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Charles Darwin


Charles Robert Darwin (1809-1882), English Naturalist and author who established the theory of evolution, published his findings in On the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection; or, the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1859);

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.--Ch. 15

The culmination of years of research and data collection, Darwin's monumental work represents many fields of science including biology, geology, anatomy, geography, and paleontology. Of course Darwin's work was controversial--many of his fellow scientists, also members of the Church of England and creationists rejected his theories outright. There were numerous debates, the most famous one between Darwin's supporters from the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Bishop of Oxford. While there have been new developments in the fields of science since, Origin remains the foundation among scientists in explanation of the development and diversity of life.

English anthropologist and biologist Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) had also been independently conducting research along the lines of Darwin's. He was also proposing a theory of natural selection and Darwin was urged to publish his findings. The publication of Origin was an immediate success. It quickly moved through a number of editions and was soon translated to dozens of languages. His theories in evolutionary biology and natural selection led to the use of the term Darwinism.

Therefore my success as a man of science, whatever this may have amounted to, has been determined, as far as I can judge, by complex and diversified mental qualities and conditions. Of these, the most important have been--the love of science--unbounded patience in long reflecting over any subject--industry in observing and collecting facts--and a fair share of invention as well as of common sense. With such moderate abilities as I possess, it is truly surprising that I should have influenced to a considerable extent the belief of scientific men on some important points.--Ch. 7, The Autobiography of Charles Darwin; Recollections of the Development of My Mind and Character (ed. Sir Francis Darwin, 1887).

Charles Robert Darwin was born on 12 February 1809 at the family home The Mount in the town of Shrewsbury, Shropshire county, England, the fifth of six children born to Dr. Robert Waring Darwin (1766-1848) and Susannah née Wedgwood (1765-1817). Charles' maternal grandfather was the famous potter Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795); his paternal grandfather physician Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) who wrote on evolutionary principles in Zoonomia (1794-6). Young Charles was destined to follow in his footsteps, for early on he discovered his love of all things natural and became an avid collector of minerals, shells, and bird eggs, a hobby that would serve him well later in life. Family trips to Wales awakened a never-ending curiosity in him and he would return many times to further his studies in geology and marine and insect life.

At the age of eight years old, the same year his mother died, Darwin entered the Unitarian day school run by Rev. G. Case. After a year there he next attended Dr. Samuel Butler's boarding school in Shrewsbury until 1825. Here Darwin studied the works of Homer, Euclid, Virgil, Horace, William Shakespeare, Lord George Gordon Byron, John Milton, and Sir Walter Scott. While he did not excel in his studies, he did enjoy chemistry and conducting experiments; "This was the best part of my education at school, for it showed me practically the meaning of experimental science".--Ch. 1, (ibid.) In late 1825 Charles' father sent his son to Edinburgh University in Scotland to study medicine, hoping he would follow in his footsteps. He did enjoy the practical side of medicine, attending to sick women and children under the tutelage of his father, but he admits in his Autobiography that the prospect of being left an inheritance from his father to allow him a comfortable living "was sufficient to check any strenuous efforts to learn medicine". Darwin found the lectures at school, the Royal Medical Society, and the Wernerian Society in such subjects as anatomy, geology, and zoology tedious and dull, and the surgeries in those pre-chloroform days gruesome, but he loved to be out in the field collecting specimens with fellow students and learned from a black taxidermist how to stuff birds. He spent many autumn days with his favourite Uncle Josiah 'Jos', son of Josiah Wedgwood at his home Maer, hunting and fishing. It was at this time that Darwin joined the university's Plinian Society and read before them a paper about the marine species bryozoan Flustra; he had observed that these "moss animals" had their own cilia and hence were capable of independent movement. It was his first of many discoveries.

Darwin's love of the great outdoors continued to dominate his life, and his father was concerned. "He was very properly vehement against my turning into an idle sporting man, which then seemed my probable destination".--Ch. 2, (ibid.) He had realised his son was not destined to be a physician, and proposed the idea of him entering the clergy instead. This requiring a solid foundation in the classics, to his dismay Darwin realised that the previous two years at Edinburgh hunting, horseback riding, and wading in tidal pools had thoroughly diminished his knowledge of most things literary. So under a tutor and studying Greek texts he prepared for entrance to Cambridge University, which he attended from 1828 to 1831 when he graduated with a BA. (He was later awarded an honorary LLD from Cambridge in 1877 for his life work in the field of natural science.) Darwin half-heartedly applied himself to the rigours of academia, again dreading the tedium of lectures, instead focusing on such hands-on pursuits as field excursions for botany, geology, and collecting beetles. He discovered his aesthetic taste for music and the arts, and enjoyed the camaraderie of fellow students playing cards and drinking late into the night. It was at Cambridge that he became acquainted with professor of botany John Stevens Henslow (1796-1861), who would become a dear friend and mentor, and recommend him as the expedition's botanist for the HMS Beagle.

While Darwin's father was again not impressed with his son's field of interest, his Uncle Jos helped convince him that this voyage was a good idea. By his own account it was the most important event in Darwin's life. Sailing under Captain Robert Fitzroy (1805-1865) the Beagle left Plymouth, county Devon, England on 27 December 1831. Their first port of call was St Jago in the Cape Verde Islands; then on to such destinations as Tierra del Fuego, the Falkland Islands, Chiloé Island, Valparaiso, the Galápagos Archipelago, Keeling Islands, the Cape of Good Hope, the Ascension Islands, and the Azores. During their five year circumnavigation of the globe, Darwin was immersed in the world he loved so much, collecting and classifying geological and animal specimens. He sent many home to Henslow for further study. Armed with a copy of Charles Lyell's (1797-1875) Principles of Geology (1830-33) Darwin became a disciple of uniformitarianism and its founding principle "The present is the key to the past". Darwin's diligent journal-keeping and keen observations were published in his The Voyage of The Beagle in 1839. He also collaborated on and edited the five-volume Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle. It includes extensive illustrations and diagrams, published between 1838 and 1843.

Upon his return to England in October of 1836, Darwin was embraced with much esteem by the scientific community including Lyell, American botanist Asa Gray (1810-1888), English botanist Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817-1911), and "Darwin's Bulldog" English biologist Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895). Darwin was elected secretary to the Geological Society of London where he also read several papers including "Erratic boulders of South America" and "On the formation by the agency of earth-worms of mould", which he would revise and publish as The Formation of Vegetable Mould, Through the Action of Worms in 1881. He also had papers published in the Linnean Society's Journal. Darwin continued his studies on the transmutation of species, geology, barnacles, seeds, and oversaw the editing of several studies and reports based on his specimens. He set to preparing his manuscript for the Voyage. The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs was published in 1842. "....with the exception of the Coral Reefs, I cannot remember a single first-formed hypothesis which had not after a time to be given up or greatly modified".--Ch. 7, Autobiography.

On 29 January 1839 Darwin married his cousin Emma Wedgwood (1808-96), daughter of his Uncle Jos, with whom he would have ten children. The Darwins settled at their home Down House in the village of Downe in Kent county, England. Partly inspired by the birth of his first son William Erasmus (1839-1914), who would become a banker, Expression of the Emotions in Men and Animals was published in 1872. The death of his second child Anne Elizabeth (1841-1851) profoundly grieved Darwin and caused him to lose the little faith he had left in Christianity. His next daughter born, Mary Eleanor (1842-1842) also died an untimely death. Henrietta Emma "Etty" (1843-1904) often assisted her father in his work, and was with him when he died. (Sir) George Howard Darwin (1845-1912) became an eminent astronomer. Darwin's next child born, Elizabeth (1847-1926) never married. Son (Sir) Francis (1848-1925) followed in his father's footsteps, becoming a noted Professor of Botany at Cambridge. He collaborated with his father in experiments and co-authored The Power of Movement in Plants (1880); he later edited and published Life and Letters of Charles Darwin (1887). He was knighted in 1913. (Major) Leonard Darwin (1850-1943) would join the Royal Engineers and was later president of the Royal Geographical Society. (Sir) Horace Darwin (1851-1928) founded the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company. Charles and Emma's last child to be born, Charles Waring (1856-1858) died of scarlet fever.

For many years Darwin had suffered from "palpitation and pain about the heart"--(Ch. 3, Autobiography.) He felt the first ominous pangs days before he set sail on the Beagle but he determined to keep it to himself lest he be found unfit to sail. In his later years stomach pains, headaches, and fever interfered with his work and social life. At times he struggled to keep up with his commitments to publishers, sometimes taking a water cure, and after moving to Down House rarely travelled or socialised due to illness. "My chief enjoyment and sole employment throughout life has been scientific work; and the excitement from such work makes me for the time forget, or drives quite away, my daily discomfort."--(Ch. 6, ibid.)

But always the observer, Darwin delighted in his natural surroundings, for he was "....pleased with the diversified appearance of vegetation proper to a chalk district"--(Ch. 6, ibid.) at Down. Emma and his children and grandchildren were constant companions in his later years. Charles Robert Darwin died at home on 19 April 1882, at the age of seventy-three. At the request of then-President of the Royal Society of London William Spottiswoode (1825-1883) he was given a state funeral and buried in Westminster Abbey in London, England, resting among other such notable figures as scientist Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727).

Whenever I have found out that I have blundered, or that my work has been imperfect, and when I have been contemptuously criticised, and even when I have been overpraised, so that I have felt mortified, it has been my greatest comfort to say hundreds of times to myself that "I have worked as hard and as well as I could, and no man can do more than this". I remember when in Good Success Bay, in Tierra del Fuego, thinking (and, I believe, that I wrote home to the effect) that I could not employ my life better than in adding a little to Natural Science.--Ch. 7, Autobiography

Further publications by Charles Darwin include;

Geological Observations on South America (1844),
Volcanic Islands (1844),
Fertilisation of Orchids (1862),
The Movements and Habits of Climbing Plants (1865),
Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication (1868),
Descent of Man (1871),
Insectivorous Plants (1875),
Effects of Cross and Self Fertilisation in the Vegetable Kingdom (1876), The Different Forms of Flowers on Plants of the Same Species (1877).

Biography written by C. D. Merriman for Jalic Inc. Copyright Jalic Inc. 2008. All Rights Reserved.

The above biography is copyrighted. Do not republish it without permission.

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