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...Darwinless...
Charle Darwin old Can you imagine a world without Darwin?. A world without the deep legacy that Robert Darwin left behind?. Our own world but empty  of Charles Robert Darwin's contribution to the understanding of the mechanisms that drive evolution?. Would we still be enlightened by the dogma spread by fanatic creationists?. The same dogma that it is disguised today as creation science?.

     "Cambia lo superficial
cambia también lo profundo
Cambia el modo de pensar
cambia todo en este mundo..."
 Our collective perception of the world is also in evolution. Sometimes is even subject to dramatic changes. One such change was about to set sail on December 27, 1831 with Her Majesty Ship Beagle. We will see how this episode is a beautiful example of what we could call the butterfly effect, and reminds us the potential transcendence of isolated single events enhanced by the dynamics of chaotic systems like our own world.
 Her MS Beagle, a 235 tons vessel, sailed along the seas of the southern hemisphere with the object of “completing the survey of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego; to survey the shores of Chile, Peru, and some islands in the Pacific; and to carry a chain of chronometrical measurements round the world” (footnote).
 
[footnote] Safe, reliable navigation requires the determination of a ship location in terms of latitude and longitude. Determining latitude was always easier: the simple observation of the sun and stars first and the measurement with sextant of their position relative to the horizon later had boosted navigation many centuries earlier. But the determination of longitude, vital for long oceanic trips, was more complicated and required carrying very precise clocks aboard with the time corresponding to the meridian of origin and comparing the local time in order to calculate the difference in longitude. This quite inaccurate method of 'time transport' was kept until the introduction of time signals by radiotelegraphy around 1912.
Needless to say that the discovery of new sources of raw materials and the opening of new markets around the world during the trip would also be welcome. The study of biological specimens was therefore subsidiary to these objectives and never a goal in itself, much less intended to bring about a revolution in the understanding of our world


The voyage of The Beagle


 
 
 With the object of the trip in mind, it is clear that a scientist aboard the ship was not a first priority. Yet, the commander of the ship, captain-to-be Robert Fitz-Roy, was determined to include a naturalist in the trip; but not just anyone. The candidate ought to be a cultivated gentleman, though not necessarily an aristocrat like Fitz-Roy himself. It was going to be a very personal and subjective choice. No wonder!, for that companion would be the only one sharing room, dinner and casual conversations with the Captain during the many long months and years ahead. The fact is that despite the reduced size of the ship the captain was not supposed to mix with his men, beyond the regular chain of command. Fitz-Roy thought a good Christian, cultivated naturalist will be perfect company and could certainly appreciate with him the many natural wonders created by God that they could find along the way. 
 
 Charles Darwin 
Watercolor by George Richmond (1840) (detail). (Darwin Museum at Down House)

 
Frequently we picture Darwin as the old man shown in the title photograph. This might make us forget  that  actually it was the young man depicted here the one who made the work. Einstein is another good example of this idolatry for old wisemen.
 
August 24, 1831,  John Stevens Henslow, professor of botany at Cambridge, writes to his pupil and friend, a young Charles Robert Darwin about a unique opportunity. It so happened that Rev. George Peacock, also at Cambridge, had been asked to recommend a proper person as naturalist-companion for Fitz-Roy, and he wrote to Henslow on the matter. Encouraged by his mentor and recommended to Peacock, 22 year old Darwin decided to grab that opportunity. With the promise of many wonders ahead but without salary he took the ship to the adventure that changed his life.
 During his privileged trip aboard the Beagle, Charles Darwin had the opportunity to observe and note ignored species in remote shores. His stop at the archipelago of Galapagos was specially fruitful and led him to the discovery of singular relations between animals and plants of each island. In going from one island to another the fauna was naturally related but also presented distinct characteristics which could not be explained by differences in climate or geological conditions. Finch populations in different islands for instance were all alike except for their beaks, a difference that Darwin associated to their feeding patterns. Darwin saw, as certainly many others had seen before, many natural wonders including giant reptiles, true living fossils endemic of these islands. But he did not stop at seeing and awing. He wondered and pondered and didn't settle with not understanding.

Comparative sizes of the beaks of four species of Galapagos finches 
 When he arrived back in England Darwin was a new man and he knew much better than ever what he wanted in life. He devoted long years to the study and classification of data, not only on animals met along his trip but on anything relevant to the questions that had haunted him during that voyage: Are species mutable?. And Why?. Darwin tracked nature's clues like nobody else before and understood that the origin of the great variety of living species on Earth lies precisely on change and evolution. As a matter of fact evolution in the natural world had been proposed earlier (Lamarck among others, see below). The greatest of Darwin's contributions was to discover the mechanisms leading to that evolution during long periods of time, mechanisms that he centered in natural selection.
23 years after the end of his voyage, Darwin's first and most emblematic writing was published, his book "Origin of Species trough Natural Selection". Aside from the solid principles established in this work, Darwin's book represented a great challenge the dominating ideas about our world. Those old ideas were deeply rooted in religious beliefs that had prevailed for centuries and that spoke of an immutable world, essentially unchanged from its creation.(footnote).
[footnote]: Bishop Ussher, with a precission worthy of a better cause had established already in the 17th century that the creation of the World took place in the year 4004 before Christ.
Many philosophical and moral implications of Darwin's theories were truly perturbing for the Victorian society that witnessed their birth. On the other hand, most naturalists of the end of that century were convinced by the elegance and str
th of Darwin's analysis. Success and recognition blessed Darwin before his death; by then his theories were already recognized as such and he was solemnly buried in Westminster Abbey, next to Isaac Newton.

 With these antecedents Darwin could be considered a visionary, a unique individual advanced to his time. And he certainly was so. However we cannot disconnect his work from his circumstances. In our social world there is no spontaneous generation either.
 In the case of evolution, the first known theory was formally proposed in 1809 - coincidentally the year Darwin was born - by the French philosopher and naturalist Jean Baptiste de Lamarck. He didn't call it evolution but recognized 'transformation' of species after long periods of time and proposed natural progression from the smallest living organisms to more complex and 'perfect' plants and animals. In order to explain the course of evolution, Lamarck proposed four basic principles: an internal impulse of all living organisms towards perfection, the capacity to adapt to circumstances, a frequent spontaneous generation and inheritance of acquired characters. Despite the absence of a solid scientific evidence to back them up and the many errors contained in his principles, Lamarck established a very important precedent. As a matter of fact, Darwin, as many other naturalists, initially thought that Lamarck's ideas were preposterous; but this was before his voyage. The gradual and unprovoked change of mind that Darwin underwent was based on overwhelming evidence piling up on his mind, which in turn contributed most than any other thing to the consolidation of evolution as part of our collective knowledge.
A most important influence on Darwin was made by the person and work of geologist Charles Lyell (1797-1875), a methodical scientist that set the foundations of Geology with his studies on geological evolution. Lyell established for the first time the extremely long geological timescales that would later be the base for the biological evolution proposed by Darwin himself. Charles Darwin was a devoted fan of Lyell during his first years dedicated to scholarly learning of natural science and later applied Lyell's scientific methods to biological evolution. Lyell ended up being a good friend of Darwin, guided him in the need to apply rigorous experimental methods in his research and encouraged him to publish the "Origin of Species".
Finally, another key influence in the way of Darwin to establish his conclusions was the economist Robert Malthus (1766-1834) author of a book on "Population" (1798). Darwin read this book "for amusement" in 1838 after having read many other books, journals and transactions in his industrious effort to gather data to analyze. From Malthus' ideas related to the struggle for existence Darwin finally got a starting point for his very long sought question of how evolution would work, 
"... it at once struck me that [...] favourable variations would tend to be preserved and unfavourable ones to be destroyed."
Nevertheless, he was more anxious to avoid prejudice than to publish his thoughts. It wasn't until June 1842 that he allowed himself the satisfaction of writing a very brief abstract of his theory (35 pages, enlarged to a new version of 230 pages during the summer of 1844).

Last but not least, the familiar influences on Darwin are also worth considering. His father, Robert Waring Darwin was a physician, head of an accommodated country side English family. His mother died when he was only 8 years old. Young Charles Darwin was not a good student, he seemed too distracted by leisure activities such as specimen collection and later by fishing and hunting. By his father design Charles Darwin begun studying medicine, but he never finished. In his autobiography he recalls how he couldn't stand witnessing a couple of surgical procedures at that time ("long before the blessed days of chloroform" ..."The two cases fairly haunted me for many a long year").
On the other hand Darwin's grand father, Dr. Erasmus Darwin, zoologist and precursor of evolution theories played a positive influence on him. When he was 17 years old
Darwin reads with great admiration his grand father's book "Zoonomia", finds out about Lamarck's ideas and gets interested in Geology. But not in medicine. Given the little success with this first career, Darwin's father, a good example of the species stepping twice on the same hole, decided to reorient the career of his son. Charles, obedient of his father's designs begun the studies that would have converted him into a clergyman priest. Fortunately, these theological studies also remained unfinished. It was during this time, though, when Charles Darwin begins attending classes of Natural History with interest and visiting the house of the theologist and botanist J.S. Henslow, whose influence ended up as we already know with Darwin in the Beagle.

So we see how Darwin is Darwin and his circumstances and the great importance of the latter in the development of his huge creative potential.
 
 
But, what would have been if Darwin or those circumstances had never existed?. No doubt it would have been a great opportunity lost. But, would have the world remained orphan of evolution theory?. 

Certainly not.  Nature's clues in the form of living species would still have been there, waiting as needed for a member of a self-aware species (ours, of course) to disentangle its 'secrets' and tell the rest of us. 
But how long could had waited human kind to do this in a Darwinless society?. Answering this question in a general way is impossible. Yet, we have access to a singular answer that corresponds to our particular chain of past events. We can find this answer in History books. Or even better in Darwin's biographies (History books are too busy with wars, battles, treaties and the extension of empires in space and time). 
So it happened that in 1858, when Darwin had already advanced in his analysis and interpretation of data and had already written the first ten chapters of his masterpiece, he received a letter of a young naturalist, also an Englishman, Mr. Alfred Russel Wallace. Wallace was at the time at the Malay archipelago, studying new species and their variability. He sent Darwin a manuscript for review before sending it to the Linnean Society of London. The paper treated on "the tendency of varieties to depart indefinitely  from the original type". He had reached very similar conclusions to Darwin's about the mechanisms of evolution. 

In the Science trade, priority for a discovery or theory is established following the criterion of the first public presentation. Thus, Wallace's communication to Darwin was a bomb, since it anticipated the conclusions of the laborious work that Darwin had been conducting for twenty years, and that he was in the process of writing down. 
 (footnote 1). Under these circumstances and following the advice of Lyell and Hooker, both members of the Linnean Society, Darwin and Wallace agreed to present simultaneously their results during the annual meeting of the Society, that took place in July, 1858, publishing their communications the following year. (footnote 2) After several more months of strenuous efforts Darwin's book on "The Origin of Species " finally got printed on November, 24th, 1859. The first edition of 1250 copies was sold out the very first day; second edition of 5000 lasted a few more days.
 
[footnote 1] 
This was a very notorious case (though by no means unique) of independent scientific works published simultaneously. Cases like that are even more common nowadays due to the increase of the scientific community and to the quicker and wider divulgation of scientific results.
[footnote 2]
About priority in the theory of evolution through natural selection both scientists were very considerate of each other. Darwin did not feel it was fair for him to step over and rush a publication just because Wallace was about to do it. And on the other hand, Wallace himself would give Darwin most of the credit for the theory all his life. In a 1887 letter to A. Newton he wrote: "I can truly say now, as I said many years ago, that I am glad it was so [that Darwin had so long anticipated him]; for I have not the love of work, experiment and detail that was so pre-eminent in Darwin, and without which anything I could have written would never have convinced the world."
 


 
 This episode of history gives an answer to our question about a Darwinless evolution. Of course we will never know how it would have been a world without Darwin but with Wallace. But certainly Wallace had followed the clues, and though admittedly with less detail in his analysis he reached very similar conclusions on the mechanisms of natural selection. He departed from Darwin in aspects related to human evolution since he believed that natural selection alone was not able to explain the superior nature of our species. But that was just a matter of time. Maybe we would have needed to wait for the divulgation of Mendel's laws on inheritance, genetics or even for modern molecular biology and DNA to tie definitively our species with the rest. But it is most likely we would not have needed to wait so long.

Our species found in the victorian English society of the 19th century the adequate conditions for this discovery. The long ruling of Queen Victoria (1831-1901) corresponded to a period of maximum prosperity for the British empire. It begun with the promulgation of commercial freedom; in 1836 the British colony of Australia was created and in 1840 New Zealand also became a colony. Voyages like that of the Beagle were the rule and not the exception. Those were adventures moved by exploration and commercial winds, not by war.(footnote)
 

[footnote]: Obviously not all of the human species was enjoying those good conditions at the time. Thus, for instance, during the voyage of the Beagle, in Spain a war was going on to decide succession after the death of the despotic king Fernando VII in 1833. It reached a temporary end in 1840. Other populations like Africans or Australians subsisted in tribal structures very far from the social complexity of European states that would end up colonizing them.
In that place and during those times there were geographic and scientific societies of great prestige reinforcing the work conducted in important Universities with an already glorious scientific tradition. Under those conditions our species found a scientific community - though not quite a whole society - mature enough to figure out and accept the mechanisms of evolution in a world of amazing variety waiting to be understood.

So... In a Darwinless society, here's the picture of the venerable old man we would cherish as the discoverer of the mechanisms that drive evolution:


Alfred Russel Wallace
The End


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©Pedro Gómez-Romero, 1998,1999
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