edit] In popular culture

Darwin is also the name of a character in the Cartoon Network show The Amazing World of Gumball, who is Gumball's pet goldfish that went through what the average person believes to be evolution and became his brother.[3]

[edit] See also

[edit] External links

[edit] Footnotes

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