Charles Darwin – A Scientific Life

by Lianne Walker



In our world of over 7.5 billion people there is more that connects us than divides us but as individuals we are all unique.

My love of the science of natural history and of human behaviour has been influenced most over the years by 3 people.

The first was my Zoology lecturer at Edinburgh University, Professor Aubrey Manning and the other two are probably better known to you. Sir David Attenborough and Charles Darwin – two great men who lived and worked about 150 years apart but both have made an enormous impact on our understanding of who we are and where we fit in to this great world of ours.

My starting point is Charles Darwin, who was he, what influenced him and how did he become the father of natural selection?



There are plenty of books and other written material about Charles Darwin, his life, his work and his writing so rather than use that I thought I would take a different route today and use the words of the man himself.


the autobiography of Charles Darwin

I will be reading excerpts from The Autobiography of Charles Darwin edited by his son, Francis Darwin from “The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin”.

The excerpts are but a small snapshot of the overall book and if you want to know more or download the book yourself you can do so at Project Gutenberg


Charles Robert Darwin was the fourth child born to Robert Waring Darwin and Susannah Wedgwood. He was a child of wealth and privilege who loved to explore nature. His mother, Susannah, sadly died when Charles was only 8 years old.

And so, to Charles Darwin, in his own words.


Darwin’s Early Life

“I was born at Shrewsbury on February 12th, 1809. My mother died in July 1817, when I was a little over eight years old, and it is odd that I can remember hardly anything about her except her death-bed, her black velvet gown, and her curiously constructed work-table.

“In the spring of this same year I was sent to a day-school in Shrewsbury, where I stayed a year. I have been told that I was much slower in learning than my younger sister Catherine, and I believe that I was in many ways a naughty boy.

By the time, I went to this day school, my taste for natural history and more especially for collecting, was well developed. I tried to name the plants and collected all sorts of things, shells, coins and minerals.”

“In the summer of 1818 I went to Dr. Butler’s great school in Shrewsbury, and remained there for seven years still Midsummer 1825, when I was sixteen years old.”

“Nothing could have been worse for the development of my mind than Dr. Butler’s school, as it was strictly classical, nothing else being taught, except a little ancient geography and history.

The school as a means of education to me was simply a blank.”

“Early in my school days a boy had a copy of the ‘Wonders of the World,’ which I often read, and disputed with other boys about the veracity of some of the statements; and I believe that this book first gave me a wish to travel in remote countries, which was ultimately fulfilled by the voyage of the “Beagle”.”

University Life

“As I was doing no good at school, my father wisely took me away at a rather earlier age than usual, and sent me (Oct. 1825) to Edinburgh University with my brother, where I stayed for two years.”

“My brother stayed only one year at the University, so that during the second year I was left to my own resources; and this was an advantage, for I became well acquainted with several young men fond of natural science.”

“After having spent two sessions in Edinburgh, my father perceived, or he heard from my sisters, that I did not like the thought of being a physician, so he proposed that I should become a clergyman. He was very properly vehement against my turning into an idle sporting man, which then seemed my probable destination.”


“As it was decided that I should be a clergyman, it was necessary that I should go to one of the English universities and take a degree, I went to Cambridge after the Christmas vacation, early in 1828.”

“During the three years which I spent at Cambridge my time was wasted, as far as the academical studies were concerned, as completely as at Edinburgh and at school. “no pursuit at Cambridge was followed with nearly so much eagerness or gave me so much pleasure as collecting beetles.

“I have not as yet mentioned a circumstance which influenced my whole career more than any other. This was my friendship with Professor Henslow. Before coming up to Cambridge, I had heard of him from my brother as a man who knew every branch of science, and I was accordingly prepared to reverence him.”

His knowledge was great in botany, entomology, chemistry, mineralogy, and geology. His strongest taste was to draw conclusions from long-continued minute observations. His judgment was excellent, and his whole mind well balanced. “

“During my last year at Cambridge, I read with care and profound interest Humboldt’s ‘Personal Narrative.’ This work, and Sir J. Herschel’s ‘Introduction to the Study of Natural Philosophy,’ stirred up in me a burning zeal to add even the most humble contribution to the noble structure of Natural Science. No one or a dozen other books influenced me nearly so much as these two.”

“Upon the whole of the three years which I spent at Cambridge were the most joyful in my happy life; for I was then in excellent health, and almost always in high spirits.”

Voyage of the Beagle

“On returning home from a short geological tour in North Wales, I found a letter from Henslow, informing me that Captain Fitz-Roy was willing to give up part of his own cabin to any young man who would volunteer to go with him without pay as naturalist to the Voyage of the “Beagle”.

“I was instantly eager to accept the offer, but my father strongly objected, adding the words, fortunate for me, “If you can find any man of common sense who advises you to go I will give my consent.””

“So, I wrote that evening and refused the offer. On the next morning, whilst out shooting, my uncle (Josiah Wedgwood (son of) sent for me, offering “to drive me over to Shrewsbury and talk with my father, as my uncle thought it would be wise in me to accept the offer.

My father always maintained that he was one of the most sensible men in the world, and he at once consented in the kindest manner. I had been rather extravagant at Cambridge, and to console my father, said, “that I should be deuced clever to spend more than my allowance whilst on board the ‘Beagle’;” but he answered with a smile, “But they tell me you are very clever.””

“The voyage of the “Beagle” has been by far the most important event in my life, and has determined my whole career; I have always felt that I owe to the voyage the first real training or education of my mind; I was led to attend closely to several branches of natural history, and thus my powers of observation were improved, though they were always fairly developed.”

“On September 11th (1831), I paid a flying visit with Fitz-Roy to the “Beagle” at Plymouth. Thence to Shrewsbury to wish my father and sisters a long farewell. On October 24th, I took up my residence at Plymouth, and remained there until December 27th, when the “Beagle” finally left the shores of England for her circumnavigation of the world. We made two earlier attempts to sail, but were driven back each time by heavy gales.”

“I need not here refer to the events of the voyage—where we went and what we did—as I have given a sufficiently full account in my published Journal.”


I leave Darwin’s words for a moment to fill in some of the detail of the Beagle’s 5 year voyage.


In December of 1831, the HMS Beagle left Plymouth, England.

It set a course south, which took it around Cape Horn at South America’s southernmost tip. It then turned northward following the west coast of South America to the Galapagos Islands, crossed the Pacific Ocean via Tahiti before going on to New Zealand and Australia.

The Beagle continued across the Indian Ocean to Mauritius, around the southern tip of Africa. From there it again crossed the Atlantic to South America’s east coast before heading northward back to England.

In September 1835, the HMS Beagle arrived at the Galapagos Islands. It is there that Darwin encountered a remarkable array of species. Here he made numerous observations, collected many specimens of plants and birds and observed subtle variations in mockingbirds and finches. He also noted the variations in shell shape among tortoises that inhabit different habitats.

Upon his return to England, Darwin described his many findings from his years aboard the HMS Beagle in the five-volume work, The Zoology of the Voyage of the HMS Beagle.

Back to Darwin’s words again.


On Darwin’s Return to England (October 2 1836)

“These two years and three months were the most active ones which I ever spent, though I was occasionally unwell, and so lost some time I began preparing my ‘Journal of Travels,’ which was not hard work, as my manuscript Journal had been written with care, and my chief labour was making an abstract of my more interesting scientific results.”


Charles Darwin married his cousin, Emma Wedgewood on January 29 1839 and they resided in London for the early part of their marriage.

As he said “During the three years and eight months whilst we resided in London, I did less scientific work, though I worked as hard as I possibly could, than during any other equal length of time in my life. This was owing to frequently recurring un-wellness, and to one long and serious illness. The greater part of my time, when I could do anything, was devoted to my work on ‘Coral Reefs,’ which I had begun before my marriage, and of which the last proof-sheet was corrected on May 6th, 1842.”


Darwin and his wife moved from London to Down House in Kent, about 15 miles outside of London, in 1842, which became their family home.


“In the early part of 1844, my observations on the volcanic islands visited during the voyage of the “Beagle” were published.”

“From September 1854 I devoted my whole time to arranging my huge pile of notes, to observing, and to experimenting in relation to the transmutation of species.

“Early in 1856, Lyell (this was Darwin’s good friend Charles Lyell, the influential geologist; they had been introduced by Fitz Roy, the captain of the Beagle. It was Lyell’s geological observations of small changes over time that influenced Darwin’s Theory of Evolution) advised me to write out my views pretty fully, and I began at once to do so on a scale three or four times as extensive as that which was afterwards followed in my ‘Origin of Species;’ yet it was only an abstract of the materials which I had collected, and I got through about half the work on this scale.

“But my plans were overthrown, for early in the summer of 1858 Mr. Alfred Wallace, who was then in the Malay archipelago, sent me an essay “On the Tendency of Varieties to depart indefinitely from the Original Type;” and this essay contained exactly the same theory as mine. Mr. Wallace expressed the wish that if I thought well of his essay, I should sent it to Lyell for perusal.”

“The circumstances under which I consented at the request of Lyell and Hooker to allow of an abstract from my MS., together with a letter to Asa Gray, dated September 5, 1857, to be published at the same time with Wallace’s Essay, are given in the ‘Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society,’ 1858”

“I was at first very unwilling to consent, as I thought Mr. Wallace might consider my doing so unjustifiable, for I did not then know how generous and noble was his disposition. Mr. Wallace’s essay, was admirably expressed and quite clear. Nevertheless, our joint productions excited very little attention. “This shows how necessary it is that any new view should be explained at considerable length in order to arouse public attention.”


“In September 1858 I set to work by the strong advice of Lyell and Hooker to prepare a volume on the transmutation of species, but was often interrupted by ill-health.

It was published under the title of the ‘Origin of Species,’ in November 1859. Though considerably added to and corrected in the later editions, it has remained substantially the same book.

It is no doubt the chief work of my life.

It was from the first highly successful. The first small edition of 1250 copies was sold on the day of publication, and a second edition of 3000 copies soon afterwards. “The success of the ‘Origin’ may, I think, be attributed in large part to my having long before written two condensed sketches, and to my having finally abstracted a much larger manuscript, which was itself an abstract.

Although in the ‘Origin of Species’ the derivation of any particular species is never discussed, yet I thought it best, in order that no honourable man should accuse me of concealing my views, to add that by the work “light would be thrown on the origin of man and his history.” It would have been useless and injurious to the success of the book to have paraded, without giving any evidence, my conviction with respect to his origin.”

“Therefore, my success as a man of science, whatever this may have amounted to, has been determined, as far as I can judge, by complex and diversified mental qualities and conditions. Of these, the most important have been—the love of science—unbounded patience in long reflecting over any subject—industry in observing and collecting facts—and a fair share of invention as well as of common sense.

With such moderate abilities as I possess, it is truly surprising that I should have influenced to a considerable extent the belief of scientific men on some important points. “


Charles Darwin died on 19 April 1882 from a Heart attack at home in Down House. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, London an honour bestowed upon only a few people and recognition of the enormous contribution he made to our understanding of evolution, that continues to this day.

Throughout his life, Darwin’s keen observation, curiosity and determination allowed him to make contributions in areas of science not previously connected.


His work continues to provide the basis for new research, new discoveries and debates, which is after all the hallmark of great science and of progress.

Long may it continue.

To listen to the Wonder Podcast Episode head on over to Wonder Season 1 Episode 4 – A Scientific Life


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