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Episode
114

Charles Darwin & On the Origin of Species

Dec 11, 2020
Science & Technology
-
22
minutes
Animals
Natural world
Life in the UK
The Victorian Era
Scientists

He is the father of modern biology, and his 1869 book On the Origin of Species presented a revolutionary new idea about how species evolve.

Discover the amazing story of Charles Darwin, and the journey of how he developed this groundbreaking theory.

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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:11] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about Charles Darwin, the father of modern evolutionary theory.

[00:00:31] There are few people that one can point to that have had such a monumental impact on our understanding of how the world works than Charles Darwin. 

[00:00:42] He was the author of the book On The Origin of Species which put forward the revolutionary idea that instead of every creature on the planet being created by a God, creatures adapted to their environment through natural selection, and evolved accordingly.

[00:01:00] How he actually came to this conclusion is fascinating, and it’s certainly unexpected.

[00:01:07] So, in today’s episode we are going to talk about the life of Charles Darwin, the ideas that shaped him, how he almost became a priest, and then became fascinated with the natural world and where animals come from. 

[00:01:21] We'll also see how, 20 years after having the first idea about natural selection, he published this revolutionary book and changed our understanding of evolution forever.

[00:01:35] Before we get right into that though, let me just quickly remind you that you can follow along to this episode with the subtitles, the transcript and its key vocabulary, so you don’t miss a word and build up your vocabulary as you go, over on the website, which leonardoenglish.com.

[00:01:52] This is also where you can also check out becoming a member of Leonardo English, and join a community of curious minds from all over the world, doing meetups, exchanging ideas, and generally, improving their English in a more interesting way, and of course you can discover all of our bonus episodes on the website too.

[00:02:11] So if that's of interest, either for yourself, or for a lucky person you’d like to give a Christmas or birthday present to, then the place to go to is leonardoenglish.com.

[00:02:24] OK then, let’s talk about Charles Darwin. 

[00:02:28] He was described by his uncle as “a man of enlarged curiosity”, and it certainly does take a curious mind to present an idea so radical not just to go against the belief at the time, but to go against God.

[00:02:45] Reading the theories of Charles Darwin might give you the idea that he was a troublemaker, a rebel, proposing revolutionary theories to stir things up

[00:02:56] In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

[00:03:01] He was born to a wealthy family, in 1809, in the town of Shrewsbury, in England. 

[00:03:08] His father was a wealthy doctor, and he came from a well-known family of Enlightenment thinkers. 

[00:03:16] His paternal grandfather, his grandfather on his father’s side, had authored a book on evolution, and his maternal grandfather, his grandfather on his mother's side, had been a passionate advocate for the abolition of slavery.

[00:03:33] Both were, at the time, non-conventional views.

[00:03:38] And the young Darwin grew up in a household and environment of freethinkers, encouraged to think for himself. 

[00:03:48] He was sent away to medical school in Edinburgh, in Scotland, when he was only 16 years old.

[00:03:54] Edinburgh was at the time the best medical school in Britain, and also a rare university that wasn’t dominated by the church. 

[00:04:04] At Edinburgh the young Darwin loathed, he hated medical studies. At the time he was studying, anaesthetic was not yet available, so surgery was quite something to witness

[00:04:20] It’s said that Darwin was forever turned off medicine when witnessing an operation with a child that went wrong. Which I’m sure was as horrible as it sounds.

[00:04:32] Instead, he developed a deep love and curiosity for the natural world, joining a natural history society and spending his days in the area around Edinburgh collecting shells and small marine animals.

[00:04:49] The University of Edinburgh, unlike most other British universities, didn’t have such a strong church presence, and ideas about evolution were discussed that would never have been allowed in universities with stronger connections to the church, such as Cambridge or Oxford.

[00:05:09] Darwin wasn’t getting anywhere with his medical studies, and so his father pulled him out, he took him out of university.

[00:05:17] At the time there were really only two respectable non-military professions that a young, wealthy Englishman could go into.

[00:05:28] The first was medicine, but Darwin was failing at that.

[00:05:33] The second was the church, and Darwin’s father sent him to Cambridge to study natural history, the history of the natural world. 

[00:05:44] Now, natural history might not immediately sound like the type of course that someone embarking on a career in the church should be doing, but it was actually exactly the type of course that they should be doing.

[00:06:00] The belief at that time was that God created everything, and so an understanding of the natural world was pretty much the best way to understand God. 

[00:06:13] Indeed, the course that Darwin took at Cambridge was a very well trodden path towards a career in the church. 

[00:06:22] The University of Cambridge had deep links with the church, and just to graduate you had to sign the 39 articles of the Church of England, of the Anglican church. 

[00:06:36] While he was at Cambridge, Darwin developed a great passion for beetles, for these little insects. Now, you might have trouble understanding why anyone could be so interested in beetles, but for Darwin they were just fantastic.

[00:06:56] Firstly, there are lots of them. 

[00:06:59] By lots, I mean there are 350,000 different species of beetle, or Order Coleoptera, which is the scientific name for what you or I might call a ‘beetle’. 

[00:07:13] Darwin was obsessed with collecting beetles, analysing how they were different, and classifying them.

[00:07:22] There’s even quite a funny, or disgusting, episode in his diary where he is out hunting for beetles

[00:07:30] He describes having one beetle in each hand, and then discovering another, rare, new one.

[00:07:38] Now, he didn’t want to drop either of the two beetles that he had, so he put one in his mouth so that he could free up one hand and pick up the other one. 

[00:07:50] Unfortunately the beetle that was put in Darwin’s mouth didn’t like it in there, and it spat out an acrid fluid that burned Darwin’s tongue, it gave off a horrible liquid, so Darwin spat it out and all the beetles were lost.

[00:08:08] I guess the moral of the story there is don’t put a beetle in your mouth.

[00:08:14] Despite Darwin’s increasing understanding of the rich variety of different species, and curiosity about how and why species were different, this didn’t disprove anything about the Christian faith. 

[00:08:29] Creationism allows for the idea that animals can be a little bit different, they can adapt a little bit, but it doesn’t allow for them to change completely, for them to move too far from their original ‘God-given’ form.

[00:08:45] So Darwin at the time didn’t really have any revolutionary new theories about evolution, and he was still on the path to joining the church.

[00:08:56] But soon after graduating from Cambridge he was presented with a remarkable opportunity.

[00:09:04] He had been proposed, he had been put forward, by his friend and mentor, a botanist called John Stevens Henslow, to go on a 2 year trip around South America to observe new species. 

[00:09:20] A ship, the HMS Beagle, was leaving in 4 weeks time, and there was a place for a gentleman naturalist to go and observe the natural world.

[00:09:32] Darwin leapt at the opportunity, and it was to be a trip that expanded on the ideas and passions that he had been developing at Edinburgh and Cambridge.

[00:09:45] They left in 1831, and didn’t return for 5 years, sailing from Britain down the Atlantic, around the coast of South America, up to the Galapagos Islands, all the way across the Pacific to New Zealand and Australia, through the Indian Ocean, stopping off at Cape Town, back to Brazil before stopping off at Tenerife and then returning to Britain.

[00:10:13] Darwin’s role on the trip was purely as a botanist, as a researcher of the natural world. 

[00:10:20] Although he suffered terribly from seasickness, he actually spent most of his time on land, collecting samples of interesting animals and plants, and documenting them.

[00:10:33] Naturally, it was quite the trip, it was a fantastic experience, and he encountered thousands of creatures that he had never seen back in Britain.

[00:10:44] Although he was amazed and astounded by his discoveries at almost every stage of his trip, nowhere was this more true than the five weeks he spent in the Galapagos Islands, just off the coast of Ecuador.

[00:11:00] This was in September and October of 1835.

[00:11:05] Now, the Galapagos Islands were particularly fascinating to Darwin for several reasons.

[00:11:12] To start with, they are volcanic, and had been formed by volcanic eruptions relatively recently, only about 3 million years ago. 

[00:11:23] So there was no life on them before that, they emerged from nothing.

[00:11:29] Darwin noticed different varieties of similar animals on the different Galapagos Islands, leading him to believe that they might have evolved to best adapt to the different environments that they lived in.

[00:11:44] But this belief still didn’t completely negate creationism, it didn’t disprove the idea that a God designed every creature. 

[00:11:54] Indeed, Darwin didn’t have some great eureka moment in the Galapagos Islands when he saw a giant tortoise and thought, I’ve finally cracked it, that tortoise is like that because of natural selection, it wasn't like that at all.

[00:12:10] When he got back to Britain, 5 years after he had set off, he continued to work on his ideas about evolution, and about how the animals he had encountered had evolved in their separate ways. 

[00:12:25] But it wasn’t until 1837, a year after returning, that there is the first evidence that he had a theory about what caused evolution.

[00:12:36] He had been keeping detailed notebooks, but they were secret, shown to nobody. 

[00:12:42] On a page of this notebook we see the words ‘I think’, and then a drawing of a tree.

[00:12:51] Darwin had been developing the idea of the tree of life, that animals branch off from one another, forming new species that are better suited to their environments.

[00:13:04] He also now had a theory about why this was. 

[00:13:09] There was a famous essay published in September 1838 by the economist Thomas Malthus called The Principle of Population. 

[00:13:20] Malthus proposed that the world’s population was growing too fast, that there wasn’t going to be enough food to feed everyone, and that there was going to be a struggle for resources. 

[00:13:34] The world was going to run out of space to produce food, and this would be what would stop population growth.

[00:13:41] With not enough food to go around, people would die, and only the best adapted for the situation would survive.

[00:13:50] Suddenly it clicked for Darwin. 

[00:13:54] What if similar laws applied in the natural world?

[00:13:58] Animals that were best adapted to their situations would flourish, and those that weren’t would die out. 

[00:14:08] This would lead to the best adapted for survival passing their genes down as they reproduced, and those that were not suited for survival dying out, and it was this that caused different species to evolve in different ways.

[00:14:27] This was the idea of natural selection.

[00:14:31] Now, to you or me, this might just seem sensible, logical and rational, but at the time it was a revolutionary idea. 

[00:14:41] It was going against God, it wasn’t compatible with Creationism, and Darwin knew that publishing would lead to a huge backlash.

[00:14:51] So he didn’t publish it, or at least he waited 20 years to do so.

[00:14:58] In the 20 years between Darwin having this breakthrough moment and when On The Origin of Species was published, Darwin lived the life of a biologist, studying and cataloguing the natural world, while working on his heretical, revolutionary ideas about evolution and natural selection in secret.

[00:15:20] Already in 1842 he drafted an initial version of the book, but he didn’t publish it. 

[00:15:28] Instead, he wrote a letter to his wife saying that if he died, she should pay an editor to publish it. 

[00:15:36] It’s as if he knew the importance of his discovery, but was too afraid of what would happen if he published it. 

[00:15:45] He even wrote to a friend that believing in evolution, believing that species were not immutable, not unchangeable, was “like confessing to a murder.”

[00:15:58] Although he believed it, and had a working hypothesis about how natural selection and evolution worked, he wanted to be as sure as he possibly could be, and he continued his research in secret.

[00:16:14] Then, in June 1858, 20 years after having returned from his trip, he received a letter from a man called Alfred Russel Wallace, another British naturalist.

[00:16:27] Russel Wallace had been developing similar ideas to Darwin, and he sought Darwin’s advice on how to publish them.

[00:16:36] This was a subject that Darwin had been thinking about for almost all of his life, and to which he had dedicated himself for the past 20 years, so he didn’t want Russel Wallace to take all the credit. 

[00:16:50] Darwin came clean, he explained everything he had been doing, and proposed to Russel Wallace to present their ideas together.

[00:17:00] Russel Wallace agreed, and extracts of their work were to be read at a meeting of the Linnean Society, the oldest biological society in the world, on the 1st of June 1858. 

[00:17:14] Darwin wasn’t able to make it, unfortunately, he was sick, and was grieving for the loss of a son, who had died of scarlet fever.

[00:17:23] After the meeting, Darwin rushed to put all of his ideas together in an accessible book, and On the Origin of Species was published on the 24th of November 1859, less than 6 months after the ideas were first aired to the world.

[00:17:43] These ideas were revolutionary. 

[00:17:45] But Darwin didn’t really see himself as a revolutionary, and instead of being the public face of the theory he let his friend, Thomas Henry Huxley, a young biologist, defend them publicly.

[00:18:01] Darwin retreated further and further out of the public eye, and eventually died 20 years later, aged 73. 

[00:18:11] Now, we hardly have to say quite how important Darwin, and On the Origin of Species are. 

[00:18:19] His theory of natural selection completely changed the way in which people understood the natural world. 

[00:18:26] Although he didn’t specify this in the book, the takeaway for many was that humans descended from apes, that they weren’t created by a divine being, which is evidently problematic for world religions that specify that this was how humans were created.

[00:18:45] And of course, not everyone believes in Darwin's theory of evolution. 

[00:18:50]To be precise, 37% of Americans don’t, but it is the basis of most scientific theories about how creatures evolve

[00:19:00] There have been a few updates, a few new discoveries, mainly that there is now a theory that evolution doesn’t always happen gradually, as Darwin thought, it can happen by genes jumping from one species to the next, but this is just a development to Darwin’s theory, it doesn’t disprove it at all.

[00:19:23] When that discovery was published, in 2009, there was a very misleading headline in the New Scientist Magazine of “Darwin Was Wrong”, which excited a lot of creationists, but when they read the article it was clear that he wasn’t really wrong, he just wasn’t 100 percent correct.

[00:19:46] One thing that continued to puzzle Darwin, and of course continues to puzzle us today, was where life actually first came from. 

[00:19:57] If you believe that we all evolved from something, what thing was that?

[00:20:04] This is now referred to as LUCA, the Last Universal Common Ancestor, which lived over three and a half billion years ago, soon after the Earth was formed. 

[00:20:17] Interestingly, Darwin’s theory about what this could have been is remarkably similar to the current theory, that the first life came from some form of body of water. 

[00:20:30] Darwin thought it was probably a warm little pond with lots of salts, ammonia and so on. 

[00:20:38] Nowadays it’s thought to be much more likely to come from the oceans, from when various different compounds dissolved in the water, the ocean thickened and created what’s called ‘primordial soup’, and it was here that the first life was formed, from which we are all descended.

[00:20:59] But that is a mystery that most definitely still remains unsolved.

[00:21:07] OK then, that is it for the life of Charles Darwin, rightly named one of the most influential figures in human history. 

[00:21:16] I hope it has been an interesting one, and that you’ve learned something new.

[00:21:21] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:21:24] If you are a member of Leonardo English then you can head right in to our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:21:35] And as a final reminder, if you are looking to improve your English in a more interesting way, to join a community of curious minds from all over the world, to unlock the transcripts, subtitles, and key vocabulary, and to support a more interesting way of improving your English then I’d definitely recommend checking out becoming a member of Leonardo English.

[00:21:58] By popular demand, we’ve also just launched gift memberships, so if you are looking for the perfect present for a curious mind, then the place to go to is leonardoenglish.com

[00:22:10] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:22:15] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.


Continue learning

Get immediate access to a more interesting way of improving your English
Become a member
Already a member? Login

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:11] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about Charles Darwin, the father of modern evolutionary theory.

[00:00:31] There are few people that one can point to that have had such a monumental impact on our understanding of how the world works than Charles Darwin. 

[00:00:42] He was the author of the book On The Origin of Species which put forward the revolutionary idea that instead of every creature on the planet being created by a God, creatures adapted to their environment through natural selection, and evolved accordingly.

[00:01:00] How he actually came to this conclusion is fascinating, and it’s certainly unexpected.

[00:01:07] So, in today’s episode we are going to talk about the life of Charles Darwin, the ideas that shaped him, how he almost became a priest, and then became fascinated with the natural world and where animals come from. 

[00:01:21] We'll also see how, 20 years after having the first idea about natural selection, he published this revolutionary book and changed our understanding of evolution forever.

[00:01:35] Before we get right into that though, let me just quickly remind you that you can follow along to this episode with the subtitles, the transcript and its key vocabulary, so you don’t miss a word and build up your vocabulary as you go, over on the website, which leonardoenglish.com.

[00:01:52] This is also where you can also check out becoming a member of Leonardo English, and join a community of curious minds from all over the world, doing meetups, exchanging ideas, and generally, improving their English in a more interesting way, and of course you can discover all of our bonus episodes on the website too.

[00:02:11] So if that's of interest, either for yourself, or for a lucky person you’d like to give a Christmas or birthday present to, then the place to go to is leonardoenglish.com.

[00:02:24] OK then, let’s talk about Charles Darwin. 

[00:02:28] He was described by his uncle as “a man of enlarged curiosity”, and it certainly does take a curious mind to present an idea so radical not just to go against the belief at the time, but to go against God.

[00:02:45] Reading the theories of Charles Darwin might give you the idea that he was a troublemaker, a rebel, proposing revolutionary theories to stir things up

[00:02:56] In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

[00:03:01] He was born to a wealthy family, in 1809, in the town of Shrewsbury, in England. 

[00:03:08] His father was a wealthy doctor, and he came from a well-known family of Enlightenment thinkers. 

[00:03:16] His paternal grandfather, his grandfather on his father’s side, had authored a book on evolution, and his maternal grandfather, his grandfather on his mother's side, had been a passionate advocate for the abolition of slavery.

[00:03:33] Both were, at the time, non-conventional views.

[00:03:38] And the young Darwin grew up in a household and environment of freethinkers, encouraged to think for himself. 

[00:03:48] He was sent away to medical school in Edinburgh, in Scotland, when he was only 16 years old.

[00:03:54] Edinburgh was at the time the best medical school in Britain, and also a rare university that wasn’t dominated by the church. 

[00:04:04] At Edinburgh the young Darwin loathed, he hated medical studies. At the time he was studying, anaesthetic was not yet available, so surgery was quite something to witness

[00:04:20] It’s said that Darwin was forever turned off medicine when witnessing an operation with a child that went wrong. Which I’m sure was as horrible as it sounds.

[00:04:32] Instead, he developed a deep love and curiosity for the natural world, joining a natural history society and spending his days in the area around Edinburgh collecting shells and small marine animals.

[00:04:49] The University of Edinburgh, unlike most other British universities, didn’t have such a strong church presence, and ideas about evolution were discussed that would never have been allowed in universities with stronger connections to the church, such as Cambridge or Oxford.

[00:05:09] Darwin wasn’t getting anywhere with his medical studies, and so his father pulled him out, he took him out of university.

[00:05:17] At the time there were really only two respectable non-military professions that a young, wealthy Englishman could go into.

[00:05:28] The first was medicine, but Darwin was failing at that.

[00:05:33] The second was the church, and Darwin’s father sent him to Cambridge to study natural history, the history of the natural world. 

[00:05:44] Now, natural history might not immediately sound like the type of course that someone embarking on a career in the church should be doing, but it was actually exactly the type of course that they should be doing.

[00:06:00] The belief at that time was that God created everything, and so an understanding of the natural world was pretty much the best way to understand God. 

[00:06:13] Indeed, the course that Darwin took at Cambridge was a very well trodden path towards a career in the church. 

[00:06:22] The University of Cambridge had deep links with the church, and just to graduate you had to sign the 39 articles of the Church of England, of the Anglican church. 

[00:06:36] While he was at Cambridge, Darwin developed a great passion for beetles, for these little insects. Now, you might have trouble understanding why anyone could be so interested in beetles, but for Darwin they were just fantastic.

[00:06:56] Firstly, there are lots of them. 

[00:06:59] By lots, I mean there are 350,000 different species of beetle, or Order Coleoptera, which is the scientific name for what you or I might call a ‘beetle’. 

[00:07:13] Darwin was obsessed with collecting beetles, analysing how they were different, and classifying them.

[00:07:22] There’s even quite a funny, or disgusting, episode in his diary where he is out hunting for beetles

[00:07:30] He describes having one beetle in each hand, and then discovering another, rare, new one.

[00:07:38] Now, he didn’t want to drop either of the two beetles that he had, so he put one in his mouth so that he could free up one hand and pick up the other one. 

[00:07:50] Unfortunately the beetle that was put in Darwin’s mouth didn’t like it in there, and it spat out an acrid fluid that burned Darwin’s tongue, it gave off a horrible liquid, so Darwin spat it out and all the beetles were lost.

[00:08:08] I guess the moral of the story there is don’t put a beetle in your mouth.

[00:08:14] Despite Darwin’s increasing understanding of the rich variety of different species, and curiosity about how and why species were different, this didn’t disprove anything about the Christian faith. 

[00:08:29] Creationism allows for the idea that animals can be a little bit different, they can adapt a little bit, but it doesn’t allow for them to change completely, for them to move too far from their original ‘God-given’ form.

[00:08:45] So Darwin at the time didn’t really have any revolutionary new theories about evolution, and he was still on the path to joining the church.

[00:08:56] But soon after graduating from Cambridge he was presented with a remarkable opportunity.

[00:09:04] He had been proposed, he had been put forward, by his friend and mentor, a botanist called John Stevens Henslow, to go on a 2 year trip around South America to observe new species. 

[00:09:20] A ship, the HMS Beagle, was leaving in 4 weeks time, and there was a place for a gentleman naturalist to go and observe the natural world.

[00:09:32] Darwin leapt at the opportunity, and it was to be a trip that expanded on the ideas and passions that he had been developing at Edinburgh and Cambridge.

[00:09:45] They left in 1831, and didn’t return for 5 years, sailing from Britain down the Atlantic, around the coast of South America, up to the Galapagos Islands, all the way across the Pacific to New Zealand and Australia, through the Indian Ocean, stopping off at Cape Town, back to Brazil before stopping off at Tenerife and then returning to Britain.

[00:10:13] Darwin’s role on the trip was purely as a botanist, as a researcher of the natural world. 

[00:10:20] Although he suffered terribly from seasickness, he actually spent most of his time on land, collecting samples of interesting animals and plants, and documenting them.

[00:10:33] Naturally, it was quite the trip, it was a fantastic experience, and he encountered thousands of creatures that he had never seen back in Britain.

[00:10:44] Although he was amazed and astounded by his discoveries at almost every stage of his trip, nowhere was this more true than the five weeks he spent in the Galapagos Islands, just off the coast of Ecuador.

[00:11:00] This was in September and October of 1835.

[00:11:05] Now, the Galapagos Islands were particularly fascinating to Darwin for several reasons.

[00:11:12] To start with, they are volcanic, and had been formed by volcanic eruptions relatively recently, only about 3 million years ago. 

[00:11:23] So there was no life on them before that, they emerged from nothing.

[00:11:29] Darwin noticed different varieties of similar animals on the different Galapagos Islands, leading him to believe that they might have evolved to best adapt to the different environments that they lived in.

[00:11:44] But this belief still didn’t completely negate creationism, it didn’t disprove the idea that a God designed every creature. 

[00:11:54] Indeed, Darwin didn’t have some great eureka moment in the Galapagos Islands when he saw a giant tortoise and thought, I’ve finally cracked it, that tortoise is like that because of natural selection, it wasn't like that at all.

[00:12:10] When he got back to Britain, 5 years after he had set off, he continued to work on his ideas about evolution, and about how the animals he had encountered had evolved in their separate ways. 

[00:12:25] But it wasn’t until 1837, a year after returning, that there is the first evidence that he had a theory about what caused evolution.

[00:12:36] He had been keeping detailed notebooks, but they were secret, shown to nobody. 

[00:12:42] On a page of this notebook we see the words ‘I think’, and then a drawing of a tree.

[00:12:51] Darwin had been developing the idea of the tree of life, that animals branch off from one another, forming new species that are better suited to their environments.

[00:13:04] He also now had a theory about why this was. 

[00:13:09] There was a famous essay published in September 1838 by the economist Thomas Malthus called The Principle of Population. 

[00:13:20] Malthus proposed that the world’s population was growing too fast, that there wasn’t going to be enough food to feed everyone, and that there was going to be a struggle for resources. 

[00:13:34] The world was going to run out of space to produce food, and this would be what would stop population growth.

[00:13:41] With not enough food to go around, people would die, and only the best adapted for the situation would survive.

[00:13:50] Suddenly it clicked for Darwin. 

[00:13:54] What if similar laws applied in the natural world?

[00:13:58] Animals that were best adapted to their situations would flourish, and those that weren’t would die out. 

[00:14:08] This would lead to the best adapted for survival passing their genes down as they reproduced, and those that were not suited for survival dying out, and it was this that caused different species to evolve in different ways.

[00:14:27] This was the idea of natural selection.

[00:14:31] Now, to you or me, this might just seem sensible, logical and rational, but at the time it was a revolutionary idea. 

[00:14:41] It was going against God, it wasn’t compatible with Creationism, and Darwin knew that publishing would lead to a huge backlash.

[00:14:51] So he didn’t publish it, or at least he waited 20 years to do so.

[00:14:58] In the 20 years between Darwin having this breakthrough moment and when On The Origin of Species was published, Darwin lived the life of a biologist, studying and cataloguing the natural world, while working on his heretical, revolutionary ideas about evolution and natural selection in secret.

[00:15:20] Already in 1842 he drafted an initial version of the book, but he didn’t publish it. 

[00:15:28] Instead, he wrote a letter to his wife saying that if he died, she should pay an editor to publish it. 

[00:15:36] It’s as if he knew the importance of his discovery, but was too afraid of what would happen if he published it. 

[00:15:45] He even wrote to a friend that believing in evolution, believing that species were not immutable, not unchangeable, was “like confessing to a murder.”

[00:15:58] Although he believed it, and had a working hypothesis about how natural selection and evolution worked, he wanted to be as sure as he possibly could be, and he continued his research in secret.

[00:16:14] Then, in June 1858, 20 years after having returned from his trip, he received a letter from a man called Alfred Russel Wallace, another British naturalist.

[00:16:27] Russel Wallace had been developing similar ideas to Darwin, and he sought Darwin’s advice on how to publish them.

[00:16:36] This was a subject that Darwin had been thinking about for almost all of his life, and to which he had dedicated himself for the past 20 years, so he didn’t want Russel Wallace to take all the credit. 

[00:16:50] Darwin came clean, he explained everything he had been doing, and proposed to Russel Wallace to present their ideas together.

[00:17:00] Russel Wallace agreed, and extracts of their work were to be read at a meeting of the Linnean Society, the oldest biological society in the world, on the 1st of June 1858. 

[00:17:14] Darwin wasn’t able to make it, unfortunately, he was sick, and was grieving for the loss of a son, who had died of scarlet fever.

[00:17:23] After the meeting, Darwin rushed to put all of his ideas together in an accessible book, and On the Origin of Species was published on the 24th of November 1859, less than 6 months after the ideas were first aired to the world.

[00:17:43] These ideas were revolutionary. 

[00:17:45] But Darwin didn’t really see himself as a revolutionary, and instead of being the public face of the theory he let his friend, Thomas Henry Huxley, a young biologist, defend them publicly.

[00:18:01] Darwin retreated further and further out of the public eye, and eventually died 20 years later, aged 73. 

[00:18:11] Now, we hardly have to say quite how important Darwin, and On the Origin of Species are. 

[00:18:19] His theory of natural selection completely changed the way in which people understood the natural world. 

[00:18:26] Although he didn’t specify this in the book, the takeaway for many was that humans descended from apes, that they weren’t created by a divine being, which is evidently problematic for world religions that specify that this was how humans were created.

[00:18:45] And of course, not everyone believes in Darwin's theory of evolution. 

[00:18:50]To be precise, 37% of Americans don’t, but it is the basis of most scientific theories about how creatures evolve

[00:19:00] There have been a few updates, a few new discoveries, mainly that there is now a theory that evolution doesn’t always happen gradually, as Darwin thought, it can happen by genes jumping from one species to the next, but this is just a development to Darwin’s theory, it doesn’t disprove it at all.

[00:19:23] When that discovery was published, in 2009, there was a very misleading headline in the New Scientist Magazine of “Darwin Was Wrong”, which excited a lot of creationists, but when they read the article it was clear that he wasn’t really wrong, he just wasn’t 100 percent correct.

[00:19:46] One thing that continued to puzzle Darwin, and of course continues to puzzle us today, was where life actually first came from. 

[00:19:57] If you believe that we all evolved from something, what thing was that?

[00:20:04] This is now referred to as LUCA, the Last Universal Common Ancestor, which lived over three and a half billion years ago, soon after the Earth was formed. 

[00:20:17] Interestingly, Darwin’s theory about what this could have been is remarkably similar to the current theory, that the first life came from some form of body of water. 

[00:20:30] Darwin thought it was probably a warm little pond with lots of salts, ammonia and so on. 

[00:20:38] Nowadays it’s thought to be much more likely to come from the oceans, from when various different compounds dissolved in the water, the ocean thickened and created what’s called ‘primordial soup’, and it was here that the first life was formed, from which we are all descended.

[00:20:59] But that is a mystery that most definitely still remains unsolved.

[00:21:07] OK then, that is it for the life of Charles Darwin, rightly named one of the most influential figures in human history. 

[00:21:16] I hope it has been an interesting one, and that you’ve learned something new.

[00:21:21] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:21:24] If you are a member of Leonardo English then you can head right in to our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:21:35] And as a final reminder, if you are looking to improve your English in a more interesting way, to join a community of curious minds from all over the world, to unlock the transcripts, subtitles, and key vocabulary, and to support a more interesting way of improving your English then I’d definitely recommend checking out becoming a member of Leonardo English.

[00:21:58] By popular demand, we’ve also just launched gift memberships, so if you are looking for the perfect present for a curious mind, then the place to go to is leonardoenglish.com

[00:22:10] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:22:15] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.


[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:11] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about Charles Darwin, the father of modern evolutionary theory.

[00:00:31] There are few people that one can point to that have had such a monumental impact on our understanding of how the world works than Charles Darwin. 

[00:00:42] He was the author of the book On The Origin of Species which put forward the revolutionary idea that instead of every creature on the planet being created by a God, creatures adapted to their environment through natural selection, and evolved accordingly.

[00:01:00] How he actually came to this conclusion is fascinating, and it’s certainly unexpected.

[00:01:07] So, in today’s episode we are going to talk about the life of Charles Darwin, the ideas that shaped him, how he almost became a priest, and then became fascinated with the natural world and where animals come from. 

[00:01:21] We'll also see how, 20 years after having the first idea about natural selection, he published this revolutionary book and changed our understanding of evolution forever.

[00:01:35] Before we get right into that though, let me just quickly remind you that you can follow along to this episode with the subtitles, the transcript and its key vocabulary, so you don’t miss a word and build up your vocabulary as you go, over on the website, which leonardoenglish.com.

[00:01:52] This is also where you can also check out becoming a member of Leonardo English, and join a community of curious minds from all over the world, doing meetups, exchanging ideas, and generally, improving their English in a more interesting way, and of course you can discover all of our bonus episodes on the website too.

[00:02:11] So if that's of interest, either for yourself, or for a lucky person you’d like to give a Christmas or birthday present to, then the place to go to is leonardoenglish.com.

[00:02:24] OK then, let’s talk about Charles Darwin. 

[00:02:28] He was described by his uncle as “a man of enlarged curiosity”, and it certainly does take a curious mind to present an idea so radical not just to go against the belief at the time, but to go against God.

[00:02:45] Reading the theories of Charles Darwin might give you the idea that he was a troublemaker, a rebel, proposing revolutionary theories to stir things up

[00:02:56] In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

[00:03:01] He was born to a wealthy family, in 1809, in the town of Shrewsbury, in England. 

[00:03:08] His father was a wealthy doctor, and he came from a well-known family of Enlightenment thinkers. 

[00:03:16] His paternal grandfather, his grandfather on his father’s side, had authored a book on evolution, and his maternal grandfather, his grandfather on his mother's side, had been a passionate advocate for the abolition of slavery.

[00:03:33] Both were, at the time, non-conventional views.

[00:03:38] And the young Darwin grew up in a household and environment of freethinkers, encouraged to think for himself. 

[00:03:48] He was sent away to medical school in Edinburgh, in Scotland, when he was only 16 years old.

[00:03:54] Edinburgh was at the time the best medical school in Britain, and also a rare university that wasn’t dominated by the church. 

[00:04:04] At Edinburgh the young Darwin loathed, he hated medical studies. At the time he was studying, anaesthetic was not yet available, so surgery was quite something to witness

[00:04:20] It’s said that Darwin was forever turned off medicine when witnessing an operation with a child that went wrong. Which I’m sure was as horrible as it sounds.

[00:04:32] Instead, he developed a deep love and curiosity for the natural world, joining a natural history society and spending his days in the area around Edinburgh collecting shells and small marine animals.

[00:04:49] The University of Edinburgh, unlike most other British universities, didn’t have such a strong church presence, and ideas about evolution were discussed that would never have been allowed in universities with stronger connections to the church, such as Cambridge or Oxford.

[00:05:09] Darwin wasn’t getting anywhere with his medical studies, and so his father pulled him out, he took him out of university.

[00:05:17] At the time there were really only two respectable non-military professions that a young, wealthy Englishman could go into.

[00:05:28] The first was medicine, but Darwin was failing at that.

[00:05:33] The second was the church, and Darwin’s father sent him to Cambridge to study natural history, the history of the natural world. 

[00:05:44] Now, natural history might not immediately sound like the type of course that someone embarking on a career in the church should be doing, but it was actually exactly the type of course that they should be doing.

[00:06:00] The belief at that time was that God created everything, and so an understanding of the natural world was pretty much the best way to understand God. 

[00:06:13] Indeed, the course that Darwin took at Cambridge was a very well trodden path towards a career in the church. 

[00:06:22] The University of Cambridge had deep links with the church, and just to graduate you had to sign the 39 articles of the Church of England, of the Anglican church. 

[00:06:36] While he was at Cambridge, Darwin developed a great passion for beetles, for these little insects. Now, you might have trouble understanding why anyone could be so interested in beetles, but for Darwin they were just fantastic.

[00:06:56] Firstly, there are lots of them. 

[00:06:59] By lots, I mean there are 350,000 different species of beetle, or Order Coleoptera, which is the scientific name for what you or I might call a ‘beetle’. 

[00:07:13] Darwin was obsessed with collecting beetles, analysing how they were different, and classifying them.

[00:07:22] There’s even quite a funny, or disgusting, episode in his diary where he is out hunting for beetles

[00:07:30] He describes having one beetle in each hand, and then discovering another, rare, new one.

[00:07:38] Now, he didn’t want to drop either of the two beetles that he had, so he put one in his mouth so that he could free up one hand and pick up the other one. 

[00:07:50] Unfortunately the beetle that was put in Darwin’s mouth didn’t like it in there, and it spat out an acrid fluid that burned Darwin’s tongue, it gave off a horrible liquid, so Darwin spat it out and all the beetles were lost.

[00:08:08] I guess the moral of the story there is don’t put a beetle in your mouth.

[00:08:14] Despite Darwin’s increasing understanding of the rich variety of different species, and curiosity about how and why species were different, this didn’t disprove anything about the Christian faith. 

[00:08:29] Creationism allows for the idea that animals can be a little bit different, they can adapt a little bit, but it doesn’t allow for them to change completely, for them to move too far from their original ‘God-given’ form.

[00:08:45] So Darwin at the time didn’t really have any revolutionary new theories about evolution, and he was still on the path to joining the church.

[00:08:56] But soon after graduating from Cambridge he was presented with a remarkable opportunity.

[00:09:04] He had been proposed, he had been put forward, by his friend and mentor, a botanist called John Stevens Henslow, to go on a 2 year trip around South America to observe new species. 

[00:09:20] A ship, the HMS Beagle, was leaving in 4 weeks time, and there was a place for a gentleman naturalist to go and observe the natural world.

[00:09:32] Darwin leapt at the opportunity, and it was to be a trip that expanded on the ideas and passions that he had been developing at Edinburgh and Cambridge.

[00:09:45] They left in 1831, and didn’t return for 5 years, sailing from Britain down the Atlantic, around the coast of South America, up to the Galapagos Islands, all the way across the Pacific to New Zealand and Australia, through the Indian Ocean, stopping off at Cape Town, back to Brazil before stopping off at Tenerife and then returning to Britain.

[00:10:13] Darwin’s role on the trip was purely as a botanist, as a researcher of the natural world. 

[00:10:20] Although he suffered terribly from seasickness, he actually spent most of his time on land, collecting samples of interesting animals and plants, and documenting them.

[00:10:33] Naturally, it was quite the trip, it was a fantastic experience, and he encountered thousands of creatures that he had never seen back in Britain.

[00:10:44] Although he was amazed and astounded by his discoveries at almost every stage of his trip, nowhere was this more true than the five weeks he spent in the Galapagos Islands, just off the coast of Ecuador.

[00:11:00] This was in September and October of 1835.

[00:11:05] Now, the Galapagos Islands were particularly fascinating to Darwin for several reasons.

[00:11:12] To start with, they are volcanic, and had been formed by volcanic eruptions relatively recently, only about 3 million years ago. 

[00:11:23] So there was no life on them before that, they emerged from nothing.

[00:11:29] Darwin noticed different varieties of similar animals on the different Galapagos Islands, leading him to believe that they might have evolved to best adapt to the different environments that they lived in.

[00:11:44] But this belief still didn’t completely negate creationism, it didn’t disprove the idea that a God designed every creature. 

[00:11:54] Indeed, Darwin didn’t have some great eureka moment in the Galapagos Islands when he saw a giant tortoise and thought, I’ve finally cracked it, that tortoise is like that because of natural selection, it wasn't like that at all.

[00:12:10] When he got back to Britain, 5 years after he had set off, he continued to work on his ideas about evolution, and about how the animals he had encountered had evolved in their separate ways. 

[00:12:25] But it wasn’t until 1837, a year after returning, that there is the first evidence that he had a theory about what caused evolution.

[00:12:36] He had been keeping detailed notebooks, but they were secret, shown to nobody. 

[00:12:42] On a page of this notebook we see the words ‘I think’, and then a drawing of a tree.

[00:12:51] Darwin had been developing the idea of the tree of life, that animals branch off from one another, forming new species that are better suited to their environments.

[00:13:04] He also now had a theory about why this was. 

[00:13:09] There was a famous essay published in September 1838 by the economist Thomas Malthus called The Principle of Population. 

[00:13:20] Malthus proposed that the world’s population was growing too fast, that there wasn’t going to be enough food to feed everyone, and that there was going to be a struggle for resources. 

[00:13:34] The world was going to run out of space to produce food, and this would be what would stop population growth.

[00:13:41] With not enough food to go around, people would die, and only the best adapted for the situation would survive.

[00:13:50] Suddenly it clicked for Darwin. 

[00:13:54] What if similar laws applied in the natural world?

[00:13:58] Animals that were best adapted to their situations would flourish, and those that weren’t would die out. 

[00:14:08] This would lead to the best adapted for survival passing their genes down as they reproduced, and those that were not suited for survival dying out, and it was this that caused different species to evolve in different ways.

[00:14:27] This was the idea of natural selection.

[00:14:31] Now, to you or me, this might just seem sensible, logical and rational, but at the time it was a revolutionary idea. 

[00:14:41] It was going against God, it wasn’t compatible with Creationism, and Darwin knew that publishing would lead to a huge backlash.

[00:14:51] So he didn’t publish it, or at least he waited 20 years to do so.

[00:14:58] In the 20 years between Darwin having this breakthrough moment and when On The Origin of Species was published, Darwin lived the life of a biologist, studying and cataloguing the natural world, while working on his heretical, revolutionary ideas about evolution and natural selection in secret.

[00:15:20] Already in 1842 he drafted an initial version of the book, but he didn’t publish it. 

[00:15:28] Instead, he wrote a letter to his wife saying that if he died, she should pay an editor to publish it. 

[00:15:36] It’s as if he knew the importance of his discovery, but was too afraid of what would happen if he published it. 

[00:15:45] He even wrote to a friend that believing in evolution, believing that species were not immutable, not unchangeable, was “like confessing to a murder.”

[00:15:58] Although he believed it, and had a working hypothesis about how natural selection and evolution worked, he wanted to be as sure as he possibly could be, and he continued his research in secret.

[00:16:14] Then, in June 1858, 20 years after having returned from his trip, he received a letter from a man called Alfred Russel Wallace, another British naturalist.

[00:16:27] Russel Wallace had been developing similar ideas to Darwin, and he sought Darwin’s advice on how to publish them.

[00:16:36] This was a subject that Darwin had been thinking about for almost all of his life, and to which he had dedicated himself for the past 20 years, so he didn’t want Russel Wallace to take all the credit. 

[00:16:50] Darwin came clean, he explained everything he had been doing, and proposed to Russel Wallace to present their ideas together.

[00:17:00] Russel Wallace agreed, and extracts of their work were to be read at a meeting of the Linnean Society, the oldest biological society in the world, on the 1st of June 1858. 

[00:17:14] Darwin wasn’t able to make it, unfortunately, he was sick, and was grieving for the loss of a son, who had died of scarlet fever.

[00:17:23] After the meeting, Darwin rushed to put all of his ideas together in an accessible book, and On the Origin of Species was published on the 24th of November 1859, less than 6 months after the ideas were first aired to the world.

[00:17:43] These ideas were revolutionary. 

[00:17:45] But Darwin didn’t really see himself as a revolutionary, and instead of being the public face of the theory he let his friend, Thomas Henry Huxley, a young biologist, defend them publicly.

[00:18:01] Darwin retreated further and further out of the public eye, and eventually died 20 years later, aged 73. 

[00:18:11] Now, we hardly have to say quite how important Darwin, and On the Origin of Species are. 

[00:18:19] His theory of natural selection completely changed the way in which people understood the natural world. 

[00:18:26] Although he didn’t specify this in the book, the takeaway for many was that humans descended from apes, that they weren’t created by a divine being, which is evidently problematic for world religions that specify that this was how humans were created.

[00:18:45] And of course, not everyone believes in Darwin's theory of evolution. 

[00:18:50]To be precise, 37% of Americans don’t, but it is the basis of most scientific theories about how creatures evolve

[00:19:00] There have been a few updates, a few new discoveries, mainly that there is now a theory that evolution doesn’t always happen gradually, as Darwin thought, it can happen by genes jumping from one species to the next, but this is just a development to Darwin’s theory, it doesn’t disprove it at all.

[00:19:23] When that discovery was published, in 2009, there was a very misleading headline in the New Scientist Magazine of “Darwin Was Wrong”, which excited a lot of creationists, but when they read the article it was clear that he wasn’t really wrong, he just wasn’t 100 percent correct.

[00:19:46] One thing that continued to puzzle Darwin, and of course continues to puzzle us today, was where life actually first came from. 

[00:19:57] If you believe that we all evolved from something, what thing was that?

[00:20:04] This is now referred to as LUCA, the Last Universal Common Ancestor, which lived over three and a half billion years ago, soon after the Earth was formed. 

[00:20:17] Interestingly, Darwin’s theory about what this could have been is remarkably similar to the current theory, that the first life came from some form of body of water. 

[00:20:30] Darwin thought it was probably a warm little pond with lots of salts, ammonia and so on. 

[00:20:38] Nowadays it’s thought to be much more likely to come from the oceans, from when various different compounds dissolved in the water, the ocean thickened and created what’s called ‘primordial soup’, and it was here that the first life was formed, from which we are all descended.

[00:20:59] But that is a mystery that most definitely still remains unsolved.

[00:21:07] OK then, that is it for the life of Charles Darwin, rightly named one of the most influential figures in human history. 

[00:21:16] I hope it has been an interesting one, and that you’ve learned something new.

[00:21:21] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:21:24] If you are a member of Leonardo English then you can head right in to our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:21:35] And as a final reminder, if you are looking to improve your English in a more interesting way, to join a community of curious minds from all over the world, to unlock the transcripts, subtitles, and key vocabulary, and to support a more interesting way of improving your English then I’d definitely recommend checking out becoming a member of Leonardo English.

[00:21:58] By popular demand, we’ve also just launched gift memberships, so if you are looking for the perfect present for a curious mind, then the place to go to is leonardoenglish.com

[00:22:10] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:22:15] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.