English naturalist famous for his theory of evolution and natural selection as put forward in 1859 in his book
The Origin of Species.
Darwin was born in Shrewsbury on February 12, 1809. His father was a wealthy doctor, and his paternal
grandfather was Erasmus Darwin, a well—known poet and physician; his mother's father was the pottery
manufacturer Josiah Wedgwood. Darwin was educated locally from 1818, and when he left school in 1825 he
attended Edinburgh University to study medicine. But he abhorred medicine and the science taught to him
there disgusted him, and two years later his father sent him to Christ's College, Cambridge, to study
theology—which he did not enjoy either. Natural history was his main interest, which was very much
increased by his acquaintance with John Stevens Henslow, who was professor of botany at Cambridge.
Henslow recommended to the Admiralty that Darwin should accompany HMS Beagle as a naturalist on its
survey voyage of the coasts of Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego, Chile, Peru, and some Pacific islands. His father
opposed this idea but, with the support of Wedgwood, Darwin sailed in the Beagle from Devonport on
December 27, 1831 for a voyage of five years. On his return to England he found that some of his papers had
been privately published during his absence and that he was regarded as one of the leading men of science.
He published his findings on this epic voyage in the Journal of Researches into the Geology and Natural
History of the Various Countries Visited by HMS Beagle (1832–1836) in 1839. In 1838 he was appointed
secretary to the Geological Society, a position he retained until 1844. He married his cousin, Emma
Wedgwood, in 1839, and the marriage produced ten children. He spent the rest of his life collating the findings
made during the voyage and developing his theory for publication. He died on April 19, 1882 at Down, in
Before the voyage of the Beagle Darwin, like everyone else at that time, did not believe in the mutability of
species. But in South America he saw fossil remains of giant sloths and other animals now extinct, and on the
Galapagos Islands found a colony of finches that he could divide into at least 14 similar species, none of which
existed on the mainland. It was obvious to him that one type must have evolved into many others, but how
they did so eluded him. Two years after his return he read Malthus's An Essay on the Principle of Population
(1798), which proposed that the human population is growing too fast for it to be adequately fed, and that
something would have to happen to reduce it, such as war or natural disaster. This work inspired Darwin to
see that the same principle could be applied to animal populations and he theorized that variations of a
species that survive (while other members of the species do not) pass on the changed characteristic to their
offspring. A new species is thereby developed which is fitter to survive in its environment than was the
original species from which it evolved. Darwin did not make his ideas public at first, but put them into an
essay in 1844 to which only his friend Joseph Hooker and a few others were privy.
In 1856 Darwin began writing fully about evolution and natural selection. Two years later he received a paper
from a fellow naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, explaining exactly the same theory of evolution and natural
selection. Unsure what to do, Darwin consulted his friends Charles Lyell and Hooker, who persuaded him to
have the joint papers read in the absence of the authors before the Linnaean Society. The papers caused no
stir, but Darwin was forced to speed up the completion of his work.
The abstract of Darwin's findings was published in 1859, and was called The Origin of Species by Means of
Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. It was very widely read,
although many fellow scientists criticized it violently. Some considered that the book lacked a foundation of
experimental evidence and was based purely on hypothesis; others were simply jealous. Many Christians were
shocked by Darwin's work because it implied that the biblical account of creation—if taken literally—is wrong,
and that if evolution works automatically by natural selection then divine intervention plays no part in the lives
of plants, animals, or humans.
When Darwin wrote the book, he avoided the issue of human evolution and merely remarked at the end that
"much light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history." He did not seek the controversy he caused
but his ideas soon caught the public imagination. After the publication in 1871 of The Descent of Man and
Selection in Relation to Sex, in which he argued that people evolved just like other organisms, the popular
press soon published articles about the "missing link" between humans and apes. In fact what Darwin believed
was that our ancestors, if alive today, would have been classified among the primates.
Darwin's name remains inseparably linked with the theory of evolution to this day. He never understood what
actually caused newly formed advantageous characteristics to appear in animals and plants because he had no
knowledge of heredity and mutations. The irony is that the key work on heredity by the Austrian monk Gregor
Mendel was carried out during Darwin's own lifetime and published in 1865, but was neglected until 1900.
Darwin's revolutionary publication, which is still widely read, marked a turning point in many of the sciences,
including physical anthropology and paleontology, and remains a source of strong controversy.