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A Biography of Charles Darwin

Celebrating the Life and Work of a Great Naturalist

By

A Biography of Charles Darwin

Water-colour portrait of Charles Darwin painted by George Richmond in the late 1830s.

Public domain photo.

The year 2009 marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species as well as the 200th anniversary of the birth of its author, Charles Robert Darwin.

Charles Darwin was born in Shrewsbury, England on February 12, 1809. He was the fourth child born to Robert Waring Darwin and Susannah Wedgwood. The Darwin family was wealthy and Charles grew up in comfort.

He attended Shrewsbury School from 1818-1825 before leaving for Edinburgh University at the age of 16. There he was to study medicine with the intention of becoming a physician like his father. But Darwin displayed little interest in the field and could hardly bear the sight of blood, so it soon became clear his life’s work would be in some other profession.

During his time at Edinburgh University, Darwin studied marine invertebrates under the supervision of Robert Grant. Grant, an evolutionist, questioned the idea that species were immutable and his ideas became an influence on the young Darwin.

Grant lead the Edinburgh Plinian Society for student naturalists, a group to which Darwin became a member in 1826. It was in one of Grant’s articles that Darwin’s name first appeared in print.

In 1827, Darwin abandoned his pursuit of medicine. Following a suggestion by his father, Darwin decided to study to become a clergyman. The choice took him to Christ’s College, Cambridge. While at Cambridge, Darwin blossomed as an amateur naturalist. He spent much of his free time collecting beetles and developing his knowledge of natural history. Darwin had an extraordinary desire to observe the natural world and ask questions about how it works.

During his Cambridge years, Darwin formed a close friendship with botany Professor, John Stevens Henslow. This friendship lead to the opportunity that would shape the rest of Darwin’s life, and would forever change our understanding of the natural world. It was Henslow who helped Darwin gain passage aboard the HMS Beagle, a survey ship that was to undertake a five-year journey around the world.

The commander of the HMS Beagle was Robert FitzRoy. Darwin would be FitzRoy’s companion and would also serve as the ship’s naturalist. In December of 1831, the HMS Beagle left Plymouth, England. It set a course southward, which took it around Cape Horn at South America’s southernmost tip. The HMS Beagle then turned northward following the west coast of South America to the Galapagos Islands. It crossed the Pacific Ocean via Tahiti before going on to New Zealand and Australia. After tracing a course along Australia’s south coast, the Beagle continued across the Indian Ocean to Mauritius, around Cape Agulhas at the southern tip of Africa. From there it again crossed the Atlantic to South America’s east coast before heading northward back to England.

During his years aboard the HMS Beagle, Darwin collected specimens and took detailed zoological notes. He also continued to read the works of other scientists of the time, including Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology. It is this book that impressed upon Darwin the concept of a slowly changing earth and the immensity of geological time.

In September 1835, the HMS Beagle arrived at the Galapagos Islands. It is there that Darwin encountered a remarkable array of species. He collected specimens of plants and birds. He observed subtle variations in mockingbirds and finches. He noted the variations in shell shape among tortoises that inhabit different habitats.

Darwin’s observations lead him to ask many questions. Why were there so many different organisms on Earth? Where do new species come from? Why do some species look very similar and others so different?

Upon his return to England, Darwin described his many findings from his years aboard the HMS Beagle in the five-volume work, The Zoology of the Voyage of the HMS Beagle. In the years that followed, Darwin published numerous papers on a variety of natural history topics. Meanwhile, he continues developing his understanding of evolution. He reads Thomas Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population.

In 1838, Darwin married Emma Wedgewood, his first cousin, with whom he later has 10 children. In 1842, the Darwin family moved into Down House, Kent. It is at Down House that Darwin takes on the task of writing his theory of evolution through natural selection. It takes 15 years to finalize the manuscript.

In 1858, Darwin receives a letter from fellow naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace. In that letter, Wallace reveals that he has developed a theory of evolution by natural selection. This forces Darwin to present his theory alongside that of Wallace. Although the two naturalists reached similar conclusions about their theories, it was Darwin who had gathered and compiled the vast body of evidence to back his theory.

In November of 1859, a 447-page first edition of On the Origin of Species was published. The book has become the cornerstone of our understanding of the natural world and has influenced virtually every corner of the scientific world.

Charles Darwin died on April 19, 1882 and is buried at Westminster Abbey.

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