Saturday, December 27, 2008

Anniversary today

On this day in 1831, a voyage began that would ultimately rock our understanding of how the natural world came to have the form that it has. Charles Darwin, born into a middle-upper class British family in 1809, developed an early love for the natural world but apparently little ambition for any of the traditional career paths open to a person of his social standing in the early 1800s. Following his graduation from Cambridge University in 1831, he accepted a position as ...

... naturalist and companion to the captain of the British ship HMS Beagle, whose mission was to chart the coast of South America. The voyage of the Beagle lasted five years, circumnavigated the globe, and provided young Darwin with the opportunity to explore the diversity of the natural world from a global perspective. While he was certainly not the first explorer to have done so, he was among the wave of 19th century explorers who were ultimately provide a framework for understanding the processes that are responsible for shaping the patterns we see in the natural world today.

Many years after Darwin's return from the voyage in 1836, he developed a logical argument for how lineages of organisms could change over time in response to differential selection -- with respect to both survival and reproductive success -- caused by the environment. Dubbed natural selection, Darwin eventually (in 1859) fully laid out his argument in the book On the Origin of Species, which drew heavily on the observations he made while traveling on the Beagle; and the world has never been the same since.

Part of the attraction for me of Darwin's life story has always been its example of the power of observation. At the risk of understating the hardships of the voyage itself, Darwin in fact did little more on the voyage than collect, observe, and take meticulous notes. That, coupled with his brilliant ability to patiently ask (and answer) how one could make the most sense of his field observations, was all it took to shake human understanding of the world to its core.

The seismic tremors that began with the voyage of the Beagle have still not ended, since an acceptance of evolution by means of natural selection remains one of the primary touchstones in the global religio-culture wars. But regardless of where one stands with respect to those wars, one has to acknowledge the significance of a small ship that sailed out of Plymouth harbor on December 27, 1831.


Tom Fleischner said...

It's timely in another way for me to find your post, Steve. I'm in Tierra del Fuego, looking out over the Beagle Channel, named for Darwin's ship. Copies of "the Origin of Species" are for sale in tourist shops here. Darwin's former presence here is still felt daily.

Steve Trombulak said...

That so totally rocks!! Stay safe!