Childhood & Early Life
Charles Robert Darwin was born on 12 February 1809, in The Mount, Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England, to Robert Darwin and Susannah Darwin. His father was a doctor and financier by profession.
In his childhood, he developed an interest to explore nature. He received his basic education from ‘Anglican Shrewsbury School’ and then went on to attend the ‘University of Edinburgh Medical School.’
Uninspired by the teaching methods and interested in the subjects taught, he took to learning taxidermy from John Edmonstone. He registered himself at the ‘Plinian Society,’ a student natural history group. He first presented his discovery on March 27, 1827, at the ‘Plinian’ where he argued that the black spores found in oyster shells were in actuality the eggs of a skate leech.
He further studied classification of plants and worked with the ‘University Museum,’ one of the biggest museums in Europe. Meanwhile, his lack of interest in medical studies led his father to enroll him at the ‘Christ’s College’ to attain a BA degree.
He despised mainstream education and showed profound interest in botany. He became close to John Stevens Henslow who became his mentor. It was during this time that he capitalized on the opportunity to meet other naturalists.
He graduated with distinction in 1831. Thereafter, he devoted his time in reading books of natural history, including Paley's ‘Natural Theology,’ Alexander von Humboldt's ‘Personal Narrative,’ and John Herschel's book. Inspired by the books, he resolved to study natural history in the tropics.
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In August 1831, he received an offer from Henslow to join him as naturalist for a self-funded supernumerary place on ‘HMS Beagle.’ Darwin was eager to go on the journey as he knew it would change his life forever.
Captained by Robert FitzRoy, the ship embarked on a two-year journey (as planned) around the world. Though his father initially resented the idea, Darwin was later given the green signal. The voyage, which lasted for five years, proved to be a lifetime opportunity for him.
The journey commenced on December 27, 1831. While the ‘Beagle’ surveyed the coasts, he spent time on land, investigating geology and making natural history collection.
Over the course of the journey, he collected various specimens of birds, plants, and fossils, which he attached to the copy of his journal and sent across to Cambridge. This unique experience gave him an opportunity to observe closely the principles of botany, geology, and zoology.
He suffered from seasickness but did not let his sickness come in way of his research. His expertise in geology, handling beetles, and dissecting marine invertebrates assisted him. As for other sectors, he collected specimens for expert evaluation.
As ‘Beagle’ traversed through the coasts of South America, he theorized the geology of the place and the extinction of giant mammals. The Pacific Islands and Galapagos Archipelago were of particular interest to Darwin, as was South America.
The trip had a lasting impression on the mind of this budding naturalist who began to develop a revolutionary theory about the origin of all living beings. His theory contradicted the popular belief of other naturalists at the time.
After returning to England in 1936, he began to pen down his findings in a book titled ‘Journal and Remarks’ which was published later as part of Captain FitzRoy’s larger book ‘Narrative.’
The book gave the world several new beliefs and ideas. While the Galapagos birds were 12 separate species of finches, the armour fragments that he collected were actually from Glyptodon, a huge armadillo-like creature which was extinct.
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In no time, he joined the scientific elite and was elected to the Council of the Geological Society. While formerly he was working on the possibility of one species changing into another, he then started working on the variation in off-springs.
While reworking on the study of transmutation, he edited his previous work and published it as a multi-volume titled ‘Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle.’ However, the stress that accompanied his work took a toll on his wellbeing as he suffered from health concerns and was advised to put off his work.
In 1838, he took up the post of Secretary of the Geological Society. He made remarkable progress in transmutation, and never missed an opportunity to bombard the expert naturalists and field workers with questions.
His health gradually worsened and incapacitated him, which led to his moving to Scotland for a brief duration of time. Upon returning to London, he continued with his research.
On January 24, 1839, he was appointed Fellow of the Royal Society. By now, he had formed a theory of natural selection. In May 1839, FitzRoy’s ‘Narrative’ was finally published and with that Darwin’s work ‘Journal and Remarks’ too saw the light of the day. Such was the success of Darwin’s work that a third volume of ‘Journal and Remarks’ was published as a separate book.
In his book, he raised important question. He questioned expert naturalists about their beliefs of how species came into being. While some naturalists believed that the species existed from the very beginning, others stated that they evolved over a course of natural history. However, each one of them believed that species’ remained the same throughout.
Darwin contradicted these theories of naturalists by claiming that there were similarities among species all over the globe, variations being due to their varied locations.
He formed an opinion that species evolved through common ancestors. He claimed that species survived through a process called ‘natural selection.’ Those who survived had adapted to the changing requirements whilst the rest failed to evolve and reproduce and thus became extinct.
In 1858, after two decades of scientific investigation, he introduced his revolutionary ‘theory of evolution.’ The same was published as ‘On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection’ on November 24, 1859. The book was controversial as it claimed that homo-sapiens were simply another form of animals.
Personal Life & Legacy
He tied the nuptial knot with Emma Darwin in the year 1838. The couple was blessed with ten children out of whom two died in infancy. His beloved daughter Annie died at the age of ten. However, his other children went on to have distinguished careers.
He suffered from ill health throughout his life, which caused him periods of incapacity. In 1882, he was diagnosed with angina pectoris which caused coronary thrombosis and disease of the heart.
He died on April 19, 1882, due to angina attacks and heart failure. Though his body was to be buried at St Mary's churchyard in Downe, public and parliamentary petitioning led to his body being buried at Westminster Abbey, near the graves of John Herschel and Isaac Newton.