Darwin and Evolution Part 1

Darwin's Journey to Knowledge

Published in Gralswelt special issue 21/2008

In surveys of the most important scientists of modern times, three names are regularly mentioned:

Isaac Newton (1643-1727)
Charles Darwin (1809-1882)
Siegmund Freud (1856-1939)

Newton found a fundamental method for researching inanimate matter and gave the starting signal for the dawn of a new era in natural science. Its importance for the natural sciences can hardly be overestimated.

Darwin recognized the biological dynamics of life. He founded evolutionary biology, which promoted materialistic thinking and subsequently questioned the foundations of world religions that were thousands of years old.

As a doctor, Freud did not limit himself to healing the body, but sought access to the treatment of the soul.

One of these outstanding personalities in science, Charles Darwin, will celebrate his bicentenary on February 12, 2009. For this anniversary a series of essays that would like to pay tribute to the great Englishman and the impact of his ideas.

The great journey on the Beagle
On December 17, 1831, a three-masted brig set sail from Devonport (near Plymouth, South West England): the HMS Beagle under the direction of Captain Robert Fitz-Roy (1805-1865). The task of the expedition, initially planned for three years, is to survey the coasts of South America.

The twenty-two-year-old naturalist Charles Darwin goes on board.

His previous résumé: At the age of sixteen, his father sent him to Edinburgh to study medicine. But Charles did not feel inclined to become a doctor and could not watch the operation (at that time still without anesthesia). So his father finally enrolled him in theology at Cambridge, hoping that his son would at least become a country pastor. At the time, studying theology was a very common start for a nature-loving young person.

One of Darwin's teachers there was William Payley; a distinguished theologian who convinced Darwin that evidence of heavenly planning was evident in nature.

Since childhood, Darwin had attracted attention as an inquisitive nature observer, plant and insect collector. He also becomes a first class rider and hunter. During his studies at Cambridge he learned theology - not particularly diligently - but was inspired by geology and biology and attended lectures on the subject.

When a natural philosopher was sought for the Beagle in 1831, the theologian and botany professor John Henslow (1798-1861) recommended his talented student Darwin as the unpaid researcher and travel companion of the captain. Darwin's father Robert (1766-1848) is against this trip. But the uncle Josiah Wedgewood (1769-1843) stands up for his nephew so that he can come along. The young candidate for the priesthood has to bear the costs of his research on shore leave himself.

It is the time of the gentlemanly researchers, who hardly receive any public money and who largely finance their scientific hobbies themselves. Charles Darwin also had to raise £ 1,500-2,000 for his five-year journey, which will go down in history as the most important scientific expedition; a fortune for the time that his wealthy family fortunately can - and does - afford!

Little did the pious relatives suspect that the results of the research they funded will shake the Christian view of the world, which is sacred to them. Similar to how the heliocentric planetary system of Copernicus outraged the theologians three centuries earlier, Darwin's theory of selection will now again offend Christian feelings.

A tough start
Launched in 1820, the Beagle is only about 30 m long. As an expedition ship, she was converted from two to three masts and now has a water displacement of 253 tons. On departure there are 74 people on this small ship!

Darwin is preferred to the crew as a gentleman, but has to share a tiny cabin with two other crew members.
On his first voyage by ship, he became seasick in the Bay of Biscay a few days after leaving the country. He has to stay in his cabin most of the time. He would have loved to get off again straight away. But he has to hold out until Tenerife. There he could breathe subtropical air for a few weeks, get to know vegetation that was new to him, and wait for a ship to England.

But the Spaniards don't let any English people ashore in Tenerife. Cholera has broken out in England and the Beagle has been in quarantine for 12 days. That takes too long for the captain, who immediately lifts anchor and sets sails. Off to South America!

In the tropical wonderland
After two months of sea voyage, after Darwin got used to the sea and survived the traditional, somewhat rough equatorial baptism, the Beagle lands in Brazil.

Here Darwin can finally collect tropical plants and animals. And here begins his astonishment at the opulence, richness and diversity of nature. An incomparable biotope opens up to him in the rainforest.

Darwin realizes the unique opportunities this journey opens up for him. Plants, animals, fossils, geological formations, even the tiny plankton in the sea: they all enchant and always offer new surprises for those who can see. Darwin is overwhelmed by the beauty of even the smallest living beings and asks the first hesitant questions about the meaning of the incomprehensible biodiversity in the largest as well as in the smallest.

In England, Darwin was an understanding bird watcher, insect collector and flower lover, who saw in the weaving of nature a wonderful proof of the existence of God and the immortality of the soul. In South America his joy in nature turned into a burning passion, an ardent curiosity, an indomitable search for the causes and the meaning. He climbs mountains, rides across the pampas with the gauchos, and discovers new things everywhere.

In South America, Darwin encounters slavery, which, as a liberal Englishman, he resolutely rejects:
“When I was on the good (near Rio de Janeiro), I was almost an eyewitness to one of those heinous acts that can only take place in a slave country. Due to a dispute and a legal trade, the owner was about to separate all women and children from the male slaves and sell them separately at the public auction in Rio. No compassion, but self-interest prevented this act. Yes, I don't think the owner even realized the inhumanity it means to separate thirty families that had lived together for many years. Still, I want to vow that he surpassed the ordinary people in humanity and benevolence. One can say that blindness of self-interest and selfishness have no limits. "   From Darwin's travel diary (3, p. 54).

At the wild end of the world
When, one year later, in December 1832, Tierra del Fuego was reached, Darwin was shaken by the primitiveness of the natives. He notes with shock:

"I would not have believed how great the difference is between the wild and the civilized man: it is greater than between wild and domesticated animals in that there is a greater capacity for improvement in man" (3, p. 280).

Captain Fitz-Roy is more optimistic. He brings three Yamana Indians civilized in England ashore, including Jemmy Button, who was brought to England as a child and grew up there.

Beagle sailors set up a small mission station with huts and plantations as the basis for the civilization and Christianization of the Tierra del Fuego.

When the Beagle returns a good year later, the huts are empty and the beds trampled. A horde of savages brings a gaunt man with matted hair to the Beagle, naked except for a scrap of fur. It is the deeply embarrassed Jemmy Button who had lived well-adjusted in England, wearing gloves and keeping his polished shoes clean. He can fit in again on the Beagle, but does not want to stay on board, but rather return to his wife on land.

Darwin ponders: is man really the crown of creation? Where is the biblical resemblance to God in the Tierra del Fuego?

Darwin's excursions are more successful than Fitz-Roy's ethnological experiment.

In Argentina he discovered fossils of marine animals, hundreds of meters above sea level! In geological formations he can chisel skulls, teeth and bones of previously unknown prehistoric four-legged friends out of the rock. Pack animals drag this packed in wooden boxes "Useless stuff that just clogs the hold" (Fitz-Roy) on the Beagle.

Darwin is not deterred by his captain. He tirelessly collects plants, animals, fossils and information.
In Chile he experienced a severe earthquake that shook him deeply.

The infinite abundance of nature
In September 1835 the Beagle reached the Galapagos Islands, a wonderland for naturalists:

“I would never have dreamed that islands that are around fifty to sixty miles apart and mostly within sight of each other, formed from exactly the same rock, exposed to a very similar climate, rising to almost the same height, are inhabited differently ... " (3, p. 518).

But Darwin has already seen too much new. He overhears Lieutenant Governor Lawson's assurance that he can tell from the shell of a turtle which island it came from. So he does not follow up on this hint. The 30 turtles brought to the Beagle as provisions are not examined in detail, their tanks fly unregistered into the sea.

The ardent naturalist also made surprising mistakes with the famous “Darwin finches”. He overlooks anatomical similarities and believes they are wrens, finches and black thrushes, which he can no longer even attribute precisely to where they were found. It was only in England that the ornithologist Gould brought an overview of this bird collection and found that all specimens were finches, each of which had adapted to a certain way of life.

"The strangest thing is the perfect gradation in the size of the beak in the different species of Geospiza, from one as large as that of the grosbeak to that of the chaffinch and even that of the warbler." (3, p. 500).

Were these clearly different bird species on the fifth day of creation - neatly separated from one another - distributed to the individual islands? What for?

First hesitant ideas emerge in Darwin that species, separated from one another, could evolve in different directions. But he does not yet have an idea of the mechanisms that bring about this.

The order of nature
For Darwin, the trip on the Beagle was a hunt for facts. He is not yet able to bring an overarching order into the multitude of his nature observations. He hardly dares to think about the idea of a development history. But his thoughts will mature. After decades of tireless research and reflection, a new worldview, evoked by Darwin, will emerge. It will permanently change the way people see themselves.

For Darwin's devout contemporaries, the origin of the world and life in the sense of the Bible had been convincingly explained up to that point:
The three thousand year old biblical account of creation describes the creation of the world. God created everything in seven days. Plants, animals, people came straight out of his hand. There is no doubt about that.
Or is it?

“The trip of the 'Beagle' was by far the most significant event of my life and shaped my entire career; yet it depended on something as minor as my uncle's offer to drive me thirty miles to Shrewsbury, which few uncles would have done, and on something as minor as the shape of my nose. I have always felt that I owed the first real discipline or education of my spirit to the journey. I was encouraged to pay close attention to several branches of natural history, and this sharpened my powers of observation, although well developed. "  From Darwin's autobiography (5, p. 60).                  

Darwin as a travel companion
The behavior of the highly gifted candidate for the priesthood is appreciated by modern evolutionary biologists as follows:

“During the entire trip, Darwin shows himself not only as an unusually versatile biologist and geologist with the ability to reach far-reaching conclusions, who tirelessly collects facts, but also as an upright person committed to the truth, who personally spent more than five years in the difficult situation between a neurotic captain, the ship's officers and the crew has proven to be outstanding in human terms. " (6, p. 18).

A higher praise for a young, inexperienced and only superficially trained scientist is hardly conceivable!

A religious naturalist?
Two well-known evolutionary biologists were considered model atheists in the 19th century: Charles Darwin and Ernst Haeckel. Both were devout Christians from a young age until their faith was shaken by a great loss - the loss of a loved one.

When Darwin embarked in 1831, he was in tune with the teachings of the Church of England, which he later intended to serve:

“On board the Beagle I was entirely Orthodox, and I remember being laughed at by several officers (even though they were Orthodox) for quoting the Bible as an irrefutable source on a particular moral issue. I suppose it was the novelty of the argument that amused them. " (5, p. 67).

After his return, he gradually changes his mind:

"But at that time I was" (1836 to 1839) “Gradually came to the realization that the Old Testament - with its obviously false world history, with its Babylonian tower, with the rainbow as a symbol, etc., and its way of ascribing the feelings of a vengeful tyrant to God - is no more to be believed than the scriptures of the Hindus or the beliefs of any savage. " (5, p. 67).

With such doubts about the "Holy Scriptures" he distances himself from his church, but not from belief in a Creator:

“Another source of conviction in the existence of God, related to reason and not to feelings, seems to me to carry much more weight. This arises from the extreme difficulty, or rather the impossibility, of seeing that this immense and wonderful universe, which embraces man with his ability to look far back into the past and far into the future, is the result of blind chance or necessity. If I think about it, then I feel compelled to look around for a first cause which has an intellect somewhat analogous to that of man, and I deserve to be called theist. " (5, p. 72).

Finally, he questioned the Christian denomination:

“So, very slowly, my disbelief crept into me. It came over me so slowly that I felt no discomfort ... and since then I have never doubted the correctness of my decision for a second. Indeed, I can hardly understand how anyone, whoever it may be, could wish that Christian teaching be true; for if so, then the simple text (of the Gospel) shows that the unbelievers, and I should include my father, my brother, and almost all of my best friends among them, ewig have to serve a sentence. A hideous idea ”(2, p. 106).

These words - which his pious wife pointed out from the first edition of his memoirs - stamped Darwin as an atheist from an orthodox ecclesiastical point of view. Was that really him? 

Continued Part 2.

(1) Bronowski Jakob, Der Aufstieg des Menschen, Ullstein, Berlin, 1973.
(2) Clark Ronald W., Charles Darwin, S. Fischer, Frankfurt, 1985.
(3) Darwin Charles, Die Fahrt der Beagle, marebuchverlag, Hamburg, 2006.
(4) Schmitz Siegfried, Hermes Handlexikon Charles Darwin, Econ, Düsseldorf, 1983.
(5) Schmitz Siegfried, Charles Darwin, dtv, Munich 1982.
(6) Storch W./Welsch U./Wink M., Evolutionary Biology, Springer, Berlin, 2001.
(7) (with pictures of Darwin and his itinerary).
(8) (with another portrait and a picture of the Beagle and its route).