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Charles Robert Darwin
(12 February 1809–19 April 1882)

 

 


Born

12th February 1809 in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England at his family home, the Mount.

He was the fifth of six children of wealthy society doctor and financier Robert Darwin, and Susannah Darwin (née Wedgwood)

Early years and Education

He was the grandson of Erasmus Darwin on his father's side, and of Josiah Wedgwood on his mother's side.

Both families were largely Unitarian, though the Wedgwoods were adopting Anglicanism.

Robert Darwin, himself quietly a freethinker, had baby Charles baptised in the Anglican Church, but Charles and his siblings attended the Unitarian chapel with their mother.

The 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 with his brother Erasmus in October 1825.

He found lectures dull and surgery distressing, so neglected his studies.

He learned taxidermy from John Edmonstone, a freed black slave who had accompanied Charles Waterton in the South American rainforest, and often sat with this "very pleasant and intelligent man".

And

In Darwin's second year he joined the Plinian Society, a student natural history group whose debates strayed into radical materialism.

He assisted Robert Edmond Grant's investigations of the anatomy and life cycle of marine invertebrates in the Firth of Forth, and on 27 March 1827 presented at the Plinian his own discovery that black spores found in oyster shells were the eggs of a skate leech.

Darwin was rather bored by Robert Jameson's natural history course which covered geology including the debate between Neptunism and Plutonism.

He learned classification of plants, and assisted with work on the collections of the University Museum, one of the largest museums in Europe at the time.

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

As Darwin was unqualified for the Tripos, he joined the ordinary degree course in January 1828.

He preferred riding and shooting to studying.

His cousin William Darwin Fox introduced him to the popular craze for beetle collecting which Darwin pursued zealously, getting some of his finds published in Stevens' Illustrations of British entomology.

He became a close friend and follower of botany professor John Stevens Henslow and met other leading naturalists who saw scientific work as religious natural theology, becoming known to these dons as "the man who walks with Henslow".

When his own exams drew near, Darwin focused on his studies and was delighted by the language and logic of William Paley's Evidences of Christianity.

In his final examination in January 1831 Darwin did well, coming tenth out of 178 candidates for the ordinary degree.

Darwin had to stay at Cambridge until June.

He studied Paley's Natural Theology which made an argument for divine design in nature, explaining adaptation as God acting through laws of nature.

He read John Herschel's new book which described the highest aim of natural philosophy as understanding such laws through inductive reasoning based on observation, and Alexander von Humboldt's Personal Narrative of scientific travels.

Inspired with "a burning zeal" to contribute, 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 went with him in the summer for a fortnight to map strata in Wales.

After a week with student friends at Barmouth, he returned home to find a letter from Henslow proposing Darwin as a suitable (if unfinished) gentleman naturalist for a self-funded place with captain Robert FitzRoy, more as a companion than a mere collector, on HMS Beagle which was to leave in four weeks on an expedition to chart the coastline of South America.

His father objected to the planned two-year voyage, regarding it as a waste of time, but was persuaded by his brother-in-law, Josiah Wedgwood, to agree to his son's participation.

Voyage of the Beagle

Beginning on 27 December 1831, the voyage lasted almost five years and, as FitzRoy had intended,

Darwin spent most of that time on land investigating geology and making natural history collections, while the Beagle surveyed and charted coasts.

He kept careful notes of his observations and theoretical speculations, and at intervals during the voyage his specimens were sent to Cambridge together with letters including a copy of his journal for his family.

He had some expertise in geology, beetle collecting and dissecting marine invertebrates, but in all other areas was a novice and ably collected specimens for expert appraisal.

Despite suffering badly from seasickness, Darwin wrote copious notes while on board the ship.

Most of his zoology notes are about marine invertebrates, starting with plankton collected in a calm spell.

On their first stop ashore at St. Jago, Darwin found that a white band high in the volcanic rock cliffs included seashells.

FitzRoy had given him the first volume of Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology which set out uniformitarian concepts of land slowly rising or falling over immense periods, and Darwin saw things Lyell's way, theorising and thinking of writing a book on geology.

In Brazil Darwin was delighted by the tropical forest, but detested the sight of slavery

Thoughts Coming Together

In mid-December Darwin took lodgings in Cambridge to organise work on his collections and rewrite his Journal.

He wrote his first paper, showing that the South American landmass was slowly rising, and with Lyell's enthusiastic backing read it to the Geological Society of London on 4 January 1837.

On the same day, he presented his mammal and bird specimens to the Zoological Society.

The ornithologist John Gould soon announced that the Galapagos birds that Darwin had thought a mixture of blackbirds, "gros-beaks" and finches, were, in fact, twelve separate species of finches.

On 17 February Darwin was elected to the Council of the Geological Society, and Lyell's presidential address presented Owen's findings on Darwin's fossils, stressing geographical continuity of species as supporting his uniformitarian ideas.

Gould met Darwin and told him that the Galápagos mockingbirds from different islands were separate species, not just varieties, and what Darwin had thought was a "wren" was also in the finch group.

Darwin had not labelled the finches by island, but from the notes of others on the Beagle, including FitzRoy, he allocated species to islands.

The two rheas were also distinct species, and on 14 March Darwin announced how their distribution changed going southwards.

In mid-July 1837 Darwin started his "B" notebook on Transmutation of Species, and on page 36 wrote "I think" above his first evolutionary tree.

By mid-March, Darwin was speculating in his Red Notebook on the possibility that "one species does change into another" to explain the geographical distribution of living species such as the rheas, and extinct ones such as the strange Macrauchenia which resembled a giant guanaco.

His thoughts on lifespan, asexual reproduction and sexual reproduction developed in his "B" notebook around mid-July on to variation in offspring "to adapt & alter the race to changing world" explaining the Galápagos tortoises, mockingbirds and rheas.

He sketched branching descent, then a genealogical branching of a single evolutionary tree, in which "It is absurd to talk of one animal being higher than another", discarding Lamarck's independent lineages progressing to higher forms.

Natural Selection

"In October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic enquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed.

The result of this would be the formation of new species.

Here, then, I had at last got a theory by which to work..."

By mid December Darwin saw a similarity between farmers picking the best stock in selective breeding, and a Malthusian Nature selecting from chance variants so that "every part of newly acquired structure is fully practical and perfected", thinking this comparison "a beautiful part of my theory".

He later called his theory natural selection, an analogy with what he termed the artificial selection of selective breeding.

Married

On 11 November, he returned to Maer and proposed to Emma, his cousin, once more telling her his ideas.

She accepted, then in exchanges of loving letters she showed how she valued his openness in sharing their differences, also expressing her strong Unitarian beliefs and concerns that his honest doubts might separate them in the afterlife.

While he was house-hunting in London, bouts of illness continued and Emma wrote urging him to get some rest, almost prophetically remarking "So don't be ill any more my dear Charley till I can be with you to nurse you."

He found what they called "Macaw Cottage" (because of its gaudy interiors) in Gower Street, then moved his "museum" in over Christmas.

On 29 January Darwin and Emma Wedgwood were married at Maer in an Anglican ceremony arranged to suit the Unitarians, then immediately caught the train to London and their new home

Darwinism

The most famous confrontation was at the public 1860 Oxford evolution debate during a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, where the Bishop of Oxford Samuel Wilberforce, though not opposed to transmutation of species, argued against Darwin's explanation and human descent from apes.

Joseph Hooker argued strongly for Darwin, and Thomas Huxley's legendary retort, that he would rather be descended from an ape than a man who misused his gifts, came to symbolise a triumph of science over religion.

Even Darwin's close friends Gray, Hooker, Huxley and Lyell still expressed various reservations but gave strong support, as did many others, particularly younger naturalists.

Gray and Lyell sought reconciliation with faith, while Huxley portrayed a polarisation between religion and science.

He campaigned pugnaciously against the authority of the clergy in education, aiming to overturn the dominance of clergymen and aristocratic amateurs under Owen in favour of a new generation of professional scientists.

Owen's claim that brain anatomy proved humans to be a separate biological order from apes was shown to be false by Huxley in a long running dispute parodied by Kingsley as the "Great Hippocampus Question", and discredited Owen

Darwinism became a movement covering a wide range of evolutionary ideas. In 1863 Lyell's Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man popularised prehistory, though his caution on evolution disappointed Darwin.

Weeks later Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature showed that anatomically, humans are apes, then The Naturalist on the River Amazons by Henry Walter Bates provided empirical evidence of natural selection.

Lobbying brought Darwin Britain's highest scientific honour, the Royal Society's Copley Medal, awarded on 3 November 1864.

That day, Huxley held the first meeting of what became the influential X Club devoted to "science, pure and free, untrammelled by religious dogmas".

By the end of the decade most scientists agreed that evolution occurred, but only a minority supported Darwin's view that the chief mechanism was natural selection.

died

In 1882 he was diagnosed with what was called “angina pectoris” which then meant coronary thrombosis and disease of the heart. At the time of his death, the physicians diagnosed “anginal attacks”, and “heart-failure”.

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".

He had expected to be buried in St Mary's churchyard at Downe, but at the request of Darwin's colleagues, after public and parliamentary petitioning, William Spottiswoode (President of the Royal Society) arranged for Darwin to be honoured with a state funeral and burial in Westminster Abbey, close to John Herschel and Isaac Newton




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