Charles Darwin

(1809 - 1882)

Compiled by Ryan Houck (May 1999)

Darwin Biography
Time Line

Who thought that an average gentleman from the country would make an impact on science in the way Charles Darwin has with his theory of evolution by natural selection? The English naturalist and author was born in the country town of Shrewsbury on February 12th of 1809. He was the son of a well respected and successful physician, and Susannah Wedgwood, a warm-hearted woman of a wealthy family. He the grandson of Erasmus Darwin, a physician, scientist, poet and, some say, originator of the theory. These two figures in Charles' life helped shape his character in different ways, although it took a while to be noticed. His mother died before Charles had commenced schooling in 1817, but was tutored by his sister, Caroline until 1818.

Charles was an average student in school. As a boy, he loved to wander and make observations of objects. Doctor Butler of the school in Shrewsbury, which Charles attended from 1818 to 1825, was quick to say that he wastes his time living his passion. His passion was to collect things like shells, stamps, and coins. Charles tried to follow his father's footsteps by attending Edinburgh University to study medicine with his brother, Erasmus who pushed reading onto Charles. It did not take either of the three men, his father, brother or himself, to long to realize this was not the career path for Charles to take. After his second year, he transferred to Cambridge University in 1827.

Charles went to Cambridge for three years to study the ministry. This he believed was what he wanted because it allowed him to roam and collect materials. He thought that clergymen spent their days studying nature. The belief that nature was God's creation and the more man studied it, the more he would learn about is Creator, was the idea Charles went by. Then finally Charles met a professor that unlike Dr. Butler, realized the interest he had in natural history. This man was John Henslow, the chairman of the botany department. These two men shared many walks together and when Charles graduated in 1831, he was given the opportunity to sail around the world on the H.M.S. Beagle as a naturalist. Beagle (To the left is a diagram of the Beagle drawn by Darwin's former shipmate, Philip King and is available in [
larger detail] .) This was a geological expedition that went to places like the Brazilian Coast, Argentina, Chile, New Zealand and many others where Darwin collected specimens. The ship's Captain, Fitzroy, wanted a biologist to take the voyage to catalogue the diversity of life and thus support the belief that each species was created by God and has not changed over time.

After returning in 1836 from his adventure, within two years he served as secretary of the Geological Society from 1838 to 1841. In that time period he wrote The Journal of a Naturalist and married his cousin, Emma Wedgwood. In the 1840's, Charles did a lot of writing, including the first draft of the book that made him well known. It was not until 1858 that Darwin's ideas were discovered to be similar with Alfred Russel Wallace and they co-authored a paper on Natural Selection. Darwin's book, The Origin of species by Means of Natural Selection was published in 1859. It was praised and hated at the same time because the book went against the "Biblical portrayal of creation". As soon as the controversy died down, Darwin fired it back up in 1871 with the publication of The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. Darwin, without Wallace, was the first to attempt to find an explanation of the varying species and to come up with a theory of evolution.

Darwin was more than an average man. He lived the life he wanted and followed his love for nature. He received many honors from the societies in Great Britain. He had two daughters and five sons and lead a life to remember. He died in April of 1882.

When Darwin was recommended for the positioin of naturalist on board the Beagle by professor Henslow from Cambridge. This trip was a five year long exploration of the southern hemisphere in which he encountered vastly different forms of life. He gathered evidence to show how species adapt to various environments.

This voyage gave Darwin the evidence that suggested that the earth and species have gone through a slow geological change, supporting an assumption he shared with Lyell and Hutton. He was convinced that the earth was very old. He observed fossils of extinct species that he compared to the animals he knew. This showed "living forms must be descended from extinct forms" that have changed over time (Mader, 1996). How did these things change was the basic question Darwin wanted to answer.

Both he and Wallace came up with the idea of natural selection to explain evolutionary change. This theory posits that each species has certain physical and behavioral characteristics that vary and are heritable. When species reproduce, the "lucky" variations of fittest characteristics pass from generation to generation. Hence, over generations each species exhibit adaptations that ideally suited to the environment in which they have evolved. This is what Wallace called "survival of the fittest". According to Mader (1996), the definition of fittest is the ability to survive and reproduce in an environment. Without the ability to adapt an organism will not exist. For example, dinosaurs found themselves in a dramatically changing environment in which they could not generate viable variations, resulting in their extinction. There are websites devoted to examiniation of HREF="">Darwinian Evolution

Darwin used his scientific ability on board the Beagle and came up with a theory that is discussed in every biology class world wide. Although his theory of evolution by natural selection has changed with the time, it remains the fundamental concept upon which the modern life sciences are mounted. Darwin realized that each species of today originated from some other life form and he convinced the world of the mechanisms by which such transitions occur.

Time Line
1809-Born February 12th
1817-Mother died
1818-1825-Attended Dr. Butler's school in Shrewsburg
1825-1827-Went to Edinburgh University
1827-Went to Cambridge University
1831-1836-Expedition on the H.M.S. Beagle
1838-1841-Secretary of Geological Society
1839-Published The Journal of a Naturalist
1839-Married Emma Wedgwood
1840-Published Zoology of the Voyage of the Beagle
1842-Published The Structure & Distribution of Coral Reef
1842-Wrote 1st draft of Origin of Species
1844- Expanded the book
1851-1853-Published Monograph on the Cirripedia
1858-Essays of Wallace and Darwin were discovered with similar views
1859-Published On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection
1862-Published Fertilization of Orchids
1868-Published Variation of Animals & Plants Under Domestication
1871-Published The Descent of Man & Selection in Relation to Sex
1872-Published The Expression of Emotions in Man & Animals
1876-Published Effects of Cross and Self-Fertilization in Vegetable Kingdom
1882-Died on April 19th

Hothersall, D. 1995. History of Psychology, 3rd ed., Mcgraw-Hill:NY
Barlow, Nora (1959). The Autobiography of Charles Darwin. New York: Harcourt, Bruce and Company.
Karp, Walter (1968). Charles Darwin and the Origin of Species. New York: American Heritage Publishing Company.
Mader, Sylvia (1996). Biology. Dubuque: William C. Brown Publishers.

NOTE: There is an online calendar of the Correspondences of Charles Darwin, which includes a summary of every letter.

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