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13 November 2014

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You are in: Shropshire > Darwin > Darwin: The Greatest Salopian

Statue of Charles Darwin outside his former school

Statue of Charles Darwin in Shrewsbury

Darwin: The Greatest Salopian

Of all our list of Great Salopians, Charles Darwin is the best-known by a country mile - and still the most controversial.

Darwin didn't change the world by his actions - he changed our perception of it.

His theories of evolution by the process of natural selection went against just about everyone's beliefs and made him a true revolutionary.

Yet it was hardly possible to meet a more genteel and respectable man.

Darwin wasn't one to stir up controversy - indeed he sat on his findings for many years, presumably because he was only too aware of the religious and political storm that would follow their publication.

Before Darwin, the accepted wisdom was that everything on the earth was designed and put in its place on the planet by God.

Creation

How else could creatures apparently so well suited to their environments arrive on the earth unless they were specially-designed to do the job and put there by an all-powerful maker?

Man, made in the image of God, had a special place at the top of the table.

The world conformed to an All Things Bright and Beautiful vision - but this theory never recovered after Darwin published his revelations.

Darwin was a scientist above all, with a talent for painstaking observational research and a brilliant mind.

Born on 12 February 1809, the fifth child of local GP Dr Robert Darwin and his wife Susannah who was the daughter of pottery king Josiah Wedgwood.

The Mount - birthplace and early home of Darwin

The Mount - birthplace of Charles Darwin

He spent his early years at The Mount, the grand house his father had built overlooking the Severn in Shrewsbury, before attending Shrewsbury School as a boarder.

But he didn't do well. Apparently he became bored by the mainly Latin and Greek curriculum and spent more time in the garden shed at home with his chemistry set.

And things didn't get much better when he tried to follow his father's footsteps into medicine - a stint at Edinburgh University Medical School ended abruptly when the young Darwin realised he couldn't stand the sight of blood and body parts.

So it was back to the drawing board and next Darwin's father tried to get his son into the clergy. Three years at Christs College, Cambridge, saw him get a BA in Theology, Euclid, and Classics - but emerge with no interest in becoming a priest.

However, it was at Cambridge that he found his calling, thanks to the lectures of the University's Professor of Botany, John Henslow.

The Beagle

Darwin landed the (unpaid) job of ship's naturalist on The Beagle, a Royal Navy ship re-fitted as a survey vessel. The purpose of its five year voyage was to survey the South American coast and the Galapagos Islands.

Despite suffering from sea sickness, Darwin threw himself into his new role with typical dedication. During the voyage he made a massive collection of fossils and made detailed studies of the local plants and wildlife he encountered.

His notes and journals were published alongside the captain's account of the voyage, but later published on their own, becoming the bestseller known today as The Voyage of the Beagle.

Darwin returned home in 1836, yet it was to be another 23 years before he would publish his findings in the book that would forge his reputation forever, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.

So why sit on his research for so long?

It's not as if it took all this time to come up with his theories based on the evidence. Darwin appears to have rejected the prevailing Christian-influenced view of the world after his voyage, and after that used published works by other scientists to help formulate his view.

Most important was the work of Thomas Malthus on population. Malthus had argued that population increase was always checked by a limited food supply.

Environment

But Darwin's theory went much further - to provide an alternative explanation as to why each creature seemed supremely adapted to its environment.

He introduced the concept that the natural world was an arena of constant struggle between competing individuals where those best-adapted to their environments won the prize - survival.

Much hinged on the unique giant tortoises and finches to be found on the Galapagos Islands, each slightly different from examples to be found on other islands in the chain. Darwin formed the theory that the tortoises, for example, were descended from a single species and had adapted over the generations according to their surroundings.

This and his wider theory left no room for miracles, creation or even God - and meant man could no longer be viewed as separate from or above nature.

Dilemma

Darwin knew only too well how explosive this theory would be if he published it and it must have proved an extraordinary dilemma for this genteel Victorian gentleman.

And this dilemma began at home where Darwin's wife, Emma, who he had married in 1839, was a devout Christian, and continued into his social circle, where many of his friends were, to say the least, indignant at his theories.

By 1842 Darwin had a 'pencil sketch' of his theory, which had expanded into a 240 page essay by 1844. But still he sat on his secret, a strain which some have speculated led to his recurring poor health.

Then Darwin's hand was forced. For some time he had been corresponding with a fellow naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, but in June 1858 Wallace wrote to Darwin asking him for his opinion on a theory that almost exactly mirrored his own work.

Finally, and perhaps horrified at being scooped, Darwin acted, and his theory, along with supporting work by Wallace, was announced to the Linnean Society in London the following month.

Darwin's face adorns a £10 note

Darwin's face adorns a £10 note

The announcement caused little more than a ripple, but Darwin threw himself into finishing his book and it was finally published in 1859.

Backlash

The result was the most controversial and discussed scientific book ever written, and it was so popular it had to be re-printed several times.

But with publication came the inevitable backlash, led by the Church of England.

His seminal work published, Darwin retreated from the limelight, leaving others, such as Thomas Huxley, who earned the nickname Darwin's Bulldog to champion his cause in the face of controversy.

While controversy raged, Darwin returned to the theories he put forward in Origin to explore than further in more books, in particular The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (1872), which put forward the theory that man was descended from apes.

But for the last ten years of his life he left the evolutionary debate behind, preferring to concentrate on botanical research. Oddly, his at times fragile health improved over this period, perhaps an indication of the great strain of his personal dilemma.

Darwin died at his home in Downe, Kent, on 19 April 1882 and was given a state funeral after which his body was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey, close to the grave of Sir Isaac Newton.

It's difficult to overstate this great man's contribution to the world of science and the world as a whole.

Darwin's theories changed the way we look at the world every bit as much as Copernicus, who proved that the earth revolved around the sun - and not the other way around.

His work was a huge blow to creationism (although there are plenty who still don't believe in his theories) and changed the basic thinking of many sciences.

Palmerston, the capital of Australia's Northern Territories, was renamed in his honour and his face featured on the £10 note from 2000.

In the town of his birth a statue of the great man sits outside Shrewsbury library - a building that was once his school. And, of course, his achievements are remembered by the growing annual Darwin Festival in Shrewsbury.

last updated: 24/06/2009 at 10:27
created: 21/03/2005

Have Your Say

So was Darwin the greatest Salopian? What do you think?

The BBC reserves the right to edit comments submitted.

massive
i can't belive he had TEN childeren

rosie myes
i think that he was amazing at finding all the fossils. but i dont really no what a salopian is

A Salopian is someone from Shropshire
the web team

Revd.F.W.Biddlecombe
Evolution is a theory!!! Leave God out of the picture and you will find out one day, too late, that you have made a dreadful mistake. You have been warned!

Genius face
Even the First Amendment of the Constitution says that religion shouldn't mix with state. Religion is not science. I agree 100% with Meritory, Eddie, Simon, and John.

chloe
yea he was evolutionism is why i dont believe in god

Candy Bowman-LeBlanc
Alfred Russel Wallace didn't get credit for natural selection, because Darwin knew that Wallace was going to publish his findings. but Darwin beat him to the punch.

Meritory
Antony still misses the point. First of all, darwin's theories have been around for quite a while and anthropological studies, as well as archaeological studies, have shown that humans did indeed evolve from apes. And no creature "chooses" to improve, just like evolution solicits. Plus, humankind has been around for 20,000 years or so. We didn't create civilization until 6,000 years ago. The first sentient humans were definitely not as smart as we are now either, so it's not like anything really happened overnight. My resource? The Making of the West, Peoples and Cultures Second Edition and of course the theory of evolution. Thank you and good night.

Eddie
Stoffel please dont just make statement without quoting your source or you are no better than the deluded people who still cling to religion as a crutch.

S.R. Slater
A few years ago the BBC ran a story on Darwin. The story pointed out the father of Darwin had a theory of evolution. It seems his son set out to prove it.

Antony
The debate about whether religion is right (advocating creationalism) or darwinism (advocating evolution) is redundant ... the fact that people exist as the only sentient species speaks as a matter of fact that some form of miracle must have happened ... whether from created from dust (creationalism) or ape (darwinism), why can't the miracle in itself be celebrated as what it is, a miracle! Darwin has a gap known as the "missing link" in his theories ... he can't explain scientifically why we developed sentience and, quoting Arthur Cannon-Doyle, "when you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth". Creatures evolve out of necessity, bringing about physical changes to their bodies to adapt to climates, yet no other creature has seen it "necessary" to become sentient. Thus, the only logical explanation is some form of "outside" influence & why not accept at least the possibility that this be God?

Steve
Well I'm sure he was a great scientist. But I'm not convinced by evolution in fact l think that it has many holes in it. One only has to think about it to realise that while there may be small changes in all animals yet the genes specify what the animal is.

Simon
What is all this nonsense about the Bible as truth. One groups mythology of choice does not have any relevance to the evolution of life on Earth. Of course there can (and should) be arguments opposed to Darwin's theories, but we should not confuse science and superstition.

John
Stoffel, please provide a link to a Scientific website that shows hard scientific fact disproving evolution. Peace.

Ian Sampson
The Bible is the truth first off, but a little feedback on the comment: 'Darwin's theories changed the way we look at the world every bit as much as Copernicus, who proved that the earth revolved around the sun - and not the other way around.' The bible also stated this fact 2500 years before darwin. Psalm 19 vr 6. 'It rises at one end of the heavens and makes its circuit to the other; nothing is hidden from its heat.' Rise/Set is a common venacular. This verse shows fore-knowledge, not known until the last 150 years, that is that the sun follows a circuit. How would the bible know this if it was not accurate or true?

Stoffel
Evolution? Are you kidding? Mordern science disproves Darwins theory of Evolution. Do your own research. Dont believe everything your told, Peace

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