Last reviewed: June 2018
February 12, 1809
Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England
April 19, 1882
Downe, Kent, England
The work of Charles Robert Darwin is of inestimable importance in human and scientific history; the publication of his book On the Origin of Species in 1859 marked a turning point in the development of modern thought. Ironically, Darwin studied for two different professions—medicine and the ministry—before turning to biology and science. Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin, grandson of the eighteenth-century physician, botanist, and poet Erasmus Darwin, was born at Shrewsbury, England, on February 12, 1809; his father was a prosperous physician and his mother was a daughter of the noted English potter Josiah Wedgwood. Darwin’s mother died when he was eight years old, and he was raised largely by his older sisters. As a boy, he attended Shrewsbury School, where he cared little for its emphasis on classical education; his teachers were similarly unimpressed by young Charles, whose chief interests were his home chemistry experiments and hunting.
Darwin’s father intended his son for the medical profession, so Darwin entered Edinburgh University in 1825. The study of medicine proved distasteful, however, and in 1828, Darwin entered Cambridge University to prepare for a career as an Anglican clergyman. While at Cambridge, he became friendly with the famous botanist John Stevens Henslow, through whom Darwin received his opportunity to sail as an unpaid naturalist on the official British exploration ship HMS Beagle.
At first, Darwin’s father refused to consent to this change of careers, but at the urging of Josiah Wedgwood he finally relented, and young Darwin sailed on the Beagle for South America and the Pacific Ocean on December 27, 1831. When he left England, Darwin was practically uneducated in science; when he returned to England in 1836, almost five years later, he had experienced an unequaled practical scientific education, having acquired firsthand experience in methodical scientific observation around the world. In his travels, he had seen many living creatures and organisms of his own times and from earlier geological eras. His great knowledge of living creatures, coupled with an understanding of the earth’s real age as discussed by geologist Charles Lyell, soon led Darwin to recognize the many signs of evolution provided by the natural world.
In the years immediately after his return to England, Darwin spent his time disposing of his specimen collections and writing and editing the lengthy reports resulting from his five-year exploratory trip, including the Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. “Beagle.” The voyage had taken its toll on Darwin’s constitution, however, and he never again experienced good health. Two years after his marriage to Emma Wedgwood, a cousin, in 1839, he was forced to leave London for a more relaxed rural setting near Downe, Kent. Years later, when his books created a storm of protest and controversy, poor health required Darwin to leave the defense of his work to Thomas Henry Huxley and others. For more than forty years, weakness and illness prevented Darwin from working more than a few hours at a time.
Although not published until 1859, On the Origin of Species began to take form in Darwin’s writings as early as 1842, and a manuscript of 1844 clearly defines the theory. At the urging of Lyell, Darwin began to compile his findings; however, in June 1858, before he was finished, Darwin received a manuscript from Alfred Russel Wallace describing an identical theory of mutation. Upon the advice of fellow scientists, Wallace and Darwin separately presented their findings to the Linnean Society in July 1858. Darwin’s full book, On the Origin of Species, was published the following year. By 1868, certain aspects of his theory were more fully developed in The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication. In turn, The Descent of Man grew out of the 1868 volume and included humans as one of the animals which had evolved throughout geological history. Darwin devoted the rest of his life to publishing papers and books on botany, works of little interest to the general public. He died at his home near Downe, Kent, on April 19, 1882.
Darwin’s most important books are historical landmarks because they lent empirical weight to long-standing hypotheses of evolution. Carolus Linnaeus had already classified humans as anthropoid, but it was Darwin who gathered the first coherent body of overwhelming evidence that evolution had occurred and that it continues. Within modern science, evolution is an accepted fact.