Charles Darwin 1809 to 1882 – Naturalist and Scientist

Charles Darwin 1809 to 1882 – Naturalist and Scientist

I thought it would be of interest to write this article about one of England’s greatest scientist. Charles Darwin was an English naturalist who established that all species of life have descended over time from common ancestors and proposed the scientific theory that this branching pattern of evolution resulted from a process that he called natural selection.

Charles Robert Darwin was born in Shrewsbury,Shropshire, England on 12th February 1809 at his family home, the Mount. He was the fifth of six children of wealthy society doctor and financier Robert Darwin and Susannah Darwin (née Wedgwood). He was the grandson of Erasmus Darwin on his father’s side, and of Josiah Wedgwood on his mother’s side. Both families were largely Unitarian, though the Wedgwood’s were adopting Anglicanism.

Robert Darwin, himself quietly a freethinker, had baby Charles baptised in the Anglican Church, but Charles and his siblings attended the Unitarian chapel with their mother. The eight year old Charles already had a taste for natural history and collecting when he joined the day school run by its preacher in 1817. That July, his mother died. From September 1818, he joined his older brother Erasmus attending the nearby Anglican Shrewsbury School as a boarder.

Beginning on the 27th of December, 1831, the voyage lasted almost five years and, as Fitzroy had intended, Darwin spent most of that time on land investigating geology and making natural history collections, while the Beagle surveyed and charted coasts. He kept careful notes of his observations and theoretical speculations, and at intervals during the voyage his specimens were sent to Cambridge together with letters including a copy of his journal for his family. He had some expertise in geology, beetle collecting and dissecting marine invertebrates but in all other areas was a novice and ably collected specimens for expert appraisal. Despite repeatedly suffering badly from seasickness while at sea, most of his zoology notes are about marine invertebrates, starting with plankton collected in a calm spell.

His five year voyage on HMS Beagle established him as an eminent geologist whose observations and theories supported Charles Lyell’s uniformitarian ideas and publication of his journal of the voyage made him famous as a popular author.

Puzzled by the geographical distribution of wildlife and fossils he collected on the voyage, Darwin investigated the transmutation of species and conceived his theory of natural selection in 1838. Although he discussed his ideas with several naturalists, he needed time for extensive research and his geological work had priority. He was writing up his theory in 1858 when Alfred Russell Wallace sent him an essay which described the same idea, prompting immediate joint publication of both of their theories.

He published his theory with compelling evidence for evolution in his 1859 book On the Origins of Species. The scientific community and much of the general public came to accept evolution as a fact during his lifetime.

It was not until the emergence of the modern evolutionary synthesis from the 1930s to the 1950s that a broad consensus developed that natural selection was the basic mechanism of evolution. In modified form, Darwin’s scientific discovery is the unifying theory of the life sciences which explained the diversity of life.

Darwin’s work established evolutionary descent with modification as the dominant scientific explanation of diversification in nature. In 1871, he examined human evolution. His research on plants was published in a series of books, and in his final book, he examined earthworms and their effect on soil.

In recognition of Darwin’s pre-eminence as a scientist, he was one of only five 19th-century UK non-royal personages to be honoured by a state funeral and is buried in Westminster Abbey close to John Herschel and Sir Isaac Newton.

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The Chinese call Britain ‘The Island of Hero’s’ which I think sums up what we British are all about. We British are inquisitive and competitive and are always looking over the horizon to the next adventure and discovery.

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