Charles Darwin – A Short Biography

Charles Robert Darwin. A copy made by John Collier (1850-1934) in 1883 of his 1881 portrait of Charles Darwin. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

What did you do right after college?  Did you immediately start down your current career path?  Maybe you tried very hard to defy the wish of a parent and avoid a certain profession?  Maybe you took some time and travelled the world? 

Or, perhaps you made a monumental observation that forever changed the world and the way humanity views its existence.

Charles Darwin didn’t do one of those things immediately after college.  He did them all.

It’s hard to believe but Darwin began his famous voyage on the HMS Beagle on Dec. 27, 1831.  He was just 22 and had finished his higher education earlier that year.

Sure, his seminal book, On the Origin of Species, wasn’t released until a quarter century later, but the foundation for that paradigm-shifting opus came from scientific observations he made while traveling on the Beagle. 

And you thought the year you spent “finding yourself” was a big deal.

Darwin and his ideas have had such a profound impact on our lives that his last name has been turned into a noun.  You can find “Darwinism” in the dictionary along with Newtonian, Shakespearean, and Plutonian.

What Did Charles Darwin Actually Do?

Darwin didn’t come up with the idea of evolution.  He came up with the mechanism for evolution.  That mechanism, and the one explained in his book, On the Origin of Species, is natural selection.

He believed humans, as well as all other living organisms, adapt themselves to their environment.  An organism’s ability to adapt is the deciding factor in whether they survive.

At the time he published his work, many scientists believed species came into existence and stayed that way.  Darwin’s theory says that’s not true. 

He was the first human to realize that the story of life on our planet looks like a branching tree not a straight line.

Why Darwin Matters?

Today, the scientific community takes evolution as fact and Darwin’s theory of evolution as the most reasonable explanation. 

Of course, that statement is disputed by those who believe life on Earth is the fecund result of a Creator.

Regardless of where you stand on the matter, we all must agree that Darwin is one of the most important figures of the 19th century and looms large in the annuals of science.

To dismiss Darwin because you reject evolution is to do a disservice to his importance within the field of science and his impact on our culture. 

To take Darwin’s theory as infallible is to do a disservice to the scientific method he used to support his thesis.  By all accounts, Darwin was a top-notch scientist. 

Those on either end of the evolution/creation spectrum will benefit from studying Darwin.  By objectively looking at his ideas we learn more about who we are, where we’ve been, and where we’re going.

Early Life

Darwin was born Feb. 12, 1809 in Shrewsbury, England.  His father was a wealthy doctor.  His mother died when he was eight.  He has five brothers and sisters.

Darwin’s father wanted his son to become a doctor, but Charles was always more interested in natural history.  When Darwin’s studies at medical school waned, his father wanted him to become a country parson.  That didn’t work either.

Regardless of his father’s cajoling to take up this profession or that, Darwin was destined to become a scientist. 

HMS Beagle

In 1831, a professor with whom Darwin was very close, suggested that he take the position of naturalist aboard the HMS Beagle.  Darwin’s father initially disliked the idea, but eventually agreed. 

Darwin’s father not only let him go but paid for the adventure.  Having his way paid allowed Darwin the ability to keep everything he collected for himself.

The Beagle left port on Dec. 7, 1831.  During its five-year voyage around the world, Darwin collected a bevy of natural specimens and fossils, made astute geological observations, and took copious notes. 

He witnessed a wide array of plant and animal life and positively interacted with indigenous peoples.  More importantly, he found evidence contradicting the prevailing theories of his time—many of which Darwin had adhered to.

So immense were his discoveries and observations, that when Darwin returned to England on Oct. 2, 1836 he was something of a scientific celebrity.  

It’s amazing what Darwin accomplished while aboard the Beagle.  Especially when you consider he suffered from seasickness.

Hard Work and Illness

After the journey, Darwin’s father helped him gain financing to become a full-time scientist.  Darwin then went about cataloguing his collections, having his fossils examined by experts, editing his journal, and writing papers.

To further his studies, Darwin moved to London.  There, he interacted with the leading thinkers of his day and met influential people within the scientific community. 

Darwin was an extremely hard worker who set lofty, often unrealistic, goals for himself.  In the late 1830s, his health began to deteriorate, and doctors told him to slow down.

For the rest of his life, Darwin endured stomach pains, vomiting, and boils.  These symptoms were prominent during times of stress. 

Darwin’s illness was unsuccessfully treated and never diagnosed.  Even to this day, his ailment remains a mystery.

Nonetheless, Darwin kept publishing papers and working as a geologist.  In his free time, he developed his theory of natural selection.  He did so by conducing copious experiments and speaking to anyone he thought could elucidate his subject. 

As for his personal life, Darwin married Emma Wedgewood in 1839.  Together they had ten children— two died in infancy and one shortly after turning ten.

On the Origin of Species

In 1858, Darwin read a paper by Alfred Russell Wallace that purported a similar theory of natural selection to his own.  Right away, Darwin realized they needed to publish together.

Their joint-work was presented to a famous scientific society on July 1, 1858.  It received little attention.

Yet, when it was published on Nov. 22, 1859 it was a smash hit. 

Interestingly, the word “evolved” appeared only once in the entire tome (it was the last word).  At the time, “evolution” connoted something different than it does today. 

Darwin added variants of the word “evolve” starting with the sixth edition.

Another major note on the book: it stayed away from discussing the origins of people.  The author was keenly aware of the controversary caused by theorizing on the evolution of humankind.  In later publications, however, Darwin tackled the subject.

Although his illness kept him from fully enjoying his book’s success, Darwin still entered the landscape of popular culture.  He became a household name and cartoonists often drew him as a satirical half-man, half-ape.

Death

Darwin kept experimenting and writing all throughout his life.  He died on April 19, 1882. 

Thousands of admirers attended his funeral.  He was buried in Westminster Abbey, not too far from Isaac Newton.

At the time of his death, doctors diagnosed Darwin with what is now called coronary thrombosis.  Modern physicians believe Darwin died from Chagas disease.  That’s a disease caused by a tropical parasite which is spread by an insect known as the “kissing bug.”

Selected Works

Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle (1839)

The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs (1842)

On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1859)

The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication (1868)

The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871)

The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872)

The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms (1881)

The Books and Monographs of Charles Darwin

1839Journal of Researches into the Natural History etc …. (The Voyage of the Beagle)
1842The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs
1844Geological Observations on Volcanic Islands
1846Geological Observations on South America
1851A Monograph of the Sub-class Cirripedia
1851A Monograph of the Fossil Pedunculated Cirripeds of Great Britain
1854A Monograph of the Sessile Cirripeds
1854A Monograph of the Fossil Sessile Cirripeds
1859On the Origin of Species
1862On the Var. Contrivances by which British & Foreign Orchids are Fertilized by Insects
1868The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication
1871The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex
1872The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals
1875Insectivorous Plants
1875The Movements and Habits of Climbing Plants
1876The Effects of Cross- and Self-Fertilization in the Vegetable Kingdom
1877The Different Forms of Flowers on Plants of the Same Species
1880The Power of Movement in Plants
1881The Formation of Vegetable Mold through the Action of Worms