Charles Darwin – visiting visionary

Of all the very prominent visitors to Australian shores, one of the greatest is Charles Darwin.

On the twelfth of January 1836, the-before-he-was-eminent Charles Darwin sailed into Sydney Harbour on his voyage around the world on the Beagle. A few days later on January 16, he took a trip over the Blue Mountains to Bathurst, where he saw the platypus, a creature that could only have been put together by a committee. Knowing God worked alone, he immediately started wondering how such a thing could happen. After a few more observations around the world, consultation with a few colleagues and much thought, he came up with natural selection, the mechanism by which evolution worked. 

On consulting the notes of William Dampier, who had sailed around the world three times in the 17th century, including to the Galapagos Islands, the similarities of physical specialisations according to habitat in geographically dissociated locations around the globe were a seminal observation in the sub-text of Dampier’s notes. Following his own voyage around the world in the 1830s, building on Dampier’s notes, Darwin was able to solidify this recognition into a concept that was to revolutionise our understanding of biological mechanisms.

While in the Galapagos, Darwin had observed how the beaks of finches differed according to how they were used. For example, a large, rounded beak was suitable for grinding buds and fruit. However, the woodpecker finch, Camarhyncus pallidus, has a beak which allows it to grasp tools, such as twigs and cactus spines, with which to root for grubs.

In 1859, Darwin published his On the Origin of Species, in which he outlined the basic concepts of how living things become adapted to the conditions in their immediate environments through the process of natural selection. The idea is that if a plant or animal has certain features that allow it to survive in that environment, that is, be able to eat, drink, stay warm or cool, protect itself from predators, compete and so forth, it will have the best chance of surviving in that environment. If it survives long enough to reproduce, its offspring will have at least some of the features of its parents.

Of course, if the environment changes there could be trouble, but that is where diversity and mutation come in. Within any population of plants or animals no two individuals are exactly the same. So, if things get a bit hotter or wetter or the planet freezes over, as in the last Ice Age, there should be a few individuals with features that place it just inside the tolerance range for the new conditions. If those few survive and pass their features on, after a respectable amount of time, a whole new species of these newly adapted creatures will have survived to flourish in the conditions to which they are suited.   

This was the essential thrust of evolution, but Darwin stopped short of including people in his thesis. However, in 1871 he published the one that really got the monkey fur flying, The Descent of Man, in which he more explicitly implied that people were descended from apes just as horses were descended from Eohippus. One is not sure of how the apes felt about being related to humans, but there were many people in the day who were not happy about the idea that the eloquence of the Creation as described in Holy Scripture was not necessarily literal. That the entire process of evolution could happen without conscious control by an external hand was a big leap in cultural thinking and too big a step for a man to bear on their own. It took many champions to make the case in a debate that raged over many decades before the concept of evolution gained acceptance within the general culture. Among those champions was Thomas Henry Huxley, come to be known as “Darwin’s bulldog”, and a man who also had strong links to science in Australia…

…The exact mechanism by which a parent’s features were inherited by their offspring was not understood until the end of the century when an Augustinian priest, Gregor Mendel, figured out it was all in the genes.