Biography of Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin was born on 12 February 1809 in Shrewsbury, Shropshire to Robert Waring Darwin and of Susannah Wedgwood. His grandfather Josiah Wedgewood was a well known china manufacturer and his other grandfather Erasmus Darwin was a physician, poet and one of the leading intellectuals of the time.

Darwin had planned medicine, but in 1828 at the insistence of his father switched to the study of divinity at Christ's College, Cambridge University. Upon graduation he did not have strong enough grades to secure employment, however, he was offered a position as ship's naturalist aboard the H. M.S. Beagle.

The Beagle set sail from England on December 27th 1831 on what was to be a five year journey. It was on this voyage and, in particular his time on the Galapagos Islands 500 miles east of South America, that the idea of Natural Selection he would present in the Origin of Species began to take shape.

Most Europeans at the time saw the bible as the infallible and literal word of God. This included the belief that the world was created in seven days and that Earth was only a few thousand years old, but on his journey aboard the Beagle Darwin saw evidence which seemed to contradict this. He carried with him a copy of Charles Lyell’s Principals of Geology, which argued that all the features of the earth were produced by physical and biological processes through long periods of time. Darwin saw evidence of this in the fossils he observed in the strata of rock seen on island cliffs.

In 1839, three years after completing his journey, he married his cousin Emma Wedgewood. He spent more than twenty years refining his theories on natural selection and evolution over time before publishing On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life (1859), commonly referred to as The Origin of Species. In it’s time the book was extremely controversial as it remains to this day because it presents a theory where all life evolved to the form that is seen today. This was a challenge to the prevailing wisdom that life was created perfect and in it’s present form by God. The extension of Darwin’s theory showed man as a descendant of animals- quite possible apes. He delved further into this when he published The Decent of Man in 1871.

Despite this controversy his views were widely respected. When he died of a heart attack on April 19th 1882 the Royal Society requested and was given permission for a state burial at Westminster Abby.

Study Guides on Works by Charles Darwin