Changing Careers. Born in Shrewsbury, England, Charles Robert Darwin was the grandson of the innovative potter Josiah Wedgwood (1730–1795) and the noted scientist Erasmus Darwin (1731–1802). Educated initially in the classics, Charles Darwin entered the University of Edinburgh at age sixteen to study medicine but left two years later, before completing a degree. His family intervened, sending him to Christ’s College, Cambridge, in 1827 to study theology. Instead, however, Darwin turned to the field of study beloved of his grandfather Erasmus: the collection of plant, animal, and geological specimens.
Naturalist. Recognizing Darwin’s true vocation, Cambridge botanist John Stevens Henslow helped to get the young man a position as a naturalist on a surveying mission aboard the HMS Beagle. Between 1831 and 1836 the Beagle visited many exotic locations in and around South America, including the Galapagos Islands, and then continued across the South Pacific, eventually circumnavigating the globe. The voyage exposed Darwin to the flora, fauna, and geology of these little–known regions, providing him with a store of knowledge that he drew on for the rest of his life. On his return to England, Darwin immediately began to write up his findings in bits and pieces, earning an impressive reputation among the scientificcommunity. He waited to publish a theoretical explanation of his research until he could gather additional evidence and refine his ideas. Meanwhile, he lived a quiet country life, using his inherited wealth. He married his cousin Emma Wedgwood, raised a family of eight children, and devoted himself to science.
Evolution. Darwin was ultimately prompted to publish the essence of his theory by the news in 1858 that a younger man, English naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace (1823–1913), was about to circulate a paper thatset forth views analogous to his own. On 1 July Darwin’s and Wallace’s papers on evolution were read to the Linnaean Society, and they were proclaimed co-originators of the theory of evolution. Darwin’s paper was the basis for his epoch–making On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection; or, the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1859). Darwin’s basic goal was to describe how different animals could have descended from common ancestors, leading to thevast diversity of existing plants and animals. He argued that species changed, sometimes over millions of years. The process by which this evolution took place caused variations to occur randomly among individuals in a species. These variations gave rise to advantages and disadvantages that influenced survival rates. Through a process called natural selection, the most original of Darwin’s views, the individuals of a species that were best adapted to their environment reproduced at a greater rate, therebyaccelerating divergence from the norm and, over the long run, leading to changes in the whole species. Darwin also described a process he called specialization, through which variations in a species emerged as adaptations to diverse environmental conditions. Darwin applied his theories to humankind in The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871), in which he postulated that humans evolved from a hairy, ape–like animalclosely related to the progenitors of the orangutan, chimpanzee, and gorilla. The common origin of these monkeys and human beings, he said, explainedresemblances in physical features and even some methods of social interaction.
A Moral Controversy. The idea that species evolved through natural selection aroused a storm of protest in 1859 because it contradicted the version of creation in the Book of Genesis and Judeo–Christian convictions regarding the age of the earth. Darwin argued that the earth was millions of years old, not six thousand years old, as the Roman Catholic Church postulated. Although the scientific community adopted Darwin’s conclusions rapidly, the general population of the Western world remained much more skeptical. The outcry in 1871 was even greater as a host of religious figures and moralists expressed horror at the notion of mankind’s descent from an animal and the close relationship between humans and monkeys. Debate over “the descent of man,” natural selection, and evolution was perhaps the most bitterly contested intellectual battle of the nineteenth century.
Social Darwinism. Darwin’s views on the evolution of species were applied by men such as English philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) to groups within human-kind—classes, nations, or “races”—an application Darwin explicitly repudiated. Known as “Social Darwinists,” these philosophers believed that “survival of the fittest” determined social, economic, and political status, contributing to the growth of ultranationalism, imperialism, and “scientific racism” in the late nineteenth century. Though Social Darwinism has been largely repudiated, Darwin’s own explanation of biological diversity through evolution is now accepted by an overwhelming majority of the scientific community.
Philip Appleman, ed., Darwin: A Norton Critical Edition New York: Norton, 1970).
Peter J. Bowler, Charles Darwin: The Man and His Influence (Oxford & Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1990).
Janet Browne, Charles Darwin: A Biography (New York: Knopf, 1995).