Charles Darwin


Chad Galloway

More than a century after his death, and four generations after the
publication of his chief work, "The Origin of Species", Charles Darwin may still
be considered the most controversial scientist in the world. His name is
synonymous with the debate that continues to swirl around the theory of
evolution, a theory that deeply shook the Western view of humanity and its place
in the world.

We tend to speak simply of the theory of evolution, leaving off the
explanatory phrase, "through natural selection." At most, perhaps, the general
public has heard of "survival of the fittest" a poor phrase as far as I\'m
concerned, since fitness in everyday usage is associated with physical
conditioning and athletic ability. "Survival of the most suited to its
environment" would be a more accurate, and convincing expression for this
pedicular concept. But to most of us, "evolution" simply means that human beings
are descended from apes, a slight misunderstanding, since both humans and modern
apes are descendants of a mutual ancestor that is now extinct. It\'s not
evolution but the theory of natural selection and the evidence he collected to
prove to fellow scientists, peers, students, and most importantly the masses of
public and the church that were at the heart of Darwin\'s contribution to
biological science.

Charles Darwin did not invent the concept of evolution. A number of prominent
scientists and other thinkers during the eighteenth century and the first half
of the nineteenth century (among them Charles Darwin\'s grandfather, Erasmus
Darwin) had offered detailed theories of evolution (Clark, 1984, pg.24-25).
Therefor the idea of evolution went very far back in Western history.

At that time this concept was referred to as The Great Chain Of Life and was
conceived in the middle ages, based on a mixture of classical and Biblical ideas.
The ranking order ranged from the "lowest" forms of life to "higher" living
beings (lion), through the various classes of human beings from peasants to
nobles to Popes, and upwards through the hierarchy of angles to God.

This concept, in and of itself, has nothing to do with evolution, in fact it
seems to be anti-evolutionary, since every member is fixed in its own place.
This chain was created in a time when the world was considered to be more static
rather than a diverse collection of dynamic ideas.

But the Newtonian revolution of the seventeenth century replaced the old
static world with a new world view in which everything was naturally in motion.
In the course of the eighteenth century the notion of progress, of gradual but
relentless pursuit of betterment, began to take hold in western thought. It was
only natural that the ideas of change and of progress should eventually be
applied to the Great Chain of Being. The natural implication of a "dynamic"
chain of being was a sort of tree of life, gradually sprouting upward from basic
primordial ooze, branching outward into all the varied species on our fine
planet, ending with, of course, eighteenth century Man.

This could be called evolutionary, but it does not offer a theory of
evolution, an order in which evolution took place. It was no longer acceptable
to say "God did it". Therefor, if evolution was to ever become a science, a
rational explanation had to be offered.

Such an explanation was proposed by Jean Babtiste Lamarck toward the end of
the eighteenth century, and Lamarck became best known for his pre-Darwin theory
of evolution. According to Lamarck, the acquired characteristics of the parents
could be handed down to their offspring. Suppose, to take the most over used
example, that the first generations of giraffe had a neck of ordinary length.
Because the lower branches of the trees they fed off were easily striped, these
early giraffes stretched out their necks to reach higher branches. In doing so,
they caused their offspring to be born with slightly longer necks, until the
ultimate result was the giraffe of today.

This theory had virtues far beyond the necks of giraffes. Taking this concept
to its extreme one would now be under the impression that all that the past
European forefathers have passed on all their acquired traits to the younger
generations following them. The reasoning powers of the great philosophers, the
valour of Crusading knights should have been endowed in all rather than a meagre
few. According to this theory of evolution descendants could one day attain the
heights Europeans had already scaled.

The Lamarckian evolution had only one crucial defect, it was entirely untrue.
One could cut off a rat\'s tail, but its