Charles Darwin facts

Charles Darwin
Darwin, c. 1854 when he was working towards publication of On the Origin of Species
Born Charles Robert Darwin
(1809-02-12)12 February 1809
The Mount, Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England
Died 19 April 1882(1882-04-19) (aged 73)
Down House, Downe, Kent, England
Fields Natural history, geology
Known for The Voyage of the Beagle
On the Origin of Species
Signature
"Charles Darwin", with the surname underlined by a downward curve that mimics the curve of the initial "C"

Charles Robert Darwin (12 February 1809 – 19 April 1882) was an English naturalist. He was born in Shrewsbury, Shropshire. He is famous for his work on the theory of evolution. His book On the Origin of Species (1859) did two things. First, it provided a great deal of evidence that evolution has taken place. Second, it proposed a theory to explain how evolution works. That theory is natural selection. Evolution by natural selection is the key to understanding biology, and the diversity of life on Earth.

Voyage of the HMS Beagle

Voyage of the Beagle-en
The voyage of the Beagle
Plymouth, England, south to Cape Verde then southwest across the Atlantic to Bahia, Brazil, south to Rio de Janeiro, Montevideo, the Falkland Islands, round the tip of South America then north to Valparaiso, Chile, and Callao. North west to the Galapagos Islands before sailing west across the Pacific to New Zealand, Sydney, Hobart in Tasmania, and King George's Sound in Western Australia. Northwest to the Keeling Islands, southwest to Mauritius and Cape Town, then northwest to Bahia and northeast back to Plymouth

Darwin spent almost five years on board a Royal Navy exploring ship, the HMS Beagle. He was the guest naturalist, which meant that he was responsible for making collections and notes about the animals, plants, and the geology of the countries they visited. The ship's crew made charts of all the coastal areas, which could be used by the navy wherever it went in the world. At the time, Britain had by far the largest navy in the world, and an empire which was global.

HMS Beagle by Conrad Martens
As HMS Beagle surveyed the coasts of South America, Darwin theorised about geology and extinction of giant mammals.

Darwin collected everywhere the ship weighed anchor. He found huge fossils of recently extinct mammals, experienced an earthquake in Chile, and noticed the land had been raised. He knew of raised beaches elsewhere, high in the Andes, with fossil seashells and trees which had once grown on a sandy beach. Obviously the earth was constantly changing, with land rising in some places, and sinking in others. He collected birds and insects, and sent shipments back to Cambridge for experts to identify.

Darwin was the first dedicated naturalist to visit the Galapagos Islands, off the west coast of Ecuador. He noticed that some of the birds were like mockingbirds on the mainland, but different enough to be placed in separate species. He began to wonder how so many new species came to be on these islands.

When Darwin got back to England, he edited a series of scientific reviews of the voyage, and wrote a personal journal which we know as The Voyage of the Beagle. It is one of the great natural history travel diaries.

In 1843 Darwin, who already had two children with his wife Emma, bought Down House in the village of Downe, Kent. He lived there for the rest of his life, and today the house and contents are open to the public.

Darwin's theory

Before Darwin

Before the nineteenth century, the accepted theory for the extinction of species was called Catastrophism, which stated that species went extinct due to catastrophes that were often followed by the formation of new species ex nihilo (out of nothing). The extinct species can then be found as fossils. The new species were considered unchangeable. This theory was in accordance with the story of the Flood in the Bible. In the early nineteenth century, several new theories started to compete with Catastrophism. One of the most important ones was developed by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829). He observed that every new generation inherits the traits of its ancestors. He suggested that traits or organs become enhanced with repeated use and weakened or removed by disuse in each individual, who will pass these improvements or losses directly to their offspring.

Evolution

Evolution process
Example how natural selection can work

While on H.M.S. Beagle, and later back home in London, Darwin had come across the ideas of the Rev. T.R. Malthus. Malthus had realised that, although humans could double their population every 25 years, it did not happen in practice. He thought the reason was that a struggle for existence (or resources) limited their numbers. If numbers increased, then famine, wars and diseases caused more deaths. Darwin, who knew that all living things could, in principle, increase their numbers, began to think about why some survived, while others did not. His answer took years to develop.

The theory of evolution says that all living things on Earth, including plants, animals and microbes, come from a common ancestor by slowly changing throughout the generations. Darwin suggested that the way living things changed over time is through natural selection. This is the better survival and reproduction of those that best fit their environment. Fitting into the place where you live is called adapting. Those who fit best into the place where they live, the best adapted, have the best chance to survive and breed. Those who are less well-adapted tend not to survive. If they do not survive well enough to raise young, this means they do not pass on their genes. In this way, the species gradually changes.

The first chapter of the Origin deals with domesticated animals, such as cattle and dogs. Darwin reminded readers of the huge changes mankind had made in its domestic animals, which were once wild species. The changes were brought about by selective breeding – choosing animals with desirable characters to breed from. This had been done generation after generation, until our modern breeds were produced. Perhaps what man had done deliberately, might happen in nature, where some would leave more offspring than others.

Darwin noticed that although young plants or animals are very similar to their parents, no two are exactly the same and there is always a range of shape, size, colour, and so on. Some of these differences the plant or animal may have got from their own ancestors, but some are new and caused by mutations. When such differences made an organism more able to live in the wild, it would have a better chance to survive, and would pass on its genes to its offspring, and they to their offspring. Any difference that would cause the plant or animal to have less of a chance to live would be less likely to be passed on, and would eventually die out altogether. In this way groups of similar plants or animals (called species) slowly change in shape and form so that they can live more successfully and have more offspring who will survive them. So, natural selection had similarities to selective breeding, except that it would happen by itself, over a much longer time.

He first started thinking about this in 1838, but it took a full twenty years before his ideas became public. By 1844 he was able to write a draft of the main ideas in his notebook. Historians think that he did not talk about his theory because he was afraid of public criticism. He knew his theory, which did not discuss religion, raised questions about the literal truth of the Book of Genesis. Whatever the reason, he did not publish his theory in a book until 1859. In 1858 he heard that another biologist, Alfred Russel Wallace, had the same ideas about natural selection. Darwin and Wallace's ideas were first published in the Journal of the Linnaean Society in London, 1858. Then, Darwin published his book the next year. The name of the book was On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. This is usually called The Origin of Species.

Origin of Species
1859 copy of Origins of Species

Darwin wrote a number of other books, most of which are also very important.

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