Charles Darwin: A Life of Discovery

Charles Robert Darwin was born on February 12, 1809, in Shrewsbury, England. He grew up at The Mount, the family home that overlooked the River Severn. His father, Robert Waring Darwin (1766-1848), was a well-respected and successful physician. Darwin’s mother Susannah (1765-1817), died when he was eight years old and he was brought up by his older sisters who took charge of the household.



From 1818 to 1825 he attended Shrewsbury School, run by the Revd. Samuel Butler. In his autobiography, Darwin wrote, ‘Nothing could have been worse for the development of my mind than Dr. Butler’s school, as it was strictly classical, nothing else being taught except a little ancient geography and history.’ Darwin was more interested in the outdoors. At an early age, he developed a passion for collecting—shells, minerals, insects—and a love of fishing and hunting. But he was not a good student. At one point his father told him, “You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family.”

Darwin (aged six) with sister Catherine.

In 1825, hoping he would make something of himself, his father sent him off to Edinburgh to study medicine. Darwin, however, was not cut out to be a doctor. He attended two operations, but he could not stay to see either finished (pre-anesthesia operations were grisly affairs).

In desperation, his father sent him to Cambridge to prepare him for the clergy, and it was there that he met John Stevens Henslow, Professor of Botany, who would become his mentor. They talked so often, Darwin became known as ‘the man who walks with Henslow.’

Darwin later wrote, “No pursuit at Cambridge was followed with nearly so much eagerness or gave me so much pleasure as collecting beetles. It was the mere passion for collecting; for I did not dissect them, and rarely compared their external characters with published descriptions, but got them named anyhow. I will give a proof of my zeal: one day, on tearing off some old bark, I saw two rare beetles, and seized one in each hand; then I saw a third and new kind, which I could not bear to lose, so that I popped the one which I held in my right hand into my mouth. Alas! it ejected some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, as was the third one.”

But beetles were just the beginning. Soon after Cambridge he set out on a voyage that opened his eyes to the incredible diversity of life. As he himself said later, “The voyage of the Beagle has been by far the most important event in my life and has determined my whole career.”

The Voyage 

History is full of famous sea voyages—from Columbus’ journey to the new world to the first circumnavigation of the Earth by Magellan’s ship Victoria. In modern atlases, colorful dotted lines crisscross the world’s oceans, marking the routes of Vasco da Gama and Sir Francis Drake, Captain Cook and Jacques Cartier.

These adventures fill our history books and fire our imaginations with the thunder of cannons, the horrors of scurvy, and the discovery of new lands. Yet within this rich tapestry of triumph and disaster, only a few voyages truly altered the course of history. The Beagle expedition is one.

Circling the world from 1831 to 1836, the Beagle discovered no new continents, fought no decisive sea battles, nor returned laden with gold doubloons, bolts of silk or exotic spices. But onboard was Charles Darwin. As the expedition’s de facto naturalist, he explored unknown reefs and volcanoes, described new birds and reptiles, and unearthed mysterious fossils and shells. He hacked his way through the rain forests of Brazil and clambered to the top of the Andes mountains. He experienced a devastating earthquake which shook the west coast of Chile and explored the tranquil coral islands of the Indian Ocean. From the Antarctic to the tropics, Darwin studied the world’s geology, plants, and animals and, as a result, forged the most far-reaching theory in the history of science: evolution by natural selection.

Riding the Tide

In 1831, the British Admiralty commissioned H.M.S. Beagle, under the command of Captain Robert FitzRoy, to conduct surveys of the South American coast. The voyage presented a rare opportunity for a naturalist to accompany the expedition and Henslow recommended Darwin.

Getting Darwin on board, however, was fraught with difficulties. First, Darwin’s father objected—he thought it a waste of time. At one point, the position was offered to someone else. And as if there weren’t enough problems, FitzRoy didn’t like Darwin’s nose. As Darwin wrote in his autobiography, “He [FitzRoy] was an ardent disciple of Lavater, and was convinced that he could judge of a man’s character by the outline of his features; and he doubted whether any one with my nose could possess sufficient energy and determination for the voyage. But I think he was afterwards well satisfied that my nose and spoken falsely.”

The first week of September 1831 was tumultuous. Letters flew back and forth; interviews were scheduled and canceled; plans made and abandoned. Darwin overcame one obstacle only to face another, but his destiny prevailed. On September 5th, with the details of the voyage finally settled, he wrote to his sister, “There is indeed a tide in the affairs of men, & I have experienced it.”

Sketch of H.M.S. Beagle by crew member Philip Gidley King.

FitzRoy warned Darwin that space was tight, but nothing prepared him for what he found at Devonport on Tuesday, September 13: a ten-gun brig rebuilt as a three-masted bark (a third mast, the mizzen mast, had been added before her first voyage), ninety feet long with a beam of only twenty-four feet. The Beagle carried more than seventy men, and in order to sleep at night, Darwin had to remove a drawer to make room for his feet. Lack of space, however, was the least of his problems. Although the voyage was originally scheduled to leave in October, there were many delays while the ship was refitted to FitzRoy’s exacting specifications. Twice the crew departed only to be driven back by gales. Finally, on December 27, they set out for good on their five year adventure. And the first thing Darwin learned was the agony of sea-sickness.

He was ill almost the entire voyage, scarcely able to get out of his hammock whenever the ship was at sea. He passed the tortuous hours reading the books he had brought along—Alexander von Humboldt’s ‘Personal Narrative,’ Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost,’ and a copy of the New Testament in Greek.  Finding it impossible to even stand up without becoming seasick, Darwin wondered if he made a serious mistake.

The Beagle’s first stop was Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, but upon arrival the crew faced a quarantine of twelve days because England was in the middle of a cholera epidemic. FitzRoy did not hesitate. “Up jib!” he ordered, and to Darwin’s horror they sailed off immediately. Not only did Darwin want to visit the island, he desperately wanted to stand on dry land.

Fortunately, the break he needed was not far off. On January 16 the Beagle reached Saint Jago in the Cape Verde Islands, three hundred miles off the African coast. Expecting it to be uninteresting, Darwin found it electrifying. He saw for the first time the lush tropical flora he had read about in Humboldt’s ‘Narrative’, an account of his visit to South America at the turn of the nineteenth century.

It was everything Darwin had dreamed of, a tangle of “Tamarinds, bananas & palms,” a riot of bright colors and strange flowers in striking contrast to the islands black volcanic rocks. To his father he wrote, “It is utterly useless to say anything about the Scenery – it would be as profitable to explain to a blind man colours, as to a person, who has not been out of Europe, the total dissimilarity of a Tropical view.”

Law of the Jungle

On February 16, 1832 they crossed the equator and on February 28 sailed into All Saints Bay at Bahía (Salvador), where Darwin took his first steps in South America. For the next year, the Beagle made its way down the coast, conducting surveys, taking soundings and drawing charts, while Darwin collected insects, seashells and rocks. He did not put the pieces together until he returned to England, but it was there—in the heart of South America—that Darwin made his first important discoveries.

Lost in the brilliance of Brazil’s rain forest, surrounded by parrots, hummingbirds and orchids, Darwin saw not only the incredible luxuriance and diversity of the Amazon but also the harsh reality of life within it. He watched a predatory wasp hunt down, kill and drag off a spider—a fight to the death between two tiny monsters, a stark example of nature’s first law: kill or be killed. Everywhere he looked was a ruthless struggle for survival: vampire bats attacked horses in the dead of night; an unstoppable column of army ants triggered panic throughout the forest. It was Darwin’s first real glimpse of the never-ending battle between the hunters and the hunted.

In September at Bahía Blanca, south of Rio de Janeiro, Darwin excavated several huge skeletons, the remains of giant prehistoric beasts. One was a giant sloth similar to the present-day sloth—but much bigger. There were also bones of a giant llama and a giant armadillo. Darwin marveled at their close resemblance to modern species. He would later write in his ‘Journal,’ ‘This wonderful relationship in the same continent between the dead and the living will, I have no doubt, hereafter throw more light on the appearance of organic beings on our earth and their disappearance from it, than any other  class of facts.’

In October the ship returned to Montevideo where Darwin received the second volume of Charles Lyell’s Principle’s of Geology. Darwin had read volume one, but volume two conveyed a more profound message. Lyell argued that the Earth was much older than most people imagined and that the same geological processes observed in modern times had been at work for millions of years.  He said the world had come about through ‘causes now in operation,’ not catastrophic events like the Biblical Flood. In fact by the 1830s all geologists accepted that the world was very ancient, but no one could guess just how old. In his second volume, Lyell argued that species became extinct because they no longer fit their environments as the world changed. Just how new species came into existence was not quite as clear. Somehow they might have be created to fit new environments.

Lyell was not an ‘evolutionist,’ but his observations must have made Darwin think: if there was an explanation why species disappeared, there must be one for how they came about in the first place. Perhaps by similar causes?

The Ever-changing Earth

The Beagle’s crew spent the second year of the voyage (1833) surveying the east coast of South America while Darwin explored the interior on horseback. Eventually, the ship made its way back to Tierra del Fuego, where Darwin encountered another key piece of information.

Earlier he had seen large rheas, ostrich-like birds, in the Pampas near Bahía Blanca and had heard of a smaller (and rarer) rhea to the south (it is now known unofficially as Darwin’s Rhea). Darwin was baffled by the presence of two similar kinds of birds in the same territory. While at Saint Gregory’s Bay in the Straits of Magellan, he met the giant Patagonians and questioned them about the tiny rhea. He learned it lived south of the Rio Negro, while the larger one lived only north of the river. Thus, Darwin acquired a small but important fact: species appeared most similar to those in nearby, but geographically separated, areas (rheas are flightless birds).

After exploring the Santa Cruz River in April, the Beagle rounded the Horn for the last time in May. Fighting through the dangerous channels, lost in a world of “rugged snowy crags, blue glaciers…[and] rainbows,” the Beagle made her way to the island of Chiloé in June 1834.

After two weeks she headed north to Valparaiso, Chile. From there Darwin struck out for the foothills of the Andes and reached Santiago on August 27. In September he fell seriously ill and barely got back to Valparaiso before collapsing for a month, unable to get out of bed. Upon recovery, the first news he heard was bad: FitzRoy had suffered a nervous breakdown and had given up command of the Beagle. Ever the perfectionist, the captain had pushed himself too far and had snapped. Pringle Stokes, the Beagle’s captain before FitzRoy, shot himself at Port Famine in 1828 during the Beagle’s first voyage, and FitzRoy appeared to be next. His officers, however, eventually convinced him to retake command and complete the journey.

On November 21 the ship returned to Chiloé. On an excursion across the island, Darwin observed three volcanoes billowing smoke, and on January 19 he saw Mount Osorno erupt. At midnight the sentry reported a fire on the horizon. At three in the morning, Darwin and the rest of the crew stood on deck to watch the explosion of rock, fire and lava—so bright it lit up the sky.

The Beagle then sailed north to Valdivia. On February 20, 1835, Darwin once again experienced nature’s terrifying power. While exploring inland the ground shook as an earthquake struck the west coast. Two hundred miles north at Concepcion, the cathedral was left in ruins and a twenty foot tidal wave hit the city, carrying a schooner into the center of town. Fires blazed everywhere. Amidst the wreckage, however, Darwin made another important discovery: the beds of dead mussels were now above the high tide mark. The ground had risen several feet—proof that Lyell was right. Indeed, over millions of years, the continents rise and fall, creating and destroying mountains and reshaping the world in small, imperceptible steps.

As winter approached, the ship again made its way north to Valparaiso and Darwin set out for the Andes with guides and mules. Making his way back to Santiago, he pushed on through the mountains to Mendoza, Argentina, shivering through night frosts at 13,000 feet and fighting against the thin air, freezing winds and icy clouds.

He spent one night in a small village just south of the city and he remembered it well. He wrote in his Journal: “At night I experienced an attack (for it deserves no less a name) of the Benchuca (a species of Reduvius) the great black bug of the Pampas. It is most disgusting to feel soft wingless insects, about an inch long, crawling over one’s body. Before sucking they are quite thin, but afterwards become round and bloated with blood, and in this state they are easily crushed.”

Benchuca bug. Carrier of Chagas' Disease.

It is now known the Benchuca bug can transmit Chagas’ Disease, a debilitating (potentially fatal), disease that causes symptoms similar to many of those Darwin reported after he returned to England. His lifelong health problems may have started in Argentina.

Turning northwest he crossed back through Uspallata Pass and stumbled across fossilized trees, a petrified forest at the top of the world. The trees once must have stood on the coast, when the ocean had come up to the foot of the mountains. Buried when the continent sank, they were buried in silt, then thrust to the top when the continent rose up again, the trees were tilted at impossible angles, jutting out from the rock that had crumpled like paper. Darwin was slowly working out the puzzle. He fired off a letter to Henslow about his ‘absurd and incredible’ discoveries. After Valparaiso, the Beagle visited Iquique, Peru, then set off for a destination now famously linked with Darwin’s name—the Galápagos Islands.

Galápagos Islands

Although the Beagle only stayed five weeks in the Galápagos, it turned out to be an important stop for Darwin. The Galápagos Islands were a desolate, volcanic archipelago, ruled by giant tortoises and lizards. Six hundred miles off the coast of South America, the landscape was bleak and prehistoric, covered with black sand and lava, the islands cut in half by the equator. After visiting the islands in 1841, Herman Melville wrote, ‘the chief sound of life is a hiss.’  But for Darwin, the Galápagos were a microcosm of the larger world and they held important secrets.

H.M.S. Beagle in the Galapagos Islands. Painting by John Chancellor.

Exploring James Island (San Salvador), Darwin found a large salt lake and stumbled over the skull of a captain murdered by his crew years before. He rode on the backs of the giant tortoises and played with huge, iguana-like lizards, up to three feet in length, entertaining himself by throwing cactus branches into their midst, triggering little tugs-of-war between the miniature dragons, which grabbed the ends in their sharp teeth.

The great variety of birds—hawks, mockingbirds, water-sails, and herons—were clearly related to birds of South America but with significant differences. This puzzled Darwin and later proved critical to the development of his theory. And then there were the finches. Unfortunately, Darwin did not record which island he collected them from, it seemed sufficient to him at the time to simply record that they were from the Galápagos Islands. It was not until 1838 that ornithologist John Gould sorted them out and identified thirteen different species of finch in the Beagle collections.

Geospiza magnirostris, a large ground-finch found in the Galapagos Islands.

In his journal Darwin observed, “It is very remarkable that a nearly perfect gradation of structure in this one group can be traced in the form of the beak, from one exceeding in dimensions that of the largest gross-beak, to another differing but little from that of a warbler.” But he would not realize the significance of this fact until much later. Darwin’s Finches, as they are now often called, would become one of the most famous examples of natural selection, but at the time Darwin did not grasp their full importance. In fact, the tortoises provided a better clue:  Mr. Lawson, the acting governor, told Darwin he could ‘at once tell from which island any one was brought.’

From the Galápagos the Beagle crossed the Pacific, visiting Tahiti on the way to New Zealand, Australia and Tasmania. In Australia, Darwin came across eucalyptus trees, the kangaroo rat and the bizarre duck-billed platypus. The plants and animals he saw were much different from anything he had seen before. He wrote, “An unbeliever in every thing beyond his own reason might exclaim, ‘Two distinct Creators have been at work.’’’

Ultimately, Darwin would not need to invoke two Creators to explain the natural world: indeed, not even one.

Homeward Bound

On March 14 1836 the Beagle departed from King George’s Sound, Australia, and headed north to the Keeling (Cocos) Islands. Here Darwin found giant clams, brightly colored corals and emerald lagoons. At Keeling, Darwin tested his new theory of coral reefs. He had theorized they were formed when mountains sank back into the sea, the coral reefs that originally surounded the islands were left as rings around a lagoon—and he was right. Often thought of as an evolutionary theorist, Darwin was, in fact, an accomplished geologist, botanist and zoologist.

The ship did not stay long in this tropical paradise before setting out across its third great body of water, the Indian Ocean. The Beagle arrived on Mauritius, east of Madagascar, on April 29. Captain Lloyd, the surveyor general, happened to have an elephant on the island and Darwin rode it back to the ship when they left. From Mauritius they sailed to the Cape of Good Hope and from there to the Ascension Islands in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. After almost five years the Beagle was almost home.

When it set out on July 23, however, it did not head north to England, but west-south-west. Unbelievably, FitzRoy returned to Bahía in Brazil to double check his measurements. Fortunately, it would be the last detour. After five ocean crossings (the Atlantic three times), it was finally time to go home. The Beagle landed at Falmouth on October 2, 1836, almost five years after it set out. Darwin had literally sailed around the world. He had spent 1 ½ years at sea; 3 ¼ years on land. Upon his return, he wrote: “As far as I can judge of myself I worked to the utmost during the voyage from the mere pleasure of investigation, and from my strong desire to add a few facts to the great mass of facts in natural science.” As for this last objective, we may say now, he certainly succeeded.

The Making of a Theory

Darwin set out in 1831, an aspiring naturalist headed for the clergy, but he stepped off the Beagle in 1836 a different man. Before the voyage he had read all of William Paley’s major works, including ‘A View of the Evidences of Christianity’ (which was on the exams at Cambridge) and ‘Natural Theology.’ In his autobiography (written in 1876, though not published until 1887), Darwin wrote, “The logic of this book [Evidences] and, as I may add, of his ‘Natural Theology,’ gave me as much delight as did Euclid. The careful study of these works, without attempting to learn any part by rote, was the only part of the academical course which, as I then felt and as I still believe, was of the least use to me in the education of my mind. I did not at that time trouble myself about Paley’s premises; and taking these on trust, I was charmed and convinced by the long line of argumentation.” In ‘Natural Theology,’ Paley invoked his famous watchmaker analogy: any reasonable person, upon finding a watch and seeing its complex and intricate design, would assume it had been made by a watchmaker. In short, design implies a designer.But at least as early as June 1836—while still on the voyage—Darwin began to have doubts about the fixity of species. In his notes about the how the birds and tortoises of the Galápagos varied island to island, he speculated, “If there is the slightest foundation for these remarks, the Zoology of Archipelagos will be well worth examining; for such facts would undermine the stability of species.”

By the time he returned, the question in Darwin’s mind was not do species evolve, but how. Evolution itself was not a new idea. In 1809, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck had proposed that species changed by an underlying law of progress and the inheritance of acquired characteristics in his book ‘Philosophie Zoölogique.’ Even Darwin’s own grandfather had written on the subject: in ‘Zoonomia’ (1794-1796), Erasmus Darwin had proposed that species adapt to their environment driven by ‘lust, hunger and danger,’ an idea at least superficially similar to the theory of natural selection. But these earlier ideas were flawed or incomplete and convinced few naturalists.

Malthus and Population

In September 1838 Darwin read ‘An Essay on the Principle of Population’ by Thomas Malthus, and all the pieces fell into place. Malthus argued that human population growth, unless somehow checked, would necessarily outstrip food production. Population growth, according to Malthus, should be geometrical. For example, two parents might have four children, each of whom could have four children, whose children could also have four children and so forth. The result was inevitable competition for resources.

Malthus was referring to human populations, of course—his objectives were socio-political, not scientific. But Darwin could see how the same principle could apply to the natural world. Far more offspring were born than could possibly survive, because there simply wasn’t enough food to go around. Individuals with a slight advantage would do better. Over a long period of time, even the smallest advantage would prove decisive. (Thanks to modern geology like Lyell’s ‘Principles of Geology,’ Darwin had millions of years to work with.)

A page from Notebook B, dated 1837-1838. Cambridge University Library.

From the Brazilian rain forest to the Galápagos Islands, Darwin had witnessed the considerable variation between individuals of the same species. True, he didn’t know what caused such variations, but he didn’t need to—he theorized at a higher level. He contended that the struggle for existence acted upon the smallest differences, however those differences came about. Forced to adapt to ever changing environments, species evolved. In his autobiography Darwin wrote, “Here, then, I had at last got a theory by which to work.”

Marriage and Family

In 1839, Darwin married Emma Wedgwood, his first cousin (a practice quite common in Victorian England among the propertied middle class). Although he had known Emma all his life (she was one year older than he was and the two families were close), it all happened rather quickly.

He visited Maer Hall, the Wedgwood family home, upon his return from the voyage in late 1836 and made quite an impression on her. No longer the aimless young man who cared only for ‘shooting, dogs, and rat-catching,’ he was now to be taken more seriously—a young man with fantastic stories about far off places who spoke of new scientific discoveries. Emma wrote to her sister Fanny, “We enjoyed Charles’s visit uncommonly…we plied him with questions without any mercy. Harry and Frank made the most of him and enjoyed him thoroughly. Caroline [Darwin’s sister] looks so happy and proud of him it is delightful to see her.”

Emma did not see him much over the next few months because he had to rush around organizing collections, manuscripts, etc., but they met again at his brother’s house in London in early 1837 and it confirmed her earlier impression. Darwin himself had begun to think about marriage. To decide, he made two columns headed Marry and Not Marry and wrote down pluses and minuses in each. If he married, he noted he would have ‘less money for books,’ and be ‘forced to visit relatives.’ On the other hand, he would have a ‘constant companion (& friend in old age),’ and the ‘charms of music and female chit-chat,’ though he worried about the ‘loss of time.’ In the end, he concluded he best get married.

Emma was the obvious choice, but when she saw him in London in 1838, he struck her as uninterested. Emma wrote to her Aunt Jessie, “The week I spent in London on my return from Paris, I felt sure he did not care about me…” This might have been nerves—Emma was not only pretty but quite accomplished: she spoke French, Italian and German; played the piano brilliantly (she had taken lessons from Chopin); and was widely-read. Furthermore, the Wedgwood family was connected to many famous people—one of Emma’s aunts was a friend of Florence Nightingale, an uncle was friends with Byron, Coleridge and Wordsworth. To top it all off, Emma had already turned down several suitors. Darwin may have thought his chances slim. Nevertheless, he summoned up his courage and proposed to her at Maer in November 1838. To his surprise, she said yes.

Charles and Emma Darwin. Wedding portraits.

Over the next seventeen years they had ten children. Three died young: Mary Eleanor at three weeks (1842); Charles Waring at 1½ (1856-1858); and Anne Elizabeth at age ten (1841-1851). Darwin was devastated when ‘Annie’ died (he was very close to her), but the idea (often put forward) that her death influenced his work and/or religious views does not fit the facts. Darwin completed the first sketch of his theory in 1842. In 1844 he expanded it to about 200 pages. But the theory was still not finished. Clearly, Darwin had formulated his theory of natural selection long before Annie died. Nor did her death ‘drive him away from God.’ Although he believed in Christianity when he was young, by the late 1830s that was no longer true. In his autobiography he writes, “Disbelief crept over me [1836 to 1839] at a very slow rate, but was at last complete.” We know his views had changed before he got married because Emma was concerned and said so in a number of letters she wrote him while they were still engaged. In November 1838, she wrote, “My reason tells me that honest & conscientious doubts cannot be a sin, but I feel it would be a painful void between us. I thank you from my heart for your openness with me & I should dread the feeling that you were concealing your opinions from the fear of giving me pain.” Darwin had leveled with her and although she had reservations (and hoped he might yet come to a different conclusion), she could find no fault in his goal—the search for truth. It was their mutual respect—he for her religious beliefs, she for his scientific worldview—that kept them together until the end.

In late 1838, Darwin took a flat on Gower Street in London and he and Emma moved in together after their wedding on January 29, 1839. In July 1842 he moved the family (which then included William and Annie) to Down House, just outside the small village of Downe, Kent, about fifteen miles south east of London, where Darwin would spend the rest of his life.

A Life of Poor Health

Darwin rarely left Down House because of ill-health. He may have contracted Chagas’ Disease in South America. The idea his illness was psychological, connected to his work, does not hold up because his health problems began on the voyage, long before he started theorizing about evolution. He didn’t record an encounter with the Benchuca bug on his first inland trip from Valparaiso to Santiago in South America (it was on his second excursion he recorded the ‘attack’ outside Mendoza), but he was certainly exposed to the bug both times (the range of the Benchuca extends throughout the entire region), and at the end of the first excursion he barely made it back to Valparaiso before collapsing for a month. Although not all his symptoms match those of Chagas’ Disease, many do, including chronic fatigue, nausea and abdominal pain.

His problems may have been aggravated by genetics. Both his grandfather (Erasmus) and father (Robert) were very large men. His father reportedly weighed over 350 lbs. (he made his coachman—also a large man—walk through the houses he visited ahead of him to make sure the floors would hold). Both had health problems which Darwin may have inherited. Darwin’s brother Erasmus was also unwell for much of his life. The ‘cures’ of the day may have hurt more than helped. At different times, Darwin was prescribed, given or tried arsenic, opium, quinine, morphine and even ‘batteries’ (the height of quackery, which Darwin knew full well—though he tried it anyway in desperation—whereby one ‘galvanized’ one’s insides with electricity).

Whatever the cause, the effect was debilitating: he could only work a few hours a day. It is remarkable what he managed to accomplish under such circumstances: he wrote seventeen books, made major contributions to numerous others, and wrote dozens of important papers in geology, botany, and zoology. Often overlooked is the fact that had he not published the ‘Origin,’ he would still have been one of the leading scientists of his day, highly respected in several fields.

Delaying or Delayed?

One of the great myths surrounding the ‘Origin’ is that Darwin delayed publishing the book for twenty years because he feared the inevitable controversy. The facts, however, do not support this popular misconception. True, Darwin had the critical insight in 1838 after reading Malthus, and true, he wrote out a sketch of the theory in 1842. Nevertheless, Darwin had no intention of publishing anything until he had the facts to back it up. And before he could amass the facts he needed, he had to finish the projects he had underway.

Between 1838 and 1858, Darwin published his ‘Journal’ from the voyage (1839), three volumes on the geology of the voyage (1842, 1844, and 1846), and four volumes on barnacles (two in 1851, two in 1854). He also edited the five-volume ‘Zoology of the Beagle’ (1838-1843). R. B. Freeman’s bibliography of Darwin’s works lists sixteen major scientific papers between 1838 and 1858, and according to The Darwin Correspondence Project, he wrote 1,624 letters over the same period (that still survive). He also got married, moved twice and had ten children. He was not delaying, he was delayed.

Recent research has shown that the idea Darwin held back because he was afraid of what people might think is a relatively modern invention. To the contrary, Darwin was determined to publish regardless of what people thought. (He had discussed his ideas with many people—most of whom disagreed with him—and always made it clear that he intended to publish his theory despite their objections.) Today, it seems incredible that anyone would sit on a ground-breaking theory for twenty years, but in mid-nineteenth century England the situation was much different. Darwin was in no hurry. Nor, until Alfred Russel Wallace’s letter arrived in 1858 did he think anyone else was on the same track. Not under any economic pressure (the Darwin family was quite wealthy), he was in no rush to publish. More to the point, he knew the theory would not be accepted unless he could amass substantial evidence to support it and he was determined to do just that.

By 1846, Darwin had wrapped up his geological work and had only the invertebrates left from the voyage. He decided to undertake the barnacles himself. But what he thought would be a year-long project stretched into eight years because the whole group had to be described, not just the specimens he had found and brought back himself. Near the end he would lament, ‘I hate a Barnacle as no man ever did before,’ but he stuck it out and ultimately published two monographs so comprehensive they remain the definitive work on the subject today. He finished the barnacles in 1854. Finally, he could give his full attention to his theory.

Darwin was not hesitant; he was busy. He did not ‘delay’ twenty years; he was working. Only when he wrapped up the work from the voyage did he return to the ‘species question.’ Not long after he did, a letter arrived that would turn his world upside down.

Out of the Blue

Darwin was still a long way away from publishing his ‘big species book,’ when a package arrived on June 18, 1858, from Alfred Russel Wallace, a naturalist working in the Malay Archipelago (modern day Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines). Wallace spent five years collecting on the Amazon before ending up in the Moluccas, or Spice Islands, and he, too, had read Malthus. As a result of his own observations he had reached the same conclusions as Darwin on the origin of species.

In early, 1858, half-crazed in the grip of malaria, Wallace wrote a twenty-odd page paper entitled ‘On the Tendency of Varieties to depart indefinitely from the Original Type,’ and posted it to Darwin for his opinion. When Darwin read it he was stunned. Although there were important differences, Darwin wrote to Lyell, “If Wallace had my MS sketch written in 1842 he could not have written a better abstract.”

The first appearance of the theory of natural selection. Proceedings of the Linnean Society, August 1858. The paper was read at the same meeting (July 1) where it was announced that Robert Brown had died - a fact which may have overshadowed the paper.

Darwin did not know what to do, but Lyell and Hooker took charge and arranged for Wallace’s paper to be presented along with an extract of Darwin’s 1844 essay and part of a letter Darwin had written to Asa Gray, a botanist in the U.S. in 1857.  The joint paper was read at a meeting of the Linnean Society on July 1, 1858, but it went largely unnoticed. It was not until the theory came out in book form the following year that it made headlines.  

Galvanized by Wallace’s paper, Darwin worked furiously on the ‘Origin,’ finishing it in only one year.

The Book that Shook the World

‘On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection’ was published on November 24, 1859. The first review appeared in the Athenæum on November 19, 1859. It was written by John Leifchild. It was negative but not scathing. Next came T. H. Huxley’s review in The Times, which was positive. There followed reviews in numerous periodicals and newspapers, some positive (Joseph Dalton Hooker in the Gardeners’ Chronicle), some negative (Bishop Samuel Wilberforce in the Quarterly Review).

The first American review was written by Asa Gray and it appeared in the March 1860 issue of the American Journal of Science and Arts. It was critical, but positive.  Darwin liked the review and wrote to Gray, “Your Review seems to me admirable; by far the best which I have read. I thank you from my heart both for myself, but far more for subject-sake.”

Like Huxley in the U.K., Asa Gray became Darwin’s main supporter in the U.S., and just as Huxley sparred with Darwin’s opponents in England, Gray squared-off against Louis Agassiz at home (both Gray and Agassiz were professors at Harvard University). Not uncritical of Darwin’s theory, Gray’s main goal was to get it a fair hearing.

Natural Selection

Darwin did not, of course, discover ‘evolution.’ The idea species ‘evolved’ was not new. The problem was that no one had offered a convincing explanation of how they evolved. Until Darwin. He called it ‘natural selection.’

Considering its incredible explanatory power, the theory of natural selection is remarkably simple. Limited resources (there isn’t enough food for all the offspring produced) leads to competition. Some individuals will do better than others because they happen to have certain characteristics that give them an edge: speed, strength, etc. Because those individuals are more likely to survive, they are more likely to reproduce and pass on their characteristics to their offspring. Thus the ‘population’ of a species evolves as more and more individuals are born (and survive) who have inherited the characteristics that provide advantage. 

A relatively simple idea, but a challenge to both accepted wisdom and faith. In a famous episode, Bishop Samuel Wilberforce ridiculed the theory at the 1860 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, but it was not just religious leaders who found fault with Darwin’s theory. Many leading scientists criticized it, too, including Richard Owen, who had been a friend of Darwin’s until the publication of the ‘Origin’ (he edited ‘Fossil Mammals,’ Part I of the ‘Zoology of the Beagle’), and Louis Agassiz, a professor at Harvard. Both were vehement critics, Agassiz ending his review of the ‘Origin’ with, “I shall therefore consider the transmutation theory as a scientific mistake, untrue in its facts, unscientific in its methods, and mischievous in its tendency.” Agassiz equated ‘species’ to ‘thoughts of God.’ In his mind there was no need – or place – for the concept of evolution, let alone a theory to explain it.

Beyond challenging religious beliefs, many scientists and non-scientists alike could not bring themselves to accept Darwin’s theory because it lacked purpose or direction. Not only did it eliminate man’s special position in the natural order of things, but it made his very existence a function of chance. In late 1859, Darwin wrote to Lyell, “I have heard by round about channel that Herschel says my Book ‘is the law of higgledy-piggledy.’” The ‘random’ nature of natural selection was too much for many people.

Darwin did not ignore his critics, be he didn’t put too much stock in them either. In 1859, he wrote to John Lubbock, “I should be grateful for any criticism. I care not for Reviews, but for the opinion of men like you & Hooker & Huxley & Lyell &c.”

The simplicity of natural selection is striking. When Huxley first read the ‘Origin’ he later recalled thinking, “How extremely stupid not to have thought of that.”

Darwin spent years gathering information to support it, but it is based on only three simple principles: the inevitability of competition, variability between individuals, and the effects of differential success. Add in an ever-changing world and from no more than that comes the history of life on Earth.

Later Life

The ‘Origin’ went through six editions during Darwin’s life and he made many small changes, but in detail only—none to the basic theory itself. One change he later regretted. In the closing paragraph of the first edition Darwin wrote, “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed [by the Creator] into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

Darwin added ‘by the Creator’ in the third edition (1861). In 1863, he wrote to Hooker, “I have long regretted that I truckled to public opinion & used Pentateuchal term of creation, by which I really meant “appeared” by some wholly unknown process. It is mere rubbish thinking, at present, of origin of life; one might as well think of origin of matter.”

But Darwin did more than make small edits and corrections to the ‘Origin’ in his later years. Yet to come were several major works. In 1862, he published ‘On the Various Contrivances by which British and Foreign Orchids are Fertilised by Insects’, known simply as ‘Orchids.’ Darwin wrote to John Murray, his publisher, “I think this little volume will do good to the Origin, as it will show that I have worked hard at details.”

In ‘Orchids’ Darwin applied the principles of natural selection to make a startling prediction. First, he described a remarkable flower from Madagascar called Angaecum sesquipedale: “A whip-like nectary of astonishing length hangs down beneath the labellum. In several flowers sent to me by Mr. Bateman I found the nectaries eleven and half inches long, with only the lower inch and a half filled with very sweet nectar.” Then he added, “…in Madagascar there must be moths with probosces capable of extension to a length of between ten and eleven inches!”

Xanthopan morgani praedicta. The 'predicted' moth.

No such moth was known and Darwin was ridiculed by some scientists for suggesting it existed. But in the end he was proven right. The moth was found and described 41 years later in 1903. It had a wingspan of 13 to 15cm and a proboscis 25cm long (10 inches). It was a new sub-species and it was named Xanthopan morgani praedicta—the ‘predicted’ moth.

In 1871, Darwin published ‘The Descent of Man.’ He had deliberately avoided human evolution in the ‘Origin,’ but that hadn’t worked—the whole controversy centered around the obvious implication for humans, and by the time the ‘Descent’ was published, the controversy was largely over. Nevertheless, it was an important work because it also dealt with sexual selection. 

Darwin considered sexual selection a separate mechanism for explaining evolutionary change (though it is now regarded as simply an aspect of natural selection). He explained sexual differences such as male antlers and the peacock’s tail as the result of differential success in males either competing against other males or being chosen by females and therefore leaving more offspring.

So much of the work is on sexual selection, it is effectively two distinct books. Darwin later explained, ‘During many years it has seemed to me highly probable that sexual selection has played an important part in differentiating the races of man… When I came to apply this view to man, I found it indispensable to treat the whole subject in full detail. Consequently the second part of the present work, treating of sexual selection, has extended to an inordinate length, compared with the first part; but this could not be avoided.’

In 1872 came ‘The Expressions of the Emotions in Man and Animals,’ another important book in which Darwin showed that humans and animals expressed similar emotions in similar ways (pointing to common descent), in contrast to Charles Bell, who claimed, in his 1824 work ‘Essays on The Anatomy and Philosophy of Expression,’ that humans had special facial muscles to express uniquely human emotions.  Darwin wrote five more books between 1875 and 1881, working almost up to his death.

Darwin on Religion

Much has been written about the reception of Darwin’s theory in his lifetime (and after), less about what Darwin thought himself.

Generally, Darwin tended to think of science and religion as two separate and distinct areas of inquiry. In 1866, he wrote to Mary Boole (the wife of John Boole, the mathematician, and she herself a mathematician): “I am grieved that my views should incidentally have caused trouble to your mind but I thank you for your judgment & honour you for it, that theology & science should each run its own course & that in the present case I am not responsible if their meeting point should still be far off.”

Separate and distinct, but not unconnected. His scientific worldview took precedence. He wrote to N.A. Mengden in 1879, “Science has nothing to do with Christ, except in so far as the habit of scientific research makes a man cautious in admitting evidence.” This was the crux of Darwin’s skepticism—by the end of the voyage, having seen so much evidence firsthand, he could no longer accept anything on ‘faith.’

In his autobiography he wrote, “The old argument of design in nature, as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me as conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered. We can no longer argue that, for instance, the beautiful hinge of a bivalve shell must have been made by an intelligent being, like the hinge of a door by man. There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings and in the action of natural selection, than in the course which the wind blows. Everything in nature is the result of fixed laws.”

Not believing himself, however, didn’t lead him to speak out against religion—partly because he didn’t think doing so would make any difference, and partly because he did not want to offend his wife. Darwin wrote to Edward Aveling in 1880, “I am a strong advocate for free thought on all subjects, yet it appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against Christianity & theism produce hardly any effect on the public; & freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men’s minds which follows from the advance of science. It has, therefore, been always my object to avoid writing on religion, & I have confined myself to science. I may, however, have been unduly biased by the pain which it would give some members of my family, if I aided in any way direct attacks on religion.”

Perhaps our deepest insight comes from a letter he wrote to John Fordyce in 1879, “In my most extreme fluctuations, I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God.” He added, “I think that generally (and more and more as I grow older), but not always, that an Agnostic would be a more correct description of my state of mind.”

Death and Funeral

Charles Robert Darwin died on April 19, 1882, at Down House. He was 73 years old. He was buried at Westminster Abbey. The funeral took place on April 26; the pallbearers included Huxley, Hooker and Wallace. Darwin was laid to rest next to Sir John Herschel.

A man of great honesty and modesty, Darwin remains one of the giants in the history of science. ‘On the Origin of Species’ is one of the most important books ever published—changing not only our understanding of the world around us, but of our place within it. But Darwin’s legacy goes beyond the theory of natural selection. His story embodies the spirit of science itself: a keen observer with a love for natural history, he set out on a voyage of discovery with only an open mind and returned with the answer to one of life’s greatest mysteries.


This essay was co-authored with Dr. John van Wyhe, Senior Lecturer, Departments of Biology & History, National University of Singapore and Director, The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online ( Bye-Fellow Christ’s College, Cambridge.

It is scheduled to be published in a book called ‘Evolution,’ in Spring of 2011.


One Response to Charles Darwin: A Life of Discovery

  1. kommi says:

    ❤ Darwin

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