Charles Robert Darwin (12 February 1809 – 19 April 1882) was an English naturalist whose revolutionary theory laid the foundation for both the modern theory of evolution and the principle of common descent by proposing natural selection as a mechanism. He published this proposal in 1859 in the book The Origin of Species, which remains his most famous work. A worldwide sea voyage aboard HMS Beagle and observations on the Galapagos Islands in particular provided inspiration and much of the data on which he based his theory.
Charles Darwin was born in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England, on 12 February 1809 at the family home, The Mount House. He was the fifth of six children of Robert and Susannah Darwin (ne Wedgwood), and the grandson of Erasmus Darwin, and of Josiah Wedgwood, a family of the Unitarian church. See also Darwin–Wedgwood family.
At Edinburgh his disgust at the anatomy lectures of professor Alexander Munro III and his revulsion at the brutality of surgery at the time led him to neglect his medical studies, but in his second year he became active in student societies for naturalists. In the Plinian society he became an avid student of Robert Edmund Grant, learning from Grant's enthusiasm for the theories of Lamarck and Charles' grandfather Erasmus about evolution by acquired characteristics. He joined Grant in pioneering investigations of the life cycle of marine animals on the shores of the Firth of Forth where Grant found evidence for homology, the radical theory that all animals had similar organs differing only in complexity. In March 1827 Darwin made a presentation to the Plinian society of his discovery that black spores often found in oyster shells were the eggs of a skate leech. Darwin also sat Robert Jameson's natural history course, learning about stratigraphic geology and getting to assist with the collections of the Museum of Edinburgh University, then one of the largest in Europe. At professor Robert Jameson's Wernerian Natural History Association Charles saw John James Audubon give a demonstration of his method of using wires to prop up birds to draw or paint them in natural positions.
His father, unhappy that his younger son would not become a physician and fearing that Charles would become a "ne'er do well", enrolled him at Christ's College, Cambridge in 1827 on a BA course to qualify as a clergyman. This was a sensible career move at a time when a "living" as an Anglican parson provided a comfortable income and when most naturalists in England were clergymen who saw it as part of their duties to explore the wonders of God's creation.
At Cambridge Charles preferred riding and shooting to studying, and along with his cousin William Darwin Fox became engrossed in the current craze for the (competitive) collecting of beetles. Fox introduced him for advice on this to the Revd. John Stevens Henslow, professor of botany, and Charles subsequently joined his natural history course. Henslow's outings were attended by 78 men including the Revd. William Whewell and Charles became the 'favourite pupil', known as "the man who walks with Henslow". When exams loomed Charles focused on his studies, becoming particularly enthused by the set texts by Paley which included the argument of divine design in nature. He got private tuition from Henslow whose subjects were maths and theology, and in his finals in January 1831 he shone in theology and scraped through in classics, maths and physics, coming 10th out of a pass list of 178.
Although he had gained his degree, residence requirements kept Darwin at Cambridge till June and following Henslow's example and advice he was in no rush to take holy orders. Inspired by Alexander von Humboldt's Personal Narrative he wanted to study natural history in the tropics and planned to visit Madeira with some class-mates upon graduation. Knowing the need for geological skills, Henslow introduced Charles to the great geologist the Revd. Adam Sedgwick and Darwin joined his course, then that summer worked with him at mapping strata in Wales.
Darwin was surveying strata in Wales on his own when he received a message that his intended companion had died, dashing his plans to visit Madeira, but on his return home he received another letter. Henslow had recommended Darwin for the position of gentleman's companion to Robert FitzRoy, the captain of HMS Beagle which was departing in December on a two-year expedition to chart the coastline of South America and would give him opportunities as a naturalist. His father objected to the voyage, thinking it a waste of his son's time, but was eventually persuaded by Josiah Wedgwood to agree to Charles going and to pay for his son's expedition which eventually stretched to five years.
For details see The Voyage of the Beagle
Darwin's work during the Beagle expedition let him study at first hand geology, fossils and a multitude of living organisms as well as meeting native peoples. He methodically collected an enormous number of specimens, many new to science, which established his reputation as a naturalist and made him one of the precursors of ecology. His detailed notes formed the basis for his later work as well as providing social, political, and anthropological insights into the areas he visited.
See the inception of Darwin's theory for further information about this period
While Darwin was still on the voyage, Professor Henslow had carefully fostered his former pupil's reputation by giving selected naturalists access to the fossil specimens and even having Darwin's geological writings privately printed for distribution. By the time that the Beagle returned on 2 October 1836 Darwin was a sought-after celebrity in scientific circles. He visited his home in Shrewsbury and his father drew on investments to provide Charles with a suitable allowance. After consulting Henslow in Cambridge who would work on the plants, Darwin went round the London institutions to find the best available naturalists to describe his other collections for early publication. Acutely aware of the hazards of radicalism, Charles turned down the then controversial Robert Edmund Grant's offer to catalogue invertebrates.
An eager Charles Lyell met Darwin on 29 October 1836 and introduced him to Richard Owen, an up and coming anatomist who agreed to work on the fossil bones at his Royal College of Surgeons. Owen's surprising revelations of extinct giant rodents and sloths confirmed Darwin's place in the scientific establishment. With Lyell's enthusiastic backing Darwin read his first paper to the Geological Society of London on 4 January 1837, showing that Chile, and the South American land-mass, was slowly rising. On the same date Darwin presented his mammal and bird specimens to the Society. The Mammalia were ably taken on by George R. Waterhouse, and while the birds seemed almost an afterthought their assessment by the ornithologist John Gould startlingly revealed that what Darwin had taken to be wrens, blackbirds and slightly differing finches from the Galpagos were all separate species of finches. From the collections of others, including FitzRoy's, he was able to relate the finches to separate islands.
When in London Charles stayed with his brother Erasmus, meeting Eras's friend the literary Whig Malthusian Miss Harriet Martineau who had strong views on egalitarianism. Eras's dinner parties included inspiring savants like Lyell, Babbage and Thomas Carlyle. Scientific circles were buzzing with ideas of Transmutation of species. Darwin remained more comfortable with the respectability of his friends the Whig Cambridge Dons, even though his ideas were pushing beyond their belief that natural history must justify religion and social order.
On 17 February 1837 Lyell used his presidential address at the Geographical Society to present Owen's findings to date on Darwin's fossils, pointing out the inference that extinct species were related to current species in the same locality. At the same meeting Darwin was elected to the Council of the Society. He had already been invited by FitzRoy to contribute his "Journal", based on his field notes, as the natural history section of the captain's account of the Beagle's voyage. He now also plunged into writing a book on South American Geology, at the same time speculating on transmutation in his "Red Notebook" which he had begun on the Beagle.
Another project he started was getting the expert reports on his collection published as a multi-volume Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, and a search for sponsorship was answered when Henslow used his contacts with the Chancellor of the Exchequer Thomas Spring Rice to arrange a Treasury grant of 1,000. Darwin finished writing his "Journal" around 20 June when King William IV died and the Victorian era began. In mid July he began a secret notebook on transmutation, his "B" notebook, with a title page headed Zonomia . He developed the hypothesis that, for example, where every island in the Galpagos Archipelago had its own kind of tortoise, these had originated from a single tortoise species and had adapted to life on the different islands in different ways.
Under pressure with organising "Zoology" and correcting proofs of his "Journal" which had to have the introduction revised when FitzRoy complained that he was "astonished at the total omission of any notice of the officers" for their help, Darwin's health suffered. On 20 September he suffered "palpitations of the heart" and left for a month of recuperation in the country. At Maer, the Wedgwood's home, he entertained his relations. His invalid aunt was being cared for by the as yet unmarried Emma, and his uncle Jos pointed out an area of ground where cinders had disappeared under loam which Jos though might have been the work of earthworms. On 1 November Darwin gave a talk on worm casts to the Geological Society. He had avoided taking on official posts which would take valuable time, but by March 1838 Whewell had recruited him as Secretary of the Geological Society.
Illness prompted Darwin to take a break from the pressure of work and he went "geologising" in Scotland, spending 28 June visiting Edinburgh on the day that Queen Victoria had her coronation in London. At Glen Roy in glorious weather he solved the riddle of the "roads" which he was able to identify as raised beaches.
Fully recuperated, he returned home to Shrewsbury and pondered his career and prospects, drawing up a list with columns headed "Marry" and "Not Marry". Having come down in favour, he went to visit his cousin Emma on 29 July. Against his father's advice he did not get around to proposing, but did tell her of his ideas on transmutation. His thoughts and work continued in London over the autumn and he suffered repeated bouts of illness, then on 11 November he returned and proposed to Emma. Again he discussed his ideas, and she subsequently wrote beseeching him to read from the Gospel of St. John "our Saviour's farewell discourse to his disciples", a section on following the Way which also includes "If a man abide not in me...they are burned". His warm reply eased her heart's concern, but this tension would remain.
Darwin considered Malthus's argument, that human populations breed beyond their means and compete to survive, in relation to his findings about species relating to localities, earlier enquiries into animal breeding, and ideas of Natural "laws of harmony". Around late November 1838 he compared breeders selecting traits to a Malthusian Nature selecting from variants thrown up by "chance" so that "every part of newly acquired structure is fully practised and perfected", thinking this "the most beautiful part of my theory" of how species originated.
A period of house-hunting culminated with finding "Macaw Cottage" in Gower Street, London, and Darwin moved his "museum" in over Christmas. He was showing the stress, and Emma wrote urging him to get some rest and almost prophetically remarking "So don't be ill any more my dear Charley till I can be with you to nurse you".
On 29 January 1839 Darwin married his cousin Emma Wedgwood at Maer in an Anglican ceremony arranged to also suit the Unitarians. After first living in Gower Street, London, the couple moved on 17 September 1842 to Down House, in Downe, Kent (which is now open to public visits, south of Orpington). The Darwins had ten children, three of whom died early. Many of these and their grandchildren would later achieve notability themselves (see Darwin–Wedgwood family)
Darwin was now settled with a private income, an eminent geologist in the scientific lite of clerical naturalists with a mass of work in hand, writing up his findings and theories (see Published Works below) and superintending the multi-volume "Zoology" describing his collections. He was convinced by his theory of evolution, but vividly aware that transmutation was associated with radical democratic agitators seeking to overthrow society and publication could mean ruin. He embarked on extensive experiments with plants and consultations with animal husbanders including pigeon fanciers and pig breeders, in an attempt to discover holes in the hypothesis. He took his time with careful research until he had enough evidence, knowing that a great deal of opposition would erupt when he presented his theory.
FitzRoy's account was eventually published in May 1839. Darwin's Journal and Remarks was a great success, and was receiving praise by even Alexander von Humboldt, one of Darwin's heros and models of a scientific explorer. Later that year it was published on its own becoming the best-seller nowadays known as The Voyage of the Beagle, establishing Darwin as a popular author.
In December 1839 as Emma's first pregnancy progressed, Charles fell ill. For the rest of his life he suffered episodes of stomach pains, vomiting, severe boils and other symptoms which frequently limited his working time to a few minutes a day or forced him to stop working and recuperate.
Darwin made attempts to explain his theory to close friends, but they were slow to show interest and seemed unable to grasp the idea of selection without a divine selector. In 1842, the year that the family moved to Down House to escape the pressures of London, Darwin formulated a short "Pencil Sketch" of his theory and by 1844 had written a 240 page "Essay" which provided an expanded version of his early ideas on natural selection. Later that year the anonymous publication of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation by Robert Chambers began changing public opinion on Transmutation. Darwin completed his third Geological book in 1846 and, assisted by his friend the young botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker, began a huge study of barnacles. In 1847 Hooker read the "Essay" and sent notes giving Darwin the calm critical feedback that he needed.
To try to deal with his illness Darwin went to a spa in Malvern in 1849 for two months of water treatment, and to his surprise this was successful. He pressed on with his work on barnacles and found "homologies" showing dramatically how organs could have changed functions to meet new conditions, supporting his theory. Then his treasured daughter Annie fell ill, reawakening his fears that his illness might be hereditary. After a long series of crises, she died and Darwin lost all faith in a beneficent God. He supported the local Anglican church in its work but ceased attending, and Emma took the children to church but maintained her Unitarian faith.
See publication of Darwin's theory for details.
In the spring of 1856 Lyell read a paper on the Introduction of species by Alfred Russel Wallace, a naturalist working in Borneo, and urged Darwin to publish his theory to establish precedence. Darwin pressed ahead despite illness, getting specimens and information from others including Wallace and Asa Gray.
As Darwin worked on his Natural Selection manuscript in December 1857, Wallace wrote to ask if it would delve into human origins. Sensitive to Lyell's fears on this, Darwin responded that "I think I shall avoid the whole subject, as so surrounded with prejudices, though I fully admit that it is the highest & most interesting problem for the naturalist". He encouraged Wallace's theorising, saying "without speculation there is no good & original observation", adding that "I go much further than you".
Then on 18 June 1858 he received a paper from Wallace describing the evolutionary mechanism, with a request to send it on to Lyell. Darwin did so, shocked that he had been "forestalled" and though Wallace had not asked for publication, offering to send it to any journal that Wallace chose. He put matters in the hands of Lyell and Hooker, who agreed on a joint presentation at the Linnean Society on 1 July of On the Tendency of Species to form Varieties; and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection.
The initial announcement of the theory gained little immediate attention. It was mentioned briefly in a few small reviews but did not yet command much further thought, and was not yet fully distinguishable to most people from other varieties of evolutionary thought. For the next thirteen months, Darwin would labour to produce what was originally to be an abstract of his "big book on species".
Receiving constant encouragement from his scientific friends, Darwin finally finished his abstract, and Lyell arranged to have it published by John Murray. The title was agreed as On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection and when the book went on sale to the trade on 22 November 1859 the stock of 1,250 copies was oversubscribed.
The book itself only briefly alluded to the fact that man, too, would evolve as with the other organisms described in his book. Darwin wrote in deliberate understatement that "light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history".
See reaction to Darwin's theory for details.
Reviewers were quick to pick out the unstated implications of "men from monkeys", though a Unitarian review was favourable and The Times published a glowing review by Huxley which included swipes at Richard Owen, leader of the scientific establishment Huxley was trying to overthrow. Owen initially appeared neutral, but his review condemned the book, leading Darwin to feel that an envious Owen hated him. The Church of England scientific establishment reacted against the book, and Darwin's old Cambridge tutors Sedgwick and Henslow expressed their disappointment in him. Then seven liberal Anglican theologians including the Reverend Harry Baden-Powell produced a manifesto titled Essays and Reviews which supported the Origin and declared that miracles were irrational, drawing much of the fire away from Darwin.
The most famous confrontation took place at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Oxford. Professor John William Draper made a boring speech on Darwin and social progress, then 'Soapy Sam' Wilberforce, the Bishop of Oxford, argued against Darwin. In the ensuing debate Thomas Huxley established himself as "Darwin's bulldog" – the fiercest defender of evolutionary theory on the Victorian stage. On being asked by Wilberforce, whether he was descended from monkeys on his grandfather's side or his grandmother's side, Huxley, recognizing his opportunity, apparently muttered to himself: "The Lord has delivered him into my hands", and then replied that he "would rather be descended from an ape than from a cultivated man who used his gifts of culture and eloquence in the service of prejudice and falsehood" (several alternative versions of this supposed quote exist, see Wilberforce and Huxley: A Legendary Encounter). The story spread around the country: Huxley had said he would rather be an ape than a Bishop.
To many, Darwin's view of nature became associated with one in which the distinction between man and beast was nonexistent. Darwin himself did not personally defend his theories in public, though he read eagerly about the continuing debates. He was constantly in ill health, and mustered support through letters and correspondence . A core circle of scientific friends–Huxley, Charles Lyell, Joseph Dalton Hooker, and Asa Gray–actively pushed his work onto the fore of the scientific and public stage, and defended him against his many mounting critics. Unexpectedly to Darwin, his theory became not only a key scientific controversy of the era, but also resonated with various movements at the time, becoming a key fixture of popular culture of the period (and beyond). As attention and controversy gathered, the book was translated into numerous languages and went through a number of reprints, becoming a staple scientific text accessible to a newly curious middle class. It would prove to be the most controversial and discussed scientific book ever written.
See Darwin from Orchids to Variation and Darwin from Descent of Man to Worms for detail of this period.
While illness continued to dog him and his fame grew, Darwin continued his struggle to research and write about problems arising from his theory. Experiments on seedlings and domestic animal bones dominated, but when with his ill daughter at a seaside resort he became absorbed in the fashionable subject of orchids, and this grew into an innovative study of how their beautiful flowers served to control insect pollination and ensure cross fertilisation. As with the barnacles, homologous parts served different functions in different species. Lying on his sickbed, his rooms became filled with experiments on climbing plants. He was visited by a reverent Ernst Haeckel who had spread the gospel of Darwinismus in Germany, and reports came that students at Cambridge were coming over to his ideas. Huxley used his working-men's lectures to widen the audience, and Wallace remained a supporter but increasingly differed, turning to spiritualism. Variation grew to two huge volumes, forcing him to leave out man and sexual selection, but when printed was in huge demand.
New fossil evidence proved the antiquity of man, but other writers failed to fully tackle human evolution. Opponents claimed that the beauty of birds demonstrated divine guidance. These two subjects were tackled in The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex and followed up by The Expression of Emotions in Animals and Man. Darwin produced practical explanations for the differences between males and females, and between different races and cultures. He also developed his ideas that the human mind and cultures were developed by natural and sexual selection, an approach which still persists in evolutionary psychology.
His work on plants now produced a series of books, then he turned back to the question of the effect worms have on soil levels.
Darwin died in Downe, Kent, England, on 19 April 1882 and was given a state funeral. William Spottiswoode, President of the Royal Society arranged for Darwin to be buried in Westminster Abbey near Isaac Newton, despite Darwin's wishes that he be buried in Downe.
See Charles Darwin's views on religion. Charles Darwin came from a Non-conformist background, then studied Anglican theology with the aim of becoming a clergyman, at a time of religious and political turmoil in England. Though he recalled that "Whilst on board the Beagle I was quite orthodox" he later struggled with faith and became increasingly agnostic, particularly after the death of his daughter Anne.
A popular Christian urban legend known as the "Lady Hope Story" claims (variously) that he "converted" to Christianity on his deathbed, but these claims were refuted by his children; Henrietta stated that Lady Hope was not present during Darwin's final illness.
Charles Darwin's theory of evolution based upon natural selection changed the thinking of countless fields of study from biology to anthropology. His work established that "evolution" had occurred: not necessarily that it was by natural or sexual selection (this particular recognition would not become fully standard until the rediscovery of Gregor Mendel's work in the early 20th century and the creation of the modern synthesis).
His work was extremely controversial at the time he published it and many during his time didn't take it seriously. Darwin's theory of evolution was a significant blow to creationism and notions of intelligent design prevalent in 19th century science. The idea that there was no line to draw between man and beast would forever make Darwin a symbol of iconoclasm who removed humanity's privileged role in the center of the universe. To opponents, Darwin would be "the monkey man", often depicted as part ape.
As a humorous celebration of the theory of evolution, the annual Darwin Award is bestowed on individuals who "aid the process of evolution by demonstrating their unfitness" through fatally stupid actions.
In Australia's Northern Territory, the capital city (originally Palmerston) was renamed Darwin to commemorate the author's 1839 visit there, and the territory now also boasts Charles Darwin University and Charles Darwin National Park.
Darwin was given particular recognition in 2000 when his image appeared on the Bank of England ten pound note, replacing Charles Dickens. His impressive and supposedly hard-to-forge beard was reportedly a contributing factor in this choice. Darwin's Portrait on the 10 Note
A version of natural selection was also applied to human society (politics, economics, etc.). The most famous of these doctrines is Social Darwinism, a term that first appeared in about 1900, where the rule of the strong is justified by claims that it merely reproduces in society Nature's rule that the fittest survive. Whether Darwin was a "Social Darwinist" is an anachronistic question: in Darwin's age, there was little distinction between "Darwinism" and what we would now call "Social Darwinism." While Darwin was "progressive" in certain ways—he was a staunch abolitionist who vigorously opposed slavery, and he was a monogenist in terms of his views on race, feeling that all men were of the same species regardless of their race (which at the time was a very controversial position in scientific racial theory)—in many other ways he was a typical Victorian gentleman. His views on women, racial differences, and social classes were reflective of his position in life (he believed women to be inferior to men, he believed certain races to be "lower" than his own, and was not above a jab at the Irish), and though he was not so sexist, racist, or classist as many of his contemporaries, these elements of his thought are often hard for modern readers to reconcile with his overall scientific approach.
Darwin was contradictory and ambiguous in his views on the ways in which his theories included particular social implications. He certainly agreed with views first expressed (and later retracted) by Wallace and later by his cousin Francis Galton that intelligence and personality were heredity traits in humans, and that the arrangements of society could potentially affect these traits in a negative fashion. He also clearly had a certain disdain for "savages," and professed in Descent of Man that he felt more kin to certain altruistic tendencies in monkeys than he did "from a savage who delights to torture his enemies." He further agreed with Galton and Herbert Spencer that asylums for the "imbecile, the maimed, and the sick", as well as welfare laws and vaccination, allowed that "weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind" and would be "highly injurious to the race of man." However, he also felt that the sympathetic instincts of humans, which would allow them to aid the helpless, had developed due to natural selection, and to deny them would damage the "noblest part of our nature" for only a potential future benefit. "Hence we must bear without complaining the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind," he wrote. For each tendency of society to produce negative selections, Darwin also saw the possibility of society to itself check these problems, but also noted that with his theory "progress is no invariable rule." Towards the end of Descent of Man, Darwin said that he believed that man would "sink into indolence" if severe struggle was not continuous, and thought that "there should be open competition for all men; and the most able should not be prevented by laws or customs from succeeding best and rearing the largest number of offspring," but also noted that he thought that the moral qualities of man were advanced much more by habit, reason, learning, and religion than by natural selection. The question would plague him until the end of his life, and he never concluded fully one way or the other about it.
Spencer's Social Darwinism (against welfare and social services, encouraging a social "survival of the fittest") and Galton's eugenics (to apply artificial selection procedures to society in order to encourage the "fit" to breed and discourage the "unfit" from breeding) were two interpretations of what Darwin's views meant for society in his time, neither of which he fully agreed with or outright opposed. Over time, people would be read the scientific implications of Darwin's theories as having no necessarily overt political ramifications, and modern usage of evolutionary theory does not necessarily draw many of the conclusions Darwin did from it in his time.