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Tuesday, Sep. 27, 2016

Boldly Going Nowhere

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Origin of the Species

Ocean voyages tended to be melancholy undertakings in ancient times. In 1830, the captain of a British naval survey ship, the HMS Beagle, put a bullet in his head during a period of intense gloom.

The following year, Robert FitzRoy, a 23-year-old gentleman of nobility, was given command of the vessel and assigned the formal task of charting coastal waters. FitzRoy, engaged to be married at the time, was a blue-blooded snob who detested conversing with the crew, so he invited a friend to accompany him on the voyage in order to have someone of his own background to socialize with.

When the friend backed out, FitzRoy persuaded another educated young man, age 22, to take his place, chosen primarily because of the shape of his nose which FitzRoy thought gave him character. FitzRoy's new dinner companion was named Charles Darwin.

From 1831 to 1836, the HMS Beagle sailed the coastal waters of South America. FitzRoy and Darwin shared a tiny cabin and soon began to bicker. FitzRoy's passion was to find evidence for a literal, biblical interpretation of creation. Darwin, who had trained for the ministry, slowly evolved into taking a more open-minded view.

During the voyage, Darwin accumulated a vast amount of specimens and fossils. He studied the structure of coral reefs and developed a much-acclaimed theory about their formation. He also discovered a new species of dolphins which he named Delphinus fitzroyi to honor the captain of the ship.

Six years after the voyage, in 1842, Darwin began to put his theory about the survival of the fittest, although he never used that term, in writing. Two years later, he had completed a 230-page sketch of his ideas. Then he put his notes aside and for the next 15 years busied himself with other matters, including fathering 10 children.

In the autumn of 1859, having renewed interest in his theories, Darwin sent a copy of his manuscript, titled On the Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection, to the editor of the respected British journal Quarterly Review who rejected the material and advised Darwin to write a book about pigeons instead.

Darwin's manuscript was published later that year under the title On the Origin of the Species. It was an instant success, selling all 1,250 copies of the first edition on the first day. It has never been out of print.

Darwin was tormented by his work, aware of the controversy it would cause, and referred to himself as "the Devil's Chaplain." His book instantly became a major topic of discussion among intellectuals. The thrust of Darwin's theory, commonly referred to as evolution, was that human beings may have evolved from primates without the assistance of a divine creator. Needless to say, this viewpoint was hotly contested by the clergy.

In 1860, a meeting was held at the Oxford Zoological Museum to debate Darwin's theories. Over 1,000 people were in attendance and hundreds were turned away at the door. During the presentation, Robert FitzRoy, former captain of the HMS Beagle, stormed into the room, waving a Bible and shouting, "The Book, the Book."

Having been recently named head of the Meteorological Department at Oxford University, FitzRoy had been at the conference to present a paper on storms. Five years later, he committed suicide in the same manner his uncle had committed suicide decades earlier, by slitting his own throat. Apparently, the survival of the fittest works in mysterious ways.

Darwin's legacy is still with us. Even today, mankind continues to debate the origin of the species. Some believe in a creation orchestrated by a divine presence, some believe we evolved from apes, some believe extraterrestrials bred with humanoids, and some believe we were delivered by a stork.

Personally, I believe I'm the center of the universe and everything else is simply a figment of my mind. Considering the state of the world these days, I obviously have a very morbid imagination.

But it really doesn't matter how we got here; we're here and that's that. The prime objective is to figure out how we're going to survive another day and where we're going when our existence in this dimension has expired.

The origin of the species is a mystery. If you solve the mystery, it would be wise to keep it to yourself.