Charles Darwin: A Brief Biography

Early Life: Childhood and Education (1809-1831)
Voyage of Discovery: On Board the Beagle (1831-1836)
The Origin of Species I: Preparation and Delay (1836-1859)
The Origin of Species II: Publication and Debate (1859-1882)
Biological Studies: Barnacles, Flowers, and Worms (1835-1882)
Bibliographic References: Biography and Interpretation (1882-1996)

Other Resources On-Line:
Time Line of Darwin's Life
Darwin on his own Writings
Darwin's Chief Writings

Note: This biography is based on Darwin's own Autobiography, which he wrote from 1876 to 1881. The work was originally published posthumously by his son, Francis Darwin, in Life and Letters of Charles Darwin (1887). However, some 6000 words had been excised by Darwin's wife, on the grounds that they were too critical of established religion or persons then living. These omissions were restored by Darwin's grand-daughter, Nora Barlow, in a 1958 edition issued in preparation for the hundredth anniversary of the Origin of Species the following year: The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809-1882, with omissions restored. Edited with appendix and notes by Nora Barlow (1958).

Early Life: Childhood and Education (1809-1931)

Charles Robert Darwin (1809-1882) was born on Feb. 12, 1809 in Shrewsbury, England, the son of Robert Waring Darwin (1766-1848) and Susannah Wedgwood (1765-1817). Robert Waring was a well-to-do country physician, whose father, Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) was himself a physician and writer on biological topics. His writings included epic poems and a treatise on zoology which contained speculations concerning evolutionary ideas. Susannah Wedgwood was the daughter of Josiah Wedgwood, one of the founders of the Wedgwood pottery works known for its "blue china" and a supporter of the movement to abolish slavery in the British Empire. Susannah Wedgwood attended the Unitarian Chapel in Shrewsbury located on High Street and conducted by Rev. G. Case

Darwin's mother died when he was aged eight. In that same year, he began to attend the day school run by Rev. Case, which he attended for about a year. Darwin noted: "By the time I went to this day-school my taste for natural history, and more especially for collecting, was well developed. I tried to make out the names of plants, and collected all sorts of things, shells, seals, franks, coins, and minerals. The passion for collecting, which leads a man to be a systematic naturalist, a virtuoso or a miser, was very strong in me, and was clearly innate, as none of my sisters or brothers ever had this taste." (Autobiography, pp. 22-23)

In the summer of 1818, Darwin was transferred to a boarding school run by Dr. Butler, also in Shrewsbury, which he attended for seven years, until the summer of 1825 when he was sixteen. The school was located about a mile from his home, and Darwin was able to return to his father, sisters, and brother at will. Darwin learned Euclid's geometry from a private tutor, studied Shakespeare and recent poetry, as well as chemistry, and continued in his zeal for collecting, adding insects to his list of objects collected. But by his own admission, his studies were not outstanding.

In October 1825, Darwin's father sent him to Edinburgh University, in Scotland, where he remained for two years. During the first year his brother was also in attendance. Darwin was expected to follow in his father's and grandfather's profession of medicine. Darwin, however, was not inclined to that calling and found the lectures boring and preferred independent study: "The instruction at Edinburgh was altogether by Lectures, and those were intolerably dull, with the exception of those on chemistry by Hope; but to my mind there are no advantages and many disadvantages in lectures compared with reading. Dr. Duncan's lectures on Materia Medica at 8 o'clock on a winter's morning are something fearful to remember. Dr. Munro made his lectures on human anatomy as dull, as he was himself, and the subject disgusted me."

Of his professors, Darwin especially recalled Dr. Robert Grant (1793-1874), a zoologist who in private was a follower of Jean Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829). In 1809 -- the year of Darwin's birth -- Lamarck had published the first book, Philosophical Zoology, to have a theory of evolution as its focus. Grant's theoretical interest was directed towards Lamarck, and his contacts with Grant provided Darwin with yet another encounter with an evolutionary theory:

"He [Grant] one day, when we were walking together burst forth in high admiration of Lamarck and his views on evolution. I listened in silent astonishment, and as far as I can judge, without any effect on my mind. I had previously read the Zoonomia of my grandfather, in which similar views are maintained, but without producing any effect on me. Nevertheless, it is probable that the hearing rather early in life such views maintained and praised may have favoured my upholding them under a different form in my Origin of Species. At this time I admired greatly the Zoonomia; but on reading it a second time after an interval of ten or fifteen years, I was much disappointed, the proportion of speculation being so large to the facts given." (Autobiography, p. 49)

Already interested in geology, Darwin developed this interest further while at Edinburgh, although attending lectures by Robert Jameson (1774-1854) did not help: "During my second year at Edinburgh, I attended Jameson's lectures on Geology and Zoology, but they were incredibly dull. The sole effect they produced on me was the determination never as long as I lived to read a book on Geology or in any way to study the science." (Autobiography, p. 52). But Jameson was a Wernerian, a supporter of what was already an antiquated theory of geology, soon to be replaced by Charles Lyell's new principle of uniformitarnism that would so interest and influence Darwin. Through walking tours, Darwin indulged both his collecting habits, and developed an interest in studying geology through encounters with rock formations in nature.

In medical school, Darwin fared poorly at dissection, and later regretted not having had a greater practice of it, as this would have helped him in his biological studies. He did, however, enjoy medical rounds at the hospital attached to the university, and was proud of having diagnosed patients and prescribed medications which helped them. But after two years at Edinburgh, Darwin was transfered to Cambridge to study for the clergy, where he spent three years, from 1828 to 1831. "After having spent two sessions in Edinburgh, my father perceived or he heard from my sisters, that I did not like the thought of being a physician, so he proposed that I should become a clergyman. He was very properly vehement against my turning an idle sporting man, which then seemed my probable destination." (Autobiography, p. 56).

Arriving at Cambridge, Darwin initially convinced himself that he could accept the creed of the Church of England and become a clergyman. This fit well with his collecting instincts, as it would allow him, should he become a country pastor, to devote time after sermons to nature walks and searches for specimens of local insect and plant species. Having forgotten much of his classics and ancient Greek, Darwin spent the fall of 1828 preparing to go to Cambridge, which he attended as of early 1829. He read classics and geometry, along with a little algebra, but in preparation for a career as a minister, he read William Paley's (1743-1805) Evidences of Christianity, Moral Philosophy, and Natural Theology, the latter of which especially impressed him for the logic of its argumentation. Paley was a prominent defender of natural theology -- the view that the wonders of the physical world was evidence for the existence of an all-powerful and good creator -- and the more specific theory of special creation -- the view that all species had been specially created in their present forms, and adapted to their environment.

Darwin was no more fitted to become a clergyman than he had been inclined to become a physician, and his stay at Cambridge was in that respect no more succesful than his years at Edinburgh: "Although... there were some redeeming features in my life at Cambridge, my time was sadly wasted there and worse than wasted." (Autobiography, p. 60). Nonetheless, he added a new extra-curricular passion: collecting beatles. "But no pursuit at Cambridge was followed with nearly so much eagerness or gave me so much pleasure as collecting beatles. It was the mere collecting, for I did not dissect them and rarely compared their external characters with published descriptions, but got them named anyhow." (Autobiography, p. 62)

The "redeeming features" at Camridge were significant, and involved meeting a number of scientists who would influence Darwin's ultimate career choice. These included: John Henslow (1796-1861) whose lectures on botany Darwin attended and enjoyed, and with whom he became close friends; and William Whewell (1794-1866), a mathematician, philosopher, and theologian who coined the term "scientist" and wrote one of the first multi-volume histories and philosophies of science. During his last year at Cambridge, Darwin read two books that profoundly influenced him: Alexander von Humboldt's (1769-1859) Personal Narrative of his travels and natural history explorations (published in separate volumes, 1818-1829), and John Herschel's (1792-1871) Introduction to the Study of Natural Philosophy (1830) a work on the methodology of science by the son of the astronomer Sir William Herschell (1738-1822). Darwin remarked that these works "...stirred up in me a burning zeal to add even the most humble contribution to the noble structure of Natural Science." (Autobiography, p. 68) Darwin graduated from Cambridge in 1831, having focused in the last year on the study of geology. He now had to decide what career he would pursue.

Voyage of Discovery: On Board the Beagle (1831-1836)

The Origin of Species I: Preparation and Delay (1836-1859)

The Origin of Species II: Publication and Debate (1859-1882)

Darwin's Biological Studies: Barnacles, Flowers, and Worms (1835-1882)

Bibliographic References: Biographies and Interpretations

Prepared by /dsb, March 1996