Charles Darwin is one of the towering figures of science, and also one of the most controversial. Almost all of modern biology is based on his theory of evolution but, more than 150 years after he first published his ground-breaking work On the Origin of Species, millions of people refuse to accept his conclusions. Darwin has been featured on British banknotes yet condemned as a heretic by US politicians; he has inspired generations of biologists but become a hate figure in much of the American South and the Islamic world. Few – if any – scientists have ever been so divisive.
Charles Robert Darwin was born in Shrewsbury on 12 February 1809. His father Robert was a doctor and his mother belonged to the Wedgewood pottery family. While respectable the families were also nonconformist; both of Darwin’s grandfathers had been prominent anti-slavery campaigners and one, Erasmus Darwin, had openly challenged the idea that humans and animals had all been created by God. The family were all churchgoers – Unitarians on the Darwin side, Anglicans for the Wedgewoods – but Robert was quietly atheist. Charles Darwin himself had a reasonably conventional religious upbringing, baptised Anglican but attending the Unitarian church.
Tragedy struck Darwin’s like for the first time in July 1817, when his mother died after a short illness. Later that year he started school, a church one run by the local Unitarian preacher, then in 1818 he was sent to an Anglican boarding school in Shrewsbury. After leaving school in 1825 he spent the summer assisting Robert in his practice and then, in October, he entered the medical school at the University of Edinburgh along with his brother Erasmus.
Edinburgh had the best medical school in Britain at the time, but Darwin was far from its best student. He was too squeamish for the practical surgery classes, but at the same time found the lectures dull – so he simply didn’t go. Instead he found other ways to pass his time. One of them was taxidermy, which he learned from a freed slave. This didn’t help his medical studies though, and after two years it was obvious he wasn’t going to graduate. Instead his father, annoyed, enrolled him at Cambridge; if his son couldn’t be a doctor, Robert thought, he could be a country parson.
Darwin found the work at Cambridge much easier, but it still bored him. In his spare time he studied natural history, and became a talented beetle collector – a craze at the time. He also read the Reverend William Paley’s book Natural Theology, an explanation of creationism, which deeply impressed him.
Despite his lack of enthusiasm Darwin graduated easily, coming tenth in a class of 178; next he had to study divinity. Before he could enrol, though, he was offered a different opportunity. HMS Beagle, a small and decrepit warship, would soon be leaving to chart the coast of South America. Her commander, Captain Robert FitzRoy, was looking for a companion to alleviate the boredom of the long voyage and Darwin’s name had been suggested. His father was strongly against the idea but, persuaded by his brother-in-law Josiah Wedgewood, he finally relented. On 27 December 1931 Beagle set sail on a routine surveying mission that would eventually become known as one of the greatest voyages of discovery in history.
Darwin hated life on Beagle; he suffered terrible seasickness and might have left in Tenerife if the port hadn’t put the ship under quarantine (England was suffering a cholera epidemic at the time). As Beagle worked her slow way round the coast of South America he spent most of his time on land – learning about local cultures, almost killing himself trying to throw a bolas, and studying geology. He only rejoined the ship when he had to, such as when she sailed out into the Pacific to spend three weeks exploring the remote Galapagos Islands.
By the time the ship returned to England in October 1836 Darwin already had a growing reputation as a scientist; the notes and letters he had sent home during the voyage had attracted a lot of attention. The voyage had also planted a seed in Darwin’s mind – a seed that would eventually displace Paley’s theology and become the theory of evolution by natural selection. But, for the next twenty years, he kept it to himself. Instead he studied barnacles, and wrote four massive textbooks on the subject. He also authored several books on geology. On 24 January 1839 he was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in recognition of his prolific work; five days later he married his cousin Emma Wedgewood and began a family. They went on to have ten children. He never let go of his idea though, and by the early 1850s he was starting to discuss natural selection with close friends. The book that would become Origin of Species was, secretly, well under way.
Then in June 1858 Darwin received unwelcome news. Alfred Russel Wallace, a roving naturalist, wrote a paper that mentioned many of Darwin’s ideas. That finally spurred him to finish his book, which was published on 22 November 1859 – and biology was never the same again. Darwin went on to conduct many more experiments on evolution and wrote a second book, The Descent of Man, to expand on his work.
In early 1882 Darwin, by now in very poor health, was diagnosed with angina. Little treatment was available at the time and he continued to weaken. On 19 April he died, surrounded by his family, in his home at Down House just outside London. He had expected to be buried in the local churchyard; instead, after a public campaign, his body was interred in Westminster Abbey close to fellow scientists John Herschel and Isaac Newton. His tomb is a popular destination for scientifically-minded tourists.