Introduction

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 years, in response to strident criticism, Darwin prepared five revised editions of the book, and meanwhile published several monographs on botany and zoology. In 1871, his Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, another work tied to his theory of evolutionary biology appeared. Descent likewise caused an uproar among critics, but Darwin, highly reserved for most of his life, responded in part by resuming his studies of plants and animals outside a purely evolutionary context. His last book published during his lifetime, The Formation of Vegetable Mould, through the Action of Worms, with Observations on Their Habits (1881), appeared in the year before his death at the age of seventy-three.

Major Works

Darwin wrote several books on a range of scientific topics, including botany, zoology, and geology. Among his earliest works, the Journal of Researches is as much a travelogue as a book on science, and captures his responses to the beauty of the Brazilian rainforest and cultural observations of the natives at Tierra del Fuego. This work differs from Darwin's purely scientific writings in that it evinces his more personal and intimate style, a feature also found in his two most well-known books, On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man. In the Origin Darwin argued that environmental factors acting upon random genetic mutations produce changes in species by allowing those individuals better adapted for survival in a given environment to thrive and reproduce in greater numbers than other members of the same species. This process he termed "descent with modification," which, he maintained, produced large-scale changes in species only over vast periods of time. The revolutionary implications of the theory were further elucidated in Descent, wherein Darwin applied the principles of evolution specifically to human beings and thereby explicitly contradicted widely-held religious explanations of human origins by observing that they shared a common origin with apes and monkeys, and ultimately with even the simplest forms of life.

Critical Reception

By introducing the element of chance into his model of evolution, and thereby supplanting divine intervention as the primary force in the creation of life, Darwin had posed a direct challenge to the prevailing religious and moral constructs of his time and provoked a furious response from many quarters. In addition to objections to the essence of Darwin's theory and its implications for religion, many of his contemporaries in the scientific community found flaws in his argument based on the lack of evidence that Darwin was able to produce in order to substantiate his claims. Darwin engaged these oppositions by refining his theory over time, until it gradually gained scientific and popular acceptance. By the late twentieth century, Darwin's theory, with modifications derived from more than a century of scientific research, had become a cornerstone of modern biology and geology. No longer the object of the same heated controversy that they were in the nineteenth century, Darwin's writings have most recently been studied in terms of the author's rhetorical strategies and use of language (especially metaphor), and have been largely investigated for their enormous influence on the currents of intellectual history.