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On this day (24th November), 147 years ago, Charles Darwin’s revolutionary book, On the Origin of Species, was published. His theory of evolution by natural selection is still generally accepted as the best explanation of how life on Earth developed.
Darwin was reluctant to publish his book because he knew it would attract widespread condemnation from those who believed, or said they believed, the biblical creation story. He was a quiet, studious man who preferred to avoid controversy or offending religious people. He may not have published the book at all if he hadn’t had a letter from the biologist Alfred Russell Wallace, whose research was leading him to a similar conclusion, and Darwin realised he must publish before Wallace did.
On the Origin of Species was the result of work that Darwin began in 1831, in his early twenties, when he joined the Royal Navy Survey ship, HMS Beagle, as a naturalist. He was hired to record the variety of flora and fauna he’d observe on the journey. His father was a doctor who expected him to study medicine but Darwin found his medical studies “intolerably dull” and he couldn’t stand the sight of blood, so he quit. Since childhood, he’d been fascinated by natural history; the voyage of the Beagle presented him with an irresistible opportunity.
The ship sailed to South America where they landed on the Galapagos Islands. Each island had its own species, different from those on the mainland, and half the species of birds occurred nowhere else in the world. Darwin was fascinated by the variety of finches, for example, that had developed different shaped beaks to equip them to find different types of food. He clarified some of his ideas during discussions with the ship’s Captain Fitzroy, a religious man. Darwin reasoned that what he’d observed couldn’t be accounted for by the Genesis story of the creation of the Earth in six days but that the varied species had evolved from similar ancestors washed up from the mainland. He observed, “In the struggle for survival, the fittest win out at the expense of their rivals because they succeed in adapting themselves best to their environment.”
Darwin’s theory of evolution caused great controversy, as he’d anticipated. Some ridiculed him in the cruelest terms. There are still people today, mainly in America, who reject the theory, believing that the earth was created about 10,000 years ago; a belief that’s in conflict with the evidence; fossil records exist for bacteria from 3.5 billion years ago – three quarters of the age of the Earth.
The Origin of Species ends with the words, “… 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.”
Further reading – We’re all monkeys
Apologies if you tuned in to listen to this broadcast and heard someone else's Thought for the Day. Due to flooding on the road I had to make a detour and arrived late, so they used a recording. This thought (minus the first few words) has been recorded and will be used when another contributor fails to arrive in time.