Charles Darwin was born in Shrewsbury in England on 12th February, 1809. His father was a wealthy doctor and financier, Robert Darwin and his mother was Susannah Darwin. Although Robert Darwin was a freethinker, Charles was baptized in the Anglican Church in keeping with his mother’s religious beliefs. Charles had 5 siblings and they attended the day school run by the preacher of a Unitarian Chapel.
Robert Darwin wanted his son to become a doctor, and even sent him to University of Edinburgh to study medicine. But seeing the brutality of surgery, Charles neglected his studies. He pursued his interests in taxidermy, natural history, marine biology, botany and zoology. He joined the Plinian Society which was a student group interested in natural history. He also became a pupil of Robert Edmund Grant who followed Lamarck’s theory of evolution by advanced characteristics. He also attended Robert Jameson’s natural history course and learned geology and plant classification.
His father recognized his son’s lack of interest in medicine and enrolled him into the Bachelor of Arts program at Christ College. This way he thought that his son would become a clergyman and get a good income. But Charles was just not interested. He studied botany with the Reverend John Stevens Henslow. He was also enthusiastic about William Paley’s writings about the divine design in Nature. When his exams were due, Charles managed to pass them.
Career as a Naturalist
Charles joined the geology course of Reverend Adam Sedgwick. Reverend Henslow then sent a letter to Robert FitzRoy, who was the captain of the HMS Beagle, recommending Charles as his gentleman companion on his voyage to chart the coastline of South America. The voyage lasted 5 years. Darwin spent a majority of that time on land and collected a variety of fossils and specimens of living organisms, studied many a geological features and made extensive notes. These were later published as ‘The Voyage of the Beagle’. Since that voyage, Charles suffered from frequent bouts of fever.
Charles observed in this voyage, that the landmasses were rising with the passage of time. He concluded this by observing the geological strata, marine and plant life, fossils and observing the variety of birds present on the islands of South America. Studying the mockingbirds and tortoises in the area, the theory of the origin of the species began to take root in his mind. Meanwhile Charles kept sending back specimens and letters describing his findings, which became greatly admired.
In 1836, when he returned from his voyage, he was already quite famous. He had proved himself as a competent naturalist. Upon his return, Henslow also advised him to find naturalists to describe and catalog his collections, while Henslow took his botanical specimens. Through Charles Lyell, Darwin met Richard Owen and began to analyze the various fossils that he had found on his voyage. The results were astounding. The fossils contained bones of huge sloths and the extinct Glyptodon.
In 1837 he presented his paper on the rising landmasses to the Geological Society of London and presented his mammal and bird specimens to the Zoological Society. He also moved to London and interacted with several prominent members of the scientific society, including Charles Babbage and John Herschel. He also received a grant of 1000 Pounds for his book ‘Zoology of the Voyage of the HMS Beagle’.
Darwin’s health began to suffer. He was under a lot of pressure to complete his book. He began to have heart palpitations and went to Maer Hall to visit his maternal cousins and to relax. It was then that he also studied earthworms. He used this information to deliver a paper to the Geological Society about the process of soil formation and the role of the earthworms. This was when he met Emma Wedgwood.
In 1838, Darwin became the secretary of the Geological Society. Meanwhile he continued with his studies of transmutation of the species. At that time, Darwin read Malthus’ ‘An Essay on the Principle of Population’ which proved to be an inspiration to his theory of natural selection.
In 1837, Charles visited his maternal cousins. That was where he first met Emma Wedgwood. She was nine months older to him. During 1838, he kept on falling ill on and off. It was during this time, that he began to contemplate marriage. He wanted to marry Emma, but kept putting it off. He even visited her once in July 1838, but did not propose. He returned to Maer Hall in November and finally proposed to Emma. She accepted. They were married in January 1839. Charles and Emma had 10 children of which 2 died in infancy and his daughter Anne died when she was 10 years old. Charles was quite an attentive and devoted father.
Whenever any of his children fell ill, he greatly feared that his children may have inherited weaknesses. This was because Emma was his cousin and he studied the effects of inbreeding among the species as a matter of course. The death of Anne left him devastated and destroyed any feeling he had for a benevolent God.
Charles Darwin and The Theory of Evolution
Throughout this time Charles was working on his theory of natural selection. However, he feared revealing the theory to the world at large because he saw the critics debunk similar theories posed by other scientists such as Alfred Russel Wallace. Also several prominent scientists of the time like Thomas Henry Huxley were dead set against evolution. However, he did manage to convey a brief idea of his theories to his botanist friend Joseph Dalton Hooker who showed a positive response and a keen interest. These and similar events urged him on. The death of his daughter Anne also contributed to creating a feeling within him that there was no benevolent God.
Meanwhile he published a book on coral reefs and also published his research on barnacles. In November 1859, his book The Origin of Species was published and was sold out. The book generated a lot of controversy and criticism. Yet, the common man was hooked on to the theory. The Church reacted and stood against him; chief among those anti this theory were his old teachers Henslow and Sedgwick. However, Darwin was too ill to take part in these debates and was defended by his friend Joseph Dalton Hooker. He also wrote to several people and garnered a lot of support for his work.
He pursued with his work nevertheless. He wanted to clarify certain aspects of his book in later works. But his daughter fell ill and he accompanied her to a seaside resort. There he developed an interest in orchids and the process of pollination and cross fertilization.
Finally as the amount of his writings grew and grew, in 1871, he published ‘The Descent of Man, and The Selection in Relation to Sex’. In 1872 he published ‘The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals’. In this book he focused on the process of the evolution of man’s psychology and how it related to animal behavior. This was the birth of evolutionary psychology as we know it today. He also wrote a book titled ‘The Power of Movement in Plants’ where he focused on methods of fertilization in plants and also on the effect of earthworms in soil formation.
Charles Darwin died on the 19th of April, 1882. He is buried in Westminster Abbey, quite close to where John Herschel and Isaac Newton have been buried.