Charles Darwin (1820-1882) in the minds of many people was the greatest scientist of the millennium, making contribution that were more important to mankind and are our understanding of nature than Newton or Einstein. His ideas about evolution are as fundamental to biology and the natural sciences as atoms and molecules are to the fields of physics and chemistry.

Darwin gave the world the theory of natural selection and the concept of survival of the fittest. To appreciate how revolutionary his ideas were, you have to realize that in his time nearly everyone thought that the creatures on earth were exactly the same as the ones created by God on the first day of creation.

Darwin’s discoveries do not come at some great Eureka! moment of profound insight they came after years of collecting as much information about life as he could, spending long hours peering into a microscope and creating a global network of correspondence. To truly appreciate what he did one must realize he worked at time when ships didn’t have engines, the word dinosaur hadn’t been invented and scientists thought disease was caused by “spontaneous generation”---the idea that continuality arose form nonliving things.

Richard Milner, as science historian who plays Darwin in a one-man musical Charles Darwin: Live & In Concert told the New York Times, “Everyone should find their own Darwin. The man was so large. He was a zoologist, a botanist, an explorer, a travel writer, a philosopher, an abolitionist, a doting father, a radical intellectual revolutionary with an utterly conservative and blemish-free lifestyle. He revolutionized every field he touched, and was trained in none of them.”

A big deal was made about Darwin in 2009, the 200th anniversary of his birthday and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his groundbreaking book On the Origin of Species . To mark these events a replica of the Beagle , the ship carried Darwin around the world, retraced his journey, and movie about his life, Creation , was released. In a 2002 BBC poll of great Britons he ranked forth.

Websites and Resources on Hominins and Human Origins: Smithsonian Human Origins Program ; Institute of Human Origins ; Becoming Human University of Arizona site ; Talk Origins Index ; Last updated 2006. Hall of Human Origins American Museum of Natural History ; Wikipedia article on Human Evolution Wikipedia ; Human Evolution Images; Hominin Species ; Paleoanthropology Links ; Britannica Human Evolution ; Human Evolution ; National Geographic Map of Human Migrations ; Humin Origins Washington State University ; University of California Museum of Anthropology; BBC The evolution of man"; "Bones, Stones and Genes: The Origin of Modern Humans" (Video lecture series). Howard Hughes Medical Institute.; Human Evolution Timeline ; Walking with Cavemen (BBC) ; PBS Evolution: Humans; PBS: Human Evolution Library; Human Evolution: you try it, from PBS; John Hawks' Anthropology Weblog ; New Scientist: Human Evolution; Fossil Sites and Organizations: The Paleoanthropology Society; Institute of Human Origins (Don Johanson's organization); The Leakey Foundation; The Stone Age Institute; The Bradshaw Foundation ; Turkana Basin Institute; Koobi Fora Research Project; Maropeng Cradle of Humankind, South Africa ; Blombus Cave Project; Journals: Journal of Human Evolution; American Journal of Physical Anthropology; Evolutionary Anthropology; Comptes Rendus Palevol ; PaleoAnthropology

Darwin's Early Life

Darwin was born on the same day as Abraham Lincoln: February 12, 1809, which is significant in that both men fought vigorously against slavery. Darwin's father wanted his son to be a doctor or clergyman, and complained that as child he "messed up the house with everlasting rubbish" and cared "for nothing but shooting, dogs and rat catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and your family."

Darwin was the grandson of Erasmus Darwin, a noted physician, philosopher, botanist, inventor and poet. Erasmus Darwin was the first naturalist in Europe to publish a coherent theory of evolution. He did this 70 years before Charles Darwin, writing his ideas in verse no less once a week like the book-length poems: The Temple of Nature and Islands and Continent Raised by Earthquakes . Erasmus believed that life evolved from a single ancestor.”Shall we conjecture that one and the same kind of living filament is and has been the cause of all organic life?” he wrote in Zoonnomia in 1794.

Darwin dropped out of medical school in Edinburgh because watching gory operations nauseated him and later enrolled at Cambridge University where he studied theology and began formally studying the natural sciences. He spent his free time collecting beetles.

Darwin, Religion and Geology

Darwin initially was a religious man. He was convinced that the study of nature was appropriate for a minster and one of the purposes of his voyage on the Beagle was to come up with evidence to support Genesis. Like everyone else in his time, he originally believed the world came into existence in 4004 B.C. (a date determined a 17th century Irish clergyman who chronicled the events of the Bible and came up with date).

Darwin was influenced by Charles Lyell (1797-1875), who applied evolutionary principals to the science of geology to describe the millennia -long processes of erosion, sediment accumulation and volcanism in his book, the Principals of Geology . Darwin took the first edition of this book with him on the Beagle , along with the Bible and works by Milton and Alexander von Humboldt. The second edition of Principals of Geology , which theorized that new species emerged over time while others become extinct, was waiting for Darwin in Montevideo when the Beagle arrived.

Darwin's view about religion changed later in life after his beloved daughter Annie died at the age of 10. He wrote that "The beginning of all things is insoluble by us, and I for one must remain an Agnostic." On Sundays his deeply religious wife would go to church and he would go for walks. His last words were reportedly "I am not the least afraid to die."

Darwin Voyages Around the World on the Beagle

In 1831, when Darwin was 22 , he set sail on a round-the-world voyage on the Beagle a small 18th-century style boat know as bark, which wasn’t much larger than a present-day tug boat. Its mission was to set up chronometric stations and chart the waters around southern South America and the islands in the South Pacific. Darwin came along as a naturalist whose aim was to find proof for that Bible and Genesis were the literal truth. [Source: Allen Villiers, National Geographic, October 1969]

The voyage was supposed to last for two years, but it lasted for five years. Darwin's father initially didn't want his son to travel around the world on the Beagle, and Charles probably would have stayed home were it not for an uncle who told his father that "the pursuit of Natural History, though certainly not professional, is very suitable to a clergyman."

“The voyage on the Beagle," wrote Charles Darwin, "has been by far the most important event in my life...yet it depended...on such a trifle as the shape of my nose." Robert Fitz Roy, the captain of the Beagle and follower of phrenology, nearly rejected Darwin because his nose suggested a lack of "energy and determination." But because hardly any else was willing to take the nonpaying job of naturalist on a mapping voyage Fitz Roy decided to take the wealthy 22-year-old amateur collector on the trip.

The basic route of the Beagle was as follows: England, the Canary island, three or fours stop each in Brazil, Argentina, and Chile, the Galapagos Islands, Tahiti, New Zealand, Tasmania, Sydney and Albany, Australia, Mauritius, around the Cape of Good Hope, back to Brazil again, and home to England. Darwin wanted to explore Peru at length but a revolution shortened his six week visit there.

The slim six-foot Darwin slept the entire journey in a hammock in the charterhouse on the right end of the poop, the part that rocked the most in turbulent seas. As a result Darwin frequently suffered from awful sickness. In a letter to his sister he wrote: "Heaven protect & fortify my poor stomach." While on board Darwin busied himself reading, writing and examining and classifying the thousands of sample of life he brought on board. When roamed around on land he carried a pistol in his waist coat. They other members of the crew called him "Philos." After his return to England he wrote a popular travelog about the trip.

Darwin, Fossils in Argentina and Galapagos Island Finches

20120201-Darwi nches.jpeg
Darwin started having problems with literalist interpretations of the Bible in Argentina when he uncovered fossils of animals that seemed way to large to fit on the Ark. When he brought the skull of the hippopotamus-size toxodon on board the Beagle his shipmates complained, "he brought more...rubbish aboard than ten men." It took Darwin a long time however to put all the pieces together. His theory of evolution was not published until 1859, 25 years after the voyage of the Beagle ended.

During Darwin's time the extinction of animals, of which later fossils were found, was explained by occurrences of natural calamities. When Darwin came across some scallop fossils, virtually identical to mollusks of that species found today, he reasoned, that if the present theories of extinction were true then why weren't scalloped wiped out as well. He also saw fossils of horses in Argentina and wondered how it could be they were no horses when Europeans arrived in the New World, but there were horses in the Old World. He was perplexed by woodpeckers in areas with no trees and web-footed geese which never went near the water and was curious about how mice on one side of the Andes could be different from those on the other side

Observing finches on the Galapagos island gave Darwin some of his greatest insighst into evolution. The 13 different species of finches he found there each have a different kind of beak to deal with extracting food in a particular environment. "Seeing the gradation and diversity of structure in one small, small intimately related group of birds, one might really fancy that from an original paucity of birds in this archipelago, once species had been taken and modified for different ends,” he wrote.

Darwin Gets Married and Settles Down

Emma and Leon Darwin
Two years after Darwin returned to England he married one of his cousins, Emma Wedgewood. Before proposing he got out a piece of paper, made a line down the middle and wrote “Marry” on side and “Not Marry” on the other. In the middle he wrote “This is the Question.” On the “Marry” side he wrote things like companionship, children and “charms of music & female chit-chat” and the “Not Marry” side he listed lose freedom and adventure and time to pursue his scientific research. His famous conclusion: “Marry”Marry---Mary Q.E.D.” Quod erat demonstrandum. That it is proven.

Darwin settled into his beloved Down House near Orpington, Kent, 12 miles from London. He never again traveled far from his home. Darwin had 10 children which he loved dearly. He enjoyed reading Mark Twain and Lewis Carrol.

Emma was very religious. Her beloved sister died young and she believed that living a good Christian life would reunite them in heaven. Darwin felt that his growing religious doubts might create problems with his marriage but was open with her about his feelings and they established from what can best be determined a strong and happy relationship. She helped edit and proofread his work and is credited with mellowing the tone of Origins of Species so that it didn’t come off as a anti-God diatribe.

Book: Charles and Emma: The Darwin’s Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman (Henry Holt, 2009)

Origin of Species

Over the years Darwin carefully sorted out the things he observed on the Beagle voyage and combined that with research he did in England and published his two groundbreaking works On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man which came out long after the Beagle voyage was over.

Darwin’s theory of evolution first took shape when he made a 35-page outline of his ideas in June 1842. Two years later the work had grown into 230 page abstract but it still wasn’t finished in 1856 when Lyell advised Darwin to "expand his treatment."

In the summer 1858 Darwin received a rude shock when the British naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace sent him an essay from present-day Indonesia describing his theory of the "tendency of varieties to depart indefinitely from the original type," which was basically the same idea of evolution that Darwin himself had been working on for more that 20 years. Darwin put his project in high gear, resulting in the publishing of the On the Origins of Species on November 24, 1859.

When Darwin approached his publisher with the idea for the On the Origin of Species , the publisher suggested that he write a book about pigeons instead because "Everyone is interested in pigeons." As it was the Origin of Species turned out to be a big commercial success. The first 1,250 copies sold out in the first day. In 1876 Darwin wrote "Sixteen thousand copies have now been sold in England, and considering how stiff a book it is this is a large sale. It has been translated into almost every European tongue, even...Spanish, Bohemian, Polish and Russian.”

The full name of the work was On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection , or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life . In it Darwin theorized that: 1) animals reproduce in much greater numbers than can be supported by their environment; 2) the least fit die and the strongest survive; and 3) the properties that allow the fittest to survive are inherited. The term "survival of the fittest" was coined by Herbert Spencer. Darwin also theorized that different species share common ancestry and if you go back far enough you can find these ancestors and that complex traits such as eyesight evolved through a series of intermediate steps. These are plenty of examples in the fossil record to back up Darwin’s theories.

Few people today have read On the Origin of Species in the original. It is no easy read but has extraordinary insights especially when the time they are written in are taken into consideration. In it Darwin wrote things like: “What can be more curious than that the hand of man, formed for grasping , the foot of a mole for digging, the leg of a horse, the paddle of a porpoise, and the wing of a bat should all be constructed on the same apparent and should include the same bones in the same relative positions.”

Nicholas Wade wrote in the New York Times, Darwin “thought deeply about every detail of his theory for more than 20 years before publishing “On the Origins of Species---...Instead of brushing off objections to his theory he thought about them obsessively until he had found a solution...Darwin’s thinking about evolution was not only deep, but also very broad. He was interested in fossils, animal breeding, geographical distribution, anatomy and plants.”

Alfred Russell Wallace

Alfred Russell Wallace at 24
Alfred Russell Wallace (1823-1913) developed a theory of evolution the same time as Darwin but failed to win the same recognition as Darwin. He made a historic journey through Malaysia, Borneo and Spice Islands about 20 years after Darwin made his voyage in the Beagle. Wallace was a much more colorful character than Darwin. He was one of nine children in a poor family and dropped out of school at fourteen. His interest in the natural sciences blossomed during beetle-hunting expeditions with a close friend.

Wallace spent fours years collecting specimens in the Amazon. He wrote a paper entitled On Monkeys in the Amazon but lost his specimens when the ship he was on caught fire and sunk on the voyage back to Europe. Later in life he became a vocal supporter of women's rights and was a firm believer in Spiritualism. He disputed a theory that the canals on the planet Mars were used by irrigation in his treatise Is Mars Habitable?

Wallace collected 125,000 species of flora and fauna, many of them new to science, during his five years in Amazon basin and eight years traveling alone in Indonesia. The idea of survival of the fittest came to him while he was suffering from a malaria fit. Austen Layard, a contemporary of Wallace, said "one of the results of fever is a considerable excitement of the brain."

Wallace also came up with the idea of the The Wallace Line, an invisible biological barrier described by and named after the British naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace. Running along the water between the Indonesia islands of Bali and Lombok and between Borneo and Sulawesi, it separates the species found in Australia, New Guinea and the eastern islands of Indonesia from those found in western Indonesia, the Philippines and the Southeast Asia. Because of the Wallace Line Asian animals such as elephants, orangutans and tigers never ventured further east than Bali, and Australian animals such as kangaroos, emus, cassowaries, wallabies and cockatoos never made it to Asia. Animals from both continents are found in some parts of Indonesia.

Wallace came up with the idea of a dividing line for animals after conducting surveys in the 1850s in Borneo and Sulawesi, where he was struck by how different the wildlife was on the two islands despite their close proximity to one another and their similar climates and geography. His letters to Darwin on the subject prompted Darwin to take a look as his own travels and make similar observations on some of the places he visited. In 1859 Wallace expanded on his observations and drew a line between Borneo and Bali to the west and Sulawesi and Lombok to the east and theorized that areas to the west---including the islands of Indonesia the Philippines---were part of a great Asian landmass and areas to east were connected to a greater Australian landmass, with Sulawesi containing elements of both the Asian and Australian landmass.

Studies of geology, ice ages and rising and falling sea levels conducted after Wallace’s death---that among other things that Indonesia, the Philippines and the Southeast Asia were all connected by land bridges when sea levels dropped during ice ages---proved that his theories were largely correct. Further studies on the matter placed the furthest extent of Australian type fauna further east between the Moluccas and Timor.

Darwin and Alfred Russell

Alfred Russell Wallace
In his initial letter to Darwin, Wallace wrote: "Why do some die and some live? And the answer was clearly, that on the whole the best fitted live. From the effects of disease the most healthy escaped; from enemies the strongest and swiftest, or the most cunning...Then it suddenly flashed upon me that this self-acting process would necessarily improve the race , because in every generation the inferior would be killed off and the superior would remain---that is the fittest would survive ." Upon reading the letter Darwin wrote his works "were badly written. Mr. Wallace's essay, on the other hand was admirably expressed and quite clear.”

The Linnean Society investigated the matter on who should be given credit for the discovery of evolution. On July 1, 1858, the society announced that "two indefatigable naturalists, Mr Charles Darwin and Mr. Alfred Wallace...independently and unknown to one another, conceived the same very ingenious theory to account for the appearance and perturbation of varieties and of specific forms on our planet." This was the first public statement about the theory of evolution.

Russell eventually gave up on evolution and turned to spiritualism and its weird ideas to explain the human mind. Darwin secretly helped finance the prosecution of a spiritualist con man supported by Wallace.

Darwin's Last Years

Darwin at 51
Darwin wrote eight books before Origin of Species and 10 books afterward. Among his other contributions to science were his explanations that atolls were built by coral reefs left on the remnants of volcano and mountains were created by the uplifting forces of the earth. His later conclusion came from the fact he noticed fossils of sea shells at 14,000 feet in the Andes. He also wrote an influential work on orchids and barnacles.

Darwin's later years were characterized by frequent illnesses, many of them related to Changas disease, which he picked up in South America. Described by some as a "hypochondriac recluse," he suffered continual pain, sometimes so severe he couldn't work, and psychosomatic headaches. He refused to see people because he said the excitement made him exhausted. His treatments included regular visits to spas, fasting and cutting his intake of snuff

Darwin died in 1882 at the age of 62 of a massive coronary four months after suffering a heart attack. After his heart attack he wrote, "I am not in the least afraid to die...My name ought to last for a few years." He was buried in Westminster Abbey next to Newton.

Darwin's Legacy

20120201-charles Darwin_sexual_caricature.gif
Much of what became the theory evolution came from work after Darwin. Gregor Mendel’s Patterns of Heredity gave Darwin’s idea of natural selection a mechanism---genetics---by which it could work. The discovery of DNA gave genetics a mechanism; the development of biology gave DNA a mechanism; and studies documenting evolution in nature transformed the hypothetical into the observable fact. [Source: Carl Safina, New York Times, February 10, 2009]

Nicholas Wade wrote in the New York Times, from a modern perspective, “Darwin’s principal ideas are substantially correct. He did not get everything right. Because he didn’t known plate tectonics, Darwin’s comments on the distribution of species are not very useful. His theory of inheritance, since he no knowledge of genes or DNA is beside the point. But his central concepts of natural selection ad sexual selection were correct, He also presented a form of group-level selection that was long dismissed but now has leading advocates like biologists like E.O. Wilson and David Sloan Wilson...Not only was Darwin correct in the central premises of his theory, but in several other still open issues like his views of how new species form also seem quite like to prevail.”

The model for Darwin’s’s theory---the tree of life which views evolutionary development as a nice tidy series of trunks and branches---is less than ideal as it fails to grasp the complexity of evolution with exchanges taking place between branches. Today scientists evolution as being more like a tapestry of woven components than a tree.

Today, biologists along with Google and Adobe, are putting together a modern super tree that will have many animals and plants and show how they are related to other flora and fauna and be accessible to anyone on the Internet. Some hope it will revolutionize the study of the natural sciences the way Google Earth changed the way people looked at geography.

Scientists involved in the project include Michael Sanderson of the University of Arizona and Mark W. Westheats, director of the Biodiversity Synthesis Center at the Field Museum in Chicago. As of early 2009 Stephen Smith of the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center in North Carolina and his colleagues created a tree containing 13,533 species of plant.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: The Discoverers by Daniel Boorstin; Life on Earth by David Attenborough (Princeton University Press), New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Natural History magazine, Discover magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Page Top

© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated March 2011

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.