Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

Surprising truths about Charles Darwin

  • David Pannell

  • University of Western Australia

Just a bloke with a good idea?

  • I was interested in evolution but not in Darwin

  • Eventually read Adrian Desmond and James Moore (1991) “Darwin”


  • Born 1809

  • Study (Edinburgh and Cambridge) 1825-1831

  • Voyage of the Beagle 1831-36

  • Retired to Down 1842

  • The Origin of Species 1859

  • Died 1882

Darwin’s achievements

  • Transformed biological science

    • Both style and content
    • Still the cornerstone of biology
    • Now the cutting edge of psychology
  • Transformed attitudes of humanity to our place in the universe

Not just an evolutionist

  • Not even a biologist to start with

  • Collected beetles for fun

  • Studied geology more seriously

  • Considered himself a geologist throughout the Beagle voyage and for some time after

  • Famous for working out how coral atolls are formed

His books (not just on evolution)

  • Beagle voyage

  • Coral reefs

  • Volcanic islands

  • Geology of South America

  • Barnacles

  • Species

  • Man

Contribution to style of science

  • Pre-Darwin, science was done in homage to God

  • Was primarily descriptive

  • Deduction and theorising was disparaged as “speculation”

  • Darwin used detailed observation to explore much larger questions - helped change scientific methods

Natural selection

  • Developed theory in complete isolation

  • In face of violent opposition

  • With no knowledge of genetics

  • With no knowledge of DNA

  • With no knowledge of plate tectonics

  • With no observations of natural selection actually occurring

Not first to propose evolution

  • French tradition

    • Jean-Baptiste Lamark
    • Etienne Geoffroy St Hilaire
  • Erasmus Darwin (Grandfather)

  • Robert Grant (Mentor)

  • Was expounded in a popular book (“Vestiges”) 15 years before “Origin”

Darwin was mis-credited

  • Died famous for evolution (which was not his idea)

  • Natural selection not widely accepted, even among his supporters

  • Darwin remained convinced

  • Only 40-50 years later did scientists appreciate his foresight.

Joining the Beagle Voyage

  • Not paid for 5 years on Beagle.

  • Actually, he had to pay!

  • Was lucky to get on

    • replaced someone who was shot in a duel
    • his father opposed him going
  • Mainly asked because of his class, to keep Captain Fitzroy company

  • It was the making of him

Galapogos, 1835

  • Portrayed as a “Eureka” experience.

  • Actually, was hugely homesick

  • Did not recognise significance until back in England, 1837.

    • Worked out theory much later.
    • First inkling of natural selection in 1838.
  • Turtles & finches were key evidence

    • On boat home, ate turtles, dumped shells
    • Thought finches different species; didn’t even label them properly

Darwin in Australia

  • Only visited three places in Australia

    • Sydney, Jan 1836
    • Hobart, Feb 1836
    • Albany, Mar 1836

Darwin in Albany

  • In Albany 6-14 March 1836

    • “The settlement consists of 30-40 small white washed cottages, which are scattered on the side of a bank and along a white sea beach.”
  • Explored Bald Head

  • Attended a corroboree.

  • Visited Strawberry Hill Farm

Darwin in Albany

  • Felt homesick. Departure delayed by strong winds.

    • “I do not remember, since leaving England, having passed a more dull and uninteresting time.” (Voyage)
  • Failed to recognise the massive biodiversity.

    • “He who thinks with me will never wish to walk again in so uninviting a country.” (Voyage)

Darwin in Albany

  • By FAR the most important and the most famous person ever to visit Albany.

  • One of very few places he did visit outside England and South America

  • Not a single indication of his ever having visited.

    • No plaque, monument, street name, place name

The Big Idea: Natural Selection

  • He knew about fossils

  • Collected many for extinct animals

  • Knew about Llyell’s theory of “evolution” of geology

  • Read Malthus (an economist) on population and competition for resources.

  • His ideas developed steadily over 20 years

Influence of economics

  • He read Malthus and Adam Smith

  • Saw specialisation benefits in factory Wedgewood (wife’s family owned it)

  • Evolutionary biology makes use of models from economics, especially game theory.

    • Example: “The Selfish Gene”, Richard Dawkins

Slow to publish: Why so long?

  • Anguish

  • Illness

  • Slow development of ideas

  • Collection of a wealth of evidence


  • Social class

    • Respectability
    • Evolution subversive - against his class
  • Religous considerations

    • especially worried about hurting wife Emma who grieved for his soul
  • Scientific prejudice against “speculation”

  • “Like confessing a murder.”


  • Problems throughout life

    • violent shivering, vomiting, exhaustion, palpitations, hands trembling, head swimming, sleeplessness, headaches, flatulence, stomach problems, ringing of ears, fainting, copious pallid urine
  • In 1841 could work “an hour or two a couple of days a week.”

  • Chaga’s disease? Just nervous? Poisoning himself with medecine?

Slow to publish: Why so long?

  • Anguish

  • Illness

  • Slow development of ideas

  • Detailed analysis, collection of a wealth of evidence

    • pigeons
    • barnacles


  • Started out as a brief study.

    • Took 8 years (from 1948).
    • Huge 2 volume treatise overhauling entire sub-class.
  • Dominated his kids lives

    • One of his kids asked a friend, “Where does your dad do his barnacles?”
  • Established him as a biological specialist, not just a geologist

    • Royal Society Medal


  • On Beagle voyage, rode hundreds of miles through bandit areas and war zones in South America

  • Stayed on the voyage for five years despite extreme sea sickness

  • Worked through his illnesses

  • Was willing to publish “Origins” despite the risks


  • Father a wealthy doctor

  • Reduced his enthusiasm to get a job as a doctor or clergyman

  • Wealth bought time and resources

  • Made money from investments (land and railway stocks), not from books

Alfred Russel Wallace

  • Thought of natural selection independently

  • Wrote to Darwin

  • Darwin had been working on book

  • Published a “letter” jointly

  • Bit it was Darwin who put in the hard yards collecting and documenting evidence to support theory


  • Started out on path to clergy

    • “The Darwins had produced lawyers and military men, but Charles lacked the self-discipline. There was, however, a safety net to stop second sons becoming wastrels: the Church of England. An aimless son with a penchant for field sports would fit in nicely.” (Desmond & Moore)
  • Signed 39 articles of faith

  • A naturalist parson?

Religious conflict

  • Samuel Wilberforce vs T.H.Huxley