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Charles Darwin

Civilization: British — England
   Field of Renown:  science — Biology
Era:  Victorian

Charles Darwin is famous for having amassed credible scientific evidence that complex plant and animal life on earth "evolved" from common, more primitive ancestors, for having triggered over 150 years of hysterical polemics between theists and materialists regarding the place of human beings in the cosmos, and also for helping to change the meaning of the word "science" from its former usage, describing a system of organized knowledge, to its modern usage, which incorporates the inference of philosophical naturalism. This is a great deal of baggage to lay at the feet of a relatively humble man who spent a few years collecting bird, plant, and fossil samples and set forth an intriguing scientific hypothesis, but such is the case.

Charles Darwin was born into a well-off family whose members were active in English scientific circles. His father was a doctor, and his grandfather a well-known physiologist. Charles' father wanted him to be a doctor, but he disliked medicine and showed an early interest in natural history. He enrolled at Cambridge intending to become a clergyman, but did not take holy orders. Instead he was offered a position as a naturalist on the HMS Beagle. This struck Darwin as the opportunity of a lifetime, and against his family's wishes he embarked on a five year voyage. The object of the Beagle's investigations focused primarily on South America, and Darwin did particularly notable work in the Galapagos Islands. During his voyage he sent specimens back to Cambridge and corresponded with other naturalists of the day.

Darwin had developed his theory of natural selection on his voyage, but did not desire to publish until he has established more solid evidence, and anticipated and answered predictable criticisms. For over fifteen years Darwin continued his studies, reading all of the latest scientific papers that related to his topic, and cataloging more instances of variations in species. During this period he kept up a correspondence with several other scientists but hesitated to publish until informed that another biologist was preparing a paper with a similar hypothesis. This convinced Darwin of the necessity of publishing himself, because he had far more evidence to present than his colleague did. The Origin of Species was published in 1859 and as expected, created a sensation.

Darwin was aware that his theory had serious theological implications, but was not particularly troubled by this, nor did he see his work a radical departure from other respected scientists such as Lyell. He did not personally care to dwell on the philosophical issues, and stayed professionally focused on the scientific aspects of his work, leaving the work of popularizing his theory to others. In his first book he had avoided the topic of the evolution of human beings, but after receiving plenty of encouragement, he published The Descent of Man which put forth in a straight forward manner the theory that humans and apes share a common ancestor.

The sensational publicity and polemics surrounding the publication of Darwin's theory made him a celebrity in Victorian England and an eternal hero to the proponents of philosophical naturalism, which was all the rage among British intellectuals of the era. He died in 1882 and was buried in Westminster Abbey along side Sir Isaac Newton.

Key events during the life of Charles Darwin:

Charles Darwin born to a wealthy English Doctor.
Attended medical school at Edinburgh, but did not enjoy the experience.
Enrolled at Cambridge University.
Embarked on a five year voyage on the HMS Beagle.
Returned from voyage on the Beagle.
Marriage of Charles Darwin and Emma Wedgewood.
Published Origin of Species.
Published Descent of Man.
Death of Charles Darwin.

Other Resources

Story Links
Book Links
Whence Came Man?  in  Scientific Discoveries  by  Charles Gibson
Charles Darwin  in  Stories of Great Scientists  by  Charles Gibson
Charles Darwin  in  Lives of Great Scientists  by  F. J. Rowbotham
Age of Science  in  Reign of Queen Victoria  by  M. B. Synge
Darwin and Huxley  in  Stories of the Great Scientists  by  H. C. Wright

Image Links

Charles Darwin: A True Hero of Science
 in Stories of Great Scientists
Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin
 in Statesmen and Sages

Charles Darwin
 in Lives of Great Scientists

His house at Down, Kent
 in Lives of Great Scientists

Charles Darwin
 in Reign of Queen Victoria

Charles Darwin
 in Stories of the Great Scientists

Short Biography
Thomas Huxley Strong proponent of Darwinism, and naturalist philosophy. His own expertise was comparative anatomy.
Jean-Baptiste Lamarck Scientist who promoted the (now discredited) idea of evolution and the 'inheritance of aquired traits'.
Robert FitzRoy Captain of the HMS Beagle.
William Herschel Astronomer who discovered the planet Uranus, improved telescopes, and made many other discoveries.
Charles Lyell Influential 19th century Geologist who promoted the idea of doctrine of uniformitarianism (as opposed to catastrophism.)
Alfred Russel Wallace Contemporary naturalist who proposed the theory of natural selection at the same time as Darwin.