Charles Darwin – A Brief Biography (1809-1882)
Charles Darwin was an English naturalist, geologist, and biologist, who is known for his contributions to evolutionary biology. He came up with the theory of evolution in his 1859 book On the Origin of Species, which is widely regarded as one of the most influential and significant scientific works in history.
Since his death, Darwin has been regarded as one of the most important figures in human history.
Charles Darwin was born on 12th February 1809 in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England. He was the fifth of six children of Robert Darwin, a wealthy doctor and financier, and Susannah Darwin.
Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, was a physician and abolitionist, who wrote Zoonomia (also known as The Laws of Organic Life), which is a two-volume medical work dealing with psychology, pathology, anatomy, and the functioning of the body. The work consists of early undeveloped ideas relating to the theory of evolution.
Even though Darwin was baptized, he and his siblings attended the Unitarian chapel with his mother.
In 1817, Darwin, aged 8, began attending day school in Shrewsbury. Sadly, the same year, his mother passed away. From the following year onward, he began attending the Anglican Shrewsbury School as a boarder along with his older brother Erasmus.
Early Medical Education
In the summer of 1825, Charles Darwin, aged 16, began working with his father as an apprentice doctor. Here he assisted his father in treating the poor people of Shropshire. This was young Darwin’s first practical experience in the medical field.
The same year, Darwin and his older brother Erasmus enrolled at the University of Edinburgh Medical School, which was the best medical school in the whole United Kingdom at the time. But Darwin found the lectures to be terribly boring and dull, and surgery distressing. Due to this, he began neglecting his studies. Instead, he learned taxidermy from John Edmonstone, a freed black slave who became an expert taxidermist and teacher of taxidermy in Edinburgh.
In his second year at the university, Charles Darwin joined the Plinian Society, which was a club at the university for students interested in natural history. It was here that Darwin began presenting his first scientific discoveries.
Darwin began assisting anatomist and zoologist Robert Edmond Grant in investigating the life cycle and anatomy of marine invertebrates in the Firth of Forth (the estuary of several Scottish rivers including the River Forth). And in 1827, after discovering that black spores found in Oysters were actually the eggs of a skate leech, Darwin presented his discovery at the Plinian Society.
Slowly, Darwin’s interest began turning toward plants. He learned the classification of plants and even assisted with work on the collections of the university museums, which were one of the largest museums in Europe at the time.
Enrolling at Christ’s College
Darwin’s changing interests and extracurricular activities led him to ignore his medical studies, much to the chagrin of his father. Eventually, fed up, his father sent him to Christ’s College in Cambridge in 1828 to study for a Bachelor of Arts degree. He now hoped for his son to become an Anglican parson.
At the college, Charles Darwin met his second cousin William Darwin Fox, who was studying in the same college. Fox showed Darwin his butterfly collection which greatly impressed him. Fox also introduced Darwin to entomology. Darwin soon became interested in collecting beetles and even had some of his finds published in entomologist and naturalist James Francis Stephen’s Illustrations of British Entomology.
Fox later introduced Darwin to botanist and geologist John Stevens Henslow, who became a friend and mentor to Darwin. Henslow was a botany professor, and Darwin was often seen to be walking with him.
It was at Cambridge that Darwin became interested in natural history, natural philosophy, and natural theology. He read and studied William Paley’s Natural Theology or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, which explained that the process of adaptation was God acting through the laws of nature.
He also read Paley’s Evidences of Christianity, John Herschel’s Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy, and Alexander von Humboldt’s Personal Narrative of scientific travels. These works deeply inspired and influenced Darwin to research and contribute to these fields.
Further to this, he planned to visit the Island of Tenerife in the Canary Islands to study natural history in the tropics after graduating. To prepare for the trip, Darwin took Adam Sedwick’s geology course and traveled with him to spend a fortnight mapping stratum in Wales.
Voyage Onboard the HMS Beagle
When Charles Darwin returned home from Wales, he found a letter from Henslow asking him to come as a naturalist on the HMS Beagle on a 2-year expedition to chart the coastline of South America.
Darwin was excited about the expedition but his father was not. His father thought the 2-year expedition would be a waste of time, but he was eventually convinced by his brother-in-law to fund Darwin’s trip and let him go.
On 27th December 1831, the voyage began, and it would go on to last for almost 5 years instead of the intended 2 years. During the expedition, Darwin spent most of his time on land making natural history collections and investigating geology while the HMS Beagle surveyed and charted coasts.
Darwin kept meticulous notes of his observations on land and of his theoretical speculations. He went around collecting specimens for expert appraisals, as he himself was a novice in the field at the time. He would send these specimens to Cambridge along with letters and a copy of his journal for his family. And he did all of this while suffering from terrible seasickness.
Most of Darwin’s notes were about marine invertebrates, which he had some experience in dissecting.
Experiences in South America
Darwin’s experience on the voyage, while they stopped at different countries, is nothing short of fascinating.
At St. Jago in Cape Verde, he found that a white band high in the volcanic cliffs had seashells in them, supporting Charles Lyell’s theory of land slowly rising and falling over immense periods, which Darwin read in Lyell’s geology book Principle of Geology.
In Brazil, Darwin was disturbed by the sight of slavery and detested it. But at the same time, he was delighted to experience Brazil’s tropical forest. The Beagle stopped in Argentina, at Bahia Blanca, and then later Darwin visited Punta Alta, where he found fossils bones of huge extinct mammals, which indicated to fairly recent extinction with no signs of catastrophe or change in the climate.
There he also identified the fossil of a Megatherium, commonly called the giant ground sloth, which is an extinct genus of ground sloths endemic to South America.
All these finds of his were shipped to England to be studied and investigated by experts. Darwin also went on frequent rides with gauchos to the interior of the countries they stopped at, to collect fossils and explore geology. During these rides, he gained many anthropological, social, and political insights into the native as well as the colonial people.
In 1835, after experiencing an earthquake in Chile, Darwin saw signs that the land had been raised, such as mussel beds stranded above high tide. Even up in the Andes, Darwin found seashells and several fossil trees that had grown on a sand beach. With these observations, he theorized that as the land rose, the oceanic islands sank and the coral reefs around them grew to form atolls.
Observations in the Galapagos Islands and Australia
While in the Galapagos Islands, Charles Darwin looked for evidence attaching wildlife to an older center of creation, after falling in with Lyell’s view of centers of creation of species.
He looked for tortoises to notice the slight variations in the shape of their shells which determined which island they came from. And he even found mockingbirds on the island allied to those in Chile yet differing from island to island.
While in Australia, Darwin found the platypus and the marsupial rat-kangaroo to be so unusual that he felt it was almost as if two distinct creators were at work. He also observed the aborigines to be good-humored and pleasant, while acknowledging their depletion by European settlement.
On his way back home after the 5-year voyage, Darwin organized his notes on the ship. While doing so, he wrote that if his growing suspicion about tortoises, mockingbirds, and Falkland Islands foxes were accurate, then such facts seemed to him to throw some light on the origin of species.
Back at Home
On 2nd October 1836, the HMS Beagle arrived at Falmouth, Cornwall. From there, Charles Darwin made his way to his home in Shrewsbury.
After meeting with family and relatives, he went to Cambridge to see Henslow, who asked him to find naturalists to help him catalog his animal collections and botanical specimens.
By then, Darwin had already gained some name for himself as a naturalist in the scientific community, thanks to Henslow who had read out extracts from Darwin’s letters to him during the voyage to scientific societies. Henslow had some of those extracts published as a pamphlet and reported it in magazines.
Darwin’s father was now supportive and encouraging of his son’s career path and even organized investments to enable Darwin to be a self-funded independent scientist.
On his return, Darwin was invited and feted by institutions all over London. He even met Charles Lyell, who introduce him to biologist and anatomist Richard Owen, who was then working on the fossils collected by Darwin. Owen’s conclusion that many of those extinct creatures were related to living species in South America confirmed Darwin’s suspicion.
In December of that year, Darwin took lodgings in Cambridge to prepare his own research for publication.
The Evolutionary Theory
Barely six months after his return from the voyage, Charles Darwin speculated in his Red Notebook on the possibility that one species does change into another, to explain the geographical distribution of living species such as the rheas and other extinct animals like the mammal Macrauchenia, which resembled a giant guanaco, a camelid closely related to the Llama.
He also noted in his B notebook (on the transmutation of species) his views and thoughts on lifespan and variations across generations. Through this, he explained variations he had observed in rheas, mockingbirds, and Galapagos tortoises. And then he went on to refute Lamarck’s theory of independent lineages progressing to higher forms, by sketching a genealogical branching of a single evolutionary tree, in which, according to Darwin, it was absurd to talk about one animal being higher than another.
Overworking to Publish His Reports
While Charles Darwin worked on developing his theory of the transmutation of species, he had a lot more on his plate.
He was simultaneously working on his Journal (on the voyage of the Beagle), which was to be published as a separate volume to the Narrative written by Robert FitzRoy. He also began editing and publishing expert reports on his collections.
All of this excess work began taking a toll on Darwin’s health. Fortunately, with Henslow’s help, Darwin was able to obtain a thousand-pound grant to sponsor the multi-volume Zoology of the Voyage of HMS Beagle, which was written by various authors but edited and superintended by Darwin. Darwin decided to utilize the grant to include his planned books on geology as well.
In September of 1837, Darwin complained of an uncomfortable palpitation of the heart. His doctors asked him to stop all work immediately and live in the country for a few weeks to rest and relax.
Darwin retreated to Staffordshire, where he joined his Wedgewood relatives. It was there that he met his cousin Emma Wedgewood, whom he married on 29th January 1839. They would go on to have ten children together, seven of whom would survive to adulthood.
The same year as he was married, Darwin published his book Journals and Remarks, more commonly known as The Voyage of the Beagle, as the third volume of The Narrative of the Voyages of H.M. Ships Adventure and Beagle. Darwin’s account of the voyage became quite popular and brought him much fame and respect.
The Theory of Natural Selection
While continuing his research in London, Charles Darwin began reading the 6th edition of Thomas Robert Malthus‘ An Essay on the Principle of Population.
Before reading the book, Darwin was prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which went on everywhere from long-continued observation of the habits of plants and animals. But while reading it, it struck him that under these circumstances favorable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavorable ones would tend to be destroyed.
Darwin went on to understand that as species always bred beyond the available resources, favorable variations would make organisms better at surviving and passing the variations on to their offspring, while unfavorable variations would eventually be lost.
According to Darwin, the final cause of such wedging was to sort out proper structure and adapt it to changes, so one may say there is a force like a hundred thousand wedges trying to force every kind of adapted structure into the gaps of the economy of structure, or rather forming gaps by thrusting out weaker ones. All this would eventually result in the formation of new species, Darwin theorized.
As he developed his theory more and more, Darwin found similarities between selective breeding, in which farmers picked the best stock, and a Malthusian Nature selecting from chance variants so that every part of a newly acquired structure is fully practical and perfected.
Darwin called this theory of his Natural Selection, which soon became his new obsession.
Books on Geology and Coral Reefs, and Researching Barnacles
For the next fifteen years, while Charles Darwin worked in the background on developing his theory of natural selection, he also wrote extensively on geology and published several reports on his voyage collections and even on barnacles.
During those fifteen years, Darwin undertook extensive experimental selective breeding of animals and plants, finding evidence that species were not fixed. These findings substantiated his theory.
In the year 1842, Darwin published a book on his theory of atoll formation titled The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs, after three years of research. The same year, he wrote a sketch of his theory of natural selection, and then expanded it into a 230-page essay.
During this period, he began dissecting and classifying the barnacles he had collected on the voyage. And after eight years of work on barnacles, his theory helped him to find homologies (similarity due to shared ancestry between a pair of structures or genes in different taxa), showing that slightly changed body parts served different functions to meet new conditions.
On the Origin of Species
The views and thoughts of Charles Darwin regarding natural selection were shared by another British naturalist, Alfred Russell Wallace, who is now best known for independently conceiving the theory of evolution through natural selection.
After reading Darwin a paper by Wallace on natural selection, Lyell urged Darwin to publish on the topic in order to establish precedence. Even though Darwin did not worry about it, in May 1856, he began writing a short paper, which he later planned to expand into a big book on species titled Natural Selection. For this book, he continued to research by obtaining information and specimens from naturalists across the world, including from Wallace who was then in Asia.
In June 1858, while still working on his big book, Darwin received and read another paper from Wallace describing natural selection. The views expressed in Wallace’s paper were so similar to his own that they shocked and surprised him.
Darwin then began working on an abstract for his big book, spending thirteen months on it while suffering from ill health. At last, on 24th November 1859, the abstract titled On the Origin of Species was published. The book was an instant critical and commercial success, with the entire stock of 1,250 copies oversubscribed when it went on sale.
In the book, Darwin set out his detailed observations, inferences, and consideration of anticipated objections. He outlined sexual selection, hinting that it could explain differences between human races. He also made the case for common descent by including evidence of homologies between humans and other mammals.
Reaction to the Book
On the Origin of Species attracted international interest and attention. Even though Charles Darwin did not expressly address human origins in the book, he included several hints about the animal ancestry of humans from which the inference could easily be made.
Darwin’s old Cambridge mentors Henslow and Sedgwick refuted and dismissed his ideas. His close friends Lyell, Hooker, Huxley, and Gray supported him but still expressed reservations about his theory.
Several liberal clergymen from the Church of England interpreted the theory as a beautiful and perfect instrument of God’s design, while also praising the work for supporting the grand principle of the self-evolving powers of nature.
Charles Darwin was 50 years old when On the Origin of Species was published. The tremendous success of the book did not stop him from continuing his work.
He continued to experiment and research for his main big book titled Natural Selection, of which Origin of Species was an abstract. He addressed human descent from earlier animals including the evolution of society and of mental abilities, and also went on to explain decorative beauty in wildlife and diversified into innovative plant studies.
In his 1862 book, Fertilization of Orchids, he gave his first detailed demonstration of the power of natural selection to explain complex ecological relationships, making testable predictions.
In 1868, he published the first part of his big book under the title The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication.
In 1871, Darwin’s work, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, was published. In this work, he laid down evidence from several sources that humans were nothing but animals, by showing the continuity of mental and physical attributes. He also explained human evolution of culture, differences between sexes, and physical and cultural racial classification, and emphasized that humans were all one species.
In his 1872 book, The Expression of the Emotion in Man and Animals, he wrote about the evolution of human psychology and its continuity with the behavior of animals.
By now Darwin had become a well-respected and admired botanist, naturalist, and scientist. He was highly respected within the scientific community, and his works sold surprisingly well, receiving mostly favorable reviews.
On 19th April 1882, Charles Darwin, aged 73, died at Down House.
Earlier that year, he was diagnosed with angina pectoris, which is chest pain due to coronary heart disease, usually due to insufficient blood flow to the heart muscle.
Darwin’s funeral was held on 26th April, and he was buried in Westminster Abbey after much public and parliamentary petitioning, close to Isaac Newton and John Herschel.
Thousands of people, including friends, philosophers, fellow scientists, and dignitaries attended his funeral.
By the time of his death, Charles Darwin had already established himself as one of the greatest scientists of the time. He was highly regarded for his pioneering theories in various fields, especially the theory of evolution by natural selection.
Though the general public had not completely accepted his theory of evolution, most scientists of the time had come to acknowledge its legitimacy.
In modern times, Darwin’s theory of evolution is accepted as a common fact, without many even realizing that when he had developed and published his theory, it was one of the most radical theories of the time, one that went against the common belief held by people due to the influence of the church.
Darwin is now widely regarded as one of the most influential men in human history. Over the years, he received numerous awards and honors and was celebrated as a great, pioneering scientist. Various philosophical movements such as Darwinism and Social Darwinism were based on his influence.
To this day, several events are organized and celebrated to honor Darwin and his work, the most famous one being Darwin Day, which is celebrated on 12th February every year to commemorate his birthday and to honor his contributions to science.