Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin was born in Shrewsbury, England, on 12th February 1809. He was one of six children. His father, Robert Darwin, was a physician, and his mother, Susannah Wedgwood, was a member of the famous pottery family. Although his family were Unitarians, Charles was baptized in the local Anglican Church. His mother died in 1817, and the following year Darwin became a boarder at Shrewsbury School, Then, in 1825, he entered Edinburgh University with the intention of following in his father’s footsteps, and becoming a physician, but found medicine little to his taste. He spent most of his time at Edinburgh riding and studying the marine invertebrates, which were to be found in the estuary of the River Forth. Dismayed by the lack of attention to his studies, his father took him away from Edinburgh, and suggested that he train to become an Anglican clergyman instead. Darwin agreed to this, and went up to Cambridge, where he expected to take a BA prior to training for the priesthood. Whilst he was there he met, for the first time, the botanist John Stevens Henslow, who was to become a lifelong friend. With the help of his cousin (also an undergraduate) he also became involved in the latest craze of beetle collecting. Darwin didn’t completely forget his original reason for going to Cambridge, and, towards the end of his time there, he read William Paley’s Evidences of Christianity, with which, said he, he was greatly impressed.

After graduating in 1831, Darwin accompanied Adam Sedgwick, a geology professor, on a tour of Wales; at the same time acquiring a rudimentary knowledge of geology. Later that year HMS Beaglewas due to sail on a hydrographic expedition off the coast of South America, and its captain (Robert Fitzroy) was looking for a companion to accompany him on the trip. The Admiralty first of all approached Henslow. He had other commitments, and referred them on to Darwin, who received a letter from Henslow stating that he was “the very man they are in search of.” At first his father was reluctant to fund the trip, but was persuaded to do so by Darwin’s uncle, Josiah Wedgwood. So it was that on 27th December 1831 Charles Darwin set sail for the southern oceans, not to return until October 1836.

During the voyage Darwin sent back regular reports and samples to Henslow in Cambridge, and by the time he arrived back in England he was already something of a celebrity amongst his friends and acquaintances. Upon landing in Falmouth he travelled to Shropshire to see his family, staying with them ten days. Then, after a brief detour via London, to settle debts from the voyage, Darwin went to Cambridge to see Henslow. Henslow was able to offer advice regarding the people best consulted for help in classifying his specimens. During his time in Edinburgh Darwin had acquired some expertise with marine invertebrates, so he felt able to reserve work on them to himself.

In 1838 Darwin became engaged to his cousin Emma Wedgwood. They married in 1839, and, a couple of years later, relocated to Down in Kent. By the late 1830’s Darwin had begun to lose his faith, and the painful death of his daughter Annie in 1851 seems to have completed the process. His wife Emma, on the other hand, was a strong believer throughout her life, and for her Darwin’s growing disbelief was a source of disquiet. After about 1840 Charles would go for a walk on a Sunday morning, whilst Emma and the children were at the local Anglican church.

Origin of the Species was published in 1859, and the year, 1860, saw the famous debate between Bishop (“Soapy Sam”) Wilberforce and Thomas Huxley on the subject of evolution. Darwin himself was unable to attend due to the ill health which seems to have dominated the last 30 years of his life. It has been known since the nineteen seventies that the account of that meeting which has passed into urban legend is largely a work of fiction; being the work of a late 19th century’s equivalent of a “tabloid journalist”. According to this journalist, writing under the pen name “Grandmother” in MacMillan’s Magazine,Wilberforce is supposed to have asked Huxley whether “it was through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed his descent from a monkey?” and Huxley is supposed to have replied, “He was not ashamed to have a monkey for his ancestor; but he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used his great gifts to obscure the truth.” The problem with that version of events is that contemporary accounts of the meeting make no mention of that exchange ever having taken place. A few months prior to the meeting Wilberforce published a review of Darwin’s Origin of the Speciesin the Quarterly Review, and Darwin himself was led to remark that the criticisms made were “uncommonly clever”. He addressed them in his later work.

The Origin of the Species, went through six English editions prior to Charles Darwin’s death on 19th April 1882. For much of his later life Darwin had suffered from a mysterious illness, the exact nature of which has been the subject of much speculation ever since, but the symptoms immediately prior to his death suggest that he died from coronary thrombosis.

Although the theory of evolution has become uniquely identified with the name of Charles Darwin, as so often in the history of science there are numerous other names which deserve a mention. Darwin’s contribution was to refine existing theories, adding insights of his own, and gaining for the theory the general acceptance in the scientific community which it had so far lacked. Darwin himself made no attempt to hide his indebtedness to the work and ideas of men such as Charles Lyell, Jean-BaptisteLamarck, Alfred Russell Wallace and his grandfather Erasmus Darwin.

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