Authors: Charles Darwin

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

English naturalist

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. {$I[AN]9810000605} {$I[A]Darwin, Charles} {$I[geo]ENGLAND;Darwin, Charles} {$I[tim]1809;Darwin, Charles}

Charles Darwin

(National Archives)

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.

Author Works Nonfiction: Journal of Researches into the Geology and Natural History of the Various Countries Visited by H.M.S. “Beagle,” 1832–36, 1839 (journal; commonly known as The Voyage of the “Beagle”) Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. “Beagle,” 1839–1843 The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs, 1842 Geological Observations on the Volcanic Islands Visited During the Voyage of H.M.S. “Beagle,” 1844 Geological Observations on South America, 1846 On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection: Or, The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, 1859 On the Movements and Habits of Climbing Plants, 1865 The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication, 1868 The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, 1871 The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, 1872 The Power of Movement in Plants, 1880 The Formation of Vegetable Mould, Through the Action of Worms, with Observations on Their Habits, 1881 The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809–1882, with Original Omissions Restored, 1958 Charles Darwin’s Zoology Notes and Specimen Lists from H.M.S. “Beagle,” 2000 (Richard Keynes, editor) Bibliography Appleman, Philip, ed. Darwin: Texts, Commentary. 3d ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 2001. A collection of selected writings by and about Darwin. Bowlby, John. Charles Darwin: A New Life. New York: W. W. Norton, 1991. British psychologist Bowlby provides detailed information regarding Darwin's family in addition to explaining the science behind Darwin's theories; he also offers a unique theory about Darwin's propensity for illness. Bowler, Peter J. Charles Darwin: The Man and His Influence. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Combines biography with cultural history. Bowler shows how Charles Darwin’s contemporaries were unable to comprehend the scientific importance of Darwin’s theory in the development of modern culture. Darwin’s relationships with other prominent scientists of the period are also portrayed. Brackman, Arnold. A Delicate Arrangement: The Strange Case of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. New York: Times Books, 1980. Brackman argues that Darwin and his friends conspired to deny Wallace credit for having first discovered the theory of biological evolution. Browne, Janet. Charles Darwin. New York: Knopf, 1995–2002. 2 vols. A comprehensive biography that aims to give the reader a clearer understanding of Darwin's development into a thinker and scientist. Clark, Ronald W. The Survival of Charles Darwin: A Biography of a Man and an Idea. New York: Random House, 1984. A study of Darwin’s life and work, concentrating on the genesis of evolutionary theory and its development after Darwin’s death. Colp, Ralph, Jr. To Be an Invalid: The Illness of Charles Darwin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977. A detailed study of the various theories about what caused Darwin’s chronic, debilitating illness after the voyage of HMS Beagle. De Beer, Gavin. Charles Darwin: A Scientific Biography. New York: Doubleday, 1965. The standard authorized biography of Darwin by an English scientist who enjoyed full access to the Darwin Papers at Cambridge University. Desmond, Adrian, and James Moore. Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist. New York: W. W. Norton, 1994. Lively and enjoyable to read, this book has been hailed as the definitive biography of Darwin. The authors portray Darwin within the context of Victorian society and explain how he came to his momentous and controversial conclusion, which he kept secret for twenty years. Includes maps, photographs, drawings, and extensive chapter notes. Eiseley, Loren. Darwin’s Century: Evolution and the Men Who Discovered It. New York: Doubleday, 1958. A rigorous intellectual history of the concept of evolution and its antecedents, from Darwin’s precursors through the publication of On the Origin of Species and its reception. Irvine, William. Apes, Angels, and Victorians: The Story of Darwin, Huxley, and Evolution. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1955. A detailed cultural study of Darwinism and its impact on the Victorian mind. Keynes, Randal. Darwin, His Daughter, and Human Evolution. New York: Riverhead, 2001. An examination of the spiritual crisis of the naturalist by his great, great grandson. Draws on family photographs and documents. Porter, Duncan, and Peter W. Graham, eds. The Portable Darwin. New York: Penguin Books, 1993. Includes an introduction, notes, and an epilogue by the editors. Stefoff, Rebecca. Charles Darwin and the Evolution Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. This thoroughly researched biography emphasizes Darwin’s influence on and contributions to scientific, social, and political circles. Extensive photographs of family, colleagues, and reproductions of public notices and cartoons humanize the subject. Sidebars detail terms and concepts so as not to bog down the text.

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