Charles Darwin


Charles Darwin, an English naturalist, was born on February 12th, 1809. He established that all species of life have descended over time from common ancestry, and proposed the scientific theory that this branching pattern of evolution resulted from a process that he called natural selection. Generally regarded as the most prominent of the nineteenth-century evolutionary theorists, Charles Darwin is primarly known for his On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection which he published in 1859. 

Darwin's early interest in nature led him to neglect his medical education at the University of Edinburgh; instead, he helped to investigate marine invertebrates. Studies at the University of Cambridge encouraged his passion for natural science. 

His five year voyage on the HMS Beagle established him as an eminent geologist and the publication of his journal of the voyage also made him a famous author. In the work, Darwin identified genetic mutation and natural selection as the mechanisms that controlled the development of species. His theory introduced the concept of ever-present competitive struggle in nature, thereby decentering the commonly held Romantic view of nature as a benign, even benevolent force, and pushed the role of God to the margins of human existence on earth. Although one of many contributors to the field of evolutionary biology, Darwin is commonly associated with the popular acceptance of evolutionary theory. 

The voyage opened up a new curiosity for Darwin who began to ponder the geographical distribution of wildlife and the fossils that he would collect during the voyage. Darwin began detailed investigations and that is where the theory of natural selection was conceived. His phrase “natural selection refers to certain individuals of a species surviving better, and / or reproducing more successfully, than competing individuals of the same species under natural condition. In effect, the natural processes of differential survival and reproduction do the selecting. If the conditions change, different types of individuals may now survive or reproduce better and become “naturally selected” with the result that the population undergoes evolutionary change. 

The whole theory of evolution was kept secret for over a decade as it was being formulated in private but he dared not unleash it on the public until the time was right. The idea that mankind was descended from the beasts would, he knew, be viewed as heretical and arrogant by Victorian society, and he didn't want to risk personal disgrace and the widespread dismissal of his work. He decided to bide his time at Down House, a former parsonage in an isolated village in Kent - the "extreme edge of the world", he called it - where he would live and work for the rest of his life. 

Throughout the latter part of his life, Darwin's health was poor. He suffered from stomach pains, heart palpitations, severe boils, headaches, and other symptoms; the cause of his illness is unknown, but it seems to have been brought on by overwork during his London years, and it was clearly exacerbated by stress. As a result, Darwin maintained a quiet, monkish life at Down House, with his day structured around a few concentrated bursts of work, broken up set periods of walking, napping, reading, and letter writing. 

The first, and best of his work periods began at 8:00 in the morning, after Darwin had taken a short walk and had a solitary breakfast. Following ninety minutes of focused work in his study - disrupted only by occasional trips to the snuff jar that he kept on a table in the hallway - Darwin met his wife, Emma, in the drawing room to receive the day's post. He read his letters, then lay on the sofa to hear Emma read the family letters aloud. When the letters were done, Emma would continue reading aloud, switching to whatever novel she and her husband were currently working their way through. 

At 10:30, Darwin returned to his study and did more work until noon or a quarter after. He considered this the end of his workday, and would often remark in a satisfied voice, "I've done a good day's work." Then he took his main walk of the day, accompanied by his beloved fox terrier, Polly. He stopped at the greenhouse first, then made a certain number of laps along the "Sandwalk," striking his iron-shod walking stick rhythmically against the gravel path as he went. Lunch with the family followed. Darwin usually drank a small amount of wine with the meal, which he enjoyed, but very carefully - he had a fear of drunkenness, and claimed to have only ever once been tipsy in his life, while he was a student at Cambridge. 

After lunch he returned to the drawing-room sofa to read the newspaper (the only nonscientific literature that he read himself; everything else was read aloud to him). Then it was time for his letter writing, which took place by the fire, in a huge horsehair chair with a board placed across its arms. If he had many letters to write, he would dictate them instead, from a rough copy scrawled across the backs of manuscripts or proofs. Darwin made a point of replying to every letter he received, even those from obvious fools or cranks. If he failed to reply to a single letter, it weighed on his conscience and could even keep him up at night. The letter writing took him until about 3:00 in the afternoon, after which he went upstairs to his bedroom to rest, lying on the sofa with a cigarette while Emma continued to read from the novel-in-progress. Often Darwin would fall asleep during this reading and, to his dismay, miss chunks of the story. 

He came back downstairs at 4:00 to embark on his third walk of the day, which lasted for half an hour, and then returned to his study for another hour of work, trying up any loose ends from earlier in the day. At 5:30, a half-hour of idleness in the drawing room preceded another period of rest and novel reading, and another cigarette, upstairs. Then he joined the family for dinner, although he did not join them in eating the meal; instead, he would have tea with an egg or a small piece of meat. If guest were present, he would not linger at the dinner table to converse with the men, as was customary - even a half-hour of conversation wore him out, and could cause him a sleepless night and the loss of his next day's work. Instead, he joined the ladies in retiring to the drawing room, where he played backgammon with Emma. His son Francis recalls that he "became extremely animated over these games, bitterly lamenting his bad luck and exploding with exaggerated mock-anger at my mother's good fortune."

After two games of backgammon, he would read a scientific book and, just before bed, lie on the sofa and listen to Emma play the piano. He left the drawing room at about 10:00 and was in bed within a half-hour, although he generally had trouble getting to sleep and would often lie awake for hours, his mind working at some problem that he had failed to solve during the day. Thus how most of his days went for forty years, with few exceptions. He would join his family on summer holidays, and occasionally make short visits to relatives, but he was always relieved to get home and, otherwise, he refrained from making even the most modest public appearances. Despite his seclusion and constant ill health, however, Darwin was content at Down House, surrounded by his family - he and Emma would eventually have ten children - and his work, which seemed to strip the years away from him even as it frequently brought him to the brink of exhaustion. Francis Darwin recalls that his father's slow, labored movements about the house stood in stark contrast to his demeanor during an experiment - then his actions became quick and certain, characterized by a "kind of restrained eagerness. He always gave one the impression of working with pleasure, and not with any drag." 

By the 1870s, the scientific community and much of the general public accepted evolution as a fact. However, many favored competing explanations and it was not until the emergence of the modern evolutionary synthesis from the 1930s to the 1950s that a broad consensus developed that natural selection was the basic mechanism of evolution. In a modified form, Darwin's scientific discovery is the unifying theory of the life sciences, explaining the diversity of life. 

In 1871, he examined human evolution and sexual selection in The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, followed by the Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. His research on plants was published in a series of books, and in his final book, he examined earthworms and their effect on soil.

Darwin died on the 19th of April, 1882. In recognition of Darwin's brilliance and pre-eminence as a scientist, he was honored by a major ceremonial funeral Westminster Abbey, where he was buried close to Isaac Newton. Darwin has been described as one of the most influential figures in human history.

Website Builder