The family Charles Darwin was born into was in many ways typical of the English upper classes, but in others deeply unconventional. His parents weren’t aristocrats but they were still wealthy, influential people. Robert Darwin was a successful doctor and financier; his wife Susannah was the daughter of Josiah Wedgewood, founder of the famous Wedgewood pottery company. Susannah Darwin was a practicing Unitarian while Robert was, quietly, a freethinker – an atheist. The family also had a tradition of political radicalism, especially opposition to slavery; both Josiah Wedgewood and his business partner, Robert’s father Erasmus, had been outspoken abolitionists.
Charles Robert Darwin was born on 12 February 1809, the fifth of six children (and second of two sons), in the western English market town of Shrewsbury. He was baptized as an Anglican but later worshiped at the local Unitarian church with his mother and siblings. At the age of eight he enrolled at a school run by the church’s preacher, but until then he was educated at home – this was common in wealthy families at the time. Not much is known about that early education but it seems to have encouraged Darwin to explore the world around him; by the time he started at the Unitarian school he was already interested in natural history, and keenly collected specimens whenever he could.
Another upper class tradition was boarding school, and when Darwin was nine he was sent to join his older brother Erasmus (known as Ras) at Shrewsbury School; he would spend the next eight years there, preparing for university. His father wanted him to become a doctor and in the 19th century parents tended to get what they wanted, so Darwin’s goal was a place at medical school. He did well enough that he was accepted by Edinburgh University, Britain’s leading college of medicine at the time; he spent the summer of 1825 as an assistant doctor in his father’s practice and then, in October, headed north to Scotland. Again Ras, who had been studying medicine at Cambridge for the last three years but needed hospital experience, accompanied him.
Ras did well at Edinburgh but Darwin was less impressed. He had to spend hours in lectures learning theory; the only break was the operating theatre, for practical lessons in surgery, which he found grisly and appalling. Very quickly he began to skip surgery, and then lectures; there were plenty more interesting things he could fill his time with. Edinburgh was full of experts on subjects that fascinated him – zoology, botany and geology. He met John Edmonstone, a former slave from Guyana who now taught taxidermy at the university; from Edmonstone he learned to skin, prepare and mount birds and animals, a skill he frequently used later when collecting specimens. This friendship probably also shaped Darwin’s liberal views on race – he found Edmonstone a “very pleasant and intelligent man” and often met him socially.
In his second year in Edinburgh Darwin joined the Plinian Society, a student group dedicated to exploring radical ideas in natural history. In the 19th century a university education was much less structured than it is today and students were often left to study whatever they wanted; what mattered was that they could impress their professors with their knowledge and thinking skills, rather than ticking boxes on a lesson plan. Darwin soon found himself helping Robert Edmond Grant, who was studying shellfish in the Firth of Forth; in March 1827 he presented his first scientific paper, on oysters, to the Plinian Society.
Darwin was already becoming a talented practical scientist, but that wasn’t what his father had sent him to Edinburgh for and Robert was becoming annoyed at his poor grades. However he recognized that his younger son probably wasn’t suited for a medical career and looked for a compromise. He found Darwin a place at Cambridge on a Bachelor of Arts course, with the idea of him becoming a Church of England vicar. This would have suited Darwin’s scientific inclinations perfectly – there has probably never been any class of men who have made so many discoveries, so quickly, as 19th century Anglican vicars. The Victorian clergy was a group of educated men with a respectable income and six free days a week to do pretty much anything they liked; many of them spent their time studying science, philosophy or even engineering. As long as he turned up to read a sermon every Sunday morning, and married or buried parishioners when required, Darwin could have happily devoted his life to amateur biology. All he had to do was get his BA, then a divinity degree.
Unfortunately for Robert’s peace of mind, Darwin quickly fell back into the bad habits he’d developed in Edinburgh. He rarely attended lectures, preferring to spend his time riding and shooting. He also started collecting beetles, a popular hobby at the time – and he was good enough at it to have some of his rarer finds published. He also befriended botany professor John Stevens Henslow. Unlike medical school, though, Darwin found the arts degree easy; he rarely studied but, when he sat his final exams in January 1831, he graduated tenth out of a class of 178.
The finals were in January but the term didn’t end until June, so Darwin had several more months to learn as much as he could at Cambridge. During this time he explored the link between religion and science in the shape of William Paley’s Natural Theology. He had already read Paley’s Evidences of Christianity as part of his degree work, but Natural Theology fascinated him. It’s still probably the best argument for creationism ever written and in the 1830s Paley’s logic was persuasive. It would be another two decades before it was shown to be fatally flawed, and Darwin himself would be its executioner.
After leaving Cambridge he spent July and August studying geology and visiting friends in Wales, before heading home to Shrewsbury. When he arrived there was a surprise waiting for him; Henslow had written to offer him a place on a Royal Navy survey ship as a gentleman companion to the captain. HMS Beagle was due to sail in late September to spend two years charting the coast of South America and, if Darwin could pay his own way and pass an interview with the captain, he could go with her. However Robert Darwin was appalled; the trip would be a waste of two years, he believed, and he was firmly against the idea. It took the intervention of his brother-in-law Jos Wedgewood to change his mind, but by then Captain FitzRoy had found another volunteer. Darwin traveled to London to meet FitzRoy anyway – to be told that, five minutes before he arrived, the captain had received a letter telling him the replacement had pulled out. The position was open again, if Darwin still wanted it.
He did, and the next month was spent shopping for equipment and asking last-minute advice on the collection and preservation of specimens. As it turned out a series of delays – first the need to repair Beagle’s rotting hull, then storms in the English Channel, and finally Christmas drunkenness among the crew – postponed their departure for almost two months. Finally, however, on 27 December 1831 HMS Beagle slipped her cables and sailed out of Plymouth Harbour. Her voyage would eventually last for almost five years, establish Darwin as a leading scientist and change biology forever.