Darwin aged 31 H.M.S. Beagle anchored off Chile Few Victorians are as well-remembered today as Charles Robert Darwin. Born into a wealthy Shropshire gentry family, Darwin grew up amidst wealth, comfort and country sports. An unimpressive student, Darwin vacillated between the prospect of becoming a country physician, like his father, or a clergyman. The advantage to becoming a country parson, as Darwin saw it, would be the freedom to pursue his growing interest in natural history. However, an unforeseen opportunity precluded Darwin's plan of becoming a clergyman. After his student days in Edinburgh and Cambridge, Darwin's connections in 1831 offered him the opportunity of travelling on a survey ship, H.M.S. Beagle, as the captain's gentleman dining companion and as naturalist. The round-the-world journey lasted almost five years. Darwin spent most of these years investigating the geology and life of the lands he visited, especially South America, the Galapagos islands, and pacific coral reefs. Darwin also read the works of men of science like Alexander von Humboldt and the geologist Charles Lyell. Lyell's new book, Principles of Geology (text outside this site), was particularly interesting for Darwin. Lyell argued that the world had been shaped not by great catastrophes like floods but by the processes we see active today: wind, erosion, volcanoes, earthquakes etc. Lyell offered not just a new geology but a new philosophy of science. Slow gradual cumulative change over a long period of time could produce great effects. Visible non-miraculous causes should be preferred when seeking explanations. Darwin had the opportunity to witness all of these forces himself during the Beagle voyage and he became convinced that something like Lyell's method was correct. Darwin also collected organisms of all sorts, as well as unearthing many fossils. He began to speculate on why it was that the species he found as fossils were often extinct in the same region today, but sometimes not. The evidence clearly showed that the environment had sometimes changed. Where had new species come from?

Darwin did not hit on a solution during the Beagle voyage, but rather a few years later in London, while writing books on his travels. He began to speculate on the means by which species could arise by means still active around us. Darwin's idiosyncratic eclecticism led him to investigate some unconventional bodies of evidence. He made countless inquiries of animal breeders, both farmers and hobbyists like pigeon fanciers, trying to understand how they made distinct breeds of animals. Gradually Darwin decided that organisms were infinitely variable, and that the supposed limits or barriers to species were a myth. In modern terms we would say that Darwin came to accept the then very controversial and unorthodox view that species evolve. Darwin then sought a mechanism for evolution. Darwin was familiar with the evolutionary theories earlier proposed by his grandfather Erasmus Darwin and by the great French zoologist Lamarck. In 1838 Darwin read the Rev. Thomas Malthus' Essay on the Principle of Population(1798). Malthus had argued for a law-like relationship between population growth and food production in order to warn against what he feared was an immanent danger of overpopulation. Malthus was widely believed to have conclusively demonstrated that population would necessarily outstrip food production unless population growth were somehow checked. This focused idea inspired Darwin who applied it to his much wider field of concern. Darwin, already concentrating on how new varieties of life might be formed, now thought in terms of the differences between those individuals who, for whatever reasons, left offspring and those who did not.

As Darwin wrote in his autobiography in 1876: 'In October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic inquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The results of this would be the formation of a new species. Here, then I had at last got a theory by which to work'. Below is the famous passage from Darwin's personal notebook where these ideas were first recorded:

[Sept] 28th.[1838] Even the energetic language of Decandolle does not convey the warring of the species as inference from Malthus-increase of brutes must be prevented solely by positive checks, excepting that famine may stop desire. -in nature production does not increase, whilst no check prevail, but the positive check of famine and consequently death. . .

Population is increase at geometrical ratio in FAR SHORTER time than 25 years-yet until the one sentence of Malthus no one clearly perceived the great check amongst men.-there is spring, like food used for other purposes as wheat for making brandy-Even a fewyears plenty, makes population in man increase & an ordinarycrop causes a dearth. take Europe on an average every species must have some number killed year with year by hawks by cold &c.-even one species of hawk decreasing in number must affect instantaneously all the rest.-The final cause of all this wedging, must be to sort out proper structure, and adapt it to change.-to do that for form, which Malthus shows is the final effect by means however of volition of this populousness on the energy of man. One may say there is a force like a hundred thousand wedges trying [to] force every kind of adapted structure into the gaps in the economy of nature, or rather forming gaps by thrusting out weaker ones.

Therefore if checks killed off some individuals but not others, the survivors would pass on their own form and abilities. They would increase whilst other forms would decrease. Darwin did not know how inheritance worked- genes and DNA were totally unknown. More importantly he realized the importance of the observations that there wasinheritance at all. Darwin thought in terms of populations of diverse heritable things with no essence- not representatives of ideal types as earlier thinkers had done. From his observations of domesticated plants and animals it seemed that there were no limits to the extent organic forms could vary and change through generations. Thus the existing species in the world were related not along a chain of being or in statically separate species categories but were all related on a genealogical family tree through 'descent with modification'. Darwin called his theory natural selection as it was similar to the way breeders modified populations by selecting desirable forms in domesticated plants and animals. Darwin also identified another means by which some individuals would have descendants and others would not. He later called this sexual selection. This theory explained why male birds often have bright plumage which might make them easier to spot by predators or why the males of some species, such as pea fowl, have enormously enlarged tail feathers used for mating displays but apparently costly in every other respect.

Darwin used collections of finches that he and others had collected on the Galapagos Islands to investigate why it was that slightly different species inhabited each island. Darwin thought it too unlikely that each species had been generated or individually created on each island. Furthermore there were similar finches on the mainland to which these might be related. With his ideas of inheritance and divergence from an ancestral stock Darwin could show that isolation provided by the Galapagos Islands allowed the finches to diverge from the ancestral stock while adapting themselves to the local conditions on each island. Thus speciation, or the splitting into new species, could occur simply by ongoing variation, selection and inheritance in isolation.

Darwin, deeply studied in the sciences of his time, yet living somewhat removed from his colleagues as a closet theorist, was able to think in new ways and to conceive of worlds quite unimaginable to his orthodox friends. However, the legend of Darwin as a lone genius discovering evolution by natural selection on the Galapagos Islands is a story whose fabrication we can reconstruct. Nevertheless, it seems to be so widespread today that nothing scholars say to the contrary can dislodge it. Perhaps the best antidotes are the excellent biographies of Darwin by Janet Browne (1995, 2002) and Desmond and Moore (1991).

Many have argued that Darwin borrowed an idea of individual struggle from laissez-faire social theory and applied it to the natural world. Karl Marx was perhaps the first to observe that Darwin's theories of individual struggle resembled contemporary British theories of political economy. The logic of these social theories is powerful. Nevertheless, the specific causal effects of these social factors on Darwin's thought remain unclear. Although Darwin's theories were not isolated from the social environments in which he lived, we should remain open-minded when explaining Darwin's thought. Darwin spent most of his time thinking about the properties of organisms, how they all varied to some degree, how apparent lineages resembled one another, and how the the rigours of nature meant that a vast quantity of life was constantly being snuffed out in a natural winnowing of forms. The important point for Darwin was not the survival of an individual, or as Herbert Spencer called it, the 'survival of the fittest', but success in creating offspring- in the perpetuation of a stock. After all, Darwin named his theory 'natural selection' not 'individual competition' or 'survival of the ruthless'.

Darwin did not, at first, tell anyone about his secret speculations. Perhaps the first to be told was his corespondent, the botanist J.D. Hooker on 14 January 1844: "I am almost convinced, (quite contrary to opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable". The unorthodoxy and anathema attached to the idea that species might be fluid was a powerful force. Darwin told only a handful of other friends of his ideas during the succeeding years. Meanwhile Darwin married his cousin Emma Wedgwood in 1839 and continued to study and publish on scientific subjects.

Darwin conducted breeding experiments with animals and plants and corresponded and read widely for many years to refine and substantiate his views. In 1844 he prepared an essay outlining his theory but did not publish it. He waited until 1858 when a letter from an English naturalist and collector Alfred Russel Wallace in the Malay Archipelago moved him to action. In this fateful letter Wallace described his ideas on 'On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely From the Original Type'. The similarity to Darwin's own ideas of natural selection was striking. Darwin sent the letter on to Lyell and it was decided, to avoid competition for priority, to publicize abstracts by both men as soon as possible. The papers were read in absentia at a meeting of the Linnean Society of London in 1858. Darwin worked on creating an "abstract" of his in progress work on natural selection. This abstract became The Origin of Species (1859).

His eight years grueling work on barnacles, published 1851-4 established Darwin's reputation as an authority on taxonomy as well as geology and the distribution of flora and fauna as in his earlier works. It is the fact that Darwin possessed an impeccable scientific reputation that led to his fame as an evolutionist. Why is it that we consider Darwin as the originator or discoverer of evolution when so many others proposed similar ideas before him? Why do many still believe that a Darwinian revolution broke across the world like a thunderclap in 1859 when Darwin published The Origin of Species? A glance at Darwin's 'An historical sketch of the progress of opinion on the origin of species' shows that Darwin made no pretense to have originated or discovered these ideas. We know that a wide popular literature such as Combe's Constitution of Man and the anonymous Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation had already shocked and converted a vast popular audience for such views. Historians of science now believe that Darwin's effect was, as Jim Secord put it, a "palace coup" amongst elite men of science rather than a revolution. Darwin, as an unquestionably respectable authority in elite science, publicly threw his weight on the side of evolution, and soon young allies like Hooker, T.H. Huxley, and John Tyndall followed suit. Darwin's name is so linked with evolution because he was the high-status insider who made evolution acceptable. Most of his contemporaries did not particularly like Darwin's mechanism of natural selection. Very often evolution was accepted, but natural selection was not. Natural selection had to wait until the modern synthesis of Darwinism with Mendelian genetics in the 1930s to became the hallowed truism it has become.

Like Combe, Babbage, Chambers, Spencer and countless other authors before him, Darwin represented his doctrine as furthering the domain of natural laws. We see this in the following epigraph chosen by Darwin for The Origin of Species:

"But with regard to the material world, we can at least go so far as this--
we can perceive that events are brought about not by insulated
interpositions of Divine power, exerted in each particular case, but by the
establishment of general laws."--Whewell: "Bridgewater Treatise".

Darwin even saw the power of his law of natural selection extending beyond life to what we would call psychology, linguistics, and perhaps to history (see Descent of Man 1871 chapter 3).

In The Origin of Species Darwin first tried to convince his readers that organisms are utterly malleable and not fixed natural kinds. He showed that domestic plants and animals were well known to be highly malleable and to have changed so much under domestication as to be classified as different species by taxonomists. He then showed that the existence and abundance of organisms was dependent on many factors, many of which tended to hold their numbers in check such as climate, food, predators, available space etc. Only then did Darwin set about showing the effects of differential death and survival on reproduction and the persistence and diversification of forms- his natural selection. Darwin's theory of genealogical evolution (as opposed to earlier theories by Lamarck or Chambers which entailed independent lineages unfolding sequentially) made sense of a host of diverse bodies of evidence such as the succession of fossil forms in the geological record, geographical distribution of life, recapitulative appearances in embryology, homologies, and vestigial organs.

The famous last paragraph to the Origin of Species gives an irreplaceable taste of Darwin's vision:

It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.

Modern commentators often misunderstand the meaning of the title of Darwin's book. They take the origin of species to mean the origin of life. Then it is pointed out that Darwin 'failed' to throw light on the origin of life. But this was not Darwin's point. Darwin argued that species- that is the different kinds of organisms we observe- came not from multiple unique creation events on each island or particular place- but instead that species were the modified descendants of earlier forms. Darwin showed that the origin of species was in descent with modification- not spontaneous creations according to environmental circumstances or divine interventions.

The reactions to Darwin's evolutionary theories were varied and pronounced. In zoology, taxonomy, botany, paleontology, philosophy, anthropology, psychology, literature and religion Darwin's work engendered profound reactions. Most disturbing of all, however, were the implications for the cherished uniqueness of Man. Although Darwin refrained from mentioning Man except for his famous cryptic sentence: "Much light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history." Most who read the book could think only about what this genealogical view of life meant for Man. This is a subject Darwin later took up in The Descent of Man (1871) and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872).

Darwin's massive achievements are not restricted to his early scientific works and his evolutionary works. His keen observation, imagination, curiosity and engery allowed him to make strikingly prescient contributions to ecology and a dozen of what would later be distinct disciplines. Darwin was very impressed by the inter relatedness of different species, climate and environment. He stressed that the life in any area was the outcome of an amazing history of struggle or war or "great battle for life". He proposed new solutions to how organisms spread across the globe. In his final book published the year before his death, The formation of vegetable mould through the action of worms (1881) Darwin again made an important contribution which, as was characteristic of Darwin, revealed the amazing complexity and importance of a natural process, which no one seems to have grasped before, that had along along been under our feet.

Charles Darwin was a very mild, kind, pleasant man, unassuming and modest. He suffered from an unexplained illness much of his adult life (perhaps picked up during the Beagle voyage). He nevertheless remained driven and ambitious to explore nature and examine it candidly.

See Darwin's charming own account of his life: Autobiography.

See also: Charles Darwin Chronology

Responses to Darwin's evolutionary theories

Web Resources

The writings of Charles Darwin on the web with full bibliographical details.

Further reading

Beer, Gillian. Darwin's Plots. London, 1983.

"This seminal volume analyses the background to Darwin's own intellectual development, focusing on his early reading and the ways in which it shaped the language which he eventually used to express his ideas in On the Origin of Species 1859. The main body of the text, however, is given over to a study of how Darwin's theory of evolution was absorbed into the literary culture after 1859. Although Gillian Beer looks at this phenomenon in a broad sense, looking at evolution's impact on writers like Charles Kingsley, her main subjects are George Eliot and Thomas Hardy - two writers who paid close attention to Darwin's text. It is particularly concerned with how the plot structures of Eliot's and Hardy's fiction were influenced by the Darwinian theory of evolution. Ground-breaking piece of work and essential reading for scholars of evolution and literature." — David Clifford

Bowler, Peter J. Theories of Human Evolution. 1989.


Bowler, Peter J. Charles Darwin, the man and his influence. Cambridge, 1990.

Bratchell, D.F. The Impact of Darwin. Avebury, 1981.

Browne, Janet. Charles Darwin: Voyaging. London, 1995. Vol. 2 is in press-

Darwin, Charles. Charles Darwin's Natural Selection, being the second part of his big species book written from 1856 to 1858. ed. by R.C. Stauffer Cambridge, 1975.

Darwin, Charles. The Correspondence of Charles Darwin. ed. by Frederick Burkhardt, S. Smith et al, Cambridge University Press Cambridge, 1985 - Includes an on-line calendar with brief details of all known letters to and from Darwin and a complete list of correspondents and brief biographies of them.

Darwin. Charles Darwin's Notebooks on Transmutation of Species. ed. Gavin de Beer Bulletin of the British Museum Natural History Historical series vol. 2 no 2 London 1960.

Darwin, Charles. The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin: A variorum text ed. by Morse Peckham Philadelphia, 1959.

de Beer, Gavin. Charles Darwin: Evolution by Natural Selection, London, 1963. (An older biography which focuses more on intellectual and scientific issues than newer biographies which focus more on the social context).

Desmond, Adrian and Moore, James. Darwin. London, 1992.

Gillispie, C.C. 'Lamarck and Darwin in the History of Science' in Glass et al eds, Forerunners of Darwin. pp. 265-91.

Himmelfarb, Gertrude. Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution London, 1959.

Hodge, M.J.S. and D. Kohn, The immediate origins of Natural Selection', in D. Kohn ed. The Darwinian Heritage, pp. 185-206.

Hull, D.L. Darwin and his Critics: The Reception of Darwin's Theory of Evolution by the Scientific Community Cambridge, Mass., 1974.

Irvine, William. Apes, Angels and Victorians: A joint biography of Darwin and Huxley. London, 1956.

James, Rosemary. 'Evolutionary Philosophy and Darwin's Expression of Emotions', Victorian Review, 1992, 18:2, pp. 1-27.

Kohn, David, ed. The Darwinian Heritage. Princeton, 1985.

Mayr, Ernst. The Growrh of Biological Thought: Diversity, Evolution, and Inheritance. 1985.

Mayr, Ernst. 'Ideological resitance to Darwin's theory of Natural Selection' in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 1991, 135:2, pp. 123-39.

Mayr, Ernst. One Long Argument: Charles Darwin and the genesis of modern evolutionary thought London, 1991.

McKinney, H. ed. Lamarck to Darwin: Contributions to Evolutionary Biology. Kansas 1971.

Moore, James R. The Post-Darwinian Controversies: A study of the Protestant struggle to come to terms with Darwin in Great Britain and America, 1870-1900 Cambridge, 1979.

Morton, Peter, The vital science: biology and the literary imagination, 1860-1900. 1984.

Oldroyd, David R. Darwinian Impacts, Milton Keynes, 1980.

Passmore, John. 'Darwin's Impact on British Metaphysics' Victorian Studies, vol. 3 1960 pp. 41-54.

Richards, E. 'Will the Real Charles Darwin Please Stand Up', New Scientist, 22 Dec. 1983, pp. 884-887.

Richards, Robert J. Darwin and the emergence of evolution - theories in mind and behaviour. Chicago, 1987.

Seward, C. ed. Darwin and Modern Science: Essays in Commemoration of the Centenary of the Birth of Charles Darwin and of the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Publication of The Origin of Species. Cambridge, 1909.

Shapin, S. and B. Barnes, 'Darwin and Social Darwinism: Purity and History', in B. Barnes and S. Shapin eds. Natural order: historical studies of scientific culture, 1979, pp. 125-142.

White, Michael & Gribbin, John. Darwin: A life in science London, 1995.

Willey, Basil. Darwin and Butler: Two versions of Evolution London, 1960.

Young, Robert. Darwin's Metaphor: Nature's Place in Victorian Culture Cambridge, 1985.


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Last modified 28 August 2003