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