Charles Darwin: 5 Facts About the Father of Evolution

Today, in celebration of the anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, we look at a natural selection of five little-known facts about the man behind the theory of evolution.
Charles Darwin Photo

A portrait of Charles Darwin taken by Julia Margaret Cameron showing the bushy beard Darwin grew between 1862 and 1866. (Photo: Julia Margaret Cameron [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

It’s the most controversial origin story in human history. Charles Darwin's theory of evolution was a radical idea during its time and even now, over 150 years after the publication of The Origin of Species, his ideas represent a front line in the culture war. Just ask Science Guy Bill Nye or Creationist Ken Ham, both of whom faced off in a heated televised debate watched by over 3 million viewers. To celebrate the anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, also known as Darwin Day, here is a natural selection of five little-known facts about one of the most influential thinkers of our time.

1) The father of evolution began life as a creationist. Raised as a Christian in Victorian England, Charles Darwin enrolled at Cambridge University as a divinity student. “I did not then in the least doubt the strict and literal truth of every word in the Bible,” he wrote. While studying at Cambridge, a tutor recommended he take a biology research trip around the world on the HMS Beagle -- a voyage that would prompt Darwin to question his Christian worldview.

Charles Darwin Voyage Map Photo

The voyage of the Beagle, 1831–1836. (Photo: © Sémhur / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons)

2) He possessed a unique hunger for knowledge. During his five-year voyage around the world, Darwin famously collected and catalogued countless plants and animals. But sailors on the Beagle noted that Darwin was happy to eat many of the exotic animals he collected, including turtles, iguanas, pumas (which he said tasted like veal) and armadillos (which he said tasted like duck). An eccentric foodie, Darwin was a member of Cambridge University’s Glutton Club, a weekly group whose mission was to seek out and eat “strange flesh.”

3) He delayed the publication of his theory of natural selection for twenty years. Darwin began formulating his theory in the late 1830s but kept it under wraps for two decades. His grandfather Erasmus Darwin had published early work in evolution only to be criticized by the church. Charles, therefore, wanted to build up a surplus of evidence before going public with his ideas.

Charles Darwin Origin of Species Photo

The title page of 'On the Origin of Species.' (Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Contrary to popular belief, Darwin didn’t have a Eureka moment in the Galapagos islands. Rather, his ideas evolved over time, and were based on rudimentary theories about evolution that had been around for decades. The word “evolution,” in fact, doesn’t appear in his book, The Origin of Species, until its sixth edition.

4) Charles Darwin almost got scooped. During the twenty years developing his theories, Darwin worked closely with Alfred Russel Wallace. Inspired by Darwin, Wallace also explored wildlife in South America and supplied Darwin with wildlife for his own research. In 1858, Wallace asked Darwin to review a manuscript that included his own ideas about natural selection. Shocked that Wallace’s ideas were nearly identical to his own -- and having written roughly a quarter of a million words on the subject -- Darwin decided to go public, publishing The Origin of Species in 1859.

Charles Darwin Wife Emma Photo

Emma Wedgwood Darwin. (Painting: George Richmond [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

5) Darwin married his cousin. After methodically drawing up a list of pros and cons, Charles Darwin decided to marry his cousin Emma Wedgwood. Although the two were happily married (and enjoyed nightly games of backgammon), a shadow of tragedy fell upon their offspring. Of their 10 children, three died in childhood -- losses that haunted Darwin throughout his life. Recognizing that plants that self-fertilized tended to be less healthy, Darwin worried inbreeding may have brought on the tragedy.