Darwin was a British scientist who first set the building blocks for the theory of evolution, and transformed the way in which we think about the natural world and the organisms within it. Charles Robert Darwin was born on the 12th of February 1809 in Shrewsbury, Shropshire. He was born into a wealthy and well-connected family. Initially, he had planned to follow a medical career path, and studied firstly at Edinburgh University, but then changed to Cambridge. In 1831, he joined a 5 year scientific expedition on the survey ship – HMS Beagle.
At this time, most Europeans believed that the world and animals/plants had been created by God in seven days, as described in the Bible. However, Darwin believed the rich variety of animal life and geological features within our world suggested something different. On the 5 year voyage, Darwin was especially interested in his findings within the Galapagos Islands, which seemed to support his initial thought of evolution within a species.
Also, on his travels, Darwin read Lyrell’s ‘Principles of Geology’, which suggested that the fossils found in rocks were actually evidence of animals that had lived many thousands or even millions of years ago.
This reinforced Darwin’s own mind, and his visit to the Galapagos gave the evidence to his ideas. Darwin noticed that each island supported its own form of finch which were closely related, but different in important ways: for example, the birds that lived on an island where its main food source was berries, the finch would have more of a ‘parrot beak, which was smaller with a point at the end, while those which ate cacti had much longer and thinner beaks. In 1836 he returned to England, and began trying to solve the riddles of these observations and the puzzle of how species could evolve.
After being influenced by the ideas of Malthus, Darwin proposed a theory of evolution occurring by the process of ‘natural selection’. The animals (or plants) that were best suited to their environment are more likely to survive and therefore reproduce, passing on the characteristics which helped them survive to their offspring. Gradually, the species changes over time. For 20 years Darwin worked on this theory, then after learning that another naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, had developed similar ideas. The two made a joint announcement of their discoveries in 1858. A year later, Darwin published ‘On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection’, which was extremely popular, and informed many people of this new idea.
The book was extremely controversial, because Darwin’s theory was that homo sapiens were simply another form of animal. It made it seem possible that even people might just have evolved – quite possibly from apes – and destroyed the theory of the Bible, which had been believed for many centuries, on how the world was created. Many people did not want to go against their religion, and passed the idea to stay with what they had always been taught. Darwin was vehemently attacked and frowned upon, particularly by the Church. However, his ideas soon gained currency and have become the new orthodoxy. Darwin died on 19 April 1882 and was buried in Westminster Abbey.