Charles Darwin

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1816 portrait of Charles Darwin
Late 1830s portrait of Charles Darwin
1842: Charles Darwin (age 33) and his son William
1854 photograph of Charles Darwin
1855 photograph of Charles Darwin
1868 photograph of Charles Darwin
1874 photograph of Charles Darwin
1881 portrait of Charles Darwin
Map of the Voyage of the Beagle, a circumnavigation travel with Charles Darwin.
Late 1830s water-color of Emma Darwin, his wife.
1849: Annie Darwin, daughter of Charles and Emma Darwin.

Charles Robert Darwin (February 12, 1809 - April 19, 1882) was an English naturalist. After becoming eminent among scientists for his field work and inquiries into geology, he proposed and provided scientific evidence that all species of life have evolved over time from one or a few common ancestors through the process of natural selection. The fact that evolution occurs became accepted by the scientific community and the general public in his lifetime, while his theory of natural selection came to be widely seen as the primary explanation of the process of evolution in the 1930s, and now forms the basis of modern evolutionary theory. In modified form, Darwin's scientific discovery remains the foundation of biology, as it provides a unifying logical explanation for the diversity of life.

Darwin himself didn't act alone on his ideas. Alfred Russel Wallace worked on many papers with Darwin, sharing theories with him.[1] Wallace even gave Darwin his ideas because Darwin described natural selection as being analogous to the artificial selection practised by animal breeders, and emphasised competition between individuals; Wallace drew no comparison to selective breeding, and focused on ecological pressures that kept different varieties adapted to local conditions. The standard Darwinian model was actually based on Wallace's idea.[2][3][4] Wallace is best known for independently conceiving the theory of evolution through natural selection; his paper on the subject was jointly published with some of Charles Darwin's writings in 1858.[5] Wallace did extensive fieldwork, first in the Amazon River basin[6] and then in the Malay Archipelago.[7]

Despite repeated bouts of illness during the last twenty-two years of his life, Darwin pressed on with his work. He had published an abstract of his theory, but more controversial aspects of his "big book" were still incomplete, including explicit evidence of humankind's descent from earlier animals, and exploration of possible causes underlying the development of society and of human mental abilities. He had yet to explain features with no obvious utility other than decorative beauty. His experiments, research and writing continued.

When Darwin's daughter fell ill, he set aside his experiments with seedlings and domestic animals to accompany her to a seaside resort where he became interested in wild orchids. This developed into an innovative study of how their beautiful flowers served to control insect pollination and ensure cross fertilization. As with the barnacles, homologous parts served different functions in different species. Back at home, he lay on his sickbed in a room filled with experiments on climbing plants. A reverent Ernst Haeckel who had spread the gospel of Darwinismus in Germany visited him. Wallace remained supportive, though he increasingly turned to spiritualism.

Variation of Plants and Animals Under Domestication, the first part of Darwin's planned "big book" (expanding on his "abstract" published as the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life), grew to two huge volumes, forcing him to leave out human evolution and sexual selection, and sold briskly despite its size.[97] A further book of evidence, dealing with natural selection in the same style, was largely written, but remained unpublished until transcribed in 1975.

The question of human evolution had been taken up by his supporters (and detractors) shortly after the publication of The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, but Darwin's own contribution to the subject came more than ten years later with the two-volume The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex published in 1871. In the second volume, Darwin introduced in full his concept of sexual selection to explain the evolution of human culture, the differences between the human sexes, and the differentiation of human races, as well as the beautiful (and seemingly non-adaptive) plumage of birds. A year later Darwin published his last major work, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, which focused on the evolution of human psychology and its continuity with the behaviour of animals. He developed his ideas that the human mind and cultures were developed by natural and sexual selection, an approach which has been revived in the last three decades with the emergence of evolutionary psychology. As he concluded in Descent of Man, Darwin felt that, despite all of humankind's "noble qualities" and "exalted powers": "Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin."

His evolution-related experiments and investigations culminated in books on the movement of climbing plants, insectivorous plants, the effects of cross and self fertilisation of plants, different forms of flowers on plants of the same species, and The Power of Movement in Plants. In his last book, he returned to the effect earthworms have on soil formation.

He died in Downe, Kent, England, on 19 April 1882. He had expected to be buried in St Mary's churchyard at Downe, but at the request of Darwin's colleagues, William Spottiswoode (President of the Royal Society) arranged for Darwin to be given a state funeral and buried in Westminster Abbey, close to John Herschel and Isaac Newton.


Charles Darwin came from a wealthy family. His father, Robert Darwin, was a 33rd degree Freemason. His grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, was also a Freemason.[8][9] Erasmus published theories on evolution that eventually gave rise to Darwin's.[10]

Darwin's Children

The Darwins had ten children: two died in infancy, and Annie's death at the age of ten had a devastating effect on her parents. Charles was a devoted father and uncommonly attentive to his children. Whenever they fell ill he feared that they might have inherited weaknesses from inbreeding due to the close family ties he shared with his wife and cousin, Emma Wedgwood. He examined this topic in his writings, contrasting it with the advantages of crossing amongst many organisms. Despite his fears, most of the surviving children went on to have distinguished careers as notable members of the prominent Darwin-Wedgwood family.

Of his surviving children, George, Francis and Horace became Fellows of the Royal Society, distinguished as astronomer, botanist and civil engineer, respectively. His son Leonard, on the other hand, went on to be a soldier, politician, economist, eugenicist and mentor of the statistician and evolutionary biologist Ronald Fisher.

Religious Views

Though Charles Darwin's family background was Nonconformist, and his father, grandfather and brother were Freethinkers, at first he did not doubt the literal truth of the Bible. He attended a Church of England school, then at Cambridge studied Anglican theology to become a clergyman.He was convinced by William Paley's teleological argument that design in nature proved the existence of God, but during the Beagle voyage he questioned, for example, why beautiful deep-ocean creatures had been created where no one could see them, or how the ichneumon wasp paralysing caterpillars as live food for its eggs could be reconciled with Paley's vision of beneficent design. He was still quite orthodox and would quote the Bible as an authority on morality, but did not trust the history in the Old Testament.

When investigating transmutation of species he knew that his naturalist friends thought this a bestial heresy undermining miraculous justifications for the social order, the kind of radical argument then being used by Dissenters and atheists to attack the Church of England's privileged position as the established church. Though Darwin wrote of religion as a tribal survival strategy, he still believed that God was the ultimate lawgiver. His belief dwindled, and with the death of his daughter Annie in 1851, Darwin finally lost all faith in Christianity, despite being a Christian for most of his life. He continued to help the local church with parish work, but on Sundays would go for a walk while his family attended church. He now thought it better to look at pain and suffering as the result of general laws rather than direct intervention by God. When asked about his religious views, he wrote that he had never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God, and that generally "an Agnostic would be the more correct description of my state of mind."

The "Lady Hope Story", published in 1915, claimed that Darwin had reverted back to Christianity on his sickbed. The claims were refuted by Darwin's children and have been dismissed as false by historians. His daughter, Henrietta, who was at his deathbed, said that he did not convert to Christianity. His last words were, in fact, directed at Emma: "Remember what a good wife you have been."

Political Interpretations

Darwin's theories and writings, combined with Gregor Mendel's genetics (the "modern synthesis"), form the basis of all modern biology.[124] However, Darwin's fame and popularity led to his name being associated with ideas and movements which at times had only an indirect relation to his writings, and sometimes went directly against his express comments.


Following Darwin's publication of the Origin, his cousin, Francis Galton, applied the concepts to human society, starting in 1865 with ideas to promote "hereditary improvement" which he elaborated at length in 1869. In The Descent of Man Darwin agreed that Galton had demonstrated the probability that "talent" and "genius" in humans was inherited, but dismissed the social changes Galton proposed as too utopian. Neither Galton nor Darwin supported government intervention and thought that, at most, heredity should be taken into consideration by people seeking potential mates. In 1883, after Darwin's death, Galton began calling his social philosophy Eugenics.

Social Darwinism

The ideas of Thomas Malthus and Herbert Spencer which applied ideas of evolution and "survival of the fittest" to societies, nations and businesses became popular in the late 19th and early 20th century, and were used to defend various, sometimes contradictory, ideological perspectives including laissez-faire economics, colonialism, and imperialism. The term "Social Darwinism" originated around the 1890s, but became popular as a derogatory term in the 1940s with Richard Hofstadter's critique of laissez-faire conservatism. The concepts predate Darwin's publication of the Origin in 1859: Malthus died in 1834 and Spencer published his books on economics in 1851 and on evolution in 1855.


During Darwin's lifetime, many species and geographical features were given his name. An expanse of water adjoining the Beagle Channel was named Darwin Sound by Robert FitzRoy after Darwin's prompt action, along with two or three of the men, saved them from being marooned on a nearby shore when a collapsing glacier caused a large wave that would have swept away their boats, and the nearby Mount Darwin in the Andes was named in celebration of Darwin's 25th birthday. When the Beagle was surveying Australia in 1839, Darwin's friend John Lort Stokes sighted a natural harbour which the ship's captain Wickham named Port Darwin. The settlement of Palmerston founded there in 1869 was officially renamed Darwin in 1911. It became the capital city of Australia's Northern Territory, which also boasts Charles Darwin University and Charles Darwin National Park. Darwin College, Cambridge, founded in 1964, was named in honour of the Darwin family, partially because they owned some of the land it was on.

The 14 species of finches he collected in the Galápagos Islands are affectionately named "Darwin's Finches" in honour of his legacy. In 1992, Darwin was ranked #16 on Michael H. Hart's list of the most influential figures in history. Darwin came fourth in the 100 Greatest Britons poll sponsored by the BBC and voted for by the public. In 2000 Darwin's image appeared on the Bank of England ten pound note, replacing Charles Dickens. His impressive, luxuriant beard (which was reportedly difficult to forge) was said to be a contributory factor to the bank's choice.

As a humorous celebration of evolution, the annual Darwin Award is bestowed on individuals who "improve our gene pool by removing themselves from it."

Darwin has been the subject of many exhibitions, including the "Darwin" exhibition organised by the American Museum of Natural History in New York City in 2006 and shown in various cities in the US. Numerous biographies of Darwin have appeared, and the 1980 biographical novel The Origin by Irving Stone gives a closely researched fictional account of Darwin's life from the age of 22 onwards.


Darwin was a prolific author, and even without publication of his works on evolution would have had a considerable reputation as the author of The Voyage of the Beagle, as a geologist who had published extensively on South America and had solved the puzzle of the formation of coral atolls, and as a biologist who had published the definitive work on barnacles. While the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life dominates perceptions of his work, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex and The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals had considerable impact, and his books on plants including The Power of Movement in Plants were innovative studies of great importance, as was his final work on The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms.

His writings are currently available at The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online – the Table of Contents provides links to all of his publications, including alternative editions, contributions to books & periodicals, correspondence, life and letters, autobiography, as well as a complete bibliography and catalogue of his manuscripts. The works are free to read, but not public domain, and include publications still under copyright. For unencumbered versions of his major works, see Works by Charles Darwin at Project Gutenberg.


See also


  1. Darwin Correspondence Project – Letter 2285—Darwin to Lyell (June 1858), retrieved 15 March 2008 
  2. Larson 2004, pp. 74–75
  3. Quammen 2006, pp. 162–163
  4. Bowler 2003, pp. 175–176
  5. Wallace, Alfred. "On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely From the Original Type". The Alfred Russel Wallace Page hosted by Western Kentucky University. Archived from the original on 29 April 2007. Retrieved 22 April 2007. 
  6. Wallace, Alfred Russel (1855). "On the Law Which has Regulated the Introduction of Species". The Alfred Russel Wallace Page hosted by Western Kentucky University. Archived from the original on 28 April 2007. Retrieved 8 May 2007. 
  7. "University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge | Historical significance". 18 April 2009. Retrieved 13 March 2013. 
  10. Allen, Richard C. 1999. David Hartley on human nature. Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press. ISBN 0-7914-4233-0

External links

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