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Biography of Naturalist Charles Darwin

Updated on April 30, 2013

His theory of evolution by natural selection was radical and controversial when first introduced to the world, especially with the church. Yet now it has been widely accepted by scientists. His research as a naturalist led to ideas which now explain the origins and diversity of life on earth.

The Early Years of Charles Darwin

Charles Robert Darwin was born on the 12th of February 1809 in Shrewsbury in Shropshire. He was the son of a wealthy doctor. His grandfather on his mother's side was china manufacturer Josiah Wedgwood. His grandfather on his father's side was Erasmus Darwin, one of the leading intellectuals of 18th century England.

Darwin went to the University of Edinburgh Medical School in October 1825. He dropped out of the medical course because he did not like working on bodies. As a result, his father sent him to Christ's Church in Cambridge to study Divinity. It was thought that Darwin would become an Anglican parson. During his university years, Darwin was introduced to the pursuit of beetle collecting by his cousin William Darwin Fox.


Voyage of the Beagle

In 1831, Darwin joined Captain Robert Fitzroy on a five year scientific expedition on the survey ship HMS Beagle.

During the voyage, Darwin spent most of his time on land. He investigated geology and made natural history collections. He kept careful notes of everything he observed.

At that time, most people in Europe thought that the world had been created by God in seven days. It was during his voyage on the HMS Beagle that Darwin read the book Principles of Geology by Charles Lyell. This book put forward the idea that the fossils in rocks were evidence of animals which had lived millions of years ago.

Darwin came across animal life and geological features which supported Lyell's ideas. He was particularly interested in what he found on the Galapagos Islands, 500 miles west of South America.

While he was there, Darwin observed that each island supported its own form of finch. The birds were closely related but different in important ways. Darwin's observations on the Galapagos Islands were the beginning of his theory on the evolution of the species.

The earliest surviving record of the initial ideas which led to his theory is a sketch of an evolutionary tree with the words, 'I think,' written above it.


Who Did Darwin Marry?

Charles Darwin married Emma Wedgewood on 29 January 1839. She was the first cousin of Charles Darwin. The couple had 10 children, three of whom died at an early age.

Charles Darwin's Theory of Evolution

When Darwin returned to the UK, there was a lot of interest in his work. Darwin's father helped find the money to fund his scientific activities.

When he found out that naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace had been working on similar ideas to his, the two made a joint announcement of their discoveries in 1858.

Darwin's book, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, was published in 1859. The book was controversial at the time because of the ideas it expressed. Darwin's theory seemed to suggest that man was simply a type of animal who evolved from apes. This went against ideas about how the world was created. Darwin was consequently attacked by the Church.

What Was The Reaction to Darwin's Theory?

Darwin's book The Origin of the Species was very popular. The first print run sold out before it hit the shops. Despite a great deal of interest, there were those who had a problem with his ideas.

While many saw Darwin's theory as an important step towards understanding the natural world, his book received a great deal of criticism from the church. In fact, the negative influence of the church prevented Darwin from receiving a knighthood for his work. The idea of natural selection did not become widely accepted until the 1930s. However, that was later to change.


Other Works of Darwin

The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, published in 1871, put forward evidence that humans are animals, with a continuity of physical and mental features. His 1872 book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals dealt with the evolution of human psychology. His experiments connected with evolution led to books such as Insectivorous Plants, The Effects of Cross and Self Fertilisation in the Vegetable Kingdom and The Power of Movement in Plants.

When Did Darwin Die?

In 1882, Darwin was diagnosed with coronary thrombosis and disease of the heart. He died at his family home Down House on 19 April 1882. He told his wife Emma that he was not afraid of death. Darwin was buried at Westminster Abbey in London. He was one of only five people outside of the royal family who were buried there during the 19th century.

How Important Are the Ideas of Charles Darwin?

In the years since his death, DNA studies have provided evidence which supports Darwin's theories of evolution. Darwin's ideas are hugely important within the scientific community. The whole field of evolutionary biology is based on his work. Despite being widely accepted elsewhere though, Darwin's ideas continue to be highly controversial with creationists.


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    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 

      5 years ago from New York

      Definitely and interesting and still controversial subject. You've covered it well here though and it was certainly interesting.

      Voted up and interesting.


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