The name Charles Darwin is not only known, but it is part of the popular culture. His vision of how species have changed throughout their natural history was a true scientific revolution, on a par with the Copernican.

Born and brought up in England, Darwin, whether in his early childhood or in his university years, would never have thought that, despite having studied in the Church, he would manage to make enemies of fervent believers.

The life of the English naturalist is long and interesting. Let us embark, as he did aboard the Beagle, on this journey about his personal history through a biography of Charles Darwin with the main milestones of his career.

Biography of Charles Darwin

The long life of Charles Darwin, a member of an influential medical family and cousin of eugenics originator Francis Galton, is rich in fascinating events, which led him to postulate about natural selection and the origin of species. Let’s take a look at his biography.

First years

Charles Robert Darwin was born in Sherewsbury, England, on February 12, 1809 . Medicine and the natural sciences ran in the family, since his father, Robert Waring Darwin, and his paternal grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, were famous for their efficiency in that profession.

From his childhood Charles Darwin showed his taste for natural history, which he demonstrated through his great fondness for collecting things like shells and minerals. His soul as a systematic naturalist was visible.

In 1825 Darwin entered the University of Edinburgh where, under parental pressure, he would begin his studies in medicine , in order to continue the family lineage of outstanding doctors, however, Darwin already showed signs that this did not go with him.

From phonendo to the Bible

Not only was his lack of interest in medicine obvious, but also his lack of vocation. When young Charles had to see a surgical operation, he couldn’t bear it. They were a truly traumatic event for him. That is why Darwin, at that time, began to be convinced that he could live off his father’s inheritance , that he could have a comfortable life without the need to practice medicine.

Obviously, this clashed with the plans of his father Robert, who was not going to allow his son to become a playboy. For this reason, and after having passed two courses in medicine, he proposed that his son study in the Church.

Thus, Charles Darwin began his ecclesiastical studies at Christ’s College in Cambridge in 1828. Although it may seem ironic, Darwin gladly began his new career, even though several years later his findings on how living things change were a real scandal and even a sign of heresy.

Although he was trained as a rural clergyman, he was a little more interested in studying than in becoming a doctor. Darwin preferred to hunt and ride horses, and over time he developed a love of painting and music.

But, although he was not very interested in the studies he was forced to take, Darwin did not miss the opportunity to attend, on a voluntary basis, the botany classes of the Reverend John Henslow , which was a real scientific opportunity for young Charles. Henslow would become a major figure in Darwin’s life.

After finishing his studies at Christ’s College in 1831, on Henslow’s recommendation, Darwin went deeper into geology. At that time he would meet Adam Sedgwick, founder of the Cambrian system . Darwin would accompany Sedgwick on an expedition to North Wales.

But it wasn’t just Henslow who helped Darwin set off on the expedition to Wales. It was this Reverend who would provide him with the opportunity to embark as a naturalist aboard the Beagle, along with Captain Robert Fitzroy.

Darwin’s father flatly refused to let his son go around the world. He felt that the idea was too far-fetched, and that he would only allow it if someone with common sense agreed to have him embark on the ship. That someone was Darwin’s uncle, Josiah Wedgwood, who, over the years, would become his father-in-law.

Trip on the Beagle

December 27, 1831 would be the key date that would mark the beginning of Darwin’s scientific life. It was on that day that the Beagle set sail from the port of Davenport with the young Charles on board .

A curious fact about all this is that Darwin came very close to not being able to travel in it, not because he did not want to, but because Captain Fitzroy, who was a supporter of physiognomic theories postulated by the Swiss priest Johann Caspar Lavater, estimated that Darwin’s nose did not reveal the energy or determination to undertake such a journey.

The objective of the trip, beyond Darwin’s wishes to know all kinds of exotic species, was to complete a topographic study of the territories of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego , as well as to trace the coasts of Chile, Peru and the Pacific islands. The trip lasted almost five years and took Darwin to see the coasts of South America, the Galapagos Islands, Tahiti, Oceania and South Africa.

The study of geology was the most important factor that Darwin had embarked on such a feat, although he also liked to collect some birds and other animals that he hunted while on islands in the New World.

While travelling, Darwin would be the author of several scientific achievements, including a theory on the formation of coral reefs, as well as geologically structuring some islands, such as St. Helena.

It was also during this trip that Darwin would see, while in the Galapagos Islands, that its flora and fauna resembled that of South America, but, in turn, the specimens of what seemed to be the same species changed from island to island .

This led Darwin to think that the traditional theory that species did not change, that they were stable and unchangeable, was something that could be criticized. It was clear that what he had seen were related animals but that, because of environmental factors, they had changed so that they could continue to live in a particular environment.

Tour of England

Charles Darwin would return to his native England on October 2, 1836. The journey, for better or worse, had marked him. His knowledge of nature had increased, but he was also suffering from health problems , probably caused by the bite of a tropical mosquito, symptoms of Chagas disease.

However, despite his frequent indispositions due to his delicate health, from his arrival until 1839 Darwin was very active. He worked on the writing of his travel diary, which would be published in 1839, and would produce two other texts in which he would present his observations in geology and zoology.

He settled in London in 1837 and there he would act as honorary secretary of the Geological Society, making contact with Charles Lyell, author of a book on geology that had been very useful to him while he was on board the Beagle, “Principles of Geology”.

Being in the British capital I would begin to reflect on how the species are changing, how they “transmute” . Based on what was seen in the Galapagos it was clear that at some point in natural history, animals such as finches, through environmental influence and adaptation to the environment, had changed their anatomy. The question was how.

He was able to relate this to domestic breeding. From time immemorial, farmers had been selecting the most useful plant varieties, crossing them with each other to ensure that the next generation would give them maximum benefit. This artificial selection was extrapolated to nature, and would give way to the concept of natural selection.

While in artificial selection a human criterion was followed, mostly based on how beneficial one cross is or another, natural selection, according to Darwin, would imply that those individuals better adapted to the environment, understood as “stronger”, would manage to survive and reproduce , while the most disadvantaged would gradually perish before having progeny.

On the basis of this mechanism, a species could be radically changed, with better-adapted individuals crossing over to each other while those who had simply not been so lucky would not get to contribute a new generation.

Although this idea was really brilliant, Darwin himself was aware that the simple fact of questioning that the species that inhabited the face of the earth had all been created independently, and that they had never changed, was something that in the United Kingdom of his time would be seen as a heretical act .

That is why he chose not to write on the subject for a while, although, finally, in 1842 he would dare to record his reflections in a summary and later expand it with a document of about 230 pages, written in 1844.

Although his scientific life was becoming more than remarkable, it was not only his professional achievements that stood out at this time. On January 29, 1839, he married his cousin Emma Wedgwood. After his marriage, he continued to reside in London until the end of 1842, moving to Down, in the county of Kent, trying to have a more peaceful life, appropriate for his delicate state of health.

On December 27, 1839, Darwin’s first son was born and the English naturalist did not allow him to miss the opportunity to experiment with his own offspring. He began a series of observations on the expression of emotions in humans and animals .

Besides this first child, the Darwin-Wedgwood couple had nine more children, six boys and four girls in total. In Down, he completed the writing of papers dealing with geology, but also wrote a new edition of his travel journal.

The theory of evolution. Popularity and opposition

In 1856, Charles Lyell advised Darwin to work fully on developing his ideas about the evolution of species. This work, which was sure to make him more famous and popular, seemed to have an unexpected end when he received a manuscript in 1858 in which one Alfred Russel Wallace, who had travelled to the Moluccas, claimed to share his views .

Darwin felt strongly identified with Wallace, especially when Wallace showed him how he had come to the conclusion that species change by survival and by responding successfully to the demands of the environment.

Although they shared essentially the same theory, Darwin did not know how to proceed with the publication of his work, a concern he shared with Lyell. Darwin, although he was the first to conceive of the idea, did not want to appear to be a usurper of Wallace’s rights.

The incident was solved, in a friendly way, thanks to the intervention of Lyell and the botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker. Darwin followed the advice of both, and summarized his manuscript, presented on July 1, 1858 at the Linnean Society, along with the work of Wallace .

The origin of the species and the last years

After the incident, Darwin saw the need to stop hesitating and publish his reflections as soon as possible, without having to make summaries to shorten his notes.

It was for this reason that it was finally decided to send to the printer as soon as possible the text for which it would be widely known and criticized: “On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of races favored in the struggle for life”.

The book, which would become The Origin of Species , was a real bestseller the day it was published, November 24, 1859. The first 1,250 copies were sold out in just a few hours. The book was controversial due to its theological implications , given that the idea of natural selection involved processes that, until then, were reserved for the idea of the creator God. That is why the opposition was not long in coming.

Religious figures, such as Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, were very harsh and critical of the evolutionary theses, which far from intimidating Darwin, made his supporters give him wide support and security, including the zoologist Thomas Henry Huxley, known as “Darwin’s bulldog”.

Although criticism was directed at him, Darwin chose to stay away from direct intervention. However, in 1871, when he published The Origin of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex he earned even more criticism. In this work he set out his arguments that the human being had appeared on Earth by exclusively natural means .

In 1872 he would publish The expression of emotions in man and animals , a book in which, thanks to his research with his first-born son, he was able to make a modern study of human behaviour and compare it with other species.

During the last ten years of his life, Darwin put aside the controversies regarding the origin of species and preferred to devote himself to the world of botany, a hobby that is calmer than the angry debates about whether or not humans are descended from monkeys.

At the end of 1881 he began to suffer from serious heart problems, the first symptoms of a heart disease that would lead to his death on April 19, 1882.

Bibliographic references:

  • Darwin, C., Duthie, J. F., & Hopkins, W. (1859). On the origin of species by means of natural selection: Or, The preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. London: John Murray, Albemarle Street.
  • Darwin, C. and Wallace, A. R. (1858), On the Tendency of Species to form Varieties; and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection, Zoology 3, Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London, pp. 46-50