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A short biography of Charles Darwin


Charles Darwin - 1809 to 1882

This is a short, impartial introduction to Darwin's life and work, with links to a more detailed web site and ideas for further reading.

The young Darwin

Charles Darwin was the son of a successful doctor in Shrewsbury, a market town on the border between England and north Wales. His grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, was also a physician, and had been well known as a poet and author of an early work on evolution. Charles' mother, Susanna Wedgwood, was a daughter of the founder of the famous Wedgwood pottery. She died when he was eight years old and his older sisters took him in charge. From the age of nine to sixteen he attended a local school, where his performance was only average. In his autobiography he says that his taste for natural history and for collecting was well developed by the time he went to school.

Some of his happiest times as a boy and young man were spent at the home of his uncle, Josiah Wedgwood and his family of four daughters at their estate at Maer, 20 miles from Shrewsbury. Charles enjoyed the cheerful family parties, the music and particularly the outdoor activities, walking, riding, shooting and fishing. When he was sixteen his father sent him to join his older brother Erasmus who was studying medicine at Edinburgh. Darwin found the lectures dull, dissection disgusted him and he could not bear to watch operations, which were then performed without anaesthetic. He also realised that his father would leave him comfortably provided for, and this lessened his urge to settle into a profession.

However his father did not want him to become an idle sporting man, and sent him to Cambridge to read classics with a view to becoming a clergyman. At Cambridge he was not much interested in classics or theology, but became friendly with Professor Henslow, who had an interest in all aspects of natural history. He learned much from him and from Professor Sedgwick, an eminent geologist, who took him as his assistant on an expedition to study the rocks of North Wales.

The Voyage of the Beagle

Just after Charles had completed his degree Professor Henslow was invited to travel on a voyage of exploration to South America. He declined because he had a family but recommended Darwin. Charles wanted to go very much, he had already been influenced by the narratives of Alexander von Humboldt, a German naturalist whose accounts of his travels in South America were famous, but Dr Darwin thought it was time for his son to settle down. However he did say that if Charles could find one sensible man who thought that he should go then he would reconsider. The next day Charles was due to visit his uncle, and when Josiah was told he immediately came down to Shrewsbury and persuaded Dr Darwin to change his mind and to finance his son for the proposed three year voyage. Charles was not employed as a naturalist, he was a gentleman companion to Captain Fitzroy, and Darwin's father paid for his passage and all the expense of making a natural history collection and sending specimens back to England. Darwin had never been to sea before he set sail on the Beagle in December 1831. He was 22 years old when he embarked on this voyage which lasted for five years and two days.

HMS Beagle was a wooden sailing ship, 90 feet long which housed 74 people. It set off on December 1831. The captain, Fitzroy, was only twenty six and it was his first command. He had sailed as an officer on the Beagle's last expedition when the captain had committed suicide. Fitzroy knew there was mental instability in his own family, and he thought that a gentleman companion might help to relieve the loneliness and strain of being captain on the long voyage. Fitzroy was a good seaman, respected by the crew, and a brilliant surveyor, whose charts of the South American coast were in use until the second world war, but he was volatile and subject to mood swings. However the young men got on reasonably well most of the time, Fitzroy helped Charles to adjust to life on board, and Darwin, who was pleasant and easy to like, became popular with the other officers and the men. Later in the voyage one of the crew, Syms Covington, became his assistant in collecting and preparing specimens.

Charles suffered throughout the five years of the voyage from terrible sea sickness. Fortunately he spent much of the time on land, exploring South America, collecting plants, animals and fossils, and studying the geology. The ship also visited the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific ocean, New Zealand, Australia and the Cape of Good Hope.

Darwin writes a book and gets married

On his return he lived in London and was occupied in preparing his journal, The Voyage of the Beagle, for publication. It is lively and interesting and was very successful. Darwin was also occupied in arranging for the vast number of specimens which he had collected to be catalogued. Professor Henslow was very helpful in this, and Professor Sedgewick was very impressed with the geological researches undertaken by his young pupil.

In 1839, when he was 30 years old, Darwin married his cousin Emma, one of Josiah Wedgwood's daughters, and after a few years they moved to Down House, a large house in the country to the south of London. They had ten children, seven of which survived into adulthood.

Darwin's illness

After he returned from the voyage on the Beagle Darwin started to suffer from bouts of illness: sickness, palpitations, indigestion, anxiety and weakness. After he married he went less and less into society because of poor health. There is no way of proving the cause of his illness after all this time, but it seems likely that there was a psychological element in his suffering. He took the fashionable cold water cures but remained ill for much of his adult life. It has been suggested that he suffered from a chronic tropical disease, Chagas  disease, or that he suffered from a conflict between his work on evolution, which was deeply disturbing to the religious certainties that underpinned society, and to his own conservative nature. The most recent diagnosis which has been suggested is lactose intolerance, a condition which prevents the sufferer from digesting lactose, the sugar in milk. This gives rise to symptoms of indigestion, flatulence, colic and tiredness. It tends to be familial and other members of Darwin's family suffered from the same symptoms. Of course it is quite possible that he suffered from Chagas disease, lactose intolerance and also anxiety during the course of his long life.  Anxiety may also have been the result rather than the cause of his physical symptoms. His work also conflicted with his wife's devout religious beliefs, but she supported him throughout his life. Darwin maintained that although he slowly lost his faith in Christianity, he remained a Theist, a believer in God, though it is obvious that his conception of God must have been rather different from the Victorian establishment's idea of  the Deity.

Work and Family

Because of his health problems Darwin lived a regular and quiet life at home, and this conveniently allowed him to devote all his time to his own researches and to his family. He was always an affectionate and approachable father and husband, not at all the typical stiff Victorian paterfamilias. He never had a profession, he was supported by his father's wealth and he could have chosen to be a gentleman of leisure, but instead he turned Down House into a workplace, his study was a laboratory and office, and the gardens and greenhouses were given over to experiments and observations of all sorts performed by Darwin and his gardeners, with assistance from his family and also from a vast company of correspondents to whom he applied for information in their particular fields. His journey round the world had left him wondering about the relationship between species, between enormous fossils that resembled smaller living animals, between species on the mainland that differed from those on neighbouring island, between the finches on the Galapagos islands which had differently shaped beaks although they were otherwise identical. What was a species? How had the different races and species developed? Over what time? He was very much influenced by the work of the geologist Charles Lyell, whose books he had taken on his voyage, and whose researches had indicated that the time scale of the development of earth was vastly more than the 6000 years postulated by those who thought that the Biblical account of creation was a record of fact rather than a spiritual allegory.

He was full of speculations, some of which he shared with his friend Joseph Hooker, who collected and classified many plants from around the world for Kew Gardens. Darwin got from Hooker the idea that he should do some serious work on classification to focus his ideas and support his speculations. He had one bottle of unclassified specimens left from the Beagle voyage, and he plucked from this a parasitic barnacle. He found this so interesting that he decided to study other barnacles, and the study and classification of living and fossil barnacles occupied him for eight years. He exchanged letters with Hooker, describing the miniature males parasitic on some hermaphrodite barnacles, Hooker in turn wrote back with details of the tribes of Nepal where women often had two husbands. Darwin's studies of barnacles, published in two volumes, helped in his research on the origin of species and also gave him credibility with his peers as a serious biologist.

He read widely, and one of the books that influenced him was Malthus's Essay on the Principle of Population. Malthus observed that the possible rate of increase in the population would lead to famine unless there were checks on the population. Darwin saw that in nature it must be the same, that many more offspring were born than could survive, and those that survived might well have particular characteristics which assisted in their survival. If these characteristics were passed on to their offspring a species might gradually change to fit a particular environmental situation.

The Origin of Species and other works

20 years after he started to investigate the origin of species and develop his theory of natural selection he was startled to receive a paper from a young naturalist in Malaya, Alfred Russell Wallace, who had come to much the same conclusions as Darwin on the origin of species. Darwin consulted Lyell and Hooker who put Russell's paper and a short paper by Darwin jointly to the Linnaean Society. These papers were received without much comment. Then Darwin wrote an short account of his research to date, rather than the extensive scientific volumes which he had planned but never written, ostensibly because his researches were not complete, but also because he hesitated to face the controversy that he knew his views would provoke. The Origin of Species, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life, was published in 1859, when Darwin was fifty. It began with an account of pigeon breeding, something that was very popular at that time. The book was an immediate success, in spite of being, as the author put it, 'a stiff read'.

It was not the first work to explore evolutionary ideas; for as well as the work by his own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, there were books by Lamark and another published anonymously by a journalist entitled The Vestiges of Creation. However these books contained more speculation than hard evidence. Darwin's book was buttressed by a large amount of research. It starts quietly with a chapter on breeding pigeons, draws attention to the tremendous variety of form produced by breeding, and then moves on to his theory of natural selection and evidence for this. This was a serious challenge to the fundamentalist theology of the time, and aroused a good deal of controversy. However Darwin took no part in this, living the life of an invalid and working hard at Down House. The cudgels were taken up with great gusto by Thomas Huxley, who relished challenging bishops and their followers. Inevitably, since it dealt with what it means to be human, Darwin's work was taken up and interpreted, or misinterpreted, by many groups with their own political, social or religious agendas. Darwin stood aside, writing to one correspondent that he could hardly stop writers from taking his views," to a greater length than seems to me safe."

In 1871 he published the Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, in which he put forward his ideas on how sexual selection had influenced the evolution of man, and in 1872 he published The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, an original and intriguing look at the ways in which humans and animals express fear, love, grief and rage. He corresponded with people all over the world and asked them to collect data for him, he was the centre of a  web of information gathered from many different sources and he wove a vast amount of facts into these books. He also wrote a number of works on plants, assisted by his gardeners at Down House, and a few years before he died he started work on his final book on worms.

Old Age, Worms and Death

When Darwin was young his uncle Josiah had observed to Dr Darwin that Charles was ' a man of enlarged curiosity,' and this is still evident in his last book: The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms, with Observations on their Habits. It is a delightful book. Do worms hear? To find out he asked his family to play the bassoon, the flute and the piano to them. Are they intelligent? He stayed up at night with his son Francis to observe how they dragged leaves into their burrows, and whether some leaves were preferred over others. How quickly might they bury stones in a field, Roman ruins, or the megaliths of Stonehenge? He enlisted the support of family and friends to investigate. He was old, and sick, and immensely famous, but he still looked at worms with the curiosity of a child. He died a year after this book was published, and in spite of the fact that his work had often been seen as controversial and even heretical he was given a state funeral and buried in Westminster Abbey.

Even if Darwin had not published his work on evolution, he would still have been a great naturalist, but he is remembered chiefly for The Origin of Species. The book was, he said, one long argument, and people are still arguing even though evolutionary theory has developed vigorously as scientific knowledge has increased. But science is still an exploration of the unknown, in which new developments, such as the unveiling of the human genome, do not give final answers but reveal new landscapes for investigation and new platforms for arguments.

Competition and co-operation

Darwin's work on evolutionary theory is often seen as promoting the advantages of competition, but paradoxically if we look at his working methods these are an illustration of the importance of co-operation. As I have already indicated, his correspondence requesting data to test his theories was enormous, and his work is buttressed by contributions from many other people.  His work on the Beagle voyage, for example, needed the co operation of the the crew and people in the countries he visited who put their knowledge and expertise at his disposal, and many  scientists sorted and catalogued all the material he sent back to England. For  the Origin of Species he collected data for many years from many sources, his book on the Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals incorporated data and photographs from correspondents from all over the world.  He could not have achieved all that he did without the co-operation of others. Although he was the individual who  collected and integrated all the information into a evolutionary theory, his work was also a co-operative endeavour, and that co-operation reached across countries, and across racial and social divisions.

To find out more about Darwin

If you want to know more about Darwin, there are hundreds of other web sites, I think the best one is which is well designed, has lots of detail, photographs and links to other relevant sites. On this site there is also a simple guide to evolution which is a short history of evolutionary ideas There are other essays on the perceptions of the world by scientists and poets. 'Unsung by Singers' considers the scarcity of poems on science. and 'Space with Wordsworth' explores the idea that science is hostile to poetry.  

There are many books on Darwin, in my opinion the best is Janet Browne's two volume biography, 'Voyaging' and 'The Power of Place'. Although it is a long read, and is based on much scholarly research into his life, it is very readable and takes you as far as is possible into Darwin's world as he experienced it. Many of Darwin's own books are still worth reading, The Origin of Species, The Voyage of the Beagle and the Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals are still in print, The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms is out of print, but second hand copies are available. If you would like to buy any of these books on line or look for other books on or by Darwin  you can connect to the Amazon  UK  Books Home Page .

 Anne Bryan    

You may  print any work by Anne Bryan on this or any other page of the web site for your own use or to pass on to a friend, and you may also quote Anne's work in assignments as long as the source is acknowledged. Please don't copy anything from this web site into magazines, newsletters or other web sites without permission or acknowledgement.  Ask for permission by E mail  

    Any comments, criticism, feedback?    Send me an  E mail    Anne Bryan

Back to Strange Attractor homepage

Darwin biography, as impartial as I can make it, without  fundamentalist 'religious' disapproval or overzealous 'scientific' trumpeting of his work.

A Simple Guide to Evolution - a short history of evolutionary ideas
'Unsung by Singers'  considers the scarcity of poems on science.
A Flash of Golden Fire considers the love of nature with reference to a poem by Coleridge, travel writing by the explorer Mungo Park and a sci-fi novel by Philip K Dick.