Charles Darwin (1809-1882)
Charles Robert Darwin was born in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, the fifth of six children of wealthy and well-connected parents.
One of his grandfathers was Erasmus Darwin, a physician whose book ‘Zoonomia’ had set forth a radical and highly controversial idea that could ‘transmute’ one species into another. Transmutation is how evolution was known back then.
In 1825 Charles Darwin graduated from Edinburgh University, one of the best places in Britain to study science.
It attracted free thinkers with radical views, including theories of transmutation, among others.
Darwin trained as a minister in Cambridge in 1827 after abandoning his plans to become a doctor, but continued his passion for biology.
In 1831, Charles’ tutor advised him to travel the world on HMS Beagle.
Over the next five years, Darwin traveled across five continents to collect samples and specimens while exploring the local geology.
With long periods where he had nothing to do but think and read, he studied Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology, which had a profound impact.
The journey also started a life of sickness after contracting a terrible seasickness.
In 1835, HMS Beagle made a five-week stop in the Galapágos Islands, 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador.
There he studied finches, turtles and mocking birds, although not detailed enough to reach any major conclusions.
But he began to collect sightings that were rapidly building up.
Upon returning home in 1838, Darwin showed his specimens to fellow biologists and began writing down his travels.
It was then that he began to see how ‘transmutation’ happened.
He discovered that animals that better suited their environment survived longer and gave birth to more young.
Evolution took place through a process he called “Natural Selection,” although he struggled with the idea because it contradicted his Christian worldview.
After witnessing his grandfather be banned for his theories, Darwin gathered more evidence, documenting his travels, until 1851.
He decided to publish his theory after falling ill for a long time.
Some historians suggest he contracted a tropical illness, while others found his symptoms to be largely psychosomatic caused by anxiety.
In 1858, Darwin received a letter from Alfred Russel Wallace, an admirer of Darwin, after reading about his Beagle Voyage.
Darwin was heavily criticized by the Church and some of the press. Many people were shocked by the book’s main implication that humans are descended from apes, although Darwin only hinted at it
Wallace independently came to the theory of natural selection and wanted Darwin’s advice on how to publish it.
In 1858, Darwin finally went public and gave credit to Wallace for the idea.
Darwin’s ideas were presented to Britain’s leading natural history organization, the Linnean Society.
In 1859 he published his theory of evolution. It would become one of the most important books ever written.
Darwin was heavily criticized by the Church and some of the press. Many people were shocked by the book’s main implication that humans are descended from apes, although Darwin merely pointed it out.
In 1862 Darwin wrote a warning about close relatives having children, he was already concerned about his own marriage, was married to his cousin Emma and lost three of their children and cared for others through illness.
Darwin knew that orchids were less healthy if they self-fertilized and was concerned that inbreeding within his own family would have caused problems.
He worked until his death in 1882. Realizing that his strength was diminishing, he described his local graveyard as “the sweetest place on earth.”
He was buried in Westminster Abbey.