Charles Darwin - His Origin of the Species Established the Theory of Evolution

Portrait of Charles Darwin at his home, Down House
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Charles Darwin holds a unique place in history as the foremost proponent of the theory of evolution. While he lived a relatively quiet and studious life, his writings were controversial in their day and still routinely spark controversy.

As an educated young man he embarked on an astounding voyage of discovery aboard a Royal Navy ship. Strange animals and plants he saw in remote places inspired his deep thinking about how life might have developed. And when he published his masterpiece, On the Origin of Species, he profoundly shook up the scientific world.

Darwin's influence on modern science is impossible to overstate.

Early Life

Charles Darwin was born on February 12, 1809 at Shrewsbury, England. His father was a medical doctor, and his mother was the daughter of the famous potter Josiah Wedgwood. Darwin’s mother died when he was eight, and he was essentially raised by older sisters. He was not a brilliant student as a child, but went on to university at Edinburgh, Scotland, at first intending to become a doctor.

Darwin took a strong dislike to medical education, and eventually studied at Cambridge. He planned to become an Anglican minister before becoming intensely interested in botany. He received a degree in 1831.

Voyage of the Beagle

On the recommendation of a college professor, Darwin was accepted to travel on the second voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle. The ship was embarking on a scientific expedition to South America and islands of the South Pacific, leaving in late December 1831. The Beagle returned to England nearly five years later, in October 1836.

Darwin's position on the ship was peculiar. A former captain of the vessel had become despondent during a long scientific voyage because, it was assumed, he had no intelligent person to converse with while at sea. The British admiralty thought sending an intelligent young gentleman along on a voyage would serve a combined purpose: he could study and make records of discoveries while also providing intelligent companionship for the captain. Darwin was chosen to go aboard.

Darwin spent more than 500 days at sea and about 1,200 days on land during the trip. He studied plants, animals, fossils, and geological formations and wrote his observations in a series of notebooks. During long periods at sea he organized his notes.

Early Writings

Three years after returning to England, Darwin published Journal of Researches, an account of his observations during the expedition aboard the Beagle. The book was an entertaining account of Darwin's scientific travels and was popular enough to be published in successive editions.

Darwin also edited five volumes titled Zoology of the Voyage of the Beagle, which contained contributions by other scientists. Darwin himself wrote sections dealing with the distribution of animal species and geological notes on fossils he had seen.

Development of Darwin's Thinking

The voyage on the Beagle was, of course, a highly significant event in Darwin’s life, but his observations on the expedition were hardly the only influence on the development of his theory of natural selection. He was also greatly influenced by what he was reading.

In 1838 Darwin read an Essay on the Principle of Population, which the British philosopher Thomas Malthus had written 40 years earlier. The ideas of Malthus helped Darwin refine his own notion of “survival of the fittest.”

His Ideas of Natural Selection

Malthus had been writing about overpopulation, and discussed how some members of society were able to survive difficult living conditions. After reading Malthus, Darwin kept collecting scientific samples and data, eventually spending 20 years refining his own thoughts on natural selection.

Darwin married in 1839. Illness prompted him to move from London to the country in 1842. His scientific studies continued, and he spent years studying barnacles, for instance.

Publication of His Masterpiece

Darwin’s reputation as a naturalist and geologist had grown throughout the 1840s and 1850s, yet he had not revealed his ideas about natural selection widely. Friends urged him to publish them in the late 1850s. And it was the publication of an essay by Alfred Russell Wallace expressing similar thoughts that encouraged Darwin to write a book setting out his own ideas.

In July 1858 Darwin and Wallace appeared together at the Linnean Society of London. And in November 1859 Darwin published the book that secured his place in history, On the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection.

Darwin Inspired Controversy

Charles Darwin was not the first person to propose that plants and animals adapt to circumstances and evolve over eons of time. But Darwin's book put forth his hypothesis in an accessible format and led to controversy.

Darwin's theories had an almost immediate impact upon religion, science, and society at large.

Charles Darwin's Later Life

On the Origin of Species was published in several editions, with Darwin periodically editing and updating material in the book.

And while society debated Darwin's work, he lived a quiet life in the English countryside, content to conduct botanical experiments. He was highly respected, regarded as a grand old man of science. He died on April 19, 1882, and was honored by being buried in Westminster Abbey in London.