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Charles Darwin: The Unlikely Revolutionary

Charles Darwin is one of the most widely revered and enduringly controversial figures in the history of science. Both are exceptional feats for such a mild-mannered gentleman. Much of the controversy surrounding Darwin concerns the presumptive truthfulness of his evolutionary theory. Darwin’s ideas about evolution were so ground-breaking that, more than one hundred and fifty years after the publication of On the Origin of Species (1859), many people still refuse to accept Darwin’s basic precepts.

Shortly after graduating from Cambridge, Darwin received an invitation to ship out on the HMS Beagle. Darwin’s journey on the Beagle stands out as one of the world’s most important scientific events. The journey was history-making not only because modern biology owes its existence to Darwin’s circumnavigation, but, more specifically, because of the crucial change in Darwin’s thinking that the voyage inspired. Darwin embarked on the HMS Beagle as a conventional creationist, but he finished it as a radicalized evolutionist.

An important stimulant to Darwin’s evolving scientific ideas, and one of the few texts that Darwin carried aboard the Beagle, was Charles Lyell’s newly published Principles of Geology (1832). Darwin studied Lyell’s Principles carefully. Its dramatic departure from creationism lay in Lyell’s theory of uniformitarianism. Lyell argued that creation had not taken place at a singular moment in the all-too-recent past. Rather, creation was an ongoing process. The wind and rain that erode the earth generally do so at the level of dust motes. If afforded sufficient time, the relentless forces of accretion and erosion could build peaks that touched the clouds and then, particle by particle, reduce the ruggedest range of mountains to a chain of low, rolling hills.

If such a thing were true, then uniformitarian change could only be accomplished over extraordinary expanses of time. How many years would it take for the buffeting winds and seasonal rains to carve the Grand Canyon? The answer: Eons upon eons, and many magnitudes more years than could easily fit within the creationists’ young earth paradigm.

As the journey progressed, Darwin finally arrived at the Galapagos Islands. Though he had witnessed many wonders during his travels, the bizarre menageries that he encountered in the Galapagos exceeded anything that he had yet imagined. From giant tortoises to endless varieties of land crabs and snails, Darwin marveled at the seeming adaptability and (dare he think it?) mutability of the species that he observed. Perhaps as he gazed upon the spectacle of marine iguanas bobbing in the surf, Darwin gave thought to a new and unsettling idea. Just as tiny and slow-paced geological changes had the net result, over the long haul, of introducing extraordinary alterations to the earth’s geology, might not the same be true for living organisms? In other words, could the tiniest physiological changes accumulate sufficiently across time to bring about the transmutation of species?

Darwin was both fascinated and disturbed by the implications of this idea. Though other early scientists, including Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin (1796), had toyed with the idea that life had evolved through random natural processes, no one had been able to explain how that could happen. However, it was in the Galapagos that Darwin finally witnessed the diversity of life forms that would help him reveal the basic mechanisms of evolution.

In particular, while touring the Galapagos, Darwin noted a phenomenon that tends to arise with regularity among island species. After migrating to islands, species often undergo remarkable alterations, e.g., small animals grow, large animals shrink, dietary and habitat preferences shift, etc. Precisely why such a phenomenon should be so prevalent in diffuse island ecologies remained a mystery until Darwin studied the many varieties of finches on the Galapagos. Galapagos finches exhibit such a wide variety of shapes and sizes that Darwin initially misclassified the birds as entirely different species. Indeed, it was only after consulting with John Gould, an expert in bird physiology, that Darwin realized that the finches were in fact much more closely related. As a result, Darwin experienced a revelation.

Darwin postulated that island migrants encounter unique population pressures. That is, when migrant species initially arrive on the shores of hospitable islands their populations tend to explode. However, success quickly becomes a migrant’s worst enemy because rapid population growth tends to exhaust available resources. By the way, Thomas Malthus (2003) also had a substantial impact on Darwin’s evolutionary thinking. Quite simply, Malthus argued that population tends to grow geometrically whereas food resources can only expand arithmetically. As a result, if unchecked, population growth among any successful species (i.e., lilies on a pond, humans in Manhattan, finches in the Galapagos, etc.), will, within the space of only a few generations, rapidly exhaust available food resources. Under such circumstances, species that depend upon the seemingly limitless bounty of their local environs will soon discover that their luck has run out.

Thus, Darwin speculated that, like many island success stories, a singular species of finch had migrated from South America to the Galapagos. Finding itself in an environment that was largely devoid of predators and competitors, the finches flourished. However, like so many of their migratory counterparts, the finches soon encountered a problem. Finch populations expanded to the point that food became scarce and, thus, competition for the islands’ limited resources became increasingly intense. In turn, the combined pressures of overpopulation, scarcity of resources, and the resultant competition for survival triggered a process that transformed the fortunes of finches on the Galapagos. It was this insight that enabled Darwin to crack the mystery of natural selection.

In brief, Darwin argued that there are a number of crucial biological dynamics that energize the evolutionary process:

  • Variation: whether it’s dogs, grass, or fruit flies, organisms tend to vary from one individual to the next
  • Overpopulation: from oak trees to salmon, parents tend to produce more progeny than can survive to maturity
  • Struggle for survival: the overproduction of progeny tends to inspire a high-stakes competition to secure limited resources
  • Survival of the fittest: individuals with advantageous genetic traits enjoy an edge in the competition for scarce resources
  • Evolution through natural selection: winners of bio-ecological competitions survive and pass advantageous genetic traits to their offspring—which, in turn, brings about the gradual transmutation of species

With the above in mind, Darwin asserted that the finches which had survived on the Galapagos were those that had developed some sort of competitive advantage over their counterparts. As a result, multiple subspecies emerged among Galapagos finches, each of which was genetically equipped to take advantage of resources that were distinct from those preferred by their former messmate. Thus, Galapagos finches may have arrived on the islands as a single species, however, due to survival pressures, the finches evolved into a wide array of subspecies with distinct body types, divergent diets and unique survival strategies. Furthermore, Darwin argued that the speciation process that had transmuted Galapagos finches was essentially the same for every other species. Therefore, Darwin concluded that every living creature owed its existence to a process of evolutionary transmutation. Instead of an all-powerful god intentionally creating life in its existing form, Darwin’s new theory explained how life could evolve randomly through a long, slow natural process.

And so began the culture wars that have raged until this very day.


Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. 1st ed. London: John Murray, 1859.

Darwin, Erasmus. Zoonomia: The Laws of Organic Life. London: J. Johnson, 1796.

Lyell, Charles. Principles of Geology: Being an Attempt to Explain the Former Changes of the Earth’s Surface, By References to Causes Now in Operation. Volume One. London: William Clowes, 1832.

Malthus, Thomas. An Essay On The Principle Of Population (1798 1st edition, plus excerpts 1803 2nd edition). New York: W. W. Norton, 2003.

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Cite This Article

Timothy McGettigan (2012). Charles Darwin: The Unlikely Revolutionary. The Socjourn. [https://sociology.org/charles-darwin-the-unlikely-revolutionary-excerpt-from-good-science/]

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About Timothy McGettigan


  1. That’s interesting. So initially, competition had risen out of need for survival. Somewhere in the human existance it shifted from a need to survive to overconsumption which we are learning that we can not do in order for ALL of US to survive. A. You either deplete the masses and diminish to a manageable few…elite? Oh wait a minute…the elite don’t do windows so they’ll need a few lacky’s . or B. You continue on your path of overconsumption and run the planet into ruin through wars brought on by lack of quality of life for many. or C. You recognize the divinity in your supposed competition, you stop your rampage of overconsumption and make efforts to sustain the planet.

    Can I derive from this article that those who need to be fertile and multiply are the ones to blame for scarcity? Technology has pushed us pass the age of the need for farm hands, (Haines, 2005) but then again there are those 3rd world countries that still depend on the numbers. Hm, how does that work? More offspring equals more hands to help but then there are more mouthes to feed. In a land that is not fertile or is experiencing famine that is an equation that doesn’t add up.

    In a world where unlimited wealth and abundance exists, how can there be extreme poverty? Do you suppose it began with the Creationists theory where Adam took a bite out of the ol Apple? (pun intended) Adam bites the apple sees that it’s good. Tells a few friends pretty soon there’s not enough apples to go around so he walls off the orchard, picks a couple bushels (labor) but over charges to limit consumption to a specific group causing a gap between those who get to experience the apple and those who cannot afford the apple. Dr. Michael Sharp wrote an awesome explanation to labor exchange in “The Rocket Scientists’ Guide To Money and the Economy” I suppose that those who didn’t get the Apple but wanted the Apple might do anything in order to experience an Apple thus giving power to Adam who walled off the orchard. Now Adam is the King and runs the show…that is until a few get tired of the BM and retaliate, (war?).

    I look forward to Dr. Socteric’s articles on communities whom experience prosperity and flourish because of lack of need due to practiced teachings of ancient philosophies (that haven’t been watered down)that work.

    While I did not cite anything from The New York Times Newspaper, I cited one book and mentioned another, it may not be exemplar-worthy but that’s gotta be worth something in the sophisticated world of acedemia

    • I don’t think Tim is referring to system politics or economics. His primary concern is engaging the cultural debate (the cultural war as he calls it) between “creationists” and darwinists. He is suggesting that Darwin was on to something when he talked about environmental pressure leading to species variation and change. I think Tim and scientists are right about that. I think environmental pressures do lead to evolutionary changes, genetic adaptions, and so on. What I don’t believe is that these pressure apply to humans anymore. Culture, in my view, has obviated any evolutionary pressures that may evolve new “species” within the human race. Humans haven’t evolved at all in the past several thousand years because they have super-imposed “culture” and technology over processes of natural selection. But that doesn’t mean that evolutionary mechanisms didn’t once play a role in human evolution, or that they still don’t play a role in the natural world.

      The bottom line? We don’t have to reject Darwinian theory to criticize capitalism. What we do have to do however is separate capitalist ideology from scientific theory, something that even scientists are not always that adept at doing (see my article Ding Dong the Alpha Male is Dead to see how capitalist ideology penetrates into scientific theory).

      At the same time, I also don’t believe we need to reject notions of God or Consciousness to be good scientists. I think the cultural war as it is often conceived, i.e. as an irreconcilable war between creationists and Darwinist, is ill conceived. I don’t think it is a question of “either” god or Darwin. I think both “god” and darwin can be reconciled into a scientifically valid “theory” of creation. Though I will say that I don’t think that “god as male patriarch” is part of that reconciliation. As far as I am concerned that is ideological and superstitious. Any reconciliation that we do achieve will have to be based on a far more sophisticated and enlightened view of God/spirit/consciousness than any of the alternatives we currently have available to us. I’ll be exploring this theme in my Sociology of Religion course which should be coming on line later this year.

  2. I agree with Mike’s point about cultural evolution. As Karl Popper put it, non-human species solve problems with their genetics (Darwinian biological evolution), whereas humans solve problems with cognition. Thus, it has been possible for humans to adapt with such extraordinary speed and specificity that humans have become ‘super-adaptable.’ In brief, this means that humans have been able to congnitively/culturally tweak Darwinian evolution to their unique advantage.

    That said, there is no guarantee that humans will avoid extinction in the end (as has been the fate for more than 99% of species that have ever existed on earth). Rather, for the time that humans remain vital, we will continue to push the evolutionary envelope with our unique capacity for cognitive ‘agency.’

  3. But do you think that this pushing the evolutionary envelope with our unique capacity for cognitive ‘agency’ is what is causing the planet to fight back. Take back it’s power so to speak. In a sense, you could say that human agency has pressured the environment causing it to change thus causing a reaction from the environment and not always a favorable one.

    What you are also saying is the human agency goes beyond meeting the needs for survival and steps into overconsumption. What causes the need for domination of an individual’s environment? Why can’t human’s be good little finches and get along as long as there is enough to eat?

    • What causes the need for domination of an individual’s environment?

      As children we have basic needs for love, self worth, and acceptance. These needs are thwarted by The System and the toxic socialization process that encompasses us. As a result we are put into a sort of “deficit” or deprivation mode where our body’s become focused on trying to meet these unmet needs. These unmet needs are then exploited by capitalists to sell us things. The promise of satisfaction is attached to products, like the MacDonald’s happy meal which promises a happy family experience, something children are so desperate for, and this promise is used to sell the product. OF course, a happy meal can never substitute for a happy family experience and so the promise is always unfilled. That’s not important though. As long as people remain unaware of the existence of these powerful needs, unaware of the deficit mode they are operating within, and faithful, they will continue to function as good little consumers, generating profit for the captains of our commodity culture while they eat up the planet just as fast as they can.

      Does that answer your question?

  4. I explain in the book that human agents are exceptionally gifted at creating intellectual solutions to environmental problems. The challenge is that every solution to an environmental challenge invariably creates newer and more-difficult-to-resolve crises.

    Take, for instance, the ‘green revolution’ as a solution to global hunger. The green revolution has certainly made it possible to feed more of the hungry folks in the world–but (as Malthus would have pointed out) feeding hungry people means that one will soon have even more hungry people to feed (from 1.5 billion in 1900 to 7+billion in 2012).

    Creating crises has nothing to do with humans being ‘obedient’ to the whims of mother nature. Rather, crisis is intrinsic to life. This is why more than 99% of all species that have ever existed have gone extinct. Every living creature needs to deal with crisis: most attempt to resolve crises through random biological adaptation (.e., evolution and extinction), whereas humans solve crises with our intellect.

    There is no perfect solution to any crisis because any solution will generate unforeseen outcomes that translate into future crises (e.g., remedying the whale oil shortage in 1900 by increasing dependence on fossil fuels).

  5. “As children we have basic needs for love, self worth, and acceptance. These needs are thwarted by The System and the toxic socialization process that encompasses us”
    Your singing to the choir Dr. Mike. parents seperated from their children all day try to ‘make it up’ by super-sizing what ever purchase they can make to show the missing affection lost in the long hours away from home. The system is a great wedge maker.

    Goota Love that human agency.

    “The challenge is that every solution to an environmental challenge invariably creates newer and more-difficult-to-resolve crises.”
    Yes, yes, and yes Dr Tim. Well fed finches make more babies while McDonald’s is ‘Lovin’ it’ It appears that lessons of circumstances such as the whale blubber can be used as a future tool in controlling society too.

    Gotta love that human agency.

    The solution? keep treading water?

  6. No, not treading water. You jump to conclusions too quickly.

    Once again, as I explain in the book, crisis compels innovative thinkers to elevate their thinking by generating ground-breaking solutions to seemingly irresolvable problems.

    Though most folks would disagree, I argue that the interminable presence of ‘crisis’ in human affairs/civilization actually has positive aspects: crisis has often been–and, I believe, will always remain–the impetus for proactive change (aka, Progress).

  7. I guess I should read the book before I jump to any further conclusions. : )

  8. Vladimir Jerkovic

    The whole problem here, as far as I am concerned, is the following. The basic difference between facts is whether they exist dependently or independently regarding us; anent the difference between social and/or institutional and brute facts. Even though if we had been totally wrong about what makes the world and the reality, Realism would still have been true. Due to the reason that Realism is not a thesis about what the world is indeed, rather it is a view that there is the way the things are, that is, that they are logically independent of all human representation(will). For instance Spencer wrote a little bit earlier than C.Darwin about some “human“ or “social“ contemplations that Darwin as biologist applied within his science. All sorts of questions were raised in these times, and almost each and every remains to the present day. Human agency vs. determination. But if we take a look at this issue as social onstructivist do, we may notice that there are some facts we sense and understand as real and some as not being real, some as true and some not existing. But some of them are just here because we created them in a socialy constructed livelihoods. So, what are the facts here and how on earth we should take them for ideology purposes or worship, or how does it help us understand our agency when everything has already been explained, demistified and relived, in a certain virtual manner. I think that this “virtual“ is the crucial word here. What Realism do we need now is what Realism we will create for the needs of the moment we are summoned under, maybe just to explain it, provide meaning of different kind according to the postmodern discourse we are immersed into.

  9. sifali bitkiler

    thank you

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