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Charles Darwin is noted for his theories on natural selection and evolution, but during his time, many other natural scientists had proposed evolutionary theories. The fact of evolution was accepted by the scientific community during Darwin’s lifetime largely as a result of his own work, and by the 1930s his theories were widely known as the overriding explanation for how the diversity of life had come about.
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Education and Evolutionary Tendencies
Darwin was born in February 1809, in Shropshire, England. His own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, was a noted naturalist with evolutionary theories of his own. In fact, Erasmus Darwin was one of the first to formulate and publish a formal evolutionary theory, in Zoomania, or, the Laws of Organic Life. Erasmus Darwin never speculated on any subject related to natural selection itself, but there is no doubt that his theories were noted and elaborated upon by his grandson some sixty years later.
Erasmus Darwin’s ideas on evolution were more Lamarckian in nature, but he also theorized about the influence of sexual selection (which Charles Darwin would become an avid proponent of), noting that competition among individuals of a species could cause changes in the species, “The final course of this contest among males seems to be, that the strongest and most active animal should propagate the species which should thus be improved."
As a child, Darwin was apparently something of a slow and lazy learner, finding the subjects of the day—Greek, ancient history, and the classics—uninteresting. However, he ended up with a deep love of natural science, in part due to summer vacations spent hiking in northern Wales, and also thanks to the chemistry lab his own brother had built in the garden of the family home, where he likely learned some of the skills and techniques which are crucial in scientific experimentation.
In October 1825 Darwin entered medical school, where he attended geology lectures. Ironically, he found them boring and vowed to ignore the subject entirely. During his years of medical study he learned the art of taxidermy, joined the Plinian Society (a group which espoused scientific rather than spiritual or supernatural principles), and became friends with Robert Grant, a zoology professor, with whom he discussed marine biology and the evolutionist Lamarck.
After just a couple of years, Darwin left medical school, and his father, not wanting him to remain idle, sent him to Cambridge University to study for the clergy. Here, too, he did not take his studies seriously, but did take up a new hobby: beetle collecting, which, again, was valuable in the development of new scientific skills. During his years at Cambridge, Darwin befriended the Reverend John Henslow, a professor who encouraged Darwin’s interest in the natural world and had significant influence on his decision to become a naturalist.
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The HMS Beagle
By the time he turned 22, Darwin had completed his Bachelor of Arts degree, but he was not in a hurry to become a clergyman. At this stage, he also possessed a wide general knowledge of scientific subjects, thanks to his friendships with people such as John Henslow and Robert Grant. Reading such books as Alexander von Humboldt’s seven-volume Personal Narrative of the Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America During the Years 1799-1804 had also fostered within him enormous enthusiasm for exploring the natural world. In other words, he was more than ready to jump on the opportunity which soon presented itself: a position onboard the HMS Beagle.
The five-year voyage onboard the HMS Beagle saw Darwin journey along the coast of South America (the function of the voyage was to chart that continent’s coastline), along with stops in Africa, Australia, and New Zealand.
When he had left England on this historic voyage, Darwin had not been a believer in the transmutation of species (the changing of species over time), but during his extensive travels, he noted such an enormous variety of species—as well as significant facts about their distribution—that he began to feel that transmutation was not out of the question.
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Return to England
When Darwin returned to England, he was already something of a celebrity in the world of natural science, as John Henslow had distributed fossil specimens and geological letters which Darwin had sent during his voyage.
Darwin returned to England in October of 1836, but did not publish On the Origin of Species until more than twenty years later. During the intervening years much time was spent cataloging specimens, publishing reports on collections, and investigating details relating to his Beagle voyage. In essence he was laying the groundwork for his theory of natural selection, the publication of which would finally occur in 1859.
Also during these decades, other natural scientists put forth theories of evolution and creation. However, all lacked a convincing explanation for the process of transmutation, a crucial factor which would remain lacking until Darwin published his historic book.
In June 1858 Darwin was almost halfway through writing his book when he received from fellow naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace a paper which described natural selection. The two went on to co-present papers on natural selection to the Linnean Society, but there was remarkably little fanfare as a result of the presentation. The following year Darwin published his historic book, in which he simply and elegantly stated his premise for natural selection:
“As many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive; and as, consequently, there is a frequently recurring struggle for existence, it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally selected. From the strong principle of inheritance, any selected variety will tend to propagate its new and modified form."