Naturalist and geologist Charles Darwin’s radical ideas shaped modern thinking about where we come from.
Born in Shrewsbury, Shropshire in 1809, Charles Robert Darwin was the fifth of six children and the grandson of potter and anti-slavery campaigner Josiah Wedgewood and Erasmus Darwin, a key thinker of the Midlands Enlightenment and the author of Zoonomia, a work which anticipated natural selection.
Darwin spent the summer of 1825 as an apprentice doctor, helping his father treat the poor of Shropshire, before following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather and heading north to Edinburgh University to study medicine.
Squeamish about surgery and uninspired by lectures, Charles was far from the model medical student. He did however enjoy the chemistry lectures of Professor TC Hope and as a member of the Plinian Society; a club at the University for students interested in natural history, found likeminded individuals and radical freethinkers.
Stalwart of the Plinian Society and freethinker, Robert Edmond Grant had a particular influence on the young Darwin.
Grant had qualified in medicine from the University but gave up medical practice in favour of marine biology. Charles became Grant’s most attentive student, assisting him with collecting specimens along the shores of the Firth of Forth, and it was Grant who Darwin approached for advice regarding specimen storage prior to the second voyage of HMS Beagle.
Encouraged to pursue a profession by his father, Darwin enrolled at Cambridge University with a view to becoming an Anglican parson. As with his time at Edinburgh, his interests lay outside his expressed studies and his focus quickly shifted from religion to natural science. Nevertheless, Darwin focused on his studies and graduated with an ordinary degree in 1831.
After Cambridge came the trip of a lifetime as he was invited on a voyage around the world on HMS Beagle as a gentleman naturalist.
For the next five years Darwin collected specimens and investigated the local geology of four continents. He was frequently sea sick but the long periods spent reading and reflecting combined with his observations were to form the basis of his ground breaking theory of evolution by natural selection.
Ill health, family tragedy, his career as a geologist and prolific author, and concerns that his revelations would be “like confessing a murder”, meant that; despite writing a pencil sketch in 1842 and a longer essay in 1844, it was November 1859 before the abstract On the Origin of Species was published.
Origin of Species was a bestseller worldwide and with each new edition Darwin revised and strengthened his arguments. It was the fifth edition, published in 1869 that contained the phrase
survival of the fittest.
One general law, leading to the advancement of all organic beings, namely, multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die.
Darwin had largely avoided the subject of human evolution in Origin of Species but public discussion honed in on this controversial and compelling subject and 12 years later he set down his ideas regarding human evolutionary theory in The Descent of Man.
He continued working right up until his death in 1882, publishing his final book, The formation of vegetable mould through the action of worms, just a year before. He died a virtual recluse but his impact and legacy is profound; influencing fields as diverse as zoology, philosophy, theology and literature, and helping us understand our place in the world.