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Charles Darwin - Biography

Charles Darwin (February 12, 1809 – April 19, 1882) was an English naturalist who gained great fame within his lifetime as well as long after his death for the development of evolutionary theory. Most of Charles Darwin's evolutionary theory is contained in the book Origin of Species (1859).

Charles Darwin was born in Shrewsbury, Shropshire England in 1809. He was the fifth of six children of a wealthy doctor and financier and although his family was Unitarian he attended the Anglican Shrewsbury School as a boarder in 1818. By 1825 he was an apprentice doctor at the University of Edinburgh Medical school but he did not like the work involved. In his second year he joined the Plinian Society, a student natural history group that engaged in discussions of radical materialism. He assisted Robert Edmund Grant in the research of marine invertebrates' anatomy and life cycle and in 1827 presented one of his own findings of black spores to the Plinian Society. Darwin also assisted collections at the University Museum. Darwin's voracious interest in natural history angered his father and he was sent to Christ's College at Cambridge in 1828 to study to become a parson but was unqualified to take anything but the ordinary degree course. At this time he took up beetle collecting under the influence of his cousin William Duncan Fox and again was noted for his discoveries and was published in Steven's Illustrations of British Entomology. He ended up doing rather well in the ordinary courses and graduated tenth in his class in 1831.

As well as an unhindered appetite for natural history, Darwin was also a rampant reader and works that he devoured at this time were Paley's Natural Theology, Alexander von Humboldt's Personal Narrative and work by John Herschel. He was fresh from studying geology with Adam Sedgewick when his mentor John Stevens Henslow recommended him to accompany Robert FitzRoy on the HMS Beagle. On the Beagle, Darwin also read Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology and was impressed with his findings of geological formations over time. On the voyage, Darwin took many notes and gathered specimens, sending letters of report back to England. By the time he returned his fame was already underway and he began to work on the variety of specimens he brought back of which there were so many that there was cause for concern for how well they would keep before they were able to be studied. In 1837 he was elected to the Council of the Geological Society and all this time we was feverishly working on writing and rewriting his journal taken during his voyage and the specimens he procured were being studied at the Royal College of Surgeons under the supervision of Richard Owen who Darwin had met through his enthusiastic new friend Lyell.

Darwin's findings at this time began to reveal what would come to be his major contribution to evolutionary science. Not only did Owen find extinct creatures such as gigantic ground sloths, a hippopotamus-sized skull resembling a rodent and armor fragments from a creature not unlike the armadillo, but there was some consternation over a mixture of bird specimens that Darwin had brought back and were being studied by ornithologist, John Gould. Not only did Gould find that Darwin's initial impression that he collected a mixture of finches and blackbirds prove to be false, but that the birds were in fact twelve completely separate species of finches. Darwin went back over his notes and realized in conjunction with Gould that the twelve species could be allocated to different islands and that there was a geographical influence on perhaps just one species that augured the separation of development into twelve different species. It was at this point that Darwin began to develop his ideas on the transmutation of species that was not hierarchical in nature, but was reliant on species "to adapt and alter the race to changing world." This went against Lamarck's claim that lineages would progress to higher forms and of this Darwin said that "it is absurd to talk of one animal being higher than another."

It was also in 1838 that he decided after deliberation (which is found in his notebooks in a pro/con type list) to marry his cousin Emma Wedgewood. She was strong in her Unitarian beliefs and was concerned that Darwin's developing doubts about spirituality and religion would separate them in the afterlife, however, on the whole, she accepted their differences. For the next fifteen years into their married life, Darwin would continue to work on his large theory, but in the meantime was taken up with writing about geology. He even enjoyed a return to marine invertebrates in 1846 after his third geological book was published, going over the barnacles that he had collected while on the Beagle. He continued to have issues with his health and in 1849 found that hydrotherapy was somewhat successful in easing his pains, but in 1851 he was much distressed to lose his daughter Annie.

The work on barnacles earned Darwin the Royal Society's Royal medal in 1853 as he was able to find "homologies" that extrapolated on some of his view that began to be stirred with the finches. Here he saw that body parts of the barnacles varied depending on the environment that surrounded them and that by evolution the creatures were able to adapt to their environment. He also located an intermediate stage in the evolution of sexes when he found in genera, tiny male specimens parasitic on hermaphrodites. this work cemented his stature as eminent biologist and he resumed his work on a theory of species in 1854. Darwin had yet to feel the pressure to publish the extent of his thoughts on evolutionary science within species, however. Lyell pointed out to him the similarities of what he was proposing in 1856 in Alfred Russel Wallace's paper on species and Darwin began a short paper to explicate his own ideas. It wasn't until 1858, however when it appeared that Wallace was very close to publishing a treatise on natural selection that Darwin struggled through his own illnesses and the death of a baby son to scarlet fever to get On the Origin of Species out by the end of 1859. All through this time it is important to note that Wallace and himself were friends with Wallace looking up to Darwin. They were to present jointly at the Linnean Society On the Tendency of Species to form Varieties; and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection, but this occurred at the time that Darwin experienced the loss of his son.

On the Origin of Species was wildly popular and heavily debated from the moment of its release in 1859. Darwin was careful to speak of common descent and not evolution, but controversy ensued all the same. Darwin continued to work and published even more after the success of his great tome broaching heredity, the animality of humans as well as psychology. He died in 1882 at Down House his last words being to his dear wife Emma, "I am not the least afraid of death - Remember what a good wife you have been to me - Tell all my children to remember how good they have been to me." Darwin had expected to be buried in the nearby st Mary's churchyard at Downe, but his colleagues had something rather different in mind. the president of the Royal Society, William Spottiswoode, arranged a state funeral for Darwin and he is buried in Westminster Abbey, perceived a national hero.

Charles Darwin was an English Scientist. (February 12, 1809 – April 19, 1882)