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Darwin, Charles   (1809 - 1882)

Darwin, Charles Robert (1809-1882), English naturalist, author of the Origin of Species, was born at Shrewsbury on the 12th of February 1809. He was the younger of the two sons and the fourth child of Dr. Robert Waring Darwin, son of Dr. Erasmus Darwin. His mother, a daughter of Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795), died when Charles Darwin was eight years old. Charles Darwin’s elder brother, Erasmus Alvey (1804—1881), was interested in literature and art rather than science: on the subject of the wide difference between the brothers Charles wrote that he was “inclined to agree with Francis Galton in believing that education and environment produce only a small effect on the mind of anyone, and that most of our qualities are innate” (Life and Letters, London, 1887).

Darwin considered that his own success was chiefly due to “the love of science, unbounded patience in long reflecting over any subject, industry in observing and collecting facts, and a fair share of invention as well as of common sense “. He also says: “I have steadily endeavored to keep my mind free so as to give up any hypothesis, however much beloved (and I cannot resist forming one on every subject), as soon as facts are shown to be opposed to it“. The essential causes of his success are to be found in this latter sentence, the creative genius ever inspired by existing knowledge to build, hypotheses by whose aid further knowledge could be won, the calm unbiased mind, the transparent honesty and love of truth which enabled him to abandon or to modify his own creations when they ceased to be supported by observation.

Darwin’s early education was conducted at Shrewsbury, first for a year at a day-school, then for seven years at Shrewsbury School under Dr Samuel Butler (1774—1839). He gained but little from the narrow system which was then universal. In 1825 he went to Edinburgh to prepare for the medical profession, for which he was unfitted by nature. After two sessions his father realized this, and in 1828 sent him to Cambridge with the idea that he should become a clergyman. He matriculated at Christ’s College, and took his degree in 1831, tenth in the list of those who do not seek honors. Up to this time he had been keenly interested in sport, and in entomology, especially the collecting of beetles. He had two terms’ residence to keep after passing his last examination, and studied geology with Sedgwick. Returning from their geological excursion together in North Wales (August 1831), he found a letter from Henslow urging him to apply for the position of naturalist on the “Beagle,” about to start on a surveying expedition. His father at first disliked the idea, but his uncle, the second Josiah Wedgwood, pleaded with success, and Darwin started on the 27th of December 1831, the voyage lasting until the 2nd of October 1836. It is practically certain that he never left Great Britain after this latter date. After visiting the Cape de Verde and other islands of the Atlantic, the expedition surveyed on the South American coasts and adjacent islands (including the Galapagos), afterwards visiting Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia, Tasmania, and Azores on the way home. His work on the geology of the countries visited, and that on coral islands, became the subject of volumes which he published after his return, as well as his Journal of a Naturalist, and his other contributions to the official narrative. The voyage must be regarded as the real preparation for his life-work. His observations on the relation between animals in islands and those of the nearest continental areas, near akin and yet not the same, and between living animals and those most recently extinct and found fossil in the same country, here again related but not the same, led him even then to reflect deeply upon the modification of species.

His pocket-book for 1837 contains the words: “In July opened first note-book on Transmutation of Species. Had been greatly struck from about the month of previous March and the evidence for the existence of evolution considered last of all. This method of presentation was no doubt adopted because it was just the want of a reasonable motive-cause which more than anything else prevented the acceptance of evolution”. But the other side of the book must not be eclipsed by the brilliant theory of Darwin and Wallace. The evidence for evolution itself had never before been thought out and marshaled in a manner which bears any comparison with that of Darwin in the Origin, and the work would have been in the highest degree epoch-making had it consisted of the later chapters alone.

A storm of controversy arose over the book, reaching its height at the meeting of the British Association at Oxford in 1860, when the celebrated duel between T. H. Huxley and Bishop Wilberforce of Oxford took place. The theory of natural selection was at first greatly misunderstood. Thus some writers thought it implied conscious choice in the animals themselves, others that it was the personification of some active power. By many it was thought to be practically the same idea as Lamarck’s. Herbert Spencer’s alternative phrase, “the survival of the fittest,” probably helped to spread a clear appreciation of Darwin’s meaning.

The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, was published in 1871; as the title implies, it really consists of two distinct works. The first, and by far the shorter, was the full justification of his statement in the Origin that “light would be thrown on the origin of man and his history.” In the second part he brought together a large mass of evidence in support of his hypothesis of sexual selection which he had briefly described in the 1858 essay. This hypothesis explains the development of colors and structures peculiar to one sex and displayed by it in courtship, by the preferences of the other sex.

The Expression of the Emotions, published in 1872, offered a natural explanation of phenomena which appeared to be a difficulty in the way of the acceptance of evolution. In 1876 Darwin brought out his two previously published geological works on Volcanic Islands and South America as a single volume. The widely read Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms appeared in 1881. He also published various volumes on botanical subjects. The Fertilization of Orchids appeared in 1862. The subject of cross-fertilization of flowers was in Darwin’s mind, as shown by his note-book in 1837. In. 1841 Robert Brown directed his attention to Christian Conrad Sprengel’s work (Berlin, 1793), which confirmed his determination to pursue this line of research. The Effects of Cross- and Self-Fertilization in the Vegetable Kingdom (1876) contained the direct evidence that the offspring of cross-fertilized individuals are more vigorous, as well as more numerous, than those produced by a self-fertilized parent. Different Forms of Flowers on Plants of the Same Species appeared in 1877. It is here shown that each different form, although possessing both kinds of sexual organs, is specially adapted to be fertilized by the pollen of another form, and that when artificially fertilized by its own pollen less vigorous offspring, bearing some resemblance to hybrids, are produced. He says, “no little discovery of mine ever gave me so much pleasure as the making out the meaning of heterostyled flowers “.

The significance of Darwin’s work was well recognized by his colleagues. Darwin was elected to the Royal Society (1839) and the French Academy of Sciences (1878). He was buried in Westminster Abbey after he died on April 19, 1882.

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