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Happy Darwin's Day

Posted Feb 13 2009 5:23pm

To take part in the various festivities marking the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin' s birth, I thought I' d rerun this post that was first published on October 14, 2007. To check out what else is going on today, click here.

Dying of Evolution?

The publication of Charles Darwin' s seminal masterwork On The Origin Of Species in 1859 marked a turning point in the understanding of how species form and change over time. It is doubtful that Darwin himself really anticipated the storm of protest that followed the book' s publication. Scientists and theologians alike became locked in a battle that lasted for decades (and still continues today).

Of all the stout churchmen who were appalled at Darwin' s theory, perhaps no one felt outrage more keenly than Robert Fitzroy, former captain of the HMS Beagle. Born in 1805, Fitzroy was part of one of the most illustrious families in England. After an idyllic childhood, he entered the Royal Naval College at the age 188pxrobert_fitzroy of twelve and the Royal Navy a year later. His life was never the same following the suicide of his uncle, Viscount Castlereagh, in 1822. The stigma of having a suicide in the family left Fitzroy with a sense of dread over the possibility that the madness that had claimed his uncle was hereditary. This fear was made all the more real for him when he became Captain of the HMS Beagle in 1828 following the suicide of its previous captain, Pringle Stokes.

When the Beagle' s second voyage was being planned in 1831, it seemed only natural that he arrange for a suitable traveling companion to help him stay sane on the proposed five-year voyage of exploration. After other candidates turned down his offer, Fitzroy settled on a 22-year old Cambridge naturalist and theologian named Charles Darwin (although Fitzroy was initially suspicious of Darwin due to the shape of his nose). Darwin' s credentials as a naturalist appealed to Fitzroy who relished the opportunity to use the Beagle' s voyage to gather evidence confirming the Biblical account of creation.

Over the course of the long voyage, Darwin and Fitzroy became fast friends despite Fitzroy' s volatile temper leading to frequent clashes between them (often over matters of religion). The Beagle' s voyage took them from South America to the Galapagos Islands and gave Darwin an unprecedented opportunity to learn about (and puzzle over) the diverse range of fauna and fossils to be found. On their return to England in 1836, both Darwin and Fitzroy published their research findings to critical and popular acclaim.

In the years that followed, the two men drifted apart as Darwin began formulating his famous theory while Fitzroy continued to champion the Biblical account of creation. Despite an illustrious naval and political career (including a disastrous five-year term as Governor of New Zealand), Fitzroy eventually retired from active service in 1851 and was then named to the Royal Society for his prominent work in meteorology (Darwin was one of his supporters).

Fitzroy' s health had taken a turn for the worse by this time and the shock that he felt when Darwin finally published his treatise on evolution contributed to his decline. His sense of betrayal and guilt over the role that he had played in furthering Darwin' s research led him to oppose evolution at every opportunity. When Bishop Samuel Wilberforce attacked Darwin' s theory in 1860 at the famous British Association meeting with Darwin' s supporters, Fitzroy was there imploring the audience to "believe in God rather than man". There was little sympathy when he spoke of the "acutest pain" that Darwin had caused him and he was shouted down.

Following Fitzroy' s retirement in 1863, his depression worsened significantly. It didn' t help matters that he was passed over for an important naval post. On the morning of April 30, 1865. Fitzroy got out of bed and went to the washroom. He then used a razor to cut his throat (much as his uncle had done years before). Only after his death was it discovered that his entire fortune had been spent during the course of his long public service. His wife and daughter would have been left destitute if friends had not launched a testimonial fund on their behalf (Charles Darwin contributed one hundred pounds). He is buried in Brompton Cemetery in London.

Robert Fitzroy left a substantial scientific and political legacy behind him with his numerous discoveries in meteorology and geography. Still, his life would be little more than a historical footnote except for the role that he unintentionally played in furthering Charles Darwin' s revolutionary theory. Whether that contributed to the ardent churchman' s death is anybody' s guess.

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