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The Evolution of Natural Selection

Image: HMS Beagle, by Conrad Martens.

Editor’s note: We are delighted to present a series by Neil Thomas, Reader Emeritus at the University of Durham, “Natural Selection: Discovery or Invention?” Find the full series here. Professor Thomas’s recent book is Taking Leave of Darwin: A Longtime Agnostic Discovers the Case for Design (Discovery Institute Press).

In the course of recollections in tranquillity in older age, Charles Darwin tended to look back wistfully on his voyage aboard the Beagle and his famous biological researches in the South Sea islands in the 1830s as having been the pivotal experience of his career. One can see why. For those five years had truly functioned as a form of secular salvation to him by affording him an escape from his previously unfocused life. No longer a trial to his long-suffering father over his educational and professional false starts, he was able to devote himself with single-minded enthusiasm to his one true avocation in life, that of being a collector and naturalist. Precisely what the net result of his exotic travels was, on the other hand, is a little less clear.

For understandable reasons to do with the aesthetics of constructing a compelling narrative, the Darwin legend has sometimes given the impression that the South American experience was in and of itself responsible for the formulation of his evolutionary discoveries. According to that conventional narrative the intrepid explorer returned from having garnered the secrets of nature in exotic realms to share his secrets with his fellow men and women. Such a reading provides an undeniably good imaginative fit for the heroic pattern of a “mythic universal” figure like Prometheus who brought down fire to earth from the abode of the Greek gods in order to share its boons with his fellow mortals — but how true is it? 

A Finely Honed Romance

Whilst making for a compelling story, once denuded of its fictional accretions and crypto-mythic associations, alas, legend and reality fail to mesh. Real life, as is so often the case in human affairs, was nothing like as tidy as the finely honed romance narrative that was developed around Darwin. In their study and edition of Darwin’s account of his journeyings, Janet Browne and Michael Neve are firm on the point that Darwin’s ideas did not come to him from his experiences in the field and that “the received image of Darwin voyaging alone through vast turbulent seas of thought as he paced the deck of the Beagle is a fantasy.”1 Remarkably, Darwin’s evolutionary ideas did not derive from his empirical observations in the South Seas or anywhere else. Rather did they grow in a series of ad hoc, serendipitous instalments, the result of his ability to weave together ideas culled from others, not all of them naturalists.  His supposed natural-historical “discoveries” were in truth, as will be observed in this series, an ingenious collage of different hints picked up from his personal reading or even encountered anecdotally in random conversations. One of the most important hints he responded to was contemporary research being pursued in the realm of geology, a subject in which Darwin, whether rightly or wrongly, saw important analogies with the biological field.

Next, “Darwin’s John the Baptist.”


  1. Voyage of the Beagle: Charles Darwin’s Journal of Researches, edited by Janet Browne and Michael Neve (London; Penguin, 1989), p. 2.

Neil Thomas

Neil Thomas is a Reader Emeritus in the University of Durham, England and a longtime member of the British Rationalist Association. He studied Classical Studies and European Languages at the universities of Oxford, Munich and Cardiff before taking up his post in the German section of the School of European Languages and Literatures at Durham University in 1976. There his teaching involved a broad spectrum of specialisms including Germanic philology, medieval literature, the literature and philosophy of the Enlightenment and modern German history and literature. He also taught modules on the propagandist use of the German language used both by the Nazis and by the functionaries of the old German Democratic Republic. He published over 40 articles in a number of refereed journals and a half dozen single-authored books, the last of which were Reading the Nibelungenlied (1995), Diu Crone and the Medieval Arthurian Cycle (2002) and Wirnt von Gravenberg's 'Wigalois'. Intertextuality and Interpretation (2005). He also edited a number of volumes including Myth and its Legacy in European Literature (1996) and German Studies at the Millennium (1999). He was the British Brach President of the International Arthurian Society (2002-5) and remains a member of a number of learned societies.



biologyCharles DarwinevolutionGreek godsHistoryHMS BeagleJanet BrowneMichael NeveNatural Selection: Discovery or Invention? (series)PrometheusSouth AmericaSouth Sea IslandsTravelVoyage of the Beagle