The Concise Story of an Extraordinary Man
Publication Year: 2009
Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press
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I have been lecturing on the life of Charles Darwin for many years. These talks began as part of the introductory biology class I taught at the Ohio State University, and evolved into a public presentation as colleagues asked me to speak at their universities after my book...
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The theory of evolution is arguably the greatest idea the human mind ever had, and its proposer, Charles Darwin, is among the most influential scientists who ever lived. He changed the way humans view their place in nature. His explanation of the evolutionary process occurring...
1. An Admirable Pedigree
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Charles’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin (1731– 1802), was a physician and poet with a fascination for natural philosophy. He was popular as a doctor and did well financially because of his wealthy patients. Yet he refused payment from poor patients and often gave them money and food after he treated them...
2. A Privileged Youth
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Charles had a privileged and happy childhood at the Mount, the family home in Shrewsbury. The one exception was the death of his mother, Susannah, in 1817, when Charles was eight years old. The motherly devotion of his three elder sisters compensated for her loss, but his father became even more autocratic and overbearing...
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Darwin realized that the offer to join HMS Beagle on a surveying trip circumnavigating the globe was the chance of a lifetime. The ship was a 10-gun brig, 242 tons and only 90 feet long. This class of ships carried the naval nickname of “coffin” because of their tendency to sink...
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During an expedition from Valpara
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Upon landing in Falmouth on 2 October, Darwin made a beeline for home, where he was greeted by his father and three sisters. Ten days later, he was back at Cambridge with Professor Henslow. He was now a confident young man with a new direction in life. He no longer wanted to be a clergyman, having earned the approval...
6. A Proposal
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Darwin longed for a more quiet life in the country, to escape from polluted, crowded London. His thoughts also turned to marriage. In keeping with his rational nature, he listed the advantages and disadvantages of marriage, and somehow the odds came down in favor of it...
7. Life at Down House
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After several searches, the Darwins decided on a property near the small village of Downe in Kent, about sixteen miles south of London. The price was
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Darwin had intended to get to London for a night or two each month, so he would not become a “Kentish hog.” But the eight-mile carriage ride to the railroad station was too much for his ill health. He reveled in the isolation of Down. He spent each day working in his study and enjoyed family activities as a restful diversion. He carried out...
9. Daily Routine
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Darwin’s daily routine has been expertly chronicled by Hedley Atkins (1973) and summarized in Louise Wilson and Solene Morris’s text for Down House (2000), from which the following is taken. Darwin would rise fairly early and go for...
10. Taxonomy and Selection
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The solution to the vexing question of why descendents diverged from their ancestors came to Darwin one day while he was riding in his carriage near home. He wrote in his autobiography that “the solution . . . is that the modified offspring . . . tend to become adapted to many...
11. Alfred Russel Wallace and The Origin
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n 1855, Lyell suggested that Darwin read a paper by an unknown naturalist, entitled “On the law which has regulated the introduction of new species.” The author was Alfred Russel Wallace. It showed some similarities to Darwin’s own sketches about evolution and natural selection...
12. What Darwin Said
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From his breeding experiments and observations in nature, Darwin recognized that many more offspring were produced than actually survived. This applied to plants and animals—trees to elephants, and everything in between. Some animals produce millions of eggs or thousands...
13. Darwin’s Bulldog
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The Origin became the main topic of conversation in scientific circles, but Darwin remained secluded at Down. The first major test of how the scientific community would view his theory was at the British Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Oxford on 30 June 1860. Darwin did not attend, knowing...
14. A Man of Enlarged Curiosity
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Darwin did not quietly retire after publication of The Origin, although he suffered greatly as his health continued to decline. Instead, he turned his attention to botany. By studying the morphology and anatomy of flowers, especially orchids, Darwin discovered that nearly all parts...
15. Darwin’s Death
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Francis Darwin summarized his father’s religious views in Life and Letters (1897), and Atkins (1974) provided additional insight. Charles considered such things to be very personal and took great pains to avoid offending Emma and her beliefs. Darwin began life in a freethinking, nominally...
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Occasionally a student from a fundamentalist background will come up to me after an evolution class and say, “Did you know that Darwin recanted his theory before he died?” Or an ad for a creationist lecture will say something about a “deathbed conversion” of Darwin...
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Page Count: 144
Illustrations: 16 color photos, 60 halftones
Publication Year: 2009