Charles Darwin

charles darwin
Charles Darwin. Wikimedia Commons


Charles Darwin






About Charles Darwin

In the course of his career, Charles Darwin investigated just about every form of life except dinosaurs--including barnacles, plants, earthworms, and prehistoric mammals. However, his studies of the origins and evolution of life did coincide with the earliest dinosaur discoveries, and one of his first supporters was the famously cranky but influential paleontologist Richard Owen (who later turned his back on evolution).

In an essential way, it was Darwin's theory that helped to make sense of the numerous dinosaur fossils being dug up all over the world in the 19th century.

One of the things that is rarely appreciated about Charles Darwin is the decades of work, and detailed note-taking, that he put in before finally formulating evolutionary theory. Darwin didn't just stay home and read books; he literally traveled around the world, examining both extant life forms and extinct fossil specimens. His most famous journey, which lasted almost five years, was on the H.M.S. Beagle, which made stops in South America, southern Africa, and Australia, as well as the Galapagos Islands, where Darwin marveled at the diversity of life forms adapted to this strange, remote environment.

In his seminal 1859 book, On The Origin of Species, Darwin explained the crucial role played by natural selection--that is, the weeding out of "unfit" animals and plants by environmental pressure--which made him a lightning rod for religious fundamentalists who insisted (and still insist today) on divine creation and "intelligent design." One of the amazing things about Darwin's theory is that he proposed it long before scientists had grasped the genetic mechanics of life; in that light, the discovery of DNA in the 20th century was an impressive confirmation of evolutionary theory.

As luck would have it, Charles Darwin published his seminal book shortly before the stunning discovery of Archaeopteryx in Germany's Solnhofen fossil beds. For the first time, naturalists (at least those who didn't immediately dismiss The Origin of Species as the work of a crank) had a framework in which to place this strange half-bird, half-dinosaur creature, clearly a transitional form from the late Jurassic period, 150 million years ago.

In the course of the last century and a half, the discoveries of numerous other "missing links" have eminently confirmed Darwin's thesis.

What would Darwin make of the anti-intellectual tendencies of certain segments of 21st-century American society--the people and politicians who insist that intelligent design should be taught in schools alongside the theory of evolution, that "human beings didn't evolve from apes" (a basic misconception about the mechanics of Darwinian evolution), or who deny evolution entirely and claim that the earth is only six thousand years old? He certainly wasn't surprised to encounter this type of resistance in his own lifetime, but he would surely be disappointed to discover, 150 years later, that his long-proven discoveries are still being debated by people who should know better!