Page last updated at 16:09 GMT, Tuesday, 24 November 2009
Darwin's legacy marked in 150th anniversary
Charles Darwin
The capital of Australia's Northern Territories was renamed Darwin

Shropshire celebrates a special year for arguably the world's most influential scientist.

Charles Darwin was born 200 years ago, while his key work On the Origin of Species marks its 150th anniversary on 24 November 2009.

Charles Darwin was born in Shrewsbury on 12 February 1809.

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

The Beagle

His voyages on The Beagle informed Charles Darwin's theories, but it was (many years later) the publication of On the Origin of Species which assured his legacy and place in history.

The unknown, young naturalist and geologist Charles Darwin joined Captain Fitzroy on the second voyage of The Beagle in December 1831, as the ship set out to map the coastline around South America.

Darwin landed the (unpaid) job of ship's naturalist on the ship, a Royal Navy vessel re-fitted for surveying. He left Shrewsbury by coach from the Lion in Wyle Cop expecting to be away for two years.

In fact the voyage to survey the South American coast and the Galapagos Islands took five years.

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 were later released 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 On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.

Inspiring acclaim and criticism in almost equal measure, incredibly he was not one to stir up controversy. Indeed he sat on his findings, because he was only too aware of the religious and political storm that would follow their publication.

Crucially Darwin's work suggested that man could no longer be viewed as separate from, or above, nature.

Today, Darwin's reputation seems to be at the expense of other champions of evolutionary theory. The names of Erasmus Darwin, Charles Lyell and Alfred Wallace are largely and unfairly forgotten.

However, while Darwin's theories were built upon the work of other scientists, they were also based upon a wealth of solid data and evidence gathered while on board The Beagle. This is what gave Darwin's material such power and established his name.

Darwin's Birthplace - The Mount
Darwin was born at The Mount in Shrewsbury in 1809

Environment

Darwin's theory also went much further than those before him - providing 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.

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.

Charles Darwin statue
Darwin attended Shrewsbury School, now the site of the town's library

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.

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 On the Origin of Species. In other, even-more-polemic books - The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (1872) - he put forward the theory that man was descended from apes.

A first edition of On the Origin of Species
Other Darwin publications proved far more indcendiary than his 1859 work

But for the last 10 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 at Downe House in Kent, on 19 April 1882 and was given a state funeral. He was buried 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 more generally, humanity.

Darwin's theories changed the way we look at ourselves, and were every bit as significant as those of Copernicus, who proved that the earth revolved around the sun - and not the other way around.

His work was a huge blow to seven-day creationism (although there are plenty today who reject 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.

In 2009 the huge sculpture Quantum Leap was unveiled by the River Severn to celebrate the significance of Darwin's ideas.




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