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Charles Darwin

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Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin was a British scientist who laid the foundation of modern evolutionary theory with his concept of the development of all forms of life through the slow-working process of natural selection. His work was of major influence on the life and earth sciences and on modern thought in general.

Darwin was born in 1809 in Shrewsbury, a small market town in Shropshire, England. His wealthy physician father was the son of Erasmus Darwin who had written Laws of Organic Life. His mother was the daughter of artisan Josiah Wedgwood of dinnerware fame. Though she died when he was eight, Darwin enjoyed a happy and secure childhood loved and encouraged by four adoring sisters, an older brother named Erasmus, a team of faithful servants, and numerous Darwin and Wedgwood relatives.

Even as a youngster Charles collected specimens from nature and conducted chemical experiments. When he reached the age of 16, his father sent him to the University of Edinburgh to study medicine, a concept for which he had no enthusiasm. Consequently his father sent him to Cambridge University to study divinity. There Darwin met botanist John Stevens Henslow, whose passion for science rubbed off on Darwin. This prompted him to work more intensely on his study of specimens. Abandoning the idea of study for a career in the Church, he left Cambridge at age 22 and immediately joined a scientific group that was on a walking tour of North Wales in order to learn how to conduct geological field work.

Shortly after the tour concluded Darwin received a life-changing offer. In 1831, the British Admiralty invited him to sail as an unpaid naturalist aboard HMS Beagle, which was bound for South America and the Pacific Islands on a scientific expedition. Darwin’s job as naturalist aboard the Beagle gave him the opportunity to observe the various geological formations found on different continents and islands along the way, as well as a huge variety of fossils and living organisms. In his geological observations, Darwin was most impressed with the effect that natural forces had on shaping Earth’s surface. Darwin sailed from Plymouth on the Beagle four months later. Scheduled to be completed in two years, the voyage lasted for five. During that time, he wrote meticulous notes and sent them to the Geological Society in London, along with geologic and biologic specimens. A love of adventure surfaced whenever Darwin went ashore, but he also worked intensely. The years he spent exploring the South American continent and the offshore islands of the Galapagos honed his skills as a collector, observer and theorist.

Aboard the Beagle he read Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology, a book arguing that the face of the earth had changed gradually over long periods of time through the continuing, cumulative effects of local disasters such as eruptions, earthquakes, and erosion. Darwin's own observations convinced him of the accuracy of Lyell's views and established the basis for his revolutionary work on human evolution. The isolation of the voyage, combined with exposure to new elements, taught Darwin to think for himself. He developed a dedication to careful fact-gathering as well as an ability to theorize about these facts. Significantly, his geological ponderings pushed him to search for more universal laws.

Henslow had been reading letters from his protege to London's Geological Society, so Darwin became a celebrity long before his return to England. When he arrived back in London in 1836, the scientific community warmly welcomed him, promptly made him a fellow of the Geological Society, and elected him to the Athenaeum. This was an exclusive club for those who had distinguished themselves in literature, art, or science. Darwin married his cousin, Emma Wedgwood who contributed her fortune and household skills to the marriage, which enabled Darwin to lead the privileged life of an independent scientist. The couple produced ten children, seven of whom survived to adulthood.

Working alone at his village home in Kent, Darwin led a double life. The public assumed that he spent his time preparing a journal that told of his visits to various countries while aboard the HMS Beagle. In fact, he devoted untold hours and energy to "the species problem." Observing the birds and tortoises on the Galapagos Islands off the west coast of Ecuador had triggered doubts in his mind about the development of species. These doubts he had are now crystallized into a belief that species changed from one place to another or from one era to the next.

During this time he read a work by Thomas Malthus titled An Essay on the Principle of Population. Malthus argued that population increase is always checked by limited food supply. Darwin beleived that favorable variations would tend to be preserved and unfavorable ones destroyed. This results in the formation of a new species. At last he had a theory to work with: the principle of natural selection. Other scientists and philosophers had earlier noted the brutality of species against species, but Darwin's concept applied

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