Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin

The famous British naturalist Charles Darwin traveled around the world, wrote several books, and developed the theory of natural selection and evolution.

Charles Robert Darwin was born on February 12, 1809, in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, in the west of England. His father, Robert Darwin, was a wealthy doctor and financier, and his mother Susannah (née Wedgwood) died when he was eight years old.

He was a grandson of Erasmus Darwin, a prominent physician, on his father’s side and Josiah Wedgwood, from the pottery family, on his mother’s side.

Charles Darwin went to Shrewsbury School and then to the University of Edinburgh to study medicine; he also learned how to stuff birds by a freed South American slave who worked at the Edinburgh Museum.

His father was disappointed at his son’s lack of progress at Edinburgh and decided to move him to Cambridge. Darwin proceeded to Christ’s College, where he had the idea of becoming a clergyman and studied theology. It was during this time that he started collecting beetles and developing a keen interest in entomology.

With the H.M.S. Beagle sailing to South America to chart the coastline, Darwin decided that he might join the crew as an unpaid assistant to the ship’s captain, Robert FitzRoy.

Darwin realized that it would give him an unparalleled opportunity to study the geological features of many islands around the world, as well as to study wildlife. He had been inspired by accounts of the German explorer Alexander von Humboldt.

His father was unhappy about the idea of a two-year voyage (it later turned out to last for five years), but Josiah Wedgwood, his grandfather, supported the trip. Darwin set off on December 27, 1831, collecting and sending back large numbers of natural history specimens.

The ship stopped at the Cape Verde Islands, and Darwin proceeded to study oyster shells and note the changes in the land. On arriving in South America, at Bahia (modern-day Salvador), Darwin went to study the rain forest.

He was angered by the treatment of the slaves in Brazil. He spent some months in the rain forest and then in July 1832 went to Montevideo, Uruguay, which was going through one of its many conflicts after becoming independent.

Darwin met the Argentine dictator General Juan Manuel de Rosas and found the way the Argentine government treated the people of Tierra del Fuego bordering on systematic extermination.

The Beagle sailed to the Falkland Islands and then back to Argentina. In October 1833 Darwin caught a fever in Argentina and in July 1834 fell ill in Valparaíso. He spent a long time in Chile, climbing the Andes and studying the fossils in the Andean foothills. Darwin went to Peru and to the Galápagos Islands.

Darwin proceeded on to Tahiti, New Zealand, and Australia, although he never went to the settlement in the north of the country that now bears his name. In New Zealand, he was saddened at the treatment of the Maoris and even more disappointed in the way he saw the aboriginal people of Australia being treated.

The Beagle then headed off to the Indian Ocean, where the ship called in at the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. Already formulating his idea of animal species developing over very long periods of time, Darwin started to try to draw some conclusions on the final leg of his journey back to England, where he landed in October 1836, returning to Shrewsbury to rejoin his family.

First Book

He received a £400 annual allowance from his father, and Darwin started a series of correspondences with other naturalists and geologists. On his return, Darwin wrote up his diary of the voyage as Journal of Researches into the Geology and Natural History of the Various Countries Visited by H.M.S. Beagle, which was published by Henry Colburn in 1839.

Darwin began cataloging all the different species, and in a talk at the Zoological Society, the famous ornithologist John Gould told the audience that the birds on the Galápagos Islands were not a mixture of species but all ground finches that had adapted differently.

This helped fuel Darwin’s ideas of evolution and natural selection. He became influenced by the ideas of Thomas Malthus and also by Harriet Martineau, a Whig political activist.

Darwin developed the Malthusian ideas to form “natural selection,” by which, when an area was overpopulated, the strongest would survive; he never used the term “survival of the fittest,” although many later writers attributed it to him.

During the 1840s Darwin was refining his concept of evolution but initially had no intention of immediately publishing his treatise on natural selection.

By 1854 Darwin had finished working out the order in which many species had evolved and had written about 250,000 words when, on June 18, 1858, he received a letter from Alfred Russel Wallace, an English socialist and natural history enthusiast who was in the Malay Archipelago.

Wallace raised a similar idea of evolution to that of Darwin, with extracts of both scholars’ work read at the Linnean Society on July 1, 1858. This encouraged Darwin to finish his book, which he called On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.

Darwin retreated to the North York moors when the book was released on November 22, 1859. There were 1,250 copies printed, and the entire stock had been oversubscribed by orders received by booksellers.

As Darwin had suspected, the book caused a storm of protest, and he kept a book of press cuttings, review articles, satires, parodies, and caricature cartoons. Dissenters saw merit in his book, but the members of the Anglican community at Cambridge were upset at Darwin’s ideas, which they saw as directly challenging those in the Bible.

Darwin, had deliberately not stated that he believed that humans had evolved from apes, but this was what many of his readers interpreted, with many reviewers talking about “men from monkeys.” This denied the special status of humans, but Darwin found support from Thomas Huxley, writing his own book Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature, which was published in 1863.


However, Richard Owen, the head of the British scientific establishment, condemned the book, as did Sedgwick and Henslow, who had been tutors to Darwin at Cambridge. Darwin’s work was acknowledged in Prussia, where the zoologist Ernst Haeckel alerted the king of Prussia, who awarded Darwin a medal.

Some German theorists were soon to go further, using the concept of evolution to develop ideas of Social Darwinism by which one type of man was more advanced than another.

The Descent of Man
The Descent of Man

Darwin became increasingly unwell and took to his bed for many months during the 1860s. However, he continued to write more books, with six new editions of On the Origin of Species, and also some new works such as Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication, published in 1868.

He wrote The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, which was published in 1871, and his The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals was published in the following year.

His next books were titled The Effects of Cross and Self Fertilization in the Vegetable Kingdom and The Different Forms of Flowers on Plants of the Same Species.

From 1876 until 1881 Darwin wrote his autobiography for his grandchildren. He had married his cousin Emma Wedgwood, the marriage service being an Anglican ceremony that was arranged in order to suit the Unitarians.

He and his wife had 10 children, three of whom died young. In 1881 Darwin finished his book The Formation of Vegetable Mould, Through the Action of Worms, which was to be his last published volume.

He had an angina seizure in March 1882 and died on April 19. A funeral was held at Downe, where he had lived, and on April 26 he was interred at Westminster Abbey, close to the last resting places of John Herschel and Isaac Newton.

Darwin has been remembered in many ways. An expanse of water near the Beagle Channel is named the Darwin Sound. In addition, there are many species named after him, including the finches he collected from the Galápagos Islands. I

n 1964 Darwin College, Cambridge, was named after the Darwin family, and in 2000 the Bank of England replaced Charles Dickens on the £10 note with Charles Darwin.

Although some historians still debate whether it was Darwin or Wallace who first came up with the concept of evolution, Darwin is the person credited with the idea and the person who did the most to advance it to a stage where it is widely accepted around the world.