|Charles Robert Darwin was born in
Shrewsbury, England in 1809. The son of an eminent local
doctor, Dr Robert Darwin, Charles was born into a modestly wealthy
family. Charles’ grandfather, Erasmus, was also a
doctor and had proposed a theory of evolution in 1790. He often
discussed this with Charles, sowing the seeds for a new theory
which would change the world.
Charles’ mother, Susannah, died in 1817 when he was eight years old. The next year Charles was sent to The Shrewsbury School, where he would stay until he was sixteen. School, for him though, “was simply a blank”, as he put it later. He did not do very well but became interested in animals, horse riding and hunting.
Charles Darwin was sent to Edinburgh University to follow that family tradition and become a doctor. Unfortunately, Charles hated seeing illness and could not stand the sight of blood. Although he didn’t progress brilliantly, Charles eventually graduated with a Bachelor of Medicine degree. Charles had also learned the skill of taxidermy (stuffing animals) and had developed a keen interest in collecting rocks and insects.
In 1828 Charles went to Christ College in Cambridge to study theology. If he would not become a doctor, it was decided that maybe he could become a clergyman. Although he studied only mathematics, religion and the classical Latin texts, Charles developed a friendship with a professor of botany, a John Henslow, with whom he would often discuss the natural world. In 1831, Charles received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Cambridge.
Just as Charles decided the life of a clergyman in a rural parish may not be so bad, he received a letter from his friend Henslow. HMS Beagle was soon to leave on a two year, around the world voyage. Its primary mission was to map the coast of South America; furthermore, the ship’s captain, Robert Fitzroy, wanted a naturalist to accompany him on the voyage. Henslow had recommended Darwin as “qualified for collecting, observing and noting anything worthy.” Dr Robert Darwin refused absolutely to pay for his son's voyage. However, Charles' uncle finally convinced Robert to allow him to go.
Captain Fitzroy on Charles Darwin
See our Java Voyage Map.
|His Majesty’s Ship,
Beagle, set sail from Devenport, England, two days after
Christmas on 1831. Among their other tasks, Captain Fitzroy's
intention was that on the voyage the naturalist should find that
the Biblical account of creation (as found in the book of Genesis), was word
for word true.
After a few stops, they reached Rio de Janeiro in April, 1832. Darwin was put ashore and studied the plants and animals of rainforests, totally foreign to the English countryside. He had begun to see that, no matter what environment, a form of life would exist to suit it. The ship left Rio de Janeiro on 5 July, 1832. HMS Beagle travelled further south, unable to stop at Buenos Aries as fear had spread ahead of them that they may be carrying a cholera epidemic from England. The Beagle anchored further south in Montevideo in Uruguay. For another ten weeks, Darwin was able to explore the countryside.
The Tierra del Fuego was reached in December, 1832. Here, on the island at the tip of the South American continent, Captain Fitzroy wanted to set up a mission. Darwin was therefore able to spend considerable time ashore and discovered things which would intrigue him.
If the words of Genesis were literally true, it had been decided, no plants or animals could have changed since God had created them. Darwin though, found bones of animals resembling living species but larger, different and extinct. Charles went then to Buenos Aries where he saw fossils of more ancient animals, including a mastodon, a large, elephant-like creature. How could extinction occur if everything as was as it had always been? Darwin began accept the idea that perhaps there had been changes to the Earth since creation - slow, gradual changes, that would give animal and plant life time to adapt also.
The Beagle continued its journey. Darwin had seen volcanic eruptions and felt earthquakes, as well as having lived with and hunted the exotic animals of South America, but now, in September, 1835, it was time to press on.
HMS Beagle reached the Galápagos islands on 17 September, 1835. The ship landed on Chatam Island, the largest of the chain of volcanic islands 600 miles west of Ecuador. “Nothing could be less inviting”, Darwin wrote on first seeing the black, volcanic island. As he explored he found these islands similar to ones he had already seen, but the species on this isolated land were slightly different than he had seen elsewhere. On the Galápagos, he saw giant tortoises whose shells varied from island to island. After a while, Darwin noticed that there were two varieties of iguanas on the island, one species adapted for sea and one for land. He noticed (and stuffed) over twenty species of finches, each with a different beak, especially suited for its native island. Although this was against both his scientific and religious teaching, Darwin began to think that perhaps species could change to suit their environment.
On his voyage home, Darwin also visited Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia and the Cocos islands in the Indian Ocean and, four years and nine months after leaving Devenport, Charles arrived in Falmouth England, on the second of October, 1836.
Full title of Charles Darwin's Revolutionary Book
|On returning home, Darwin
took up the lifestyle of a carefree bachelor living on an allowance
from his father in Grand Marlborough Street, London. He gave
talks for the Royal Zoological and Geological Societies and began
to write about his amazing voyage. This was described in five
volumes, published between 1834 and 1845 called the “Zoology
of the Voyage of the Beagle”.
Darwin’s “Voyage of the Beagle”, another narrative based on his notebooks and diaries from the trips, was published in 1839 and again in 1845.
On 29 January, 1839, Darwin married his first cousin, Emma Wedgewood. The family moved from London in 1842 as Charles began to feel ill, tired and suffer dizzy spells. Charles and Emma Darwin though, had seven children.
At this time there was a lot of debate about evolution. Some were suggesting it, but, because of lack of evidence, it was unsupportable, and, most thought, against the teaching of Genesis. This led Darwin to thinking that, if over generations farmers could breed better cattle, faster horses and better plants then there must be some change occurring in the animals, and wasn’t that idea impossible according to Genesis?
At the same time the industrial revolution had seen a dramatic rise in the number of city dwellers and a more rapid growth of population. Some, like Thomas Malthus, were making dire predictions about shortages of resources for the ever increasing masses, but Darwin was less fearful. Nature, he thought, must weed out those least fit to survive and save the strongest. He called it Natural Selection.
In 1842 Darwin wrote a thirty five page essay on his idea, though he kept it a great secret. In 1844 he increased it to two hundred and thirty pages, although it was still a secret.
In 1848 the book “Vestiges of Natural History and Creation” by Robert Chambers was published anonymously. This book, suggesting species could change, caused a great scandal, but was, like former claims, unfounded and lacking in clear, scientific evidence. Charles decided that, using his knowledge from the Voyage of the Beagle, he could substantiate his claims and theories of natural selection.
Darwin worked long and hard on his book until he received a letter from a younger friend, Alfred Wallace. Wallace had sent Darwin an essay outlining his theory of evolution, strikingly similar to Darwin’s. It was decided that, for Darwin’s book, Wallace would share the credit.
On 24 November, 1859, Darwin’s book was finally published. “On the Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle of Life” was five hundred pages long, and sold its initial print run of 1250 copies in one day. Now known as the “Origin of Species”, Darwin’s book was incredibly successful, and, although receiving at the time much criticism, is the basis of today’s evolutionary theories.