Voyage of the Beagle
February 12, 2009 - 200th anniversary of the birth of British naturalist Charles Darwin, who formulated the theory of evolution as a result of observations made on a five-year surveying expedition on board the ship HMS Beagle.
Charles Darwin is one of the great pivotal thinkers in the history of humanity. His "big idea" challenged the world in Victorian times and still provokes both awed admiration and furious debate today, 200 years after he was born and 150 years after the publication of his famous evolutionary theory, On the Origin of Species.
Now the extensive celebrations of Darwin's bicentenary provide an opportunity to reflect on the true contribution of an extraordinary intellectual whose theories are not questioned by scientists but have become a battleground for creationists and their atheist detractors.
Born on February 12, 1809, in Shrewsbury, England, Darwin was sent to Cambridge to study divinity after a brief spell at medical school in Edinburgh. His father hoped he would become a clergyman but Darwin was passionate about botany, studying the natural world, collecting beetles and forming enduring friendships with likeminded naturalists.
One of them, Professor John Stevens Henslow, recommended Darwin to take part in a scientific voyage to South America, and it was on the five-year expedition on HMS Beagle that Darwin made the observations that would help him form his theory of evolution based on natural selection.
It took Darwin, who for much of his life was plagued by a mysterious illness, 17 years to publish his book. At the time most Europeans believed the world was created by God in seven days and the religious were among his strongest critics. However, his theories were widely accepted by scientists and not seen as totally incompatible with Christianity.
Darwin married his cousin Emma Wedgewood and the couple had 10 children. It has been said that, out of sensitivity to Emma's Christian faith, Darwin kept his counsel on his own beliefs, though he did describe himself as an agnostic before his death at the age of 73. His burial in Westminster Abbey reflects the high esteem in which he was held.
Today Darwin scholars urge people to put aside the squabbling over whether or not he believed in God, and focus instead on his work's implications for the environmental challenges we face in the 21st century. Climate change itself drives evolution and Darwin's belief in our own role in the natural world has never been more relevant.