How Charles Darwin really came to develop the theory of evolution

HE DIDN’T CALL IT “EVOLUTION”

But Darwin himself didn’t call the process “evolution” for many decades after his historic voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle. It wasn’t until the sixth edition of his landmark book that Darwin used the word in place of his favored term, “descent with modification.”

A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING BY BILL BRYSON (2003) 562 PAGES ★★★★☆

HOW DARWIN BECAME A NATURALIST

How Darwin got into the business of naturalism in the first place is a remarkable tale.

THE CAPTAIN OF H.M.S BEAGLE CHOSE BADLY

Here’s how that happened: the captain of the Beagle was a 23-year-old religious zealot named Robert FitzRoy, who regarded the trip ahead as an opportunity to prove the truth of the Biblical account of creation. He needed a dinner companion for the voyage because, himself a “gentleman,” he was honor-bound not to socialize with anyone who wasn’t. The person he first invited turned him down, so he settled on Darwin as his second choice. Why? Two reasons. First, as a clergyman, Darwin would presumably agree with his religious convictions without reservation. And, second, FitzRoy regarded the shape of Darwin’s nose as connoting good character. (Remember, phrenologywas in vogue in Western Europe in the 19th century. If the shape of the skull is important, why not the shape of the nose?)

Charles Darwin. Image: history.com

DARWIN’S THEORY EMERGED MUCH LATER

Darwin’s thinking about evolution didn’t begin during the five-year voyage (1831–36) but only after he returned and read Thomas Malthus’ seminal Essay on the Principle of Population, concluding that life must be a constant struggle for all species. For eight years afterward, Darwin tinkered and fussed with his notes and the voluminous collection of samples he’d collected, writing a short version of the book-to-be. Then, in 1844, he locked up the manuscript in a drawer and left it untouched for 15 years.

THE PROSPECT OF COMPETITION URGED HIM ON

The admirer was Alfred Russel Wallace, and his letter — the continuation of a long correspondence with Darwin — laid out Wallace’s own theory of natural selection. Darwin quickly realized that he would never receive credit for his thinking if he didn’t finish writing, and quickly publish, his book. On the Origin of Species duly appeared the following year, 1859.

IT WASN’T THE FINCHES

Oh, by the way: the conventional wisdom is that Darwin based his thinking about natural selection on his observations of variations within species of finches on the islands of the Galápagos. That’s not true, either. In fact, young Darwin was such an inexperienced observer when he passed through the Galápagos that he failed either to notice that the birds he saw were all finches or to record which variety of bird he’d seen on which of the islands. It took years for an ornithologist to sort all this out much later.

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