Charles Darwin: A Life in Brief
Charles Robert Darwin was born 12 February 1809 in Shrewsbury, England. He died 19 April 1882, aged 73, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.
Between his birth in a small room on the second floor of his parents’ mansion, known as The Mount, and his interment beneath a pale gravestone in London, Darwin managed to do no less than change the way we Humans would think of ourselves.
His mother, Susannah, died when he was only eight and at nine he was sent to board at Shrewsbury School – even though it was only 15 minutes walk from his house. The school was run by the authoritarian Dr Samual Butler and, in Darwin’s own words, “Nothing could have been worse for the development of my mind than Dr. Butler’s school…”
At sixteen, Darwin was sent to Edinburgh, with his brother Erasmus, to study medicine. But medicine (or at least, operations) and Darwin did not mix well – and after a couple of years he left to go to Cambridge University to study for the clergy. This, despite being exposed to new and radical ideas such as evolution while in Edinburgh and a member of a natural sciences love-fest known as the Plinians.
Indeed, there was a strong association with the natural sciences apparent in much of Darwin’s family, but it would be his invitation to join HMS Beagle as naturalist on its circumnavigation of the world that would finally seal his fate: Darwin the man of Science, rather than the man of God.
After returning to England, Darwin threw himself first into marriage – to his first cousin Emma Wedgwood – and then into describing and writing up his vast collections of animals and plants amassed during his voyage. He did most of this after setting up house in the village of Downe in Kent, about 16 miles from London.
At Down House (as Darwin’s home was known, without the “e” that the village had subsequently adopted), Darwin lived with Emma, their children (they had 10), servants and a dog called Polly. Being independently wealthy was a crucial factor in Darwin having the time to ponder the world and write up his ideas. Not only was Darwin’s father, Robert, wealthy (being both a successful doctor and an even more successful financier), Emma had received a significant inheritance from her father, Josiah Wedgwood, son of the founder of the Wedgwood crockery dynasty. Darwin used to talk regular walks, often with Polly, around a track that he called the Sandwalk – and it was then that he did much of thinking.
By 1844 he had essentially distilled the basis of his theory of Evolution by Natural Selection, and even written a substantial text outlining it. However, he held off publishing, knowing full-well the reaction it would provoke. But in 1858, he received a manuscript from fellow naturalist, Alfred Russell Wallace, articulating exactly same theory – which he had derived independently.
Darwin was devastated, but his friends Joseph Hooker and Charles Lyell (to whom he had previously confided his ideas) convinced Darwin to put forward a joint paper with Wallace to the next meeting of the Linnaean Society, thereby releasing to the world the concept of Natural Selection. Darwin would follow this up the next year, 1859, with the publication of On the Origin of Species: the book that would make him a household name and which would remain in print ever since.