Charles Robert Darwin was born on 12 February, 1809 in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England and died on 19 April, 1882 in Downe, Kent, England. Charles Darwin had expected to be buried in St Mary’s churchyard at Downe, but at the request of Charles Darwin’s colleagues, William Spottiswoode (President of the Royal Society) arranged for Charles Darwin to be given a state funeral and buried in Westminster Abbey, close to John Herschel and Isaac Newton. Only 5 non-royal personages were granted that honour of a UK state funeral during the 19th century.
Charles Darwin was an English naturalist, who realised and demonstrated that all species of life have evolved over time from common ancestors through the process he called natural selection. The fact that evolution occurs became accepted by the scientific community and the general public in his lifetime, while his theory of natural selection came to be widely seen as the primary explanation of the process of evolution in the 1930s, and now forms the basis of modern evolutionary theory. In modified form, Charles Darwin’s scientific discovery remains the foundation of biology, as it provides a unifying logical explanation for the diversity of life.
Charles Darwin developed his interest in natural history while studying medicine at Edinburgh University, then theology at Cambridge. Charles Darwin’s 5-year voyage on the Beagle established him as an eminent geologist whose observations and theories supported Charles Lyell’s uniformitarian ideas, and publication of his journal of the voyage made him famous as a popular author. Puzzled by the geographical distribution of wildlife and fossils he collected on the voyage, Charles Darwin investigated the transmutation of species and conceived his theory of natural selection in 1838. Although he discussed his ideas with several naturalists, he needed time for extensive research and his geological work had priority. Charles Darwin was writing up his theory in 1858 when Alfred Russel Wallace sent him an essay which described the same idea, prompting immediate joint publication of both of their theories.
Charles Darwin’s 1859 book On the Origin of Species established evolution by common descent as the dominant scientific explanation of diversification in nature. Charles Darwin examined human evolution and sexual selection in The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, followed by The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Charles Darwin’s research on plants was published in a series of books, and in his final book, he examined earthworms and their effect on soil.
In recognition of Charles Darwin’s pre-eminence, he was 1 of only 5 19th century UK non-royal personages to be honoured by a state funeral, and was buried in Westminster Abbey, close to John Herschel and Isaac Newton.
Charles Robert Darwin was born in his family home, the Mount. Charles Darwin was the 5th of 6 children of wealthy society doctor and financier Robert Darwin, and Susannah Darwin (née Wedgwood). Charles Darwin was the grandson of Erasmus Darwin on his father’s side, and of Josiah Wedgwood on his mother’s side. Both families were largely Unitarian, though the Wedgwoods were adopting Anglicanism. Robert Darwin, himself quietly a freethinker, made a nod toward convention by having baby Charles Darwin baptised in the Anglican Church. Nonetheless, Charles Darwin and his siblings attended the Unitarian chapel with their mother, and in 1817, Charles Darwin joined the day school, run by its preacher. In July of that year, when Charles Darwin was 8years old, his mother died. From September 1818, he joined his older brother Erasmus attending the nearby Anglican Shrewsbury School as a boarder.
Charles Darwin spent the summer of 1825 as an apprentice doctor, helping his father treat the poor of Shropshire. In the autumn, he went with Erasmus to the University of Edinburgh to study medicine, but was revolted by the brutality of surgery and neglected his medical studies. Charles Darwin learned taxidermy from John Edmonstone, a freed black slave who told him exciting tales of the South American rainforest. This experience gave him evidence that “Negroes and Europeans” were closely related despite superficial differences in appearance.
In Charles Darwin’s 2nd year he joined the Plinian Society, a student group of natural history enthusiasts, and assisted Dr. Robert Edmund Grant’s investigations of the anatomy and life cycle of marine animals in the Firth of Forth. In March 1827 Charles Darwin made a presentation to the Plinian of his own discovery that the black spores often found in oyster shells were the eggs of a skate leech. Dr Edmund Grant expounded Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s theory of evolution by acquired characteristics, and the evolutionary ideas of Charles Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus which Charles Darwin had recently read. Dr Edmund Grant found evidence for homology, the radical theory that all animals have similar organs which differ only in complexity, thus showing common descent.
Charles Darwin also joined Robert Jameson’s natural history course, learning geology including the debate between Neptunism and Plutonism, receiving training in classifying plants, and assisting with work on the extensive collections of the University Museum, one of the largest museums in Europe at the time.
In 1827, his father, unhappy at his younger son’s lack of progress, shrewdly enrolled him in a Bachelor of Arts course at Christ’s College, Cambridge to qualify as a clergyman, expecting him to get a good income as an Anglican parson. However, Charles Darwin preferred riding and shooting to studying. Along with his cousin William Darwin Fox, he became engrossed in the craze at the time for the competitive collecting of beetles. William Darwin Fox introduced him to the Reverend John Stevens Henslow, professor of botany, for expert advice on beetles. Charles Darwin joined Henslow’s natural history course, and became known to the dons as “the man who walks with Henslow”. When exams drew near, Charles Darwin focused on his studies and received private instruction from Reverend John Stevens Henslow. Charles Darwin particularly liked the writings of William Paley, including his argument for divine design in nature, which showed adaptation arising from divine laws. In his finals in January 1831, Charles Darwin performed well in theology and, having scraped through in classics, mathematics and physics, came 10th out of a pass list of 178.
Residential requirements kept Charles Darwin at Cambridge until June. Following Reverend John Stevens Henslow’s example and advice, he was in no rush to take Holy Orders. Inspired by Alexander von Humboldt’s Personal Narrative, he planned to visit Tenerife with some classmates after graduation to study natural history in the tropics. To prepare himself, Charles Darwin joined the geology course of the Reverend Adam Sedgwick and, in the summer, went with him to assist in mapping strata in Wales. After a fortnight with student friends at Barmouth, he returned home to find a letter from Reverend John Stevens Henslow recommending Charles Darwin as a suitable (if unfinished) naturalist for the unpaid position of gentleman’s companion to Robert FitzRoy, the captain of HMS Beagle, which was to leave in 4 weeks on an expedition to chart the coastline of South America. Charles Darwin’s father objected to the planned 2-year voyage, regarding it as a waste of time, but was persuaded by his brother-in-law, Josiah Wedgwood, to agree to his son’s participation.
The Beagle survey took 5 years, 2/3 of which Charles Darwin spent on land. Charles Darwin carefully noted a rich variety of geological features, fossils and living organisms, and methodically collected an enormous number of specimens, many of them new to science. At intervals during the voyage he sent specimens to Cambridge together with letters about his findings, and these established his reputation as a naturalist. Charles Darwin’s extensive detailed notes showed his gift for theorising and formed the basis for his later work. The journal he originally wrote for his family, published as The Voyage of the Beagle, summarises his findings and provides social, political and anthropological insights into the wide range of people he met, both native and colonial.
While on board the ship, Charles Darwin suffered badly from seasickness. In October 1833 he caught a fever in Argentina, and in July 1834, while returning from the Andes down to Valparaíso, he fell ill and spent a month in bed.
Before they set out, Robert FitzRoy gave Charles Darwin the 1st volume of Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology, which explained landforms as the outcome of gradual processes over huge periods of time. On their 1st stop ashore at St Jago, Charles Darwin found that a white band high in the volcanic rock cliffs consisted of baked coral fragments and shells. This matched Charles Lyell’s concept of land slowly rising or falling, giving Charles Darwin a new insight into the geological history of the island which inspired him to think of writing a book on geology. Charles Darwin went on to make many more discoveries, some of them particularly dramatic. Charles Darwin saw stepped plains of shingle and seashells in Patagonia as raised beaches, and after experiencing an earthquake in Chile saw mussel-beds stranded above high tide showing that the land had just been raised. High in the Andes he saw several fossil trees that had grown on a sand beach, with seashells nearby. Charles Darwin theorised that coral atolls form on sinking volcanic mountains, and confirmed this when the Beagle surveyed the Cocos (Keeling) Islands.
During the 1st year in South America, Charles Darwin made a major find of fossils of huge extinct mammals in strata with modern seashells, indicating recent extinction and no change in climate or signs of catastrophe. They included the little known Megatherium and fragments of armour which he thought looked like giant versions of the armour on local armadillos, as well as unknown species which aroused great interest when they were sent to England. After the voyage Richard Owen showed that most were closely related to living creatures exclusively found in the Americas.
As HMS Beagle surveyed the coasts of South America, Charles Darwin began to theorise about the wonders of nature around him. Charles Lyell’s 2nd volume, which argued against evolutionism and explained species distribution by “centres of creation”, was sent out to Charles Darwin. Charles Darwin puzzled over all he saw, and his ideas went beyond Charles Lyell. In Argentina, he found that 2 types of rhea had separate but overlapping territories. On the Galápagos Islands he collected birds, and noted that mockingbirds differed depending on which island they came from. Charles Darwin also heard that local Spaniards could tell from their appearance on which island tortoises originated, but thought the creatures had been imported by buccaneers. In Australia, the marsupial rat-kangaroo and the platypus seemed so unusual that Charles Darwin thought it was almost as though 2 distinct Creators had been at work.
In Cape Town he and Robert FitzRoy met John Herschel, who had recently written to Charles Lyell about that “mystery of mysteries”, the origin of species. When organising his notes on the return journey, Charles Darwin wrote that if his growing suspicions about the mockingbirds, the tortoises and the Falkland Island William Darwin Fox were correct, “such facts undermine the stability of Species”, then cautiously added “would” before “undermine”. Charles Darwin later wrote that such facts “seemed to me to throw some light on the origin of species”.
3 natives who had been taken from Tierra del Fuego on the Beagle’s previous voyage were taken back there to become missionaries. They had become “civilised” in England over the previous 2 years, yet their relatives appeared to Charles Darwin to be “miserable, degraded savages”. A year on, the mission had been abandoned and only Jemmy Button spoke with them to say he preferred his harsh previous way of life and did not want to return to England. Because of this experience, Charles Darwin came to think that humans were not as far removed from animals as his friends then believed, and saw differences as relating to cultural advances towards civilisation rather than being racial. Charles Darwin detested the slavery he saw elsewhere in South America, and was saddened by the effects of European settlement on Aborigines in Australia and Maori in New Zealand.
Towards the end of the voyage Captain Roger FitzRoy began writing the official Narrative of the Beagle voyages, and after reading Charles Darwin’s diary he proposed incorporating it into the account. Charles Darwin agreed to rewrite his Journal to provide a separate 3rd volume, on natural history.
While Charles Darwin was still on the voyage, Revrend John Stevens Henslow fostered his former pupil’s reputation by giving selected naturalists access to the fossil specimens and a pamphlet of Charles Darwin’s geological letters. When the Beagle returned on 2 October 1836, Charles Darwin was a celebrity in scientific circles. After visiting his home in Shrewsbury and seeing relatives, Charles Darwin hurried to Cambridge to see Revrend John Stevens Henslow, who advised on finding naturalists available to describe and catalogue the collections, and agreed to take on the botanical specimens. Charles Darwin’s father organised investments, enabling his son to be a self-funded gentleman scientist, and an excited Charles Darwin went round the London institutions being fêted and seeking experts to describe the collections. Zoologists had a huge backlog of work, and there was a danger of specimens just being left in storage.
An eager Charles Lyell met Charles Darwin for the first time on 29 October and soon introduced him to the up-and-coming anatomist Richard Owen, who had the facilities of the Royal College of Surgeons at his disposal to work on the fossil bones collected by Charles Darwin. Richard Owen’s surprising results included gigantic extinct sloths including a near complete skeleton of the unknown Scelidotherium, a hippopotamus-sized rodent-like skull named Toxodon resembling a giant capybara, and armour fragments from a huge armadillo (Glyptodon), as Charles Darwin had initially surmised. These extinct creatures were closely related to living species in South America.
In mid-December, Charles Darwin moved to Cambridge to organise work on his collections and rewrite his Journal. Charles Darwin wrote his 1st paper, showing that the South American landmass was slowly rising, and with Charles Lyell’s enthusiastic backing read it to the Geological Society of London on 4 January 1837. On the same day, he presented his mammal and bird specimens to the Zoological Society. The ornithologist John Gould soon revealed that the Galapagos birds that Charles Darwin had thought a mixture of blackbirds, “gros-beaks” and finches, were, in fact, 12 separate species of finches. On 17 February 1837, Charles Darwin was elected to the Council of the Geographical Society, and in his presidential address, Charles Lyell presented Richard Owen’s findings on Charles Darwin’s fossils, stressing geographical continuity of species as supporting his uniformitarian ideas.
Charles Darwin’s 1st sketch of an evolutionary tree from his 1st Notebook on Transmutation of Species (1837)On 6 March 1837, Charles Darwin moved to London to be close to this work, and joined the social whirl around scientists and savants such as Charles Babbage, who thought that God preordained life by natural laws rather than ad hoc miraculous creations. Charles Darwin lived near his freethinking brother Erasmus, who was part of this Whig circle and whose close friend the writer Harriet Martineau promoted the ideas of Thomas Malthus underlying the Whig “Poor Law reforms” aimed at discouraging the poor from breeding beyond available food supplies. John Herschel’s question on the origin of species was widely discussed. Medical men even joined Grant in endorsing transmutation of species, but to Charles Darwin’s scientist friends such radical heresy attacked the divine basis of the social order already under threat from recession and riots.
John Gould now revealed that the Galapagos mockingbirds from different islands were separate species, not just varieties, and the “wrens” were yet another species of finches. Darwin had not kept track of which islands the finch specimens were from, but found information from the notes of others on the Beagle, including FitzRoy, who had more carefully recorded their own collections. The zoologist Thomas Bell showed that the Galápagos tortoises were native to the islands. By mid-March, Charles Darwin was convinced that creatures arriving in the islands had become altered in some way to form new species on the different islands, and investigated transmutation while noting his speculations in his “Red Notebook” which he had begun on the Beagle. In mid-July, he began his secret “B” notebook on transmutation, and on page 36 wrote “I think” above his 1st sketch of an evolutionary tree.
As well as launching into this intensive study of transmutation, Charles Darwin became mired in more work. While still rewriting his Journal, he took on editing and publishing the expert reports on his collections, and with Revrend John Stevens Henslow’s help obtained a Treasury grant of £1,000 to sponsor this multi-volume Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle. Charles Darwin agreed to unrealistic dates for this and for a book on South American Geology supporting Charles Lyell’s ideas. Charles Darwin finished writing his Journal around 20 June 1837 just as Queen Victoria came to the throne, but then had its proofs to correct.
Charles Darwin’s health suffered from the pressure. On 20 September 1837, he had “palpitations of the heart”. On doctor’s advice that a month of recuperation was needed, he went to Shrewsbury then on to visit his Wedgwood relatives at Maer Hall, but found them too eager for tales of his travels to give him much rest. Charles Darwin’s charming, intelligent, and cultured cousin Emma Wedgwood, 9 months older than Charles Darwin, was nursing his invalid aunt. Charles Darwin’s uncle Jos pointed out an area of ground where cinders had disappeared under loam and suggested that this might have been the work of earthworms. This inspired a talk which Charles Darwin gave to the Geological Society on 1 November, the 1st demonstration of the role of earthworms in soil formation.
William Whewell pushed Charles Darwin to take on the duties of Secretary of the Geological Society. After first declining this extra work, he accepted the post in March 1838. Despite the grind of writing and editing the Beagle reports, remarkable progress was made on transmutation. Charles Darwin took every opportunity to question expert naturalists and, unconventionally, people with practical experience such as farmers and pigeon fanciers. Over time his research drew on information from his relatives and children, the family butler, neighbours, colonists and former shipmates. Charles Darwin included mankind in his speculations from the outset, and on seeing an ape in the zoo on 28 March 1838 noted its child-like behaviour.
The strain took its toll, and by June he was being laid up for days on end with stomach problems, headaches and heart symptoms. For the rest of his life, he was repeatedly incapacitated with episodes of stomach pains, vomiting, severe boils, palpitations, trembling and other symptoms, particularly during times of stress, such as when attending meetings or dealing with controversy over his theory. The cause of Charles Darwin’s illness was unknown during his lifetime, and attempts at treatment had little success. Recent attempts at diagnosis have suggested Chagas disease caught from insect bites in South America, Ménière’s disease, or various psychological illnesses as possible causes, without any conclusive results.
On 23 June 1838, he took a break from the pressure of work and went “geologising” in Scotland. Charles Darwin visited Glen Roy in glorious weather to see the parallel “roads” cut into the hillsides at 3 heights. Charles Darwin thought that these were marine raised beaches: they were later shown to have been shorelines of a proglacial lake.
Fully recuperated, he returned to Shrewsbury in July. Used to jotting down daily notes on animal breeding, he scrawled rambling thoughts about career and prospects on 2 scraps of paper, 1 with columns headed “Marry” and “Not Marry”. Advantages included “constant companion and a friend in old age … better than a dog anyhow”, against points such as “less money for books” and “terrible loss of time.” Having decided in favour, he discussed it with his father, then went to visit Emma on 29 July 1838. Charles Darwin did not get around to proposing, but against his father’s advice he mentioned his ideas on transmutation.
Continuing his research in London, Charles Darwin’s wide reading now included the 6th edition of Malthus’s An Essay on the Principle of Population
In October 1838, that is, 15 months after I had begun my systematic enquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of new species. Here, then, I had at last got a theory by which to work…
Malthus asserted that unless human population is kept in check, it increases in a geometrical progression and soon exceeds food supply in what is known as a Malthusian catastrophe. Charles Darwin was well prepared to see at once that this also applied to de Candolle’s “warring of the species” of plants and the struggle for existence among wildlife, explaining how numbers of a species kept roughly stable. As species always breed beyond available resources, favourable variations would make organisms better at surviving and passing the variations on to their offspring, while unfavourable variations would be lost. This would result in the formation of new species. On 28 September 1838 he noted this insight, describing it as a kind of wedging, forcing adapted structures into gaps in the economy of nature as weaker structures were thrust out. Over the following months he compared farmers picking the best breeding stock to a Malthusian Nature selecting from variants thrown up by “chance” so that “every part of [every] newly acquired structure is fully practised and perfected”, and thought this analogy “the most beautiful part of my theory”.
On 11 November, he returned to Maer and proposed to Emma, once more telling her his ideas. Emma accepted, then in exchanges of loving letters she showed how she valued his openness, but her upbringing as a very devout Anglican led her to express fears that his lapses of faith could endanger her hopes to meet in the afterlife.
While he was house-hunting in London, bouts of illness continued and Emma wrote urging him to get some rest, almost prophetically remarking “So don’t be ill any more my dear Charley till I can be with you to nurse you.” Charles Darwin found what they called “Macaw Cottage” (because of its gaudy interiors) in Gower Street, then moved his “museum” in over Christmas. The marriage was arranged for 24 January 1839, but the Wedgwoods set the date back. On the 24th, Charles Darwin was honoured by being elected as Fellow of the Royal Society.
On 29 January 1839, Charles Darwin and Emma Wedgwood were married at Maer in an Anglican ceremony arranged to suit the Unitarians, then immediately caught the train to London and their new home.
Charles Darwin’s research subsequently included animal husbandry and extensive experiments with plants, investigating many detailed ideas and finding evidence that species were not fixed to convince sceptical naturalists. For more than a decade this work was in the background to his main occupation, publication of the scientific results of the Beagle voyage.
When Robert FitzRoy’s Narrative was published in May 1839, Charles Darwin’s Journal and Remarks (The Voyage of the Beagle) as the 3rd volume was such a success that later that year it was published on its own.
Early in 1842, Charles Darwin sent a letter about his ideas to Charles Lyell, who was dismayed that his ally now denied “seeing a beginning to each crop of species”. In May, Charles Darwin’s book on coral reefs was published after more than 3 years of work, and he then wrote a “pencil sketch” of his theory. To escape the pressures of London, the family moved to rural Down House in November. On 11 January 1844 Charles Darwin mentioned his theorising to the botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker, writing with melodramatic humour “it is like confessing a murder”. To his relief, Joseph Dalton Hooker replied “There may in my opinion have been a series of productions on different spots, & also a gradual change of species. I shall be delighted to hear how you think that this change may have taken place, as no presently conceived opinions satisfy me on the subject.”
By July, Charles Darwin had expanded his “sketch” into a 230-page “Essay”, to be expanded with his research results if he died prematurely. Charles Darwin was shocked in November to find many of his arguments anticipated in the anonymously published Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, though it lacked any convincing explanation for transmutation. The book was amateurish and he scorned its geology and anatomy, but as a best-seller it widened middle-class interest in transmutation, paving the way for Charles Darwin as well as reminding him of the need to counter all arguments.
Charles Darwin completed his 3rd geological book in 1846, and turned in relief to dissecting and classifying the barnacles he had collected, using his new ideas of common descent, and the anatomy he had learnt as Dr. Robert Edmund Grant’s student. In 1847, Joseph Dalton Hooker read the “Essay” and sent notes that provided Charles Darwin with the calm critical feedback that he needed, but would not commit himself and questioned Charles Darwin’s opposition to continuing acts of creation.
In an attempt to improve his chronic ill health, Charles Darwin went in 1849 to Dr. James Gully’s Malvern spa and was surprised to find some benefit from hydrotherapy. Then in 1851 his treasured daughter Annie fell ill, reawakening his fears that his illness might be hereditary. After a long series of crises, she died and Charles Darwin’s faith in Christianity dwindled away.
In 8 years of work on barnacles (Cirripedia), Charles Darwin found “homologies” that supported his theory by showing that slightly changed body parts could serve different functions to meet new conditions. In 1853 it earned him the Royal Society’s Royal Medal, and it made his reputation as a biologist. Charles Darwin resumed work on his theory of species in 1854, and in November realised that divergence in the character of descendants could be explained by them becoming adapted to “diversified places in the economy of nature”.
By the start of 1856, Charles Darwin was investigating whether eggs and seeds could survive travel across seawater to spread species across oceans. Joseph Dalton Hooker increasingly doubted the traditional view that species were fixed, but their young friend Thomas Henry Huxley was firmly against evolution. Charles Lyell was intrigued by Charles Darwin’s speculations without realising their extent. When he read a paper by Alfred Russel Wallace on the Introduction of species, he saw similarities with Charles Darwin’s thoughts and urged him to publish to establish precedence. Though Charles Darwin saw no threat, he began work on a short paper. Finding answers to difficult questions held him up repeatedly, and he expanded his plans to a “big book on species” titled Natural Selection. Charles Darwin continued his researches, obtaining information and specimens from naturalists worldwide including Alfred Russel Wallace who was working in Borneo. In December 1857, Charles Darwin received a letter from Alfred Russel Wallace asking if the book would examine human origins. Charles Darwin responded that he would avoid that subject, “so surrounded with prejudices”, while encouraging Alfred Russel Wallace’s theorising and adding that “I go much further than you.”
Charles Darwin’s book was half way when, on 18 June 1858, he received a paper from Alfred Russel Wallace describing natural selection. Shocked that he had been “forestalled”, Charles Darwin sent it on to Charles Lyell, as requested, and, though Alfred Russel Wallace had not asked for publication, he suggested he would send it to any journal that Alfred Russell Wallace chose. Charles Darwin’s family was in crisis with children in the village dying of scarlet fever, and he put matters in the hands of Charles Lyell and Joseph Dalton Hooker. They decided 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; however, Charles Darwin’s baby son died of the scarlet fever and he was too distraught to attend.
There was little immediate attention to this announcement of the theory; after the paper was published in the August journal of the society, it was reprinted in several magazines and there were some reviews and letters, but the president of the Linnean remarked in May 1859 that the year had not been marked by any revolutionary discoveries. Only one review rankled enough for Charles Darwin to recall it later; Professor Samuel Haughton of Dublin claimed that “all that was new in them was false, and what was true was old.” Charles Darwin struggled for 13 months to produce an abstract of his “big book”, suffering from ill health but getting constant encouragement from his scientific friends. Charles Lyell arranged to have it published by John Murray.
On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (usually abbreviated to On the Origin of Species) proved unexpectedly popular, with the entire stock of 1,250 copies oversubscribed when it went on sale to booksellers on 22 November 1859. In the book, Charles Darwin set out “one long argument” of detailed observations, inferences and consideration of anticipated objections. Charles Darwin’s only allusion to human evolution was the understatement that “light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history”.
Charles Darwin’s theory is simply stated in the introduction:
As many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive; and as, consequently, there is a frequently recurring struggle for existence, it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally selected. From the strong principle of inheritance, any selected variety will tend to propagate its new and modified form.
Charles Darwin put a strong case for common descent, but avoided the then controversial term “evolution”, and at the end of the book concluded that;
There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling 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.
As “Darwinism” became widely accepted in the 1870s, amusing cariacatures of him with an ape or monkey body symbolised evolution.
There was wide public interest in Charles Darwin’s book and a controversy which he monitored closely, keeping press cuttings of reviews, articles, satires, parodies and caricatures. Charles Darwin had carefully said no more than “Light will be thrown on the origin of man”, but the 1st review claimed it made a creed of the “men from monkeys” idea already controversial from Vestiges. Amongst favourable responses were Thomas Henry Huxley’s reviews which included swipes at Richard Owen, leader of the scientific establishment Thomas Henry Huxley was trying to overthrow, and when Richard Owen’s review appeared it joined those that condemned the book.
The Church of England scientific establishment, including Charles Darwin’s old Cambridge tutors Sedgwick and Henslow, reacted against the book, though it was well received by liberal clergymen who interpreted natural selection as an instrument of God’s design, with the cleric Charles Kingsley seeing it as “just as noble a conception of Deity”. In 1860, the publication of Essays and Reviews by 7 liberal Anglican theologians diverted clerical attention from Charles Darwin, with its ideas including higher criticism attacked by church authorities as heresy. It included Baden Powell’s argument that miracles broke God’s laws, so belief in them was atheistic, and his praise for “Mr Darwin’s masterly volume [supporting] the grand principle of the self-evolving powers of nature”.
The most famous confrontation took place at the public 1860 Oxford evolution debate during a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Professor John William Draper delivered a long lecture about Charles Darwin and social progress. The Bishop of Oxford Samuel Wilberforce, who was not opposed to transmutation, then argued against Charles Darwin’s explanation. In the ensuing debate Joseph Hooker argued strongly for Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley established himself as “Darwin’s bulldog” – the fiercest defender of evolutionary theory on the Victorian stage. Both sides came away feeling victorious, but Thomas Huxley went on to make much of his claim that on being asked by Wilberforce whether he was descended from monkeys on his grandfather’s side or his grandmother’s side, Thomas Huxley muttered: “The Lord has delivered him into my hands” and 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”. Thomas Huxley portrayed a polarisation between religion and science and used Charles Darwinism to campaign against the authority of the clergy in education.
Charles Darwin’s illness kept him away from the public debates, though he read eagerly about them and mustered support through correspondence. Asa Gray persuaded a publisher in the United States to pay royalties, and Charles Darwin imported and distributed Asa Gray’s pamphlet Natural Selection is not inconsistent with Natural Theology. In Britain, friends including Joseph Hooker and Charles Lyell took part in the scientific debates which Thomas Henry Huxley pugnaciously led to overturn the dominance of clergymen and aristocratic amateurs under Roger Owen in favour of a new generation of professional scientists. Roger Owen mistakenly claimed certain anatomical differences between ape and human brains, and accused Thomas Henry Huxley of advocating “Ape Origin of Man”. Thomas Henry Huxley gladly did just that, and his campaign over two years was devastatingly successful in ousting Roger Owen and the “old guard”. Darwin’s friends formed The X Club and helped to gain him the honour of the Royal Society’s Copley Medal in 1864.
Broader public interest had already been stimulated by Vestiges, and the Origin of Species was translated into many languages and went through numerous reprints, becoming a staple scientific text accessible both to a newly curious middle class and to “working men” who flocked to Thomas Henry Huxley’s lectures. Charles Darwin’s theory also resonated with various movements at the time and became a key fixture of popular culture.
Despite repeated bouts of illness during the last 22 years of his life, Charles Darwin pressed on with his work. Charles Darwin had published an abstract of his theory, but more controversial aspects of his “big book” were still incomplete, including explicit evidence of humankind’s descent from earlier animals, and exploration of possible causes underlying the development of society and of human mental abilities. Charles Darwin had yet to explain features with no obvious utility other than decorative beauty. Charles Darwin’s experiments, research and writing continued.
When Charles Darwin’s daughter fell ill, he set aside his experiments with seedlings and domestic animals to accompany her to a seaside resort where he became interested in wild orchids. This developed 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. Back at home, he lay on his sickbed in a room filled with experiments on climbing plants. A reverent Ernst Haeckel who had spread a version of Darwinismus in Germany visited him. Alfred Russel Wallace remained supportive, though he increasingly turned to Spiritualism.
Variation of Plants and Animals Under Domestication, the 1st part of Charles Darwin’s planned “big book” (expanding on his “abstract” published as The Origin of Species), grew to 2 huge volumes, forcing him to leave out human evolution and sexual selection, and sold briskly despite its size. A further book of evidence, dealing with natural selection in the same style, was largely written, but remained unpublished until transcribed in 1975.
The question of human evolution had been taken up by his supporters (and detractors) shortly after the publication of The Origin of Species, but Charles Darwin’s own contribution to the subject came more than 10 years later with the 2-volume The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex published in 1871. In the 2nd volume, Charles Darwin introduced in full his concept of sexual selection to explain the evolution of human culture, the differences between the human sexes, and the differentiation of human races, as well as the beautiful (and seemingly non-adaptive) plumage of birds. A year later Charles Darwin published his last major work, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, which focused on the evolution of human psychology and its continuity with the behaviour of animals. Charles Darwin developed his ideas that the human mind and cultures were developed by natural and sexual selection, an approach which has been revived in the last 3 decades with the emergence of evolutionary psychology. As he concluded in Descent of Man, Charles Darwin felt that, despite all of humankind’s “noble qualities” and “exalted powers”: “Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.”
Charles Darwin’s evolution-related experiments and investigations culminated in books on the movement of climbing plants, insectivorous plants, the effects of cross and self fertilisation of plants, different forms of flowers on plants of the same species, and The Power of Movement in Plants. In his last book, he returned to the effect earthworms have on soil formation.
Charles Darwin and his eldest son William Erasmus Darwin in 1842.
Charles Darwin’s Children:
William Erasmus Darwin (27 December 1839–1914)
Anne Elizabeth Darwin (2 March 1841–22 April 1851)
Mary Eleanor Darwin (23 September 1842–16 October 1842)
Henrietta Emma “Etty” Darwin (25 September 1843–1929)
George Howard Darwin (9 July 1845–7 December 1912)
Elizabeth “Bessy” Darwin (8 July 1847–1926)
Francis Darwin (16 August 1848–19 September 1925)
Leonard Darwin (15 January 1850–26 March 1943)
Horace Darwin (13 May 1851–29 September 1928)
Charles Waring Darwin (6 December 1856–28 June 1858)
The Darwin had 10 children: 2 died in infancy, and Annie’s death at the age of 10 had a devastating effect on her parents. Charles Darwin was a devoted father and uncommonly attentive to his children. Whenever they fell ill he feared that they might have inherited weaknesses from inbreeding due to the close family ties he shared with his wife and cousin, Emma Wedgwood. Charles Darwin examined this topic in his writings, contrasting it with the advantages of crossing amongst many organisms. Despite his fears, most of the surviving children went on to have distinguished careers as notable members of the prominent Darwin-Wedgwood family.
Of his surviving children, George, Francis and Horace became Fellows of the Royal Society, distinguished as astronomer, botanist and civil engineer, respectively. Charles Darwin’s son Leonard, on the other hand, went on to be a soldier, politician, economist, eugenicist and mentor of the statistician and evolutionary biologist Ronald Fisher.
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