Charles Darwin: Naturalist, Geologist, Biologist

Introduction to Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin was an English biologist, naturalist and geologist who was most famous for his work, ‘The Origin of Species’, a milestone to our understanding of the conception of all living beings. He transformed the world with his ideas of how we look at nature, which were nothing short of revolutionary.

Darwin’s Early Life and Education

Charles Darwin was born on February 12, 1809, in Shrewsbury, England to Robert and Susannah Darwin. Darwin was schooled at home by his sister Caroline until he was eight years old and then suddenly, his mother, Susannah, died. He then spent a year at a day school and transferred to a boarding school, the Shrewsbury School. There he studied, until the age of sixteen, when his father sent him to the University of Edinburgh to study medicine.

Darwin was particularly fascinated by collecting, hunting, and naturalizing instead of medicine. It was there that he first learned to study and collect beetles. The marine biologist Robert Grant took him under his wing. After two years, with the help of his father, Darwin transferred to the University of Cambridge to study for the clergy of the Anglican Church he became friends with the older botanist John Henslow.

Soon after graduating in 1831, Darwin was offered a position on board the HMS Beagle. It was a ship that was mapping the coast of South America on a two or three year voyage around the world. He spent the next five years on board the Beagle. There, Darwin spent all his time taking copious notes and sent more than thousands of samples and specimens back to Henslow in England for safe- keeping.

Henslow and other geologists, zoologists, and botanists were fascinated by the specimens he had collected. He spent the next ten years cataloging and describing the discoveries he had made on his journey. While working on this, he started to think about a deeper, more important problem: the origin of species. He opened his first notebook on the topic in 1837. It would take him more than 20 years to be confident of his new theory and have courage to publish it.

Further work and Research

Theory of evolution by Charles Darwin

In 1839, Darwin married Emma Wedgwood, his cousin, and they moved in to a house in London where Darwin could focus on his work. Unfortunately, his health started to fail mysteriously, so they moved to the country. They lived in a small village where Darwin could find peace and quiet.

After he completed his work on the results of the Beagle voyage, Darwin turned to what seemed at first like a small, insignificant problem: the classification of different kinds of barnacles. Darwin soon became entangled in the enormous project of dissecting and describing all of the barnacles of the world for what eventually became a four- volume work. Eight years later, in 1854, he finally finished, and was able to turn back to the problem of evolution.

In 1857, Alfred Russell Wallace sent Darwin a paper regarding the evolution of species. Wallace’s theory was very similar to Darwin’s. Wallace’s paper and a sketch of Darwin’s theory were presented at the Linnean Society. Soon after this, he decided to produce an “abstract” of a longer book on evolution that he was working on, so anyone else could not take credit for an idea he had been developing for more than twenty years. It was published in 1859 as On the Origin of Species, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, becoming an immediate sensation and selling out the first printing within a day. Darwin remained above the fray in his self-imposed isolation at Down House while his friends Joseph Hooker, the botanist, and especially Thomas Henry Huxley, the zoologist, defended his theory to the world while he continued to do research.

In the 1860s, Darwin worked on three books. One was about variation under domestication, which he saw as being parallel to variation in the wild. Another was about the evolution of humanity and the role of sexual selection. The final one regarded the expression of emotions. The book on humanity and sexual selection, The Descent of Man, was published in 1871.

In his last decade, Darwin turned away from evolution and focused on the garden. His research on climbing plants and the geological role of earthworms turned his workshop into a virtual greenhouse and resulted in several books. By 1877, the University of Cambridge gave him an honorary doctorate. In 1882, he weakened. Darwin died on April 19, 1882, at the Down House. He was buried in Westminster Abbey.

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