Charles Darwin: Origins and Early Life

Article by: Harry T. Jones
Edited by: J. D. Dixon

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, not the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” ― Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin. A carbon-print photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1868.

Name: Charles Robert Darwin
Born: 12 February 1809, Shrewsbury, England
Died: 19 April 1882 (aged 73), Downe, England
Famous for: On the Origin of Species (1859)

Charles Darwin is perhaps best known for his revolutionary theory of evolution by natural selection. This is the idea that organisms best adapted to their environment are more likely to survive and pass on their beneficial genes to their offspring, causing species to change over generations. The notion is also commonly referred to as “survival of the fittest”. However, Darwin did much more work throughout his life to enhance our understanding of natural history, and his legacy continues to inspire works to this day, including the naming of our very own blog.

From a young age, Darwin exhibited a keen interest in the natural world. This was apparent through his love of nature books, exploring the fields and woodlands around his home in Shropshire, and collecting plant and insect specimens. However, he was encouraged to follow in his father’s footsteps and pursue medicine, leading to his enrolment at the University of Edinburgh’s medical school in 1825. Darwin was sickened by the surgery of the time, when neither anaesthetics nor antiseptics were in use, leading to a high mortality rate. Finding surgical procedures and the brutal techniques too traumatic, he gave up his studies, and plans to be a doctor, without completing the course.

In 1828, Darwin’s father enrolled him in Christ’s College, Cambridge where he studied theology. Despite considering a career in the Church at this point, it was here that Darwin really started to focus on his passions of biology and natural history. He spent much of his time collecting beetles with other squires’ sons, walking on the Fens, and learning botany from the Reverend John Stevens Henslow. After graduating in 1831, Darwin joined the Reverend Adam Sedgwick on a geological field trip to Wales. Inspired by Alexander von Humboldt’s Personal Narrative of Travels, detailing his experiences of the South American jungles, Darwin soon found himself about to embark on his own famous voyage…

A painting of the HMS Beagle. Click Here.

On 27th December 1831, the British Royal Navy ship HMS Beagle set sail from England on a five-year voyage around the world. Darwin had been recommended for the trip by his Cambridge professor and tutor Henslow for the roles of naturalist and gentleman companion to the ship’s captain, Robert FitzRoy. The voyage was mainly intended to facilitate British trade, which was achieved through surveying the coastline of South America and charting its harbours to improve regional maps. 

As the voyage’s gentleman naturalist, Darwin was allowed to leave the confines of the ship, where he was plagued with sea-sickness, for prolonged periods. This enabled him to spend much of his time on land across four continents to pursue his own interests, so he only spent 18 months of the voyage aboard the Beagle. Throughout his travels, Darwin collected samples of plants, animals, rocks, and fossils; investigated local geology; and made extensive field notes to document his findings. Darwin packed his collected specimens into crates and had them sent to England aboard other ships.

He also read books such as Charles Lyell’s only recently published Principles of Geology (1830), which encouraged Darwin to think about processes occurring slowly across vast expanses of time. He saw evidence of such uniformitarian theories upon discovering the land itself had lifted slightly above the sea (indicated by mussel beds suddenly lying above high tide) after being caught in an earthquake in Chile on 20 February 1835.

After leaving Peru in September 1835 on the circumnavigation back home, the crew of the Beagle made a five-week stop in the Galapágos archipelago, a chain of small volcanic islands lying 600 miles off the Ecuadorian coast. Contrary to popular belief, Darwin did not come up with his (r)evolutionary theories while on the Galapágos Islands. Instead, he continued to accumulate specimens and observations that would later prove instrumental to his idea of natural selection.

During his time on the islands, Darwin noticed how each island showcased a different landscape and was home to a number of animal species that were new to him. He particularly studied the finches, mockingbirds, and giant land tortoises that inhabited the islands, but he and the ship’s crew also saw marine and land iguanas, smaller lizards, and snakes. He also spent time trying to comprehend the islands’ geological features. Upon studying tuff cones near his campsite at Buccaneer Cove (Santiago Island), he became the first to recognise that these structures were the result of submarine eruptions of lava and mud.

After Darwin had collected mockingbirds from four islands, he noted how the birds differed by island and labelled his specimens accordingly, but he didn’t label the other birds he collected by island. When he realised in the following years the significance of these differences by island, he relied on his crewmates’ collections to identify inter-island variations among the collected birds, plants, and other species.

Common cactus finch Geospiza scandens, as featured in The Zoology of the Voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle. Click Here.

In October 1835, the Beagle left the Galapágos Islands and resumed its journey back to England, where it arrived one year later in October 1836. We will explore the rest of Darwin’s journey after his return home in the second part of this piece, which will look at the development of his theory of natural selection, the competition he faced, and the backlash from scientific and religious communities.

Image References
[1] Charles Darwin by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1868.
[2] A painting of the HMS Beagle. Click Here.
[3] Geospiza scandens. Click Here.

Information References and Further Sources
[1] BBC Teach. (Unknown). Charles Darwin: Evolution and the story of our species. Accessed 21st May 2021. Click Here.
[2] Desmond, A. J. (2021). Charles Darwin: British naturalist. Accessed 21st May 2021. Click Here.
[3] Galapagos Conservancy. (Unknown). Charles Darwin. Accessed 21st May 2021. Click Here.
[4] Goodreads. (Unknown). Charles Darwin > Quotes. Accessed 1st May 2021. Click Here.
[5] Lotzof, K. (Unknown). Charles Darwin: history’s most famous biologist. Accessed 21st May 2021. Click Here.
[6] National Geographic Society. (2019). Charles Darwin. Accessed 21st May 2021. Click Here.
[7] Sulloway, F. J. (2005). The Evolution of Charles Darwin. Accessed 21st May 2021. Click Here.