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History Cat Lessons: Creative and Engaging

Charles Darwin & the Theory of Evolution

The Discovery of Darwin

Located 400 miles in the Pacific, off the coast of Peru- it would be hard to find a more isolated place on earth. In 1831, Charles Darwin thought he was getting the chance of a lifetime when he was invited to join the scientific crew aboard the HMS Beagle. At 20 years old Darwin was only an amateur scientist with a curious mind. He impressed his teachers enough to recommend him to the captain of the HMS Beagle for a five year voyage to map the unknown waters and islands off the coast of South America.

When Darwin’s father, a famous physician in England,  heard of the trip he immediately tried to talk his son out of going––reminding him that he was throwing away his seminary education (Charles’s was studying at Cambridge to be an Anglican priest) for a worthless pursuit like science. Most educated folk in Charles’ day considered the study of science to be a hobby rather than a serious job.


But Charles had always been the type of boy to follow his own dreams. He agreed to join the  Beagle as the ship’s naturalist. No this didn't mean that Darwin had taken up vegan cooking or had become a nudist. Darwin was hired on to catelog the new plant and animal species that they would encounter.  Little did he know that this expedition into strange lands would lead to questions that would forever change the way people view the world.

“It is the circumstance that several of the islands possess their own species of the tortoise, mocking thrush, finches, and numerous plants, these species having the same general habits, occupying analogous situations (similar environments), and obviously filling the same place in the natural economy of this archipelago that strikes me with wonder.”


This is how Charles Darwin described what he saw on his first visit to the Galapagos Islands in 1835. These observations sparked some pretty big questions that seemed to contradict everything that he had been taught about the world since childhood. For example, why, did finches on one island have long slender beaks; while on another island 50 miles away the finches there had short powerful beaks? The clue to solving this mystery was found in the food that they ate.

Darwin noticed that the finches with long, slender beaks ate inspects while those with strong jaws dined on seeds and nuts. But at the time Darwin shared the same belief in Creationism that almost all Europeans did–––that, according to the Bible, the earth and every creature on it was created by God in six days.

Creationism also held that the world was only 6,000 years old and while some species died out over time, they hadn't changed since the day God set the world in motion. The differences between the plants and animals were because of the differences in geography.

In his journal, Darwin had this to say about the geography of the Galapagos: 

“I never dreamed that the islands, about fifty or sixty miles apart, and most of them in sight of one another, formed of the precisely the same rocks, placed under a quite similar climate, rising to a near equal height, would have been differently (inhabited).” 

It was pretty obvious to Darwin that the old explanations for the differences among species were not at work here. So what was?


Coming up with a Theory

But it wasn't just finches that got Darwin’s mental gears turning. Also on the Galapagos Islands there lived gigantic turtles so big that it took six men to flip it over. But it wasn't their mammoth size (or delicious meat) that got Darwin wondering, but etched on their massive shells were different patterns that varied from one island to the next. While in Argentina he noticed that two types of Ostriches–– so similar, yet so different, lived within a few hundred miles of each other. He noticed rattlesnakes living close to one another,  with rattles of different shapes and colors. Darwin began to wonder why God would have a need to create so many types of the same species.

And it wasn’t just the living species that gnawed at Darwin’s mind. Recently, scientists had discovered the bones of a long-extinct creature that people begun to call dinosaurs. While in Argentina, Darwin found more of these bones from creatures called megatherium–– a 20 foot giant sloth–– and the toxodon, an elephant-sized rodent related to the modern capybaras.


When Darwin mentioned these finds to Captain Fitzroy, who had now become a close friend- Fitzroy suggested that these animals hadn’t been able to get a ride on Noah’s Ark. Fitzroy, like many 19th century Europeans, believed in a theory known as Catastrophism, that said that species became extinct because of natural disasters designed by God (like the Great Flood) that wiped out one species and allowed God to start over with a clean slate.

The Theory of Evolution

Then Darwin got a flash of inspiration that would change everything. Nature had a way of weeding out the weak offspring from the strong in a process she called natural selection. If it was true that the earth’s climate and geology was in the process of changing over the course of millions of years, then it must also be true that only those species that could change with their environment would survive.  It is true that the offspring of a plant or animal is similar to its parents, but each is different enough that gives it an advantage or disadvantage depending on the environment. Evolution works best when species compete. Only those species that compete the best are able to thrive and reproduce. Now forget what you've heard about the “Survival of the Fittest”. Darwin didn't say that only the strongest survive, but the most adaptable to their environment will survive.

Survival of the Fittest

In Darwin's day this was the accepted theory for the fate of extinct species like the dinosaurs. Darwin had his doubts. He definitely believed in the Christian view of God but he wasn’t sold on Catastrophism or that the earth was only 6,000 years old. Other Christian scientists like the famous geologist Charles Lylell were teaching a new version of creationism that taught that God created the world in 6 days, but the earth slowly changed over millions of years causing certain species to die out. Lyell's idea was similar to evolution, but Lylell was no evolutionist. The big difference between the two was that Lyell believed that once created, a species did not change.

This was the biggest problem that evolutionists had to explain. Those who opposed evolution said that it was impossible for one species to evolve into another. That's because the offspring of a species looked more or less like their parents and that’s how God had intended it. Creationists explained that God had created each animal that was perfectly suited for its environment and so the offspring would also be perfectly suited for the environment. At the moment Darwin was at a loss for how to prove them wrong.

Take an intervative voyage on the HMS Beagle
Harriet the Tortoise (1830- 2006)
Rest in Tortoisy Peace Harriet. You were the last living  link to Darwin before you died  at the ripe old age of 176

Survival of the Fittest: The idea that species adapt and change by natural selection with the best suited mutations becoming dominant.
Darwin Taking Heat

​When Darwin worked up the courage to publish his theory in a snappy little book called “On the Origin of Species by Mean of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life”​ in 1859, Darwin knew that his theory was bound to stir up controversy (and it still is today) so he carefully thought of every argument that his opponents would bring and for the next 500 pages he laid out an answer for  how he thought it was possible for species to evolve. The original work was written for scientists and to spare you the technical jargon only a scientist could love, I'll instead give you the highlights of The Origin.
1. Darwin argued that unlike Creationism where every species came from a grand design, the process of natural selection was totally random, like firing a giant cosmic pinball machine.  For example, he argued that if everything was created with a specific purpose why some species (like those of underground animals) had eyeballs but are totally blind). Others had an optic nerve but no eyeball attached. Darwin argued that blind animals with eyes showed evolution at work. Over hundreds of generations these species would eventually lose their useless eyes altogether.

2. Creationists wanted to know why, if evolution was real, you couldn’t see it in action. Where was the proof? Darwin’s answer to this was that evolution was slow and gradual over hundreds or thousands of generations. If humans could figure out a way to live that long they could, conceivably watch evolution in progress.

​3. Why is that, if one animal changed into another you could not find examples of it. Like a half horse and half something else roaming around. Darwin’s answer was the species that was better suited to the environment crowded out the other species that died out. Extinction worked side-by-side with his theory of evolution.

4. Creationists wanted to know where the evidence of the bones and fossils were to show evolution in action. Darwin had two answers to this question. First, he challenged scientists to compare the oldest and youngest specimens of a species (two sloths millions of years apart for instance). Then you would see evolution in action. His second response was that Europeans had only recently found the dinosaurs so obviously, there were still more fossils that humans had not uncovered.

"The Most Dangerous Man in England"

When the Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, representing the Creationists, entered the room he was greeted with cheers. The Bishop pulled out a one, two punch to smash evolution once and for all. He asked the audience, to great applause, if anyone had seen one animal change into another. He then mocked Darwin by asking if he could show a turnip that had become a human.

When the pro-Darwinists got up to speak (Darwin was scared to death of public speaking) they launched into a two hour explanation of how evolution works. They even threw in some personal jabs at Bishop Wilberforce saying that he should understand Darwin’s theory before he tried to debate it. At one point the crowd became rowdy trying to shout over the speakers. Captain Fitzroy ran on stage and holding up a bible screamed, “Human science is nothing”. But in the end it was Wilberforce who had lost the debate. This marked a major turning point in the history of science.

Over the next decade Darwin would continue writing books on science. More and more scientists warmed up to his theory and evolution even began to be taught in the universities. However, the debate was far from over. Evolution would split the scientific world into creationists versus evolutionists. Darwin’s picture was reprinted in the newspaper showing him with his own head on top of the body of an ape. The heated debate surrounding Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection crossed over the Atlantic. In 1925, a Tennessee school teacher named John Thomas Scopes would find himself at the center of a lawsuit known as the Scopes Monkey Trial that would determine the fate of teaching education in the United States. Scopes had been accused of illegally teaching evolution, which the State of Tennessee had said was illegal. More than 80 years later Americans still remain divided on Darwin and his theory.

As expected, Darwin’s little theory stirred up some pretty intense feelings, and most were not friendly to Darwin. One of his old mentors at Cambridge openly attacked his book in a letter that went like this...

“I have read your book with more pain than pleasure. Parts of it I admired greatly, parts I laughed at till my sides were almost sore…” .

Others called Darwin ‘the most dangerous man in England’. Darwin was in for the fight of his career. A public debate was scheduled in June 1860 at the British Association for the Advancement of Science to decide the whole issue of evolution versus creation. The 700 people who packed the library at Oxford University clearly sided with the anti-Darwinians.

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