Charles Darwin, 1809-1882

Biographical note

Naturalist, son of a physician, and grandson of Dr. Erasmus Darwin, and of Josiah Wedgwood, the famous potter, was born and was at school at Shrewsbury. In 1825 he went to Edinburgh to study medicine, but was more taken up with marine zoology than with the regular curriculum. After two years he proceeded to Cambridge, where he graduated in 1831, continuing, however, his independent studies in natural history.

In the same year came the opportunity of his life, his appointment to accompany the Beagle as naturalist on a survey of South America. To this voyage, which extended over nearly five years, he attributed the first real training of his mind, and after his return published an account of it, Zoology of the Voyage of the Beagle [1840].

After spending a few years in London arranging his collections and writing his Journal, he removed to Down, a retired village near the Weald of Kent, where, in a house surrounded by a large garden, his whole remaining life was passed in the patient building up, from accurate observations, of his theory of Evolution, which created a new epoch in science and in thought generally. His industry was marvellous, especially when it is remembered that he suffered from chronic bad health. After devoting some time to geology, specially to coral reefs, and exhausting the subject of barnacles, he took up the development of his favourite question, the transformation of species. In these earlier years of residence at Down he published The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs [1842], and two works on the geology of volcanic islands, and of South America. After he had given much time and profound thought to the question of evolution by natural selection, and had written out his notes on the subject, he received in 1858 from Alfred Russel Wallace a manuscript showing that he also had reached independently a theory of the origin of species similar to his own. This circumstance created a situation of considerable delicacy and difficulty, which was ultimately got over by the two discoverers presenting a joint paper, On the Tendency of Species to form Varieties, and On the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection. The publication in 1859 of The Origin of Species gave Darwin an acknowledged place among the greatest men of science, and the controversies which, along with other of his works, it raised, helped to carry his name all over the civilised world.

Among his numerous subsequent writings may be mentioned The Fertilisation of Orchids [1862], Variation of Plants and Animals under Domestication [1868], The Descent of Man, and Selection in relation to Sex [1871], The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals [1872], Insectivorous Plants [1875], Climbing Plants [1875], Different Forms of Flowers [1877], The Power of Movement in Plants [1880], and The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms [1881]. Darwin, with a modesty which was one of his chief characteristics, disclaimed for himself the possession of any remarkable talents except “an unusual power of noticing things which easily escape attention, and of observing them carefully.” In addition, however, to this peculiar insight, he had a singular reverence for truth and fact, enormous industry, and great self-abnegation: and his kindliness, modesty, and magnanimity attracted the affection of all who knew him.

[From A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature by John W. Cousin, 1910]

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