November 05, 2020

#08-006: Darwin's Life-Changing Discovery

Charles Darwin

Note: Sometimes science advances by invention, other times by discovery. In this latter category falls the story of a recently-graduated naturalist who set out from England in 1831 on a five-year voyage along both coasts of South America and onward around the globe.

Get Ready: Where do you think life came from? Was it the result of natural causes; an act of God; or some other source?

Charles Darwin, before making his voyage of discovery, had previously studied what was "known" of evolution. The prevailing theory in that religious age was that the adaptation of species to their environments could be explained as God acting through the laws of nature (which he himself had set in motion). The belief of the day was in gradualism, the idea that God's handiwork in the world was changing slowly, gradually, and according (they believed) to some "divine plan."

But what Darwin experienced onshore in Valdivia, Chile, on February 20, 1835, literally shook his convictions to the core. "An earthquake," he wrote, 

instantly reverses the strongest ideas; the earth, the very emblem of solidity, has trembled under our feet like a thin crust placed on a fluid. A space of a second was enough to awaken [in] the imagination a strange feeling of insecurity which hours of reflection would not have produced.

There is nothing "gradual" about the damage wrought in a major earthquake, and this one, with a surface magnitude estimated at 8.2, was a doozy (somewhat stronger than the 2008 Sichuan quake, an 8.0). The quake Darwin experienced was followed by three separate tsunamis.

Convinced now that change could happen not only slowly (gradualism) but also quickly (catastrophism), Darwin went on with his collecting of biological samples. When the ship, the H.M.S. Beagle, reached the Galapagos Islands, Darwin noted the differences from island to island in the beaks of small birds called finches, and later wrote, "one might really fancy that from an original paucity of birds in this archipelago, one species had been taken and modified for different ends"--and that fairly quickly in "geological time."

This, along with much else that he observed, was the key to his greatest discovery, published in the book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.


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Practice: Match the term to its definition below:

  1. adaptation
  2. convictions
  3. doozy
  4. emblem
  5. fancy
  6. handiwork
  7. paucity
  8. prevailing
  9. tsunamis
  10. wrought

  1. predominant; generally occurring
  2. a change in an organism which makes it better suited to survive in its environment
  3. imagine
  4. beliefs
  5. unusually large sea waves caused quakes or volcanic eruptions
  6. a symbol
  7. a shortage; scarcity
  8. worked; created
  9. work done by hand
  10. an extraordinary example of something

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for November 5, 2020

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. b; 2. d; 3. j; 4. f; 5. c; 6. i; 7. g; 8. a; 9. e; 10. h