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Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin seated crop.jpg
Darwin, c. 1854 when he was working towards publication of On the Origin of Species
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
Known for The Voyage of the Beagle
On the Origin of Species
Emma Wedgwood (m. 1839)
Children 10
Scientific career
Fields Natural history, geology
"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 and natural selection is the key to understanding and the diversity of life on Earth.

Early life and education

Charles Robert Darwin was born in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, on 12 February 1809, at his family's home, The Mount. He was the fifth of six children of wealthy society doctor and financier Robert Darwin and Susannah Darwin (née Wedgwood).

Charles Darwin 1816
Painting of the seven-year-old Charles Darwin in 1816, by Ellen Sharples

Eight-year-old Charles already had a taste for natural history and collecting when he joined the day school run by its preacher in 1817. That July, his mother died. From September 1818, he joined his older brother Erasmus attending the nearby Anglican Shrewsbury School as a boarder.

Darwin spent the summer of 1825 as an apprentice doctor, helping his father treat the poor of Shropshire, before going to the University of Edinburgh Medical School (at the time the best medical school in the UK) with his brother Erasmus in October 1825.

He learned taxidermy in around 40 daily hour-long sessions from John Edmonstone, a freed black slave who had accompanied Charles Waterton in the South American rainforest.

Darwin's neglect of medical studies annoyed his father, who sent him to Christ's College, Cambridge, to study for a Bachelor of Arts degree as the first step towards becoming an Anglican country parson.

Darwin had to stay at Cambridge until June 1831. Darwin planned to visit Tenerife with some classmates after graduation to study natural history in the tropics. In preparation, he joined Adam Sedgwick's geology course, then on 4 August travelled with him to spend a fortnight mapping strata in Wales.

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.

Darwin collected everywhere the ship landed. 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.


While on the 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.p264-268 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.

Origin of Species
1859 copy of Origins of Species

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.

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


Darwin in 1842 with his eldest son, William Erasmus Darwin

The Darwins had ten children: two died in infancy. Charles was a devoted father to his children.

Of his surviving children, George, Francis and Horace became Fellows of the Royal Society, distinguished as astronomer, botanist and civil engineer, respectively. All three were knighted. Another son, Leonard, went on to be a soldier, politician, economist, eugenicist and mentor of the statistician and evolutionary biologist Ronald Fisher.

Death and funeral

Tombs of John Herschel and Charles Darwin. Westminster Abbey

In 1882 he was diagnosed with what was called "angina pectoris" which then meant coronary thrombosis and disease of the heart.

He died at Down House on 19 April 1882. His last words were to his family, telling Emma "I am not the least afraid of death—Remember what a good wife you have been to me—Tell all my children to remember how good they have been to me", then while she rested, he repeatedly told Henrietta and Francis "It's almost worth while to be sick to be nursed by you".

The funeral was held on Wednesday 26 April and was attended by thousands of people, including family, friends, scientists, philosophers and dignitaries.


Charles Robert Darwin by John Collier
In 1881 Darwin was an eminent figure, still working on his contributions to evolutionary thought that had an enormous effect on many fields of science. Portrait by John Collier in the National Portrait Gallery, London.

By the time of his death, Darwin and his colleagues had convinced most scientists that evolution was correct, and he was regarded as a great scientist who had revolutionised ideas.


Statue of Darwin in Natural History Museum, London

During Darwin's lifetime, many geographical features were given his name. An expanse of water adjoining the Beagle Channel was named Darwin Sound by Robert FitzRoy after Darwin's prompt action, along with two or three of the men, saved them from being marooned on a nearby shore when a collapsing glacier caused a large wave that would have swept away their boats, and the nearby Mount Darwin in the Andes was named in celebration of Darwin's 25th birthday. When the Beagle was surveying Australia in 1839, Darwin's friend John Lort Stokes sighted a natural harbour which the ship's captain Wickham named Port Darwin: a nearby settlement was renamed Darwin in 1911, and it became the capital city of Australia's Northern Territory.

Darwin Statue
Unveiling of the Darwin Statue outside the former Shrewsbury School building in 1897

Stephen Heard identified 389 species that have been named after Darwin, and there are at least 9 genera. In one example, the group of tanagers related to those Darwin found in the Galápagos Islands became popularly known as "Darwin's finches" in 1947, fostering inaccurate legends about their significance to his work.

Darwin's work has continued to be celebrated by numerous publications and events. The Linnean Society of London has commemorated Darwin's achievements by the award of the Darwin–Wallace Medal since 1908. Darwin Day has become an annual celebration, and in 2009 worldwide events were arranged for the bicentenary of Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species.

Darwin has been commemorated in the UK, with his portrait printed on the reverse of £10 banknotes printed along with a hummingbird and HMS Beagle, issued by the Bank of England.

A life-size seated statue of Darwin can be seen in the main hall of the Natural History Museum in London.

A seated statue of Darwin, unveiled 1897, stands in front of Shrewsbury Library, the building that used to house Shrewsbury School, which Darwin attended as a boy. Another statue of Darwin as a young man is situated in the grounds of Christ's College, Cambridge.

Darwin College, a postgraduate college at Cambridge University, is named after the Darwin family.

In 2008–09, the Swedish band The Knife, in collaboration with Danish performance group Hotel Pro Forma and other musicians from Denmark, Sweden and the US, created an opera about the life of Darwin, and The Origin of Species, titled Tomorrow, in a Year. The show toured European theatres in 2010.

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