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The Core Curriculum

Charles Darwin

1809 CE – 1882 CE

  Portrait of Charles Darwin by George Richmond, late 1830s. (Wikimedia Commons) Portrait of Charles Darwin by George Richmond, late 1830s. (Wikimedia Commons) Charles Robert Darwin was born in Shrewsbury, England on February 12th 1809, the fifth child of Robert and Susannah Wedgwood Darwin. The grandson of famed physician Erasmus Darwin and industrialist Josiah Wedgwood, Darwin belonged to a wealthy, well-educated and influential family representing the professional and intellectual elite of his age.  After a false start studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh, Darwin received a liberal arts education at Cambridge, the first step towards a potential career in the clergy.  Upon graduation, however, Darwin joined the surveying expedition of HMS Beagle (1831-1836), inaugurating his career as a gentleman naturalist.  He married Emma Wedgwood in 1839; the couple’s first of 10 children was born in 1842.  
 
Chronically-ill and devoted to his family, Darwin worked from home in the Surrey countryside, experimenting with the plants in his specially-built greenhouse and exchanging letters and specimens with naturalists worldwide. Darwin conceived of natural selection by 1838, but was still writing up his theory when he learned that another naturalist, Alfred Russell Wallace, had independently developed a similar idea. The two men jointly presented their work to the English Linnaean Society in 1858 with little response.  The next year, however, Darwin’s On the Origins of Species sold out immediately and became the subject of spirited, sometimes bitter, international debate.   Despite failing health and the death of several children, Darwin remained a productive and renowned scholar until his death in 1892.  He was buried in Westminster Abbey, one of less than a dozen non-royals in history to be granted a British state funeral.

Charles Darwin was a prolific scholar who published hundreds of books, articles, technical guides, testimonials, and images over the course of his career.  His first significant work, his report on The Voyage of the Beagle (1839), was followed by many detailed observational studies describing, classifying and explaining geological forms and organisms. After On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859) introduced Darwin’s theory of evolution via natural selection, later works elaborated on this theme.  First, studies such as Fertilisation of Orchards (1862) and Variation under Domestication (1868) showed natural selection at work in plants and animals.  Later works, far more controversial, beginning with The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871) addressed human origins, psychology, and culture.

 

Written by Jay Gundraker, History, Columbia University

 

Works Consulted:

Janet Browne. “Darwin, Charles,"  The Oxford Companion to the History of Modern Science, edited by J. L. Heilbron. Oxford University Press, 2003 

Jonathon Hodge and Gregory Radick, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Darwin. 2nd ed. Cambridge UP, 2008.

Darwin generated an enormous amount of private literature, including correspondence, journals and an autobiographical sketch dedicated to his children.  All of Darwin’s publications and thousands of his private papers are available through The Complete Works of Charles Darwin Online, edited by John van Wyhe, at http://darwin-online.org.uk .