(12 February 1809 – 19 April 1882)
Charles Robert Darwin is arguably Britain’s greatest contributor to science and his ‘On the Origin of Species’ changed the way we think about life on earth. The theory of evolution has been repeatedly confirmed by evidence and continues to shape our understanding of biology.
Darwin was born in Shrewsbury into a scientific family, being grandson of Erasmus Darwin, doctor, naturalist and member of the Lunar Society, and of Josiah Wedgwood, potter and industrialist. He studied medicine at Edinburgh 1825-7 with freethinking naturalist Robert Edmond Grant, who imparted he evolutionary theories of Lamarck and St Hilaire.
Voyage of the Beagle
At Cambridge University, where he went to study divinity, his biological studies were encouraged by botanist John Stevens Henslow, who recommended him as travelling companion to the aristocratic captain Robert Fitzroy who was fitting out his ship The Beagle for a two-year scientific survey of the coast of South America.
The voyage extended to a circumnavigation lasting 5 years (1831-36). Darwin took with him the first part of the new Principles of Geology by Charles Lyell, and was sent the other parts while travelling. He spent much time ashore and sent back many specimens so that by the time of his return he was well-known in scientific circles in London.
Over the next ten years Darwin published a series of works that established his reputation as a sound scientist in both geology and biology, married his cousin Emma Wedgwood in 1836, and took up official appointments including to the Royal Society, while living in Gower Street, London. In 1842 retired from all this to the quiet of Down House in the Kent countryside.
On the Origin of Species
Here he concentrated on developing his theory of the mechanism of evolution, which was already in outline. But he was only persuaded to publish when Alfred Russel Wallace sent him a paper that expounded similar ideas. Their papers were read, by colleagues, at the Linnean Society in 1858, but had little immediate effect. Darwin shelved his plan for a multivolume work and condensed his argument into one volume On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection published in November 1859.
This was met with immediate approval in radical circles, stirred controversy among scientists, and consternation among the religious.
When going to Cambridge University to become an Anglican clergyman, Darwin did not doubt the literal truth of the Bible and on board the Beagle, he was quite orthodox in his beliefs.
But by his return he was critical of the Bible as history; natural selection produced the good of adaptation but removed the need for design.
He considered it ‘absurd to doubt that a man might be an ardent theist and an evolutionist’ and in 1879 wrote that ‘I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God. – I think that generally … an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.’
Claims published in 1915 that Darwin had reverted back to Christianity on his sickbed were repudiated by his children and have been dismissed as false by historians.
Darwin is buried in Westminster Abbey, London.