Charles Darwin

ByDr. Girish Chandra

Biography of Charles Darwin

(By Dr Girish Chandra)  


        Charles Darwin’s biography was first published by his son, Sir Francis Darwin in 1887, who wrote it in 1876 for his children without any thought that it would ever be published. Charles was born to Robert Warring and Susannah at Shrewsbury on Feb. 12, 1809. His mother died when he was 8 year old and he became his elder sister Caroline’s responsibility. In 1817, he was sent to a day-school in Shrewsbury, where he proved to be a much slower learner than his younger sister Catherine. But he had a passion for collecting all sorts of things, like shells, seals, coins and minerals, a quality that leads a man to become a systematic naturalist. He also studies variability in plants and believed that he could produce variously coloured primroses by watering them with certain coloured fluids.

     In the summer of 1818, Charles went to Dr. Butler’s great school in Shrewsbury and remained there for 7 years till 1825. In school only classical subjects were taught, viz. ancient history and geography, in which he was considered to be a very ordinary boy. Charles school period according to his parents and teachers “was simply a blank”. He was fond of reading and read of book, “Wonders of the world”, which gave him a wish to travel in remote areas of the world. He was particularly fond of shooting birds and became a very good shot but took much pleasure in watching the habits of birds and took notes on the subject. His brother had set up a small laboratory in the tool house, where he allowed Darwin to work as an assistant. They used to work late in the night to make gases and compounds. The news somehow got known in the school and Darwin was nicknamed as “Gas” by his friends.

     In Oct. 1825, his father admitted him to Edinburgh University (Scotland) to study medicine. He never took interest in medicine and detested operation theatres. Somehow, he was convinced that his father would leave him enough property to subsist on a comfortable life, which deterred him from any hard work. At university, Charles befriended zoologist Robert Grant and geologist Robert Jameson. He also read Zoonomia written by his grand father, Sir Erasmus Darwin and was much impressed. He also learned taxidermy here. During his second year, he attended lectures on geology and zoology. His father came to know that Charles did not like the thought of being a physician and hence decided that he should become a clergyman, for which a degree from one of the English universities was necessary. So Charles was sent to Christ’s College at Cambridge

University in 1828, to study theology. He stayed there till 1831. He collected lots of insects here. One day on tearing off some old bark he saw two rare beetles and seized one in each hand, then saw a third one of new kind, which he could not bear to lose, so he popped one in right hand into his mouth. Alas! It ejected some acrid fluid which burnt his tongue and forced him to spit the beetle. At Cambridge, Darwin got friendly with Professor John Stevens Henslow, who had great knowledge of Botany, entomology, chemistry, mineralogy and geology. He used to take long walks with him so he was called by some of his friends, “the man who walks with Henslow”. Henslow also persuaded Darwin to study geology and introduced him to Professor Sedgwick. 


Voyage of the Beagle (Dec. 27, 1831 to Oct. 2, 1836)      

          Professor Henslow informed Darwin that Capt. FitzRoy was willing to give up part of his own cabin to a young man who would go with him without salary as naturalist to the voyage of the Beagle. Darwin was eager to accept the offer but his father strongly objected to it, but later on his uncle convinced his father and he was given consent. On meeting aristocratic Capt. FitzRoy, Darwin ran a narrow risk of being rejected on account of the shape of his nose. FitzRoy believed that he could judge a man’s character by the outline of his features and that anyone of

Darwin’s nose could have sufficient energy and determination for the voyage. But afterwards he was satisfied that Darwin’s nose had spoken falsely. The voyage improved Darwin’s power of observation. He collected large number of animals and fossils and made detailed notes on them. Capt. FitzRoy could never understand why Darwin brought all sort of “useless junk” aboard the ship. Darwin visited Tenerife, Brazil, Montevideo, Tierra del Fuego, Buenos Aires, Chile, the Galapagos, Tahiti, New Zealand and Tasmania. On his return to England, Darwin lived first in Cambridge and then in London. He prepared his reports on the voyage and was preparing his theory of evolution. On January 29, 1839, he married his cousin Emma Wedgwood and left for London almost immediately after the ceremony, upsetting guests. They had 10 children (2 died in infancy).

               During voyage Darwin was impressed by the discovery of fossil animals and in the manner in which closely allied animals replace one another in proceeding southward over the continent and by the South American character of most of the populations of the Galapagos Archipelago and by the manner they differ slightly on each island group. It was evident that such facts could only be explained on the supposition that species gradually become modified. In Oct. 1838, Darwin happened to read Malthus’ paper, “The principle of population” and it at once struck him that under the situation of struggle, favorable variations would tend to be preserved and unfavorable ones would be destroyed; the result of this would be formation of new species. In early 1856, on Lyell’s advice Darwin started writing his views fully on ‘species problem’ but Darwin was aware that going against the church and holding unorthodox views were perilous and blasphemous, for which he could be punished by the church.

           In the summer of 1858, Alfred Russell Wallace, who was then working on zoogeography in Malaya Archipelago, sent him as essay, “On the tendency of varieties to depart indefinitely from the original type”, with a note that if he thought well of the essay, he should send it to Lyell for perusal. This essay contained exactly the same theory as Darwin was working on. At the request of Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker, an abstract of Darwin’s manuscript and Wallace’s essay were sent to Asa Gray, to be presented before the Linnaean Society and for publication in the society’s journal later. Neither of the authors was present during presentation. The title of the joint paper was as follows: “On the tendency of species to form varieties and on the perpetuation of varieties and species by natural selection”. Within a year in 1859, Darwin published his book, “The origin of species by means of natural selection”, which made him a celebrity overnight. “The descent of Man” was published in Feb. 1871 and brought him extensive criticisms. He was a prolific writer and published many books and research papers (see list below).

                Charles Darwin died on April 19, 1882 from what is now believed to be chagas disease contracted while on board the Beagle. What made Darwin great was his belief, “A man who dares to waste an hour of life has not discovered the value of life.” 

 Important publications by Charles Darwin

1.      1839. Narrative of the surveying voyages of Her Majesty’s Ships ‘Adventure’ and ‘Beagle’ between the year 1826 and 1836, describing their examination of the southern shores of South America, and the Beagle’s circumnavigation of the globe.

2.      1840. Zoology of the voyage of HMS Beagle (Edited by Charles Darwin).

3.      1842. The structure and distribution of coral reefs.

4.      1844. Geological observations on the volcanic islands visited during the voyage of HMS Beagle.

5.      1845. Journal of researches into the natural history and geology of the countries visited during the voyage of HMS Beagle round the world, under the command of Capt. FitzRoy.

6.      1846. Geological observations of South America.

7.      1851. A monograph of the fossil Lapadidae; or pedunculated cirripedes of Great Britain. 

8.      1851. A monograph of the subclass Cirripedia with figures of all the species.

9.      1854. A monograph of the fossil Balanidae and Verrucidae of Great Britain.

10.  1859. The origin of species by means of natural selection, or preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life.

11.  1862. On the various contrivances by which orchids are fertilized by insects.

12.  1868. The variation of animals and plants under domestication.

13.  1871. The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex.

14.  1872. The expression of the emotions in man and animals.

15.  1875. The movements and habits of climbing plants.

16.  1876. Geological observations on the volcanic islands and parts of South America visited during the voyage of HMS Beagle.

17.  1876. The effects of cross and self-fertilization in the vegetable kingdom.

18.  1877. The different forms of flowers on plants of the same species.

19.  1880. The power of movement in plants.

20.  1881. The formation of vegetable mould, through the action of worms, with observations on their habits. 

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Charles Darwin (Giants of Science)

Features: Viking Children’s Books
By (author): Kathleen Krull

All his life, Charles Darwin hated controversy. Yet he takes his place among the Giants of Science for what remains an immensely controversial subject: the theory of evolution. Darwin began piecing together his explanation for how all living things change or adapt during his five-year voyage on HMS Beagle. But it took him twenty years to go public, for fear of the backlash his theory would cause. Once again, Kathleen Krull delivers a witty and astute picture of one of history’s greatest scientists.
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