Charles Robert Darwin | Darwin and Wallace: A Nature & Fossil Store

Charles Robert Darwin

Birthplace: Shrewsbury, England

Born: February 12,1809

Died: April 19, 1882

Married: Emma Wedgwood, January 28, 1839

Children: William, Annie, Mary, Henrietta, George, Elizabeth, Francis, Leonard, Horace, and Charles.

Areas Explored: Brazil, Argentina (Tierra del Fuego in particular), Falkland Islands, Chile, Peru, Galapagos Islands, Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia, Tasmania, Keeling Islands, Mauritius, South Africa, St. Helena Island



            Charles Darwin was born to his parents Robert Darwin and Susannah Wedgwood on February 12, 1809, and was the fifth of six children. As a child, Darwin grew up in the English town of Shrewsbury, and found himself at his happiest when he was exploring and collecting (mostly shells, minerals, etc.). As he grew older, he also developed a fondness for hunting birds, as well as conducting experiments with his brother Erasmus.


            As a young man, Darwin did not excel particularly well in school. His father, who was a successful country doctor, took notice of his son’s interest in science and decided to push Darwin to study medicine. Darwin was accepted into Edinburgh University, though he continued to neglect his studies there as well in favor of his interests in the natural world (it did not help that he was revolted by the sight of blood and cadavers). At Edinburgh, Darwin became influenced by the theories of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, a French scientist whom espoused that “higher life forms” had descended from “lower life forms” over numerous generations. This theory was not new to Darwin, as the idea of life “evolving” had actually been around decades before him, though it still put him at odds with what he had always been taught as a societal norm; that life was created by a Creator, and was immutable. Realizing his son was not going to make it as a doctor, Robert Darwin pulled Charles from Edinburgh University, and had him attend Christ’s College in Cambridge where he could pursue religious studies in order to become an Anglican vicar. One of Darwin’s outlets to pursue his passions lied in his new friend at Cambridge, John Stevens Henslow. Henslow’s background was in botany and mineralogy, and Darwin was greatly inspired by his knowledge.



            In August of 1831, Darwin’s life would be forever changed by a letter left for him by Henslow. The letter informed Darwin of a position that was available for a naturalist aboard the HMS Beagle, a royal navy vessel that would be sailing around the world in order to gather information on sea depths along coastlines for better nautical charts. Darwin’s only responsibilities would be to observe the botany and geology of these distant lands, as well as to collect and catalogue new species of plants and animals. For this naturalist in vicar-in-training’s clothing, it was the chance of a lifetime. The HMS Beagle would depart for its two year survey out of Plymouth on December 27, 1831. Charles Darwin was able to visit numerous exotic locales while on this expedition, but one place in particular would help conceive an idea (later turned reality) that would become synonymous with Darwin and his literary works. This place was the Galapagos Islands, and it was here where Darwin took note of how similar animals on different islands had adapted different physical characteristics. Why there would be so much variation amongst animals that were so similar within these islands was something that Darwin did not yet fully figure out until years later. In the autumn of 1836, the HMS Beagle returned to England. It was at this point that Darwin knew he would never become an Anglican vicar, but would instead fully pursue his passion for natural history. To his surprise, Darwin was already an academic celebrity upon returning home, as his good friend Henslow had printed many of Darwin’s letters from the HMS Beagle into available pamphlets, unbeknownst to him.


            Though Darwin brought back and studied numerous specimens of plants, animals, and fossils, it was the several varieties of one creature that would come to represent, above all, Darwin’s future theory: the finch. Though the different finches that Darwin collected were all somewhat similar, one thing that set them apart was the sizes and shapes of their beaks. Darwin realized that these beak variations would allow the birds to fulfill different dietary and ecological niches. He wondered if it truly could be possible that animals of such close relation, though still different, could have all come from one common ancestor- an ancestor that would bear countless generations, with populations being modified by nature for different ends. Darwin was now able to start formulating his theory: the theory of evolution by means of natural selection. Though, as stated previously, evolution had been pondered by those before him. Darwin was now beginning to reveal the engine by which evolution occurs.



            On January 28, 1839, Charles Darwin married his cousin, Emma Wedgwood. Though she was devoutly religious, Darwin tried to keep his religious doubts concealed for the time being. In 1842, Darwin would move his wife and first child, William, to their new home in the village of Downe, at the previously built estate of Down House. It was here where Charles and Emma would have the rest of their children and live out the remainder of their lives. Aside from having to watch over his children, Darwin would also have to watch over his plaguing health issues. From his time on the HMS Beagle and until his death, Darwin would be the bearer of extreme headaches, fevers, and volatile nausea that would leave him almost incapacitated for days. In 1851, Darwin lost his favorite child, Annie, to what were probably his inherited ailments. It was with this terrible milestone that Darwin claimed to have lost his faith entirely.


            While at Down House, Darwin consistently pursued his interests (particularly in barnacles), all the while his theory of “transmutation of the species” lurked in his mind. Darwin was dreadfully afraid of how the public might react to it, and even considered having Emma publish it after his death. It was not until Darwin received an astonishing letter from a colleague on June 18, 1858, that he decided to act quickly in giving his theory to the world. Enter, Alfred Russel Wallace.


            Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace had met briefly before Wallace’s expedition to the Malay Archipelago (Malaysia and Indonesia), and the two had kept in touch through letter writing. This letter, however, would be a draft of a paper entitled “On the Tendency of Varieties to depart indefinitely from the Original Type.” Wallace, to Darwin’s shock, had formulated a theory that was strikingly similar to Darwin’s own. It was then that Darwin realized he could no longer wait for his death to unleash his ideas. As a scholarly gentlemen though, Darwin was not about to let Wallace’s light go out simply because he had thought of the same idea independently. On July 1, 1858, a joint presentation of both Darwin and Wallace’s views was given to the Linnaean Society of London, so that both of their works could be published together. It was Darwin’s academic popularity however, that made him stand out as opposed to Wallace. Alfred Russel Wallace was still in Borneo during the presentation, and would not be made aware of it until months later through telegraph. By all accounts, he was delighted that his ideas were deemed worthy of publication.


            On November 24, 1859, after two decades of research and intentional delay, Charles Darwin finally published his most seminal work, entitled, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.” The initial print of 1,250 copies sold out at a feverish pace, becoming an instant success, and was popular to both scientists and the common man alike. Within a year some 4,250 copies were in circulation. The central thesis behind Darwin’s book was that through “natural selection,” a species could either adapt or die according to its environmental pressures. These ideas were revolutionary, and were more than just speculation. They provided evolution with an engine that could be observed and documented. One of the major problems that Darwin recognized was the lack of “transitional forms” in the fossil record to help support his theory. He did make mention that the task of uncovering those fossils would have to be left up to the scientists to come after him. During his lifetime however, Darwin did enjoy two important fossil discoveries that helped his case: the feathered dinosaur known as Archaeopteryx (included in his third edition of “Origin”), and the close cousin to Homo sapiens known as Neanderthal man (Homo neanderthalensis). After his death, just as Darwin predicted, several more transitional fossils would be uncovered for dinosaur-to-bird, ape-to-man, and countless other animal groups. They are still being found today.


            Darwin enjoyed extreme success with his book, and it brought him great praise by many, as well as opposition. He was bestowed with an honorary doctorate from Cambridge, amongst several other honors in the academic and scientific arenas. He would live to see “Origin” go through six more editions, with the sixth employing the word “evolution” for the first time. Darwin would also write several other important books in regards to natural history, as well as his autobiography. In his final days, Darwin remained bedridden with his wife watching over him. He never overcame his ailments, and ultimately he succumbed to them in his old age of seventy-three years. On April 19, 1882, Charles Robert Darwin died in his sleep, within Emma Darwin’s embrace at Down House. Though he had intended to be buried on the grounds at Down House, his close friends in the scientific community were able to secure his burial at Westminster Abbey; a tremendous honor and acknowledgement for a man whose open mind and keen observation of the natural world, would change the foundation of biological sciences forever. Amongst his pallbearers was the man whom shared those same qualities, Alfred Russel Wallace.