Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882) was an English Natural scientist who laid down a framework for the theory of evolution – showing how Man evolved from lower life forms. At the time, his research and publication led to bitter controversy, but his theory of evolution and natural selection later became accepted within the scientific community.
Charles Darwin was born on 12 February 1809 in Shrewsbury, Shropshire. He was born into a wealthy and influential family. His grandfathers included – China manufacturer Josiah Wedgwood, and Erasmus Darwin, one of the leading intellectuals of 18th century England.
Darwin planned to study medicine at Edinburgh University, but later, at the instigation of his father, changed to studying Divinity at Christ’s College, Cambridge University. Darwin was not a great student, preferring to spend time in outdoor pursuits; he spent a lot of time examining natural science and beetle collecting. After gaining a passionate interest in natural science, Darwin was offered a place on the HMS Beagle to act as a natural scientist on a voyage to the coast of South America.
At the time, religion was a powerful force in society, and most people took the Bible as the infallible, literal word of God. This included the belief that God created the world in seven days, and the world was only a few thousand years old. However, on the voyage, Darwin increasingly began to see evidence of life being much older. In particular Lyell’s ‘Principles of Geology’ suggested that fossils were evidence of animals living hundreds of thousands of years ago.
On the voyage, Darwin made copious notes about specimens he found on his voyages. In particular, at the Galapagos Islands 500 miles west of South America, Darwin was struck by how the Finch was different on each individual island. He noticed that the Finch had somehow adapted to the various aspects of the particular island.
Over the next 20 years, Darwin worked on the dilemma of how species evolve and can end up being quite different on different islands. Influenced by the work of Malthus, Darwin came up with a theory of natural selection and gradual evolution over time.
Darwin continued to refine his theory, and would intensively breed plants to work on his theories. However, realising how controversial his ideas were, Darwin delayed publishing them. It was not until learning that another naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace had developed similar ideas, that Darwin was galvanised into publishing his own book.
In 1859, the ground-breaking ‘On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection‘ was published. It immediately gained widespread interest and attention, leading to intense debate about the contention that man – by implication was descended from animals like the ape.
However, by the time he died on 19 April 1882, his ideas had increasingly become accepted – at least by the scientific and non-religious society. He was given a state burial at Westminster Abbey.