*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Much like Galileo Galilei before him, the British biologist Charles Darwin upended centuries of thought when he published his theories in On the Origin of Species on November 24, 1859. By forwarding ideas that allowed for the gradual development of significant differences between animals over hundreds of generations, he created the science of evolutionary biology and sparked a firestorm of controversy with the Christian church.
Though the possibility of some sort of process for the distinct characteristics among species had been forwarded before, none of the early theorists managed to create an extensive record of observation and experimentation as Darwin had. Using his own notes from his voyages on the HMS Beagle during the 1830s in conjunction with experiments and correspondence with other scientists, Darwin had created something more than just a dry textbook — On the Origin of the Species is specifically targeted toward the average person.
Combining a series of basic facts (food is limited and animals compete for it) and inferences (species have to fight to continue on), Darwin reasoned that animals would continue to exist on based on their ability to survive and reproduce. When a particular individual of any type — say, a dog — has favorable attributes for a long life, then it is more likely to have greater opportunity to have offspring and, thus, pass on its traits to affect the species as a whole. This is natural selection in a nutshell, the basis of Darwin’s theory.
The problem for Darwin, as his book was published on November 24, 1859, was that his concepts flew in the face of the literal interpretation of the Bible as history. Protestant Christians had taken to looking at their sacred text as a by-the-moment account of the events of creation. Based on this view, the sheer amount of time Darwin proposed for these changes seemed impossible — much longer than the 6,000 years the Church of England proposed since God said, “Let there be light.”
The work unleashed a torrent of criticism, though mostly along personal lines instead of scientific critique. Respected as a researcher, anger resonated more from those for whom Darwin represented a challenge to deeply-held religious beliefs. Regardless of the effect on his social life and popular perception, Darwin’s work brought serious debate about the gradual change of species to the forefront. Attached to cultural phenomena as well as scientific inquiry, his name became attached to many ideas as Darwinism.
By raising thoughtful questions about evolution, On the Origin of Species had the secondary effect of legitimizing the split of science into a secular discipline. Thomas Henry Huxley, an anatomist at the same time as Darwin, championed the ideas presented in the book simply because it would require rigorous testing outside the bounds of the church. (Huxley contended with some of Darwin’s principles, wondering aloud if the ideas could support the creation of new genetic lines from a single species.)
Though Darwin held back on fully positing a means by which humans evolved in the six editions of the book printed before his death in 1882, it became the primary point of argument for theologians. In an argument that has, in some respects, lasted to this day, the removal of divine influence on creation — or even the perception that people are barely distinct from animals — led fundamentalists to decry the theory as opposing God Himself. The Catholic Church, writing nearly a century later, stated Darwin’s concepts were against holy teaching as recently as 1950.
Regardless of personal opinion, there can be little argument that On the Origin of Species has done much to advance biology, even as some of Darwin’s positions have been since refined into more complete ideas as science has advanced.
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1963 – Lee Harvey Oswald is killed by Jack Ruby in the basement of the Dallas Police Department