Charles Darwin: The Essence of Evolution

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Turning Points in Modern History

By Vejas Liulevicius, Ph.D., University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Charles Darwin, well known as a British naturalist and biologist, is credited with developing the Theory of Evolution based on natural selection. It would be interesting to note that Darwin in essence provided the how and why of evolution. This article examines how his lineage, childhood, career, and a series of life events led to the making of the Father of Evolution.

Lineage of Charles Darwin and Early Career

Growing up in a wealthy British family, Charles Darwin looked anything but a promising child. As a young man, he embarked on a voyage around the world that lasted five years. A man, who otherwise lived a quiet life, published his controversial findings in the book The Origin of Species and shook the world of his times. 

Three images of Charles Darwin. On the left when he was 31 years, in the middle when he was 72 years and on the right when he was 45 years.
Charles Darwin (1809-82): Photographs when he was 31 years in 1840 (L), 72 years in 1881 (M), and 45 years in 1854 (R). (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Charles Darwin was born in 1809 into the Darwin-Wedgwood family, two particularly prominent families of the 18th century. The lineage had a background of science: his father Robert Darwin was a well-known physician and his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, a renowned natural philosopher. His mother had connections with the Wedgwood family, the makers of Wedgwood pottery and china. Josiah Wedgwood, related to Darwin, was known for his social activism and the practical applications of science (chemistry) in making pottery glazes and clay. 

Painting of Charles Darwin as a boy aged seven.
Painting of a young Darwin when he was seven years old. (Image credits: Ellen Sharples/Public domain)

Darwin’s early career was anything but promising. He went to the University of Edinburgh to train as a medical student, but the sight of blood would nauseate him. Hence, at the age of 18, it was suggested that he become a clergyman and he was sent to Cambridge. It was here that Darwin’s hobby for nature and his inclination to study nature began to blossom.

Learn more about Darwin and the Origin of Species.

Voyage on the Beagle

At the age of twenty-three, Darwin was invited to serve as the crew’s naturalist for a position that became suddenly available, on board the Beagle. The ship was headed for a cartographic mission under the young Captain Robert Fitzroy. The Captain was tasked with the mission of charting the coast of South America and the voyage turned out to be a life-changing experience for Darwin.

Image of the ship HMS Beagle.
Charles Darwin sailed on HMS Beagle as the crew naturalist for nearly five years from 1831 to 1836 (Image: R. T. Pritchett/Public domain)

Aboard the Beagle, Darwin had access to a good scientific library and the complete set of Encyclopedia Britannica. However, he was constantly incapacitated by seasickness. Yet, Darwin recovered quickly once they reached land and set out on his explorations of specimen collection. His first stop was the Brazilian rainforests, after which the trip continued to Argentina and Chile. Enthralled by the rainforests, he regularly collected and sent specimens to Britain. 

This is a transcript from the video series Turning Points in Modern History. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Learn more about gene flow versus natural selection.

Making of the Father of Evolution

In 1835, Charles Darwin landed on the Galapagos Islands, a volcanic archipelago in the Pacific Ocean with amazing wildlife. It is on these islands that Darwin heard a British colonial administrator make a comment that one could identify which island a tortoise was from by the shape of its shell.

This comment lingered on Darwin’s mind and made him realize that the many different finches he had collected on the islands had once a common ancestry, but later adapted themselves to unique ecological niches. The rest of Darwin’s life would be devoted to thinking through the implications of these observations. The findings of Darwin from his expedition to the Galapagos Islands were an essential part of his theory of evolution. 

The ship continued to sail to Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia, around the southern tip of Africa, back to South America, and then returned to England after five years, in the year 1836. But the Darwin who came back was a confident man and called the trip “the first real training or education of his mind.” He brought back with him over 5,000 specimens collected during the voyage. His first book on this trip with attention to the minutest details was a great success and he continued to pursue his ideas on evolved thinking. 

Learn more about rapid evolution within species.

Darwin’s Delay

On his return from the voyage, Charles Darwin married his cousin, Emma Wedgwood and lived on the then countryside, today’s suburbs of London. He seemed to want to retire and instead of announcing his findings, kept quiet. His closest friends urged him to publish his work but Darwin was reluctant as he knew his findings would be controversial.

Notwithstanding his chronic ill health, Darwin worked hard and was engaged in his clandestine work of the books. By 1844, he had compiled a complete essay with the vast set of data he had gathered based on research on barnacles, peas, pigeons, and many other living things. 

However, it was a publication by a much younger scientist Alfred Russel Wallace expressing similar thoughts to that of natural selection that finally compelled Darwin to roll out his book. Thus, finally after a twenty year delay, Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life was published in the November of 1859. The first print of 1,250 copies sold out like hot cakes on the very first day. 

Learn more about the many origins of species.

A Turning Point in History

A turning point in history, Darwin’s Origin of Species described his idea in simple and clear terms. A historical turning point that required more than 20 years to mature. The key principle underlined that all organisms produced more than what could survive. Then creatures with variation in traits were selected from the larger population and only the fit amongst them were destined to survive. 

Charles Darwin was aware that natural selection did not imply teleology; and expressed doubts about the entirety of his theory. He also spoke of ‘improvement’ or of ‘higher forms’ or of ‘favored races’ and accepted the notion of the ‘Survival of the Fittest’, proposed by the English philosopher Herbert Spencer. It should be noted that Darwin did not make humans part of his book and hinted that he would throw light on the origin of humans at a later date. A couple of years before his death in 1873, Darwin published his book The Descent of Man, in which he concluded that humans were a more evolved version of monkeys.

Learn more about genome mutations: Evolution’s raw material.

Religious Criticism and Acceptance

Charles Darwin dislodged man’s superior status in a subtle way, but was cautious to insist that his view was actually richer than the traditional one it replaced. In spite of exercising caution, epic controversy followed as the theory was seen as a clash between science and religion. While some religious leaders in the Victorian age accepted their understanding of Darwin’s message and thought it was compatible with a divinity steering evolution, others were appalled and denounced Darwin.

One of the infamous expressions of this controversy was the confrontation between Darwin’s bulldog, Thomas Huxley and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce in 1860 at the Oxford University. Initially not many young scientists accepted natural selection; though they supported Darwin’s theory of evolution. However, over time, Darwin’s model of evolution gained wider acceptance as it was in line with the Victorian confidence in progress. His idea of natural selection was proved decades later and is today known as modern or Neo-Darwinian synthesis.

In 1882, when Charles Darwin died at the age of 73, he was buried in Westminster Abbey, as a mark of respect.

Common Questions about Charles Darwin: The Essence of Evolution

Q: Was Charles Darwin a healthy man?

Charles Darwin was chronically ill and his troubles centered around his stomach. He was so distressed that he kept a pot in his study at home for vomiting as he worked on his research.

Q: Who was Josiah Wedgwood?

Josiah Wedgwood, the founder of the Wedgwood brand and potter to the Queen of England was related to Darwin. He was an active abolitionist and gave the anti-slavery movement its quintessential iconic image, the kneeling slave who asks, “Am I not a man and a brother?”

Q: How fanatical was Darwin in his beetle collection?

Darwin was so fanatical in his beetle collection that if he spotted a more desirable specimen of beetle when both his hands had beetles, he would put one of the beetles in his mouth in order to free his hand for the new one he was about to collect.

Q: What do we know of Darwin’s married life?

Darwin was married to his cousin, Emma Wedgwood and they raised ten children. Emma was deeply religious while Darwin was agnostic in religious terms. But in spite of this difference between husband and wife, they remained close and loving.

Q: What was the key global phenomenon that coincided with Darwin’s voyage?

The British sea power had won dominance of trade in the activities of the East India Company and Britain took on a role as the world’s policeman when Darwin began his voyage in 1831.

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