Charles Darwin

Hieronder het artikel uit Chambers’s cyclopædia of English Literature uit 1886 over Charles Darwin.


Letter This eminent naturalist (1809 – 1882), grandson of the poet, was born at Shrewsbury. After education at the grammar school of his native town, and at the universities of Edinburgh and Cambridge, he volunteered to accompany Captain Fitzroy in H.M.S.Beagle as naturalist on an expedition for the survey of South America, and the circumnavigation of the globe. About five years were spent on this survey, and Mr.Darwin had ample opportunities for studying nature under new and interesting aspects:

First Conception of the Theory of Natural Selection.

When (he says) I visited, during the voyage of H.M.S.Beagle, the Galapagos Archipelago, situated in the Pacific Ocean, about five hundred miles from South America, I found myself surrounded by peculiar species of birds, reptiles and plants, existing nowhere else in the world. Yet they nearly all bore an Americab stamp. In the song of the mocking-thrush, in the harsh cry of the carrion-hawk, in the great candlestick-like opuntias, I clearly perceived the neighbourhood of America, though the islands were separated by so many miles of ocean from the mainland, and differed much in their geological constitution and climate. Still more surprising was the fact that most of the inhabitants of each seperate island in this small archipelago were specifically different, though most clearly related to each other.

The archipelago, with its innumerable craters and bare streams od lava, appeared to be of recent origin, and thus I fancied myself brought near to the very act of creation. I often asked myself how these many peculiar animals and plants have been produced: the simplest answer seemed to be that the inhabitants of the several islands had descended from each other, undergoing modification in the course of their descent; and that all the inhabitants of the archipelago were descended fromt those of the nearest land, namely, America, whence colonists would naturally have been derived.

But it long remained to me an inexplicable problem how the necessary degree of modification could have been effected, and it would thus have remained for ever had I not studied domestic productions, and thus acquired a just idea of the power of selection. As soon as I had fulle realised this idea, I saw on reading Malthus on population, that natural selection was the inevitable result of the rapid increase of all organic beings; for I was prepared to appreciate the struggle for existance by having long studied the habits of animals.

Mr.Darwin returned to England in October 1836, and recommenced publishing the results of his long voyage and his minute observation: Journal of Researches into the Natural History and Geology of the Countries visitied during the Voyage of H.M.S.Beagle, 1839; on the Structure and Distribution of Carol Reeft, 1842; Geological Observations on Volcanic Islands, 1844; Geological Observations on South America, 1846; and A Monograph of the Cirripedia, published by rhe Ray Society in 1851-3 (a remarkable work on zoology).

Mr.Darwin’s next work – On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, 1859 – may be said to have stirred all Europe by the boldness of his speculations. His subsequent publications have been – Fertilisation of Orchids through Insect Agency, and as to the Good of Intercrossing, 1862; Variation of Animals and Plants under DomesticationThe Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, 1871; Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, 1872;

Insectivorous Plants, 1875; Movements and Habbits of Climbing Plants, 1876; The Effects of Cross and Self Fertilisation, 1876; Different Forms of Flowers on Plants of the same Species, 1877; and The Formation of Vegetable mould through the Action of Worms, 1881.

He died April 19, 1882.

The theory of natural selection is as old as Lucretius, and has been maintained by Lamarck and others; but Mr.Darwin conceived that previous theories afford no explanation of the mode in which the transmutation of organic bodies from the lowest to the highest grades has taken place. Species, he says, are not immutable. Organisms vary and multiply at a greater rate than their means of subsistence. The offspring resemble their parents in general points, but vary in particulars. „Amid the struggle for existance which has been always going on among living beings, variations of bodily conformation and structure, if in any degree profitable to an individual of any species, will tend to the preservation of that individual, and will generally be inherited by its offspring.”

In the struggle for life, the strongest of course prevail; the weak die; and this is the principe or hypothesis of natural selection, or survival of the fittest, which Mr.Darwin illustrates by a vast collection of facts, gleaned from almost innumerable sources, and brought forward with a philosophic calmness and modesty worthy of all honour and imitation.

The illustrations are often interesting, but the theory wants proof; even Professor Huxley admits that it is „not absolutely proven that a group of animals, having all the characters exhibited by species in nature, has ever been originated by selection, whether artificial or natural.”.

M. Agassiz wholly repudiates it: „The animals known to the ancients are still in existence, exhibiting to this day the characters they exhibited of old. Until the facts of nature are shewn to have been mistaken by those who have collected them, and that they have a different meaning from that now generally assigned to them, I shall therefore consider the transmutation theory as a scientific mistake, untrue in its facts, unscientific in its methods, and mischievous in its tendency.”.