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Ten things you didn’t know about Darwin

Charles Darwin’s birthday on the 12th February is widely celebrated in the scientific community and has come to be known as “Darwin day.” In recognition of Darwin’s 212th birthday this year, we have put together a list of ten little-known facts about the father of evolution.

1. Darwin didn’t actually invent the phrase “survival of the fittest.”

It was invented by Herbert Spencer after reading On the Origin of Species in 1864 and adopted by Darwin in his fifth edition of the book.

2. Darwin has over 250 species named after him.

Among these are Ingerana charlesdarwini, a species of frog endemic to India, and Darwinopterus, a flying reptile distantly related to dinosaurs.

3. Darwin published an entire book on the “action of worms.”

He was particularly interested in whether worms could hear, and after they failed to react to “shrill notes from a metal whistle” and “the deepest and loudest tones of a bassoon,” he concluded they could not. Although the thought of the distinguished scientist serenading worms is an amusing one, it was part of Darwin’s project to prove that some degree of intelligence existed even in the lowliest creatures.

Darwinopterus was a genus of the pterosaur, one of which is reconstructed here. (Image via Wikimedia Commons.)

4. Darwin was only 22 years old when he was chosen to be HMS Beagle’s naturalist, having just finished his theology degree at Cambridge University.

He was recommended for the position by his friend and mentor Professor John Henslow, who wrote that he considered Darwin “to be the best qualified person I know of who is likely to undertake such a situation—I state this not on the supposition of yr. being a finished Naturalist, but as amply qualified for collecting, observing, & noting any thing worthy to be noted in Natural History.” John Henslow was proven right by history.

5. Anything you know about the Galápagos islands likely doesn’t come from Darwin.

Instead, your knowledge is likely to stem from the 1905-6 expedition that followed Darwin’s journey there, rather than Darwin’s work itself. While Darwin spent only five weeks on the islands, the subsequent expedition was there for a year and a day, making theirs the longest scientific expedition to the Galápagos in its history.

6. Darwin was almost beaten to the theory of natural selection by Alfred Russel Wallace.

Having waited for 20 years to publish his theory, Darwin was on the verge of finishing his book on natural selection when he read an essay by a fellow naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace. The essay outlined Wallace’s own theory of natural selection, which he had developed independently.

Darwin was crushed, writing to a friend that “all my originality, whatever it may amount to, will be smashed.” Darwin offered to make a joint presentation of their findings, but when Darwin and Wallace made the presentation in 1858, there was little reaction from the science community. Darwin went on to publish his solo work On the Origin of Species in 1859, which caused a much bigger splash, and cemented his reputation as the father of natural selection.

7. Darwin married his first cousin, Emma Wedgwood, and together they had ten children.

Charles with his first born, William Erasmus Darwin. (Image via Wikimedia Commons.)

Ever the scientist, Darwin’s response to the birth of his first child was to record the baby’s sneezing, hiccupping, yawning, stretching, suckling, screaming, and reaction to tickling. He published his observations in the journal Mind in 1877.

8. Darwin appeared on the British £10 note from 2000 to 2018, when he was replaced by Jane Austen.

In February 2018, the Bank of England announced that with just a week until the Darwin notes would stop being legal tender, there were still 211 million in circulation. “Put end to end, that’s enough notes to retrace almost half of Darwin’s journey on HMS Beagle. Or, these would weigh the same as nearly two thousand giant Galápagos tortoises that Darwin saw on his travels.”

9. Darwin was the half-cousin of Francis Galton, a famous polymath.

Among Galton’s achievements were coining the phrase “nature versus nurture” and inventing the statistical concept of correlation, known to all schoolchildren today. Less admirably, he used his discoveries to pioneer eugenics, and in fact invented the word itself.

10. 2021 is the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s The Descent of Man, which was first released in 1871.

One of Darwin’s primary aims in writing the book was to consider “whether man, like every other species, is descended from some pre-existing form.” The backlash when he concluded that we are has made history.

Featured image by Piotr Grycuk

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