Charles Darwin

Start Your Free Trial

Download Charles Darwin Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Introduction

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Charles Darwin 1809-1882

English scientist.

Generally regarded as the most prominent of the nineteenth-century evolutionary theorists, Charles Darwin is primarily known for his On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, the publication of which in 1859 ushered in a new era of naturalistic thinking that was to influence not only the field of biological science, but also the disciplines of art, literature, philosophy, and theology. In the work Darwin identified genetic mutation and natural selection as the mechanisms that controlled the development of species. His theory introduced the concept of ever-present competitive struggle in nature, thereby decentering the commonly held Romantic view of nature as a benign, even benevolent force, and pushed the role of God to the margins of human existence on earth. Although one of many contributors to the field of evolutionary biology, Darwin is commonly associated with the popular acceptance of evolutionary theory, and his Origin is believed to be the impetus for an intellectual revolution as philosophers, social scientists, and writers began to explore the far-reaching implications of his naturalistic theory, which posed a serious challenge to the orthodoxy of Victorian religion, science, and philosophy.

Biographical Information

Darwin was born on 12 February 1809 in Shrewsbury, England. His grandfather was the noted physician, botanist, and poet, Erasmus Darwin, who had been a popularizer of evolutionary biology in the late eighteenth century. Darwin shared his grandfather's love of science and at an early age demonstrated an interest in plants, animals, and the natural world. His schooling in Shrewsbury followed by three years of medical study at Edinburgh University under his father's insistence, however, offered him little interest. Seeing that he was dissatisfied, his father sent him to Christ's College, Cambridge in 1828. While there, Darwin's aptitude for scientific exploration caught the attention of his professor and friend John Henslow. With Henslow's encouragement Darwin began to study geology and later undertook a voyage to South America as a naturalist aboard the H. M. S. Beagle (despite his father's objections) in 1831. The journey lasted five years, taking Darwin to the Andes, as well as to Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of the continent, and to the Galapagos archipelago. The trip culminated in Darwin's publication of the Journal of Researches into the Geology and Natural History of the Various Countries Visited by H. M. S. Beagle (1839). By this time, and largely in response to geological and biological evidence he had accumulated in South America, Darwin was formulating his theory of natural selection, although it was not to appear in print until 1859, with the publication of On the Origin of Species. The work stirred instant controversy and made Darwin one of the most recognizable figures in Victorian England. Over the...

(The entire section is 975 words.)