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The evolutionary theory outlined by Charles Darwin in his groundbreaking On the Origin of Species (1859) formed an integral part of the growing challenge to religious belief during the Victorian period. The idea, and – importantly – the proof, that species had evolved over many thousands of years through the process of natural selection, presented a direct challenge to concepts of creation and a supernatural creator. Darwin himself was acutely aware of this, and he hesitated before publishing his theories, fearful of the backlash. In light of these discoveries, he came to identify as an ‘agnostic’, a term coined by his friend and champion T.H. Huxley, and others were jolted into an examination of ideals which led many to embrace a humanist philosophy. For others, evolutionary theory helped to bolster doubts already long-held, and – by offering an explanation for the apparent ‘design’ of species – made atheism an intellectually more acceptable position. These finches, part of the collection of the Natural History Museum, were collected from the Galápagos Islands in 1835 by Charles Darwin and his colleagues during the second voyage of HMS Beagle (1831-1836). Though closely related to each other, the finches illustrate significant variation. Although initially unaware of their importance, Darwin later wrote that:

Seeing this gradation and diversity of structure in one small, intimately related group of birds, one might really fancy that from an original paucity of birds in this archipelago, one species had been taken and modified for different ends.

Today, just like for Darwin himself, examples like these finches (or the composition of a piece of chalk) help to make visual and real the concepts of evolution, providing valuable teaching as well as research resources. Teaching evolution and not creationism was a long-standing campaign for Humanists UK, which successfully brought about changes to the curriculum in England.

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