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Charles Darwin

1809 - 1882

image of charles-darwin

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Charles Darwin hardly needs an introduction. He is known worldwide as a brilliant naturalist, geologist, zoologist, psychologist, philosopher, and botanist,  and of course for his theory of evolution. He was born in Shrewsbury, England, and attended Edinburgh University to study medicine. However, he soon changed his mind and entered Christ’s College in Cambridge instead, thinking he would become a minister. While there he also studied botany and geology, which he continued after leaving Christ’s College. This was followed by five years (1831-1836) spent aboard the survey ship The Beagle, where he studied zoology and geology as he traveled around the world. Voyage of the Beagle (first published as Journal of Researches) is the diary he kept of his geological findings during those five years. The Zoology of the Voyage of H. M. S. Beagle followed a few years later.

In 1845, Edward Hitchcock sent Darwin a copy of his Final Report on the Geology of Massachusetts. Darwin wrote back thanking him and calling the report “magnificent”. Hitchcock may also have sent Darwin a copy of his 1859 magnum opus on fossil footprints, Ichnology of New England, but if so, the correspondence is lost.

Darwin was very much influenced by the geologist Charles Lyell, who believed that small, slow changes over vast amounts of time eventually produced larger changes. Following this line of thinking, Darwin wondered if new species developed the same way, and he sought to understand how time changed all living things. This led to his theory that there is a reason why some new life forms endure and others do not, and this is what he termed “natural selection”. Those species that were able to adapt to their ever-changing environment, or evolve because of it, survived and passed on these new traits to their offspring, while those unable to evolve, died off. Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859.

Darwin married his cousin Emma Wedgwood in 1839. They lost their oldest daughter to illness in 1851, and a son to scarlet fever in 1858. He died on April 19, 1882, and is buried in Westminster Abbey.