Pictured: naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-1882)
Charles Robert Darwin was born in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, the fifth of six children to wealthy and well-connected parents.
One of his grandfathers was Erasmus Darwin, a physician whose book “Zoonomia” articulated a radical and highly controversial idea that one species could “transmute” into another. Transmutation is what was then called evolution.
In 1825 Charles Darwin studied at the University of Edinburgh, one of the best places in Britain to study science.
It attracted free thinkers with radical views including, among others, transmutation theories.
Darwin trained as a clergyman in Cambridge in 1827 after giving up his plan to become a doctor, but continued his passion for biology.
In 1831, Charles’s tutor recommended that he take a trip around the world aboard HMS Beagle.
Over the next five years, Darwin traveled to five continents collecting samples and specimens while studying local geology.
With long stretches of time doing nothing but thinking and reading, he studied Charles Lyell’s principles of geology, which had a profound impact.
The trip also began a life of illness after suffering from terrible seasickness.
In 1835, HMS Beagle made a five-week stopover in the Galapagos Islands, 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador.
There he studied finches, turtles and mockingbirds, but not in enough detail to come to any big conclusions.
But he was starting to accumulate observations that were accumulating rapidly.
Returning home in 1838, Darwin showed his specimens to other biologists and began to write about his travels.
It was then that he began to see how the “transmutation” happened.
He found that animals better suited to their environment survived longer and had more young.
Evolution happened through a process he called “natural selection,” although he struggled with the idea because it contradicted his Christian world view.
Having known his grandfather’s ostracism for his theories, Darwin gathered more evidence, while documenting his travels, until 1851.
He decided to publish his theory after he began to suffer from long periods of illness.
Some historians suggest he contracted a tropical disease while others believed his symptoms were largely psychosomatic, brought on by anxiety.
In 1858, Darwin received a letter from Alfred Russel Wallace, an admirer of Darwin after reading about his Beagle voyage.
Darwin was criticized by the Church and parts of the press as people were shaken by the idea that humans were descended from apes
Wallace came up with the theory of natural selection independently and wanted Darwin’s advice on how to publish.
In 1858, Darwin finally went public, giving Wallace some credit for the idea.
Darwin’s ideas were presented to Britain’s premier natural history body, the Linnean Society.
In 1859, he published his theory of evolution. It would become one of the most important books ever written.
Darwin drew strong criticism from the Church and part of the press. Many people have been shocked by the book’s key implication that humans are descended from apes, although Darwin made no mention of it.
In 1862 Darwin wrote a warning about close relatives with children, he was already worried about his own marriage, having married his cousin Emma and lost three of their children and cared for other sick people.
Darwin knew that orchids were less healthy when they self-pollinate and feared that inbreeding within his own family could cause problems.
He worked until his death in 1882. Realizing that his powers were waning, he described his local cemetery as “the sweetest place on Earth”.
He is buried in Westminster Abbey.