Darwin, Charles Robert (1809-1882), an English naturalist. His theory of evolution by means of natural selection is one of the greatest contributions ever made to science. Darwin stated this theory in Origin of Species (1859). In Descent of Man (1871) he demonstrated that humans and apes could have evolved from a common ancestor. Both of these books aroused worldwide controversy. Many considered them to be offensive, atheistic, and blasphemous.

Charles DarwinCharles Darwin

Most scientists, however, agreed with Darwin's theories. Although later research has indicated that some of his concepts were wrong or only partially correct, scientists still accept his basic ideas. Eventually, most Western churchmen also accepted his theory regarding the evolution of life.

Darwin's Early Life

Darwin was born in Shrewsbury, the son of a physician. His mother was the daughter of Josiah Wedgwood, the pottery manufacturer. Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), Charles's grandfather, was a physician and physiologist who influenced Charles's ideas about evolution.

As a youth Darwin was interested in all living things. He read all the books on geology and biology he could find and collected plant and animal specimens, including fossils. In 1825 he began medical studies at the University of Edinburgh but gave them up after two years. He entered Cambridge University in 1828 to study theology and graduated in 1831. A Cambridge friend, the geologist and botanist John S. Henslow, helped Darwin obtain an unpaid post as a naturalist aboard the surveying ship H.M.S. Beagle.

In 1831 the Beagle left on a five-year charting cruise of South American and Australian waters. During this time Darwin observed and studied in many remote regions of the world. He collected great numbers of plant and animal specimens. From detailed notes of his observations he began to develop the theory that was to make him famous.

Later Years

When he returned to England Darwin settled down to a life of study and scientific investigation. His Zoology of the Voyage of the Beagle was published in 1840. He wrote three more books during the next six years. In 1844 Darwin began to compile his greatest contribution, Origin of Species, in which he proposed his theory of natural selection. All life, he said, is a continuous struggle for existence, a struggle in which some organisms are better adapted (more fit) than others to survive and reproduce in particular environments. (The English philosopher Herbert Spencer popularized the phrase survival of the fittest to describe this process.)

While still at work on Origin of Species Darwin discovered that the idea of natural selection was not exclusively his. Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), a young naturalist working in the Malay Archipelago, had developed similar ideas in an essay called On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Independently from the Original Type. Wallace sent this paper to Darwin for an opinion. Darwin took Wallace's manuscript to a friend, Sir Charles Lyell, who decided that both Wallace's and Darwin's ideas should be presented at the same time. On July 1, 1858, both papers were read at a meeting of the Linnaean Society of London.

After publication of Origin of Species, Darwin continued to write on botany, geology, and zoology. He is buried in Westminster Abbey.