Darwin, Charles

Darwin, Charles
   The immensely influential theorist of evolution, Charles Darwin was the grandson of the biologist Erasmus Darwin and was descended on his mother’s side from the Wedgwood pottery family, which made him independently wealthy. After failing to do well in medicine, Darwin was educated in theology at Cambridge, being intended by his family for a clerical career. He had always been fascinated by botany and zoology, however, and was recommended by one of his Cambridge tutors as a naturalist on the proposed expedition of HMS Beagle. The Beagles mission was hydrographic, and Darwin went along as a supernumerary, thus giving him considerable time during the five-year voyage from 1831 to 1836 to explore and to collect zoological, botanical, and geological specimens. Darwin published a significant number of scientific articles as a result of the voyage, along with a memoir.
   Darwin’s numerous writings made him famous in the scientific world, and he became a member of, among others, the Athenaeum, the Royal Society and the Linnean Society. Dating back to his voyage on the Beagle, Darwin had suspected that both continents and species changed over time, an idea shared by many contemporary naturalists and geologists. He found in Thomas Malthus’s Essay on Population the theory of competition for resources that he needed to explain change in species. Darwin also supported his theorization with experiments on the breeding of plants and animals. Friends put him in touch with A. R. Wallace, who had contemporaneously come to similar conclusions about species change, and the two wrote simultaneous papers for the Linnean Society in 1858. The next year, Darwin published his epochal Origin of Species. In 1871, Darwin published The Descent of Man, which applied his ideas to the evolution of humans, although he was by no means the first to do so.
   For much of his life in frail health, Darwin was not a controversialist, and he left public polemics to supporters such as T. H. “Darwin’s bulldog” Huxley, himself taking refuge in botanical researches. Darwin was, from his earliest years, opposed to slavery and believed that all humans were essentially biologically the same; indeed he went so far in egalitarianism as to note the similarity of human and animal suffering. In religion he was basically a liberal Anglican, although his faith weakened later in life and his precise religious and political views have been controversial. He would not have recognized some of the more bellicose and dogmatic among the ideas that came to be called “Darwinism,” especially in its more extreme social Darwinist variants.
   See also <>.
    Browne, Janet. Charles Darwin, 2 vols. London: Jonathan Cape, 1995–2002;
    Himmelfarb, Gertrude. Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution. New York, W. W. Norton, 1968.

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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