Monday, September 04, 2006

The Mark Steel Lectures: Charles Darwin

I daresay most people are already familiar with the basic story of Charles Darwin. Watching the Mark Steel Lectures recently, the show filled in some interesting details I hadn’t encountered before. I thought I’d share some of them here:

Charles Darwin was born on the same day as Abraham Lincoln, February 12th 1809

Darwin conducted his primary research and devised his theory of evolution and natural selection during the five-year voyage of the HMS Beagle.

He did not become the ship’s naturalist until several months into the voyage. Initially Darwin was appointed the unpaid position of gentleman’s companion. Social stipulations of the time dictated it was not proper for people of different social standings to converse with one another. One such divide fell between crew and captain; the captain could give orders but not talk on serious matters – such as politics and religion – with any of his crew. FitzRoy, Captain of the Beagle, invited Darwin onto the ship so he would have someone to talk to.

When it was revealed that Darwin devised his groundbreaking ideas during his time spent onboard the Beagle, FitzRoy was rapped with guilt, knowing, had he not invited Darwin onto his boat, the world would have been spared the horror of his theory of evolution and natural selection. FitzRoy took to running around London with a bible shouting, "this is the truth, this is the truth!" He subsequently committed suicide, slitting his throat.

Darwin himself had anxieties concerning his theories. Petrified of changing everything about the way everyone thought about the world, he went 25 years without showing his findings to anyone. This time was spent buried in research, plugging every hole he could fathom, knowing his writing would be scrutinised and attacked from every conceivable angle, almost wanting to find fault.

In 1858 two major events happened to prompt him to publish his work. First, his 10-year-old daughter died, which signalled the death-knell of his Christianity. Second, he received a letter from a friend asking for advice about how he should act on findings not dissimilar to Darwin’s own.

When he approached his publisher with his earth-shattering papers the publisher was disinterested, unable to see a commercial market. He told Darwin what people were interested in nowadays was Pigeons: "you should write a book about pigeons."

The Origin of the Species was published in 1859. The Descent of Man followed in 1878.

"Darwin’s genius was to look at the same world as everyone else and see something completely different."

However, I must stress that Darwin’s theory of evolution is only a theory, and not necessary true.


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