Charles Robert Darwin (1809-1882) is one of the most influential scientists of all time. He’s best known for his work on evolution, and in particular the principle of natural selection, which he described and presented to the world in his groundbreaking book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection; or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, published in 1859.
Being a prolific writer, Darwin produced several other books in addition to The Origin, including The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, which centers on the origin and evolution of humans, and The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication, a focused study on the origins, causes, and nature of variability in the context of domestication and artificial selection. His body of work is widely regarded as one of the most impressive and important scientific achievements of all time.
Darwin’s scientific life
As a young naturalist, Darwin took part in an expedition on the naval ship HMS Beagle, which carried out detailed surveys of the maritime environment in South America. Throughout this journey, Darwin explored the wildlife of the places where the Beagle anchored up, collecting and examining plant and animal specimens of various kinds. The Galapagos Islands are considered to be particularly important in this respect and have gone on to become connected with Darwin, who discovered during his surveys that the islands house several species of finches that vary somewhat based on their geographical distribution, revealing inter-island differences in beak shape and function, among other things.
This, coupled with a large collection of other findings, eventually led Darwin to conclude that species were not immutable, as many scientists of the time believed, but rather that they had evolved, having been modified over time, and that this process involved adaptation as a result of a struggle for existence in which those life forms that were best suited to their respective conditions of life left more surviving offspring than those that were not as well suited. Darwin didn’t know about genetics; however, like other naturalists of the time, he did recognize that something that brings about a phenotypic resemblance is passed from parent to offspring during reproduction.
In light of the information we have at hand today, these interpretations of the workings of the natural world may not come across as being grand or radical in any way; however, at Darwin’s time, when little was known about biological inheritance and evolution was still a bizarre, undocumented concept, they were very much revolutionary and caused quite an uproar. It wasn’t until many years after the publication of On the Origin of Species, when piles of additional evidence had been amassed, that the skepticism dampened and it became widely recognized among scientists that Darwinian evolutionary theory was solid.
His whole adult life, Darwin lived in a house south of Downe, a village on the outskirts of Greater London, England, together with his children and wife Emma. That’s where he conducted most of his thinking and writing, and also where he carried out most of his experiments and analyses. In his study in what is now known as Down House, Darwin contemplated and theorized on a number of issues pertaining to the origin, evolution, dynamics, and variability of life.
Darwin’s scientific legacy
While no longer hot off the presses, Darwin’s theories are by no means obsolete. On the contrary, in the time that has passed since their inception, many of Darwin’s ideas have prospered and given rise to and guided new areas of research. Furthermore, they’ve been brought into previously non-Darwinian areas of life sciences.
This is not to say that all of Darwin’s postulations and theories have stood the test of time in the face of new scientific discoveries; however, his fundamental ideas about evolution certainly have. They’ve been refined and updated on the basis of new insights, but they have by no means been dismissed. Actually, Darwinian natural selection is now considered by many to be even more important, as a means of evolutionary change, than what Darwin himself considered it to be.
Darwinian evolutionary theory is paramount and indispensable in that it endows humanity with the means to understand life. We no longer have to turn to religion or superstition for answers, as we now have the option of turning to science, which holds a powerful & logical natural explanation for why nature is what it is. Much of this is thanks to Darwin, who was instrumental in constructing the foundational structure upon which the field of biology rests.