Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

Biologist, Scientist(1809–1882)
Charles Darwin is best known for his work as a naturalist, developing a theory of evolution to explain biological change.


Naturalist Charles Darwin was born in Shrewsbury, England, on February 12, 1809. In 1831, he embarked on a five-year survey voyage around the world on the HMS Beagle. His studies of specimens around the globe led him to formulate his theory of evolution and his views on the process of natural selection. In 1859, he published On the Origin of Species. He died on April 19, 1882, in London.

Early Life

Naturalist Charles Robert Darwin was born on February 12, 1809, in the tiny merchant town of Shrewsbury, England. He was the second youngest of six children. Darwin came from a long line of scientists. His father, Dr. R.W. Darwin, was as a medical doctor, and his grandfather, Dr. Erasmus Darwin, was a renowned botanist. Darwin’s mother, Susanna, died when he was only 8 years old. Darwin was a child of wealth and privilege who loved to explore nature.

In October 1825, at age 16, Darwin enrolled at Edinburgh University along with his brother Erasmus. Two years later, Charles Darwin became a student at Christ's College in Cambridge. His father hoped he would follow in his footsteps and become a medical doctor, but the sight of blood made Darwin queasy. His father suggested he study to become a parson instead, but Darwin was far more inclined to study natural history.

Voyage on the HMS Beagle

While Darwin was at Christ's College, botany professor John Stevens Henslow became his mentor. After Darwin graduated Christ's College with a bachelor of arts degree in 1831, Henslow recommended him for a naturalist’s position aboard the HMS Beagle. The ship, commanded by Captain Robert FitzRoy, was to take a five-year survey trip around the world. The voyage would prove the opportunity of a lifetime for the budding young naturalist.

On December 27, 1831, the HMS Beagle launched its voyage around the world with Darwin in tow. Over the course of the trip, Darwin collected a variety of natural specimens, including birds, plants and fossils. Through hands-on research and experimentation, he had the unique opportunity to closely observe principles of botany, geology and zoology. The Pacific Islands and Galapagos Archipelago were of particular interest to Darwin, as was South America.

Upon his return to England in 1836, Darwin began to write up his findings in the Journal of Researches, published as part of Captain FitzRoy's larger narrative and later edited into the Zoology of the Voyage of the Beagle. The trip had a monumental affect on Darwin’s view of natural history. He began to develop a revolutionary theory about the origin of living beings that was contrary to the popular view of other naturalists at the time.

Theory of Evolution

Darwin's exposure to specimens all over the globe raised important questions. Other naturalists believed that all species either came into being at the start of the world, or were created over the course of natural history. In either case, the species were believed to remain much the same throughout time. Darwin, however, noticed similarities among species all over the globe, along with variations based on specific locations, leading him to believe that they had gradually evolved from common ancestors. He came to believe that species survived through a process called "natural selection," where species that successfully adapted to meet the changing requirements of their natural habitat thrived, while those that failed to evolve and reproduce died off.

In 1858, after years of further scientific investigation, Darwin publically introduced his revolutionary theory of evolution in a letter read at a meeting of the Linnean Society. On November 24, 1859, he published a detailed explanation of his theory in his best-known work, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.

Death and Legacy

Following a lifetime of devout research, Charles Darwin died at his family home, Down House, in London, on April 19, 1882, and was buried at Westminster Abbey. During the next century, DNA studies revealed evidence of his theory of evolution, although controversy surrounding its conflict with Creationism—the religious view that all of nature was born of God—still abounds today.

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