Charles Darwin

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.1

Charles Darwin was born in Shrewsbury, the son of a prosperous medical doctor. He was educated privately and then at Shrewsbury School. After a brief period unsuccessfully studying medicine at Edinburgh University, he went to Cambridge University in 1827 with a view to becoming a parson. This never came about. After graduation he joined Captain Robert FitzRoy on the Beagle voyage (1831-6). The voyage was the key event in Darwin's life, transforming the way he thought about the natural world. The ship was commissioned by the British Admiralty to survey the coastal waters of southern South America, especially in and around Tierra del Fuego. In the event, the ship went round the world, visiting Brazil, Argentina, Patagonia, Chile, the Galapagos Islands, Tahiti, New Zealand and the Cape of Good Hope, as well as various other ports of call. Darwin explored and collected extensively in all these areas, afterwards writing an account of his experiences that is today recognized as an important record of natural environments as well as a classic of travel literature. It should perhaps be noted that Darwin's appreciation of natural landscapes and the beauties of nature did not preclude his ambitious programme of collecting: he accumulated specimens with all the fervour of a big-game hunter, and his ability to shoot was as valuable to him at that time as any growing understanding of intellectual issues. During the voyage he learned from Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology (1830-3) that the environment is constantly changing. He applied this idea usefully to the origin of mountain ranges, coral reefs and other natural history questions. He returned to England brimming with fresh ideas and perspectives.

On his return Darwin soon became convinced of the truth of evolution in living beings. While the Galapagos finches were highly significant in this conviction, it was only when they had been properly identified after the voyage that he began to understand the relationships between them. This was the most exciting, intellectually fertile period of his life. From 1837 onwards he filled a series of private notebooks with a riot of evolutionary speculations. He was alert to the subtle balances and relationships between organisms, and between organisms and their environment, seeking an alternative explanation for what was seen by others as 'perfect adaptation'. Some eighteen months later, in September 1838, he took the idea of competitive struggle and differential survival rates from Malthus' Principle of Population (1798) as the foundation of his ideas, calling it 'natural selection'. This provided him with a naturalistic mechanism for change and adaptation that did not involve any form of divine action. By 1844 he felt sufficiently confident in his ideas to compose a short essay which he again kept private, although leaving instructions for his wife, Emma Wedgwood, to publish it in the event of his death. From this time, too, he began experiencing the protracted bouts of ill health that dogged his life.

Single-mindedly Darwin set out to provide the exhaustive documentation that he believed he would need in order to convince his contemporaries of evolution by natural selection. He corresponded prolifically with colleagues from all over the world, making effective use of the British colonial system and his contacts in London's premier scientific societies, while also carrying out natural history experiments in his own home, and requesting other men and women from a wide range of backgrounds to help on particular points. If nothing else, Darwin's work represents an astonishing example of cooperative endeavour across the nineteenth-century natural history sciences. His growing fame from his natural history publications and high position in scientific society facilitated these inquiries. At last, after a long study of barnacles, in which he demonstrated evolutionary relationships to his own satisfaction, he decided he was ready to write up his theories in full.

While writing, he received from Alfred Russel Wallace, who was collecting natural history specimens in Malaysia, a short essay containing identical ideas. A joint announcement was arranged at the Linnean Society of London, July 1858, followed by a very brief joint publication of the text in the Journal of the Linnean Society.2 Both Darwin and Wallace were absent when the theory was announced: Darwin's youngest child was dangerously ill, and Wallace was still in Malaysia. Darwin then published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life in November 1859. In this he proposed that every animal and plant is variable. Individuals that are best adapted to the surrounding conditions will be the ones that survive and reproduce. Over aeons of time, and with gradually changing conditions, organisms evolve. He included many instances of environmental change. A masterpiece of interconnected reasoning, the book was also impressive for the mass of detailed factual information that Darwin used to support his argument.

Although not the first to propose evolution, the book aroused intense controversy. On the one hand, Victorians found it hard to accept his (and Wallace's) mechanism of natural selection. They were reluctant to regard organisms as being governed solely by chance, and saw little evidence of transitional forms in nature or of intermediate stages leading to complex organs like the eye. Philosophically minded biologists further argued that Darwin could not prove his hypothesis in the conventional way, for he depended on inference and probability to an uncomfortable degree. Others pointed out that he could explain neither the origin of variations nor how they were passed to succeeding generations.

Yet the primary reason for the controversy was that many were deeply unwilling to remove God from the creative process. The issue was at its most intense when the origin of human beings was considered. Darwin did not speak directly about human ancestry in the Origin, saying only that 'Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history'.3 Nevertheless, human ancestry was the primary focus of the heated debate that followed publication. If Darwin's proposals were accepted as true, then human beings were not specially created by God, as in the Biblical story, and had instead descended from animal ancestors, probably apes. For this reason the Origin was frequently perceived as a dangerously atheistic tract. It was vigorously defended by T.H.Huxley, 'Darwin's bulldog', and by his friends Charles Lyell, Joseph Dalton Hooker, Asa Gray and John Lubbock, as well as others. To some degree, however, each of these men had minor reservations about one or another aspect of

Darwin's scheme. When Wallace returned from Malaysia in 1862, he too defended the theory vigorously, generously acknowledging that Darwin had produced far more evidence in its favour than he would have been able. Ultimately, however, Wallace and Darwin diverged on their accounts of the origin of the mental life of mankind.

Darwin spent the rest of his life expanding on different aspects of problems raised in the Origin. His later books, including The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication (1868), The Descent of Man (1871) and The Expression of the Emotions in Animals and Man (1872), were detailed expositions of topics that had been confined to small sections of the Origin. He also investigated plant physiology, especially fertilization, making many experiments in his home and garden, relishing his return to practical natural history work after a long period of writing. The first book he published after the Origin was a close examination of orchid fertilization expressly intended to show that these intricate flowers were not the result of divine design but merely a remarkable collection of adaptations to ensure insect fertilization. He had always been interested in the wider implications of botany and considered plants as significant evidence for his theories: many of the key arguments for adaptation, variation and descent in the Origin hinged on his botanical work, particularly on his innovative ideas about plant geography.

Darwin incorporated some of this botanical research into Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication, which progressed slowly from 1860 to its publication in 1868. In this work he attempted to fill the one major gap left by the Origin as to the origin and transmission of variations. He gave numerous instances of the different causes of variability, including reversion, the effects of use and disuse, correlation, monstrosities and the direct influence of the environment and conditions of life. In this last, he was accused of giving undue weight to Lamarckian influences, although in actual fact he had always allowed for the transmission of some changes acquired by parents during their lifetime. The issue became critical when the key concepts of genetics were being worked out in the decades after his death. The extent to which biologists should admit any inheritable effects of the environment became a hotly debated feature of the biological sciences at the end of the nineteenth century.

Throughout the six editions of the Origin produced in his lifetime (1859, 1860, 1861, 1866, 1869, 1872), the main thesis stood firm. But Darwin made considerable changes to the detail: by degrees he broadened his view of the inheritance of acquired variations; he tried to speed up the rate of evolutionary change to account for William Thomson's calculation of a much shortened time span for the age of the earth; and he included answers to many criticisms, especially those of St George Mivart in the sixth edition. He defended his use of the term 'natural selection' while admitting that he probably personified it too much. At Wallace's suggestion, he introduced Herbert Spencer's expression 'survival of the fittest' in the fifth edition (1869).

His last few books were on botanical topics, assisted by his son Francis, who also acted as his secretary. His final work was on earthworms, a return to a subject that interested him as a young man, and reflected his life-long belief that the accumulation of many small actions, or changes, could produce large effects. He proposed that earthworms, by bringing fresh earth to the surface every night, could slowly bury objects and regenerate the surface of the earth. By the end of his life he was happy to let younger men push forward with evolutionary ideas and was content to work on the smaller, more practical natural history questions that intrigued him. His entire intellectual life had, in this regard, been firmly rooted in the real world of natural history. Much of his greatness lay in his ability to move freely between these small details and the expansive vistas opened up by his theories.

Darwin's religious views have naturally been the object of much inquiry. These seem to have waxed and waned. He was brought up as an Anglican, with Unitarian family influence. As a young man and for much of his time on the Beagle he was a traditional, if occasionally sceptical, believer. Yet he examined his religious beliefs very closely while working on evolutionary theory, and from 1837 onwards sometimes revealed a fierce, materialistic bent. Even so, he said that when he published the Origin he believed in a non-interventionist deity and claimed in his Autobiography that he never considered himself an atheist, saying that Huxley's term 'agnostic' was a far better description of his state of mind. A humane and good-natured man, he believed mostly in the Victorian concept of doing one's duty. In politics, he was a liberal.

In later life, Darwin was revered as a grand old man of science. He died on 19 April 1882, at Down House, in Kent, in the house where he had lived since 1842. He was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Darwin's impact upon environmental thinking and practice has been profound but also ambiguous. For some writers, both followers and critics, the theory of natural selection continued the Enlightenment process of the 'disenchantment' of nature, with the effect that notions like 'respect' for nature as the Book of God or as a purposeful organism could be dismissed as merely 'romantic'. Among so-called 'Social Darwinists', the theory was taken to endorse a view of nature and human relations as 'red in tooth and claw'—a view then employed to justify both the economic exploitation of nature and the colonial subjection of less 'fit', 'primitive' peoples. For other writers, however, Darwin's theory, by emphasizing the integral place of human beings in the natural world, served to demolish that 'Cartesian' picture of human beings as 'intellects' set over against the natural world which, in the view of these writers, has been largely responsible for treating the environment as an 'object' or resource to be used in whatever ways people like.


1 On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, London: John Murray, p. 489, 1859.

2 Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, 'On the Tendency of Species to Form Varieties, and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection', Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London, 3 (9), pp. 1-62, 1858.

See also in this book

Carson, Malthus

Darwin's major writings

Journal of Researches into the Geology and Natural History of the Various Countries Visited by H.M.S.Beagle, 1839, ed. J.Browne and M.Neve, Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 1989. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, 1859, facs. edn; with an introduction by E.Mayr, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1964.

The standard edition of Darwin's writings is The Works of Charles Darwin, 29 vols, ed. by P.H.Barrett, P.J.Gautrey and R.B.Freeman, London: Pickering & Chatto, 1986-9. His articles are reprinted in The Collected Papers of Charles Darwin, ed. PH.Barrett, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1977. His correspondence has been listed with helpful summaries in Calendar of the Correspondence of Charles Darwin, 1821-1882, rev. edn, F.H.Burkhardt et al., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, and is also being published volume by volume in The

Correspondence of Charles Darwin, ed. F.H.Burkhardt et al., Cambridge:

Cambridge University Press, 1985-.

Further reading

Barlow, N. (ed.), The Autobiography of Charles Darwin. With original omissions restored, London: Collins, 1958.

Barrett, P.H. et al. (eds), Charles Darwin's Notebooks, 1836-1844: Geology, Transmutation of Species, Metaphysical Enquiries, London: British Museum (Natural History) and Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Browne, E.J., Voyaging. A Biography of Charles Darwin, London: Jonathan Cape, 1995.

Colp, R., To Be an Invalid: The Illness of Charles Darwin, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1977.

Desmond, A.J. and Moore, J.R., Darwin, London: Michael Joseph, 1992.

Ellegard, A., Darwin and the General Reader, rev. edn, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

Keynes, R.D. (ed.), Charles Darwin's Beagle Diary, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.


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