Endless forms, most beautiful — Darwin and On the Origin of Species

darwin's tree of life evolution

159 years ago, on November 24, 1859, Charles Darwin published his work: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection; an account of the greatest story ever told — that of evolution by natural selection. He was a naturalist, geologist and biologist

He had spent 5 years on the HMS Beagle from 1831 to 1836 studying animals in the Galapagos, discovering fossils and observing tribes around Southern America. With his ideas developing, he returned home and was then influenced by Malthus’ Essay on Population, which led him to develop his theory of evolution via natural selection. A theory that has withstood the test of time, experimentation and evidence for over a century and a half. There is no doubt now that evolution by means of natural selection is the unifying theory of life sciences and is the only one that explains the diversity of life on this planet.

He was an extremely cautious man and had a fear of ridicule and rejection, which led him to keep his ideas hidden. He only shared them with botanist Joseph Hooker in 1844, saying that it was like confessing to a murder. He had begun in 1837 and it would take him 19 years before he would actually publish his theory after another naturalist, Alfred Russell Wallace, shared with him and others, his own similar conclusions. Initially, Darwin introduced his theory of evolution in a letter read at a meeting of the Linnean Society, as a joint publication with Alfred Russell Wallace, in 1858. On November 24, 1859, he published a detailed explanation of his theory in his best-known work, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.

In 1860, Bishop Samuel Wilberforce (Soapy Sam) and Thomas Henry Huxley (known as Darwin’s Bulldog for his vociferous defense and promotion of the theory of evolution), took part in a famous debate on Origin, where Soapy Sam implied that humans had descended from monkeys by inquiring of Huxley whether he considered himself to be descended from monkeys from his grandfather’s or his grandmother’s side.

This idea has persisted over the years and has been adopted by those who do not understand evolution. This is not what Darwin had ever implied, but had established that all species have descended from common ancestors; that the branching patterns of evolution were a result of natural selection, where species struggle for existence, similar to the effect of artificial selection in breeding.

He also did not initially use the phrase “ survival of the fittest”; it was coined by the philosopher Herbert Spencer, who extended evolution into the realms of society and ethics. Darwin did use the phrase in the republication of Origin in 1869, to mean that nature favours the best adapted individuals, not necessarily the strongest.

Darwin died in 1882, at his family home at Down House, where he had retired and is buried at Westminster Abbey. He has left behind a body of work that immensely beautiful and still continues to inspire to this day.

At the end of the the book he wrote:

“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

Featured image: Page from Darwin’s notebook, approx. 1837, showing his first sketch of the evolutionary tree
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