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Charles Darwin | Biography

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Education and Influences

Charles Darwin was born in Shrewsbury, England, on February 12, 1809. Initially uninterested in obtaining a formal education, Darwin was nonetheless heavily influenced by his time spent studying medicine at Edinburgh University in 1825. This education provided him with the basic skills needed to conduct naturalist research aboard the HMS Beagle, a British ship that sailed around the world on a journey lasting five years (1831–36). Such skills included specimen preparation and an understanding of geological processes and chemistry. Darwin's time at the university also exposed him to the ideas of leading geologists, zoologists, and other researchers. These ideas—such as Scottish geologist Charles Lyell's theory of uniformitarianism—structured Darwin's perception of the natural world and ultimately informed his theory of natural selection.

In 1828 Darwin began attending Christ's College in Cambridge and earned a Bachelor of Arts in 1831. It was here Darwin would be inspired to travel—first by Professor Adam Sedgwick, who took Darwin on his first geological field experience in Wales, and later by Professor John Stevens Henslow. Henslow encouraged Darwin to apply for the position of geologist and naturalist aboard the HMS Beagle.

HMS Beagle and the Aftermath

The HMS Beagle left England in 1831. At the time Darwin was age 22, and the journey would take five years to complete. He would sail from England to the tip of South America, stopping off at numerous ports along the way. During this voyage Darwin read Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology (1830–33), a book that inspired him to record the geology of the locations he visited and provided the framework for his later arguments. Over the course of this journey, Darwin made observations that supported his ideas of the evolution of species and influenced his theory of natural selection.

When he returned to England, Darwin established himself as a geologist and naturalist. He published his ideas in two works: Journal of Researches into the Geology and Natural History of the Various Countries Visited by HMS Beagle in 1839 and Zoology of the Voyage of HMS Beagle from 1838–43. During this period, Darwin began to formulate his theory of natural selection, but it would take him years to fully construct his argument.

In 1842 Darwin moved to the village of Downe, outside of London, and continued to publish largely on topics of geological interest while tending to the reported intestinal and heart afflictions that ailed him. Later researchers have argued over the nature of Darwin's health problems—they are generally believed to have been a result of physical and psychosomatic factors. Despite Darwin's geological focus at this time, he continued to show interest in zoology and from 1846–54 published four papers on barnacles.

Formulating On the Origin of Species

In 1856 Darwin began to write a book called Natural Selection. On June 18, 1858, he received a letter from British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace asking for advice on a manuscript he was working on. The manuscript featured ideas very similar to those Darwin was proposing in Natural Selection. Wallace's ideas provided Darwin the incentive to publish his own ideas, which, up to this point, he had been reluctant to do because of the controversy he believed these ideas would generate. However, the fear Wallace would publish before him proved a great motivator.

The first presentation of the theory of natural selection took place at the Linnean Society in 1858. It was to be a joint presentation by both Darwin and Wallace, but Darwin was not able to attend due to the death of one of his children. A year later Darwin published the revised version of his manuscript, now titled On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. The reaction to the book's publication was mixed. While a group of scientists agreed with Darwin's theory of natural selection, much of the scientific community maintained their belief in creationism. Darwin attempted to avoid the controversy surrounding On the Origin of Species and attempted to stay out of the public's eye, while friends and colleagues—such as Thomas Huxley—defended the idea of human evolution publically.

Darwin's health was in continual decline, but he ultimately produced six editions of On the Origin of Species. In 1871 he directly addressed the evolution of humankind in his book, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. Darwin continued to expound on the subject of natural selection until his death on April 19, 1882. In 1890 the Royal Society created the Darwin Medal in recognition of distinguished works in the biological sciences. The Darwin Medal's first recipient was Darwin's colleague, Alfred Russel Wallace.

The rejection of the idea of creationism detailed in On the Origin of Species is a controversy that has persisted. Many believe Darwin's ideas are in direct opposition to religious belief. Despite the continued controversy within the public sphere, the book has remained highly influential within the scientific community and continues to be recognized for its notable scientific contributions.

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