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Charles Darwin

Updated on May 22, 2010

Charles Robert Darwin, (1809-82), British naturalist, grandson of Erasmus Darwin was born at Shrewsbury. He is buried in Westminster Abbey. After leaving Shrewsbury School he went to Edinburgh, and later to Cambridge University. His studies appear to have been comprehensive, but they in no way inclined him, as was intended, to follow his father's profession of medicine. The subjects that fascinated him were zoology and botany, and his active mind and abundant energy manifested itself in a love of sport and the collection of beetles.

The seal on his future career was set by the invitation, through the influence of his close friend Henslow, botany professor at Cambridge, to join HMS Beagle as naturalist on her celebrated voyage in 1831 to South America and the Pacific. The immediate results of his assiduity on this scientific mission are to be found in his first published work, Journal of Researches into the Natural History and Geology of the Countries visited during the Voyage of H.M.S. 'Beagle', 1839. From the time of his return, in 1836, he settled down in England for the rest of his life, marrying his cousin, Emma Wedgwood, in 1839. With the aid of his collections from the voyage and a Treasury grant, he then worked on his second book, The Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. 'Beagle', 1839^-2. From this point the preparation of his great constructive theories begins. The industry he displayed in spite of poor health was remarkable.

In 1859 his epoch-making On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life was published (see evolution). His later scientific speculations are in the main extensions of this theory. A curious feature in connection with The Origin of Species is the fact that its thesis was in its essentials formulated independently by his great friend Professor Alfred Russell wallace, while abroad, who submitted his paper on the subject to Darwin. The total absence of jealousy on the part of the two naturalists, and the harmony in which they severally conducted their researches, forms one of the romances of English scientific progress. In 1871 Darwin published The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, which in some respects excited still more attention than the earlier and greater work, by reason of its searching inquiry into the ancestry of man. In this connection it is curious to note that the prejudice excited in the popular mind by Darwin's speculations was due in great measure to the error of supposing that he advanced the theory of man's descent from the ape. The theory of sexual selection as a process in the evolution of man, briefly adumbrated in The Origin of Species, was elaborated in The Descent of Man, but at the present day it has been very generally discredited.

In character Darwin appears to have been a man of no pretensions and of considerable personal charm and warm sympathetic geniality. His botanical works include On the Various Contrivances by which British Foreign Orchids are fertilised by Insects, 1862; Insectivorous Plants, 1875; The Effects of Cross- and Self-fertilisation in the Vegetable Kingdom, 1876; The Different Forms of Flowers or Plants of the Same Species, 1877; and The Power of Movement in Plants, 1880, which was a corollary of his The Movements and Habits of Climbing Plants, 1865.

Among his zoological works are, besides the works on the voyage of the Beagle (the most popular of which is A Naturalist's Voyage, published in 1889), A Monograph on the Cirripedia, 1851-53; Fossil Balanidae and Verruc-cidae, 1854; and The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms, 1881. His works on geology were numerous, and include The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs, 1842; Geological Observations on the Volcanic Islands visited during the Voyage of H.M.S. 'Beagle', 1844; and Geological Observations in South America, 1846, all of them included in the general work entitled Geology of the Voyage of the 'Beagle'. Miscellaneous works include The Variation of Plants and Animals under Domestication, 1868, and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, 1872.


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