About the Author

Portrait of Charles Darwin

British naturalist, who revolutionized the science of biology by his demonstration of evolution by natural selection. Darwin's On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle of Life, was published on November 24, 1859, and sold out immediately. It was followed by five more editions in his lifetime. The expression "survival of the fittest" did not originate from Darwin's work. Herbert Spencer had already used it in his books about evolutionary philosophy. Though he later described our common ancestor as "a hairy quadruped, furnished with a tail and pointed ears," Darwin did not do so in the famous On the Origin of Species.

Darwin was born in Shrewsbury. His grandfather Erasmus Darwin was a scientist, whose ideas on evolution anticipated later theories. His chief prose work was Zoonomia, or the Laws of Organic Life (1794-96). Darwin's maternal grandfather was Josiah Wedgewood, wealthy founder of the famous potteru works. Due his background Darwin was not expected to work for a living but use his education and talents well.

Darwin's mother died when he was eight years old, and he was brought up by his sister. In 1827 he started theology studies at Christ's College, Cambridge. His love to collect plants, insects, and geological specimens was noted by his botany professor John Stevens Henslow. He arranged for his talented student a place a on the surveying expedition of HMS Beagle to Patagonia. Captain Robert FitzRoy needed a naturalist to serve as his companion and messmate on the tedious trip. Despite objections of his father, Darwin decided to leave his familiar surroundings.

The voyage took five years from 1831 to 1836. Darwin had good reasons to doubt the view that fossils were relics of Noah's Flood and in Cambridge he had participated in discussions about the "transmutations" of species. Darwin returned with observations he had made in Teneriffe, the Cape Verde Islands, Brazil, the Galapagos Islands, and elsewhere. He never set foor abroad again. During the voyage he had contracted a tropical illness, which made him a semi-invalid for the rest of his life. By 1846 Darwin had published several works based on the discoveries of the voyage and he became secretary of the Geological Society (1838-41).

From 1842 Darwin lived at Down House, Downe. In 1839 he had married his cousin Emma Wedgwood, and when not devoting himself to scientific studies, he led a life of a country gentleman. In the 1840s Darwin worked on his observations of the origin of species for his own use. He began to conclude, although he was deeply anxious about the direction his mid was taking, that species might share a common ancestor. When Alfred Russel Wallace, a naturalist living in the East Indies, sent in 1858 to Darwin his study containing the main ideas of the theory of natural selection, Darwin arranged his notes, which were presented to the Linnean Society, on July 1st, 1858. They were read simultaneously with Wallace's paper, but neither Darwin or Wallace was present on that occasion.

Darwin's great work, The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, appeared next year, and was heavily attacked because it did not support the depiction of creation given in the book of Genesis. Before Darwin, the French anatomist and botanist Jean-Babtiste de Lamarck (1744-1829) had stressed the variations in species, and had given in his books an account of human development that was plainly evolutionary in spirit. Darwin's argument that natural selection - the mechanism of evolution - worked automatically, leaving little or no room for divine guidance or design. All species, he reasoned, produce far too many offspring for them all to survive, and therefore those with favorable variations - owing to chance - are selected. "I am actually weary of telling people that I do not pretend to adduce [direct] evidence of one species changing into another, but I believe that this view is in the main correct, because so many phenomena can thus be grouped end explained."

At Darwin's hands evolution matured into a well-developed scientific theory, which have been a constant target of religious or pseudo-scientific attacks. However, Darwin himself did not at first explicitly apply the evolutionary theory to human beings. "You ask me whether I shall discuss man," he wrote in 1857, "I think I shall avoid the whole subject, as so surrounded by prejudice." He also knew that his challenge to the Biblical doctrine would cause stress to his friends and family, among them his religious wife. T.H. Huxley did not see any reason to hesitate and published in his Man Place in Nature (1863) an application of the theory and Darwin followed him in The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871) and Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), which showed the similarities between animals and man in the expression of emotions and was the start of the science of ethnology.

The remainder of Darwin's books deal with plants. In Insectivorous Plants (1875) he explored how a plant - the sundew - catches, ingests, and digests flies. Darwin's works have had deep a influence also outside the field of natural sciences, and turned the scientific lens inward upon the unexplored dimensions of the human psychology. Freud brought Darwin's study to its logical conclusion in his explorations of the unconscious mind.

Darwin's voyage with the Royal Navy's H.M.S. Beagle is recorded in the Journal of Researches (1836), a blend of scientific reporting and travel writing, one of the best travel books ever written. Also Alfred Wallace wrote a travel book, The Malay Archipelago. Darwin died in Down, Kent, on April 19, 1882. It is thought that Darwin suffered from Chagas's disease, when bitten by a bug during his scientific studies in South America. This would account for his fainting and other symptoms.

Most author biographies courtesy of Author's Calendar. Used with permission.