Today is, of course, the two hundred and second anniversary of the birth of a very important historical figure. No, not Lincoln. Well, yes, Lincoln too, but that’s not who I’m talking about. I’m talking about Charles Darwin.
Darwin’s life story is as interesting, in its way, as his scientific accomplishments. As a young man, he drifted indifferently through his college studies (first in medicine, then in religion). By the time he’d finished his degree, he’d decided that he didn’t want to be a doctor or a member of the clergy, and over his father’s objections signed up to join the two-year voyage of the HMS Beagle as a naturalist. He got this job partly because the uncle of the ship’s captain, Robert FitzRoy, had gone mad and slit his own throat some years before, and FitzRoy was worried that if he didn’t have a proper gentleman aboard as a companion during the two long years he might succumb to the family craziness himself. FitzRoy almost rejected Darwin for the position because he didn’t like the shape of Darwin’s nose. Seriously.
The voyage of the Beagle is mostly associated with the Galapagos Islands, but they actually spent most of their time along the coasts of South America, where Darwin’s adventures included experiencing an earthquake and riding with South American cowboys, all the while making observations on the geology and natural history of the regions he passed through. They also visited New Zealand and Australia before returning to England in October of 1836. Darwin would never leave his home country again, and it was over twenty years before his observations during his time on the Beagle came to fruition with On the Origin of Species, which he finally prompted to publish when he found out that another man, Alfred Russel Wallace, had arrived at the idea of natural selection independently from Darwin and was about to publish it himself. (Poor Wallace, he never gets any credit.)
So, happy Darwin Day, and birthday to Charles – to the man who was, arguably, the father of all modern natural history studies.