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Darwin, Charles Robert (1809 – 1882) English Naturalist

Charles Robert Darwin (1809 1882)
English naturalist

Darwin, an English biologist known for his theory of evolution , was born at Shrewsbury, England, on February 12, 1809. He was born on the same day and the same year as Abraham Lincoln, a coincidence that may alert American readers to Darwin's era. He studied, traveled, and published his famous On the Origin of Species (1859) just prior to the American Civil War.

Darwin's father was an affluent physician and his mother the daughter of the potter Josiah Wedgwood. Charles married Emma Wedgwood, his first cousin, in 1839. Due to his family's wealth, Darwin was made singularly free to pursue his interest in science.

Darwin entered Edinburgh to study medicine, but, as he described in his autobiography, lectures were "intolerably dull," human anatomy "disgusted" him, and he experienced "nausea" in seeing surgery. He subsequently entered Christ's College, Cambridge, to prepare for Holy Orders in the Church of England. While at Cambridge, Darwin became intensely interested in geology and botany, and because of his knowledge in these sciences he was asked to join the voyage of the HMS Beagle. Darwin's experiences during the circumnavigational trek of the Beagle were of seminal importance in his later views on evolution.

Darwin's On the Origin of Species is a monumental catalog of evidence that evolution occurs, together with the description of a mechanism that explains such evolution. This "abstract" of his notions on evolution was hurried to publication because of a letter Darwin received from Alfred Russell Wallace expressing similar views. Darwin's evidence for evolution was drawn from comparative anatomy, embryology, distribution of species , and the fossil record. He believed that species were not immutable but evolved into other species. But how? His theory of evolution by natural selection is based on the premise that species have a great reproductive capacity. The production of individuals in excess of the number that can survive creates a struggle for survival. Variation between individuals within a species was well documented. The struggle for survival, coupled with variation, led Darwin to postulate that those individuals with favorable variations would have an enhanced survival potential and hence would leave more progeny and this process would lead to new species. This notion is sometimes referred to as "survival of the fittest." While the theory of evolution by natural selection was revolutionary for its day, essentially all biologists in the late twentieth century accept Darwinian evolution as fact.

The first edition of the Origin had a printing of 1,250 copies. It sold out the first day. Darwin was an extraordinarily productive author for someone who considered himself to be a slow writer. Among his other books are Structure and Distribution of Coral Reef (1842), Geological Observations on Volcanic Islands (1844), On the Various Contrivances by which British and Foreign Orchids are Fertilized by Insects (1862), Insectivorous Plants (1875), and On the Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms (1881). The last book, of interest to ecologists and gardeners, was published only six months prior to Darwin's death.

Darwin died at age 73 and is buried next to Sir Isaac Newton at Westminster Abbey in London.

[Robert G. McKinnell ]


RESOURCES

BOOKS

Barlow, N. The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 18091882. With original omissions restored. Edited with appendix and notes by his granddaughter. New York: Norton, 1958.

Darwin, C. The Voyage of the Beagle. New York: Bantam Books, 1958. Peckham, M., ed. The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. A Variorum Text. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1959.

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