History of Science & Technology

Darwin, Charles

caption Charles Darwin. (Source: Swarthmore College)

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) was a British scientist who laid the foundations of the theory of evolution by natural selection and transformed the way we think about the natural world.

Darwin, a naturalist, was born in Shrewsbury, England on Feb. 12, 1809. His father was also a naturalist and a physician. His mother died when he was eight. Darwin was the first of the evolutionary biologists . At age sixteen, Darwin left Shrewsbury to study medicine at the University of Edinbourgh but switched to Cambridge University to study divinity. After he graduated, he went on a five-year scientific expedition to the Pacific coast of South America on the H.M.S. Beagle from 1831-1836. On the Origin of Species (1859) described evolution and natural selection, giving a theoretical explanation for the diversity among living and fossil beings. His book was not well received among the general population who felt threatened at the notion that humans were descended from ape-like creatures. The scientific community, however, did grasp his theories and today his book forms the basis for many contemporary archaeological theories.

In 1839 he married his cousin, Emma Wedgewood. Charles Darwin lived with his wife and children at their home at Down House in Kent, England. Darwin's main works include The Origin of Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871).



Charles Darwin (1809-1882) is a towering figure in the history of science.  He was born into a rather wealthy English family–Josiah Wedgwood of Wedgwood pottery and fine china was his grandfather.  He was not a great student as a child: instead of school, he preferred hunting, collecting things, and playing with a chemistry set.  He went to the University of Edinburgh to become a medical doctor, like his father.  Though he hated studying medicine, he began interacting with the natural history scholars there.  After a couple years, Darwin switched to Cambridge University, intending to become a clergyman in the Church of England.  He continued with natural history, collecting beetles, mostly, and thought that becoming a country priest would give him enough spare time to devote to his nature studies.  

Darwin sailed on a five-year voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle (1831-1836) mostly to South America, though it did go around the world.  He was invited to be an intellectual companion for the captain, who was not supposed to mingle with the crew, and to contribute to the scientific mission of the voyage.  He was seasick almost the entire time they were at sea.  On land, though, he felt better and mainly collected plants, animals and fossils, and observed the geology.  While on the Galapagos Islands (a group of volcanic islands in the Pacific Ocean, 1200 km west of Ecuador), he was told that locals could tell the difference between tortoises from each island, a fact he didn’t think much about at the time.  While collecting on each island, he did notice differences in some of the bird species, though he didn’t always keep good records of which island each bird came from.  Examining his specimens while crossing the Pacific, it appeared that many of the birds that he thought were of different species were actually finches with significantly different features.  Tortoises were caught on the islands, too, but for food, not science, and their shells were dumped overboard after they were eaten; he unwittingly lost what later would have been useful information for his theory. 

Back in England after his voyage, Darwin made a name for himself as an explorer and geologist, writing books on his travels, South American geology, and coral reefs.  He also began studying evolution.  There was plenty of talk of evolution of species by scientists trying to understand living things and by non-scientists wishing to disagree with the Church of England. (The Church of England was the established Church and it dominated intellectual life, education and government.  Some felt that Church influence on public affairs was too strong and sought to ‘disestablish’ it.  As an aside, this is the main reason for the separation of church and state in the United States Constitution.  As another aside, one of the longest words in the English language, antidisestablishmentarianism, is the belief of those opposed to disestablishing the Church.) The Church was opposed to evolution, as its official position was that God created species as separate entities as stated in Genesis.  Darwin thought that the Galapagos Islands might shed light on the problem.  

Since Darwin’s records for the Galapagos were not in the best order, he borrowed the collections of several others on the Beagle and analyzed them.  With the help of bird specialist John Gould, better known for his bird paintings, he determined that there were twelve distinct species of finch.  Darwin concluded that at some time in the past, one type of finch arrived on the islands and slowly changed into different species.  That evolution occurs was not a new idea to science, though it was quite controversial.  Darwin’s biggest contribution to science was in his explanation for how evolution happens.  He spent a lot of time studying domesticated animals (dogs, pigeons, chickens, etc.) and how breeders get new features.  If people artificially select for certain things, then maybe the environment changes species by “natural selection.”  He was also strongly influenced by Thomas Malthus’s well known essay on human population, predicting that population growth is faster than growth in the food supply and so in the future people will starve to death in large numbers.  When applied to natural life forms trying to survive with limited resources, this became the concept later called “survival of the fittest.”

Darwin concluded that the different species of finch on the Galapagos became distinct because they each had a different food source, depending on which island they lived.  If their food is bugs found in holes in trees, then those with longer and thinner beaks are more likely to survive and since children generally resemble their parents, they too will have long and thin beaks.  The overall change in beaks may be very small in a single generation, but over many generations the beaks take on a new shape on that island.  On another island the food source may be nuts, which have to be cracked open with the beak.  Here, short and fat beaks are selected for and over many generations all the finches on that island will have stubby beaks.  In this way, new species develop.  

Over time Darwin gave up the idea of being a priest and devoted himself to science, supporting his family and research on investments.  He developed his theory of evolution by natural selection in the 1830s, but did not publish it.  It was too controversial and as a young scientist he didn’t want to make too many enemies.  So, he put it aside and worked on other projects for twenty years, all the time strengthening his theory with better evidence.  Among other pursuits, he spent ten years working on the physiology and classification of barnacles from around the world and he continued his studies on domesticated animals.  

Darwin was sickly most of his adult life, with stomach and other problems.  It was common for him to be unable to work more than a couple hours per day and sometimes he was unable to work at all for months at a time.  In spite of this, he became one of the best known and most respected scientists in England.  

In the late 1850s, Darwin was sent a paper outlining the theory of natural selection written by Alfred Russel Wallace, a naturalist working mostly in Asia. Independently, the two had come up with essentially the same theory.  In science, the first to publish generally gets credit for a new idea and Darwin could have used his influence to prevent publication of Wallace’s paper until Darwin’s was published (he was well known, Wallace was not, and Wallace was in Asia).  But he didn’t.  Darwin explained the situation to Wallace and they agreed to publish simultaneously.  Darwin wrote a summary of his theory and the two papers appeared together.  (Not all problems in science are settled this amiably.)  While evolution was still a highly controversial idea and opposed by both the hierarchy of the Church of England and by many scientists, public opinion had changed to the point that many supported the idea.  And by that time Darwin was an influential scientist who could not be dismissed easily.  He then put the theory into book form and On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection was published in 1859.  

The Origin of Species was a popular book and stirred quite a controversy.  For reasons of both personality and health, Darwin did not defend it in debates, but he had friends who did, most notably Thomas Henry Huxley.  Some eminent scientists were convinced right away that the theory is correct, some came to believe it over time, and some went to their graves adamant that it is wrong.  The Church of England and the Catholic Church also declared it wrong, though over time both religions have since rejected a literal interpretation of the Bible and support the idea of evolution of new species by natural means.  Virtually all scientists now accept the basic premise of natural selection bringing about new species.  The details are debated, but not the general theory.  Opposition now comes mostly from religious groups who insist that the Bible be interpreted literally.  

Darwin spent much of his research time after 1859 more fully developing the ideas in “Origin of Species,” investigating such topics as seed transport across oceans, why orchids look the way they do, and the biology of human facial expressions.  When he died in 1882, he was buried at Westminster Abbey, one of the highest honors his country could bestow.  In terms of influence on scientific thinking, Darwin ranks with such greats as Galileo, Newton, and Einstein.  And like Galileo, Darwin’s theory not only advanced a scientific discipline, but also contributed to changed attitudes about the separation of science and religion.


(Note: this biography was originally published in Focus on Geography,  v. 47, no. 4 (2004), p. 34-36. and is reprinted here with permission of the American Geographical Society.) 

Further Reading



Lee, J., & Chitale, R. (2009). Darwin, Charles. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/51cbed5e7896bb431f691c98


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