Charles Darwin (Feb. 12, 1809 to April 19, 1882) holds a unique place in history as the foremost proponent of the theory of evolution. Indeed, to this day, Darwin is the most famous evolution scientist and is credited with developing the theory of evolution through natural selection. While he lived a relatively quiet and studious life, his writings were controversial in their day and still routinely spark controversy.
As an educated young man, he embarked on an astounding voyage of discovery aboard a Royal Navy ship. The strange animals and plants he saw in remote places inspired his deep thinking about how life might have developed. When he published his masterpiece, “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection,” he profoundly shook the scientific world.
Darwin’s influence on modern science is impossible to overstate.
Darwin was born in Shrewsbury, England. His father was a medical doctor, and his mother was the daughter of the famous potter Josiah Wedgwood. Darwin’s mother died when he was 8, and he was essentially raised by older sisters. He was not a brilliant student as a child but went on to study at The University of Edinburgh in Scotland, intending to become a doctor.
Darwin took a strong dislike to medical education and eventually studied at Cambridge. He planned to become an Anglican minister before becoming intensely interested in botany. He received a degree in 1831.
Voyage of the Beagle
On the recommendation of a college professor, Darwin was accepted to travel on the second voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle. The ship was embarking on a scientific expedition to South America and islands of the South Pacific, leaving in late December 1831. The Beagle returned to England nearly five years later, in October 1836.
Darwin’s position on the ship was peculiar. A former captain of the vessel had become despondent during a long scientific voyage because, it was assumed, he had no intelligent person to converse with while at sea. The British Admiralty thought that sending an intelligent young gentleman along on a voyage would serve a combined purpose: He could study and make records of discoveries while also providing intelligent companionship for the captain.
Darwin’s famous journey allowed him time to study natural specimens from across the globe and collect some to study back in England. He also read books by Charles Lyell and Thomas Malthus, which influenced his early thoughts on evolution. In all, Darwin spent more than 500 days at sea and about 1,200 days on land during the trip. He studied plants, animals, fossils, and geological formations and wrote his observations in a series of notebooks. During long periods at sea, he organized his notes.
Upon returning to England, Darwin married his first cousin Emma Wedgwood and began years of researching and cataloging his specimens. At first, Darwin was reluctant to share his findings and ideas about evolution. It wasn’t until 1854 that he collaborated with Alfred Russel Wallace to jointly present the idea of evolution and natural selection. The two men were scheduled to present jointly to the Linnaean Society meeting in 1858. However, Darwin decided to not attend as one of his children was gravely ill. (The child died shortly thereafter.) Wallace also did not attend the meeting due to other conflicts. Their research was nevertheless presented by others at the conference, and the scientific world was intrigued by their findings.
Early Writings and Influences
Three years after returning to England, Darwin published “Journal of Researches,” an account of his observations during the expedition aboard the Beagle. The book was an entertaining account of Darwin’s scientific travels and was popular enough to be published in successive editions.
Darwin also edited five volumes titled “Zoology of the Voyage of the Beagle,” which contained contributions by other scientists. Darwin himself wrote sections dealing with the distribution of animal species and geological notes on fossils he had seen.
The voyage on the Beagle was, of course, a highly significant event in Darwin’s life, but his observations on the expedition were hardly the only influence on the development of his theory of natural selection. He was also greatly influenced by what he was reading.
In 1838 Darwin read an Essay on the Principle of Population, which the British philosopher Thomas Malthus had written 40 years earlier. The ideas of Malthus helped Darwin refine his own notion of survival of the fittest.
Malthus had been writing about overpopulation and discussed how some members of society were able to survive difficult living conditions. After reading Malthus, Darwin continued collecting scientific samples and data, eventually spending 20 years refining his own thoughts on natural selection.
Publication of His Masterpiece
Darwin’s reputation as a naturalist and geologist had grown throughout the 1840s and 1850s, yet he had not revealed his ideas about natural selection widely. Friends urged him to publish them in the late 1850s. And it was the publication of an essay by Wallace expressing similar thoughts that encouraged Darwin to write a book setting out his own ideas.
In November 1859, Darwin published the book that secured his place in history, “On the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection.” Darwin knew his views would be controversial, especially with those who believed heavily in religion, as he was somewhat of a spiritual man himself. His first edition of the book did not talk extensively about human evolution but did hypothesize that there was a common ancestor for all life. It wasn’t until much later when he published “The Descent of Man” that Darwin really delved into how humans had evolved. This book was probably the most controversial of all his works.
Darwin’s work instantly became famous and revered by scientists across the globe and his theories had an almost immediate impact upon religion, science, and society at large. Darwin was not the first person to propose that plants and animals adapt to circumstances and evolve over eons of time. But his book put forth his hypothesis in an accessible format and led to controversy.
Later Life and Death
“On the Origin of Species” was published in several editions, with Darwin periodically editing and updating material in the book. He also wrote a few more books on the topic in the remaining years of his life.
While the scientific and religious communities debated his works, Darwin lived a quiet life in the English countryside, content to conduct botanical experiments. He came to be highly respected, regarded as a grand old man of science. Darwin died on April 19, 1882, and was honored by being buried in Westminster Abbey in London. At the time of his death, Darwin was hailed as a national hero.
Scoville, H. (n.d.). Exactly Who is Charles Darwin? Retrieved January 3, 2019, from https://www.thoughtco.com/who-is-charles-darwin-1224477