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Charles Darwin: The Shropshire man whose ideas changed the world

By Toby Neal | Shrewsbury | Features | Published:

Charles Darwin wasn't there when his ticking timebomb was planted.

CHARLES DARWIN

He wasn't feeling well, and was grieving for his 18-month-old son who had died of scarlet fever.

It was on this day, July 1, 1858, that papers by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace outlining the theory of evolution by natural selection were presented to the Linnean Society.

Wallace wasn't there either. He was abroad.

Founded in 1788, the London-based biological society is a forum for the discussion and advancement of the life sciences.

Wallace? He had independently come up with a theory very much along the same lines as that which Darwin had been sitting on for 20 years, but never published.

A colourised image of Darwin with his familiar beard – which he started growing in 1862.

As a result, Shrewsbury's most famous son, whose theory of evolution was to change our thinking about mankind's place in the world, came within an ace of being scooped.

On June 18, 1858, Darwin had received a letter from Wallace containing an essay called “On the tendency of species to depart indefinitely from the original type.”

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He was persuaded by two people familiar with his work, Scottish geologist Sir Charles Lyell and botanist and explorer Joseph Dalton Hooker, not to publish Wallace's essay without publishing his own long-withheld manuscript.

He left it to them, and just a day before the Linnean Society meeting they wrote to the society's secretary and arranged it.

As it was customary not to publish an agenda in advance, the papers that were read out by the secretary were a complete surprise to everybody there.

How was the groundbreaking theory received? In silence.

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An article by intern Eleanor Marshall published on the society's website written for the 200th anniversary of the event says: "In a letter written from Hooker to Charles Darwin’s son, Francis Darwin, 28 years after the meeting, he describes how the room was awestruck and completely silent.

"There was a lack of discussion about the papers which he put down to the subject being too novel and ominous.

"Thomas Bell, the president of the society at the time, had no inkling that this was the start of a paradigm shift.

"In his presidential address in May 1859 reviewing the previous year he said: 'The year which has passed… has not, indeed, been marked by any of those striking discoveries which at once revolutionise, so to speak, the department of science on which they bear.'

"It was only when Darwin published his 'Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection' a year later that the significance of this momentous occasion became evident."

Charles Darwin sat on his revolutionary theory for 20 years.

It was because Darwin's theory was backed up by his book and an immense body of work going back many years, that he, rather than Wallace, was recognised as the father of the theory of evolution, and became a household name.

The book caused both great interest and great controversy, being a challenge for the Church and Victorian society generally.

Its implication that humans are descended from apes was hard to take.

Yet it was a bestseller and Darwin, who had been worried sick about the reaction – as early as 1844 he had compared his ideas to confessing to a murder – was emboldened to expand on his theories with the book "The Descent of Man" in 1871.

Born in Shrewsbury on February 12, 1809, he had studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh but didn't feel suited to it, and then enrolled at Cambridge University to study theology. But he enjoyed collecting beetles more.

The turning point came when he joined, as a "gentleman naturalist," the exploratory voyage of the HMS Beagle around South America, Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific in 1831.

During the five-year trip he sent home 1,529 species preserved in spirit and 3,907 labelled skins, bones and other dried specimens. Having seen so much, Darwin began to formulate his theory.

On January 29, 1839, he married his first cousin Emma Wedgwood, the granddaughter of pottery manufacturer Josiah Wedgwood.

Darwin had put some thought into the decision to wed. He compiled a list of the advantages and disadvantages, concluding that a woman would be a better companion than a dog in his old age.

The couple moved from London to Down House, on the North Downs of Kent, in September 1842. They had 10 children, three of whom died before reaching adulthood. Their deaths and illnesses of the others prompted Darwin to fret that inbreeding – the result of his marrying his first cousin – was to blame.

Although the public image of him is of a bearded man, he didn't start growing his famous beard until 1862, following a period of poor health.

On his death on April 19, 1882, he was given a state funeral. He is buried in Westminster Abbey.

Toby Neal

By Toby Neal
Feature Writer

A journalist in Shropshire for 40 years, mainly writes features and columns, especially about aspects of Shropshire history. Lives in Telford and is based at the Ketley headquarters.

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