He was born in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England on 12 February 1809. Darwin himself initially planned to follow a medical career, and studied at Edinburgh University but later switched to divinity at Cambridge. In 1831, he joined a five year scientific expedition on the survey ship HMS Beagle.
Beginning on 27 December 1831, the voyage lasted almost five years and, as FitzRoy had intended, Darwin spent most of that time on land investigating geology and making natural history collections, while the Beagle surveyed and charted coasts.
On the voyage, Darwin read Lyell’s ‘Principles of Geology’ which suggested that the fossils found in rocks were actually evidence of animals that had lived many thousands or millions of years ago. Lyell’s argument was reinforced in Darwin’s own mind by the rich variety of animal life and the geological features he saw during his voyage.
The breakthrough in his ideas came in the Galapagos Islands, 500 miles west of South America. Darwin noticed that each island supported its own form of finch which were closely related but differed in important ways.
His five-year voyage on HMS Beagle established him as an eminent geologist whose observations and theories supported Charles Lyell’s uniformitarian ideas, and publication of his journal of the voyage made him famous as a popular author. As HMS Beagle surveyed the coasts of South America, Darwin theorised about geology and extinction of giant mammals.
In mid-July 1837 Darwin started his “B” notebook on Transmutation of Species, and on page 36 wrote “I think” above his first evolutionary tree. In London, from 1837, Darwin began to speculate about where species come from.
Puzzled by the geographical distribution of wildlife and fossils he collected on the voyage, Darwin began detailed investigations and in 1838 conceived his theory of natural selection.
Darwin invoked the idea of the ‘tree of life’, a way to describe the evolutionary relationships between all living things on Earth.
Darwin worked on his theory for 20 years. After learning that another naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, had developed similar ideas, the two made a joint announcement of their discovery in 1858. The theory of evolution by natural selection is one of the most influential scientific ideas ever conceived.
Darwin published his theory with compelling evidence for evolution in his 1859 book On the Origin of Species. It was to be the book that changed the world forever.
His theory is simply stated in the introduction:
“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.”
He put a strong case for common descent, but avoided the then controversial term “evolution”, and at the end of the book concluded that:
“Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows…There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whiles this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
The theory of evolution by natural selection, and with it the concept of the evolutionary Tree of Life, have since been thoroughly tested and verified by a wide range of evidence and especially by the discoveries of genetics. The universality of the genetic code – the DNA instructions that specify the make-up of the proteins from which organisms’ bodies are built – confirms a common ancestry for all life on Earth today.
Darwin has been described as one of the most influential figures in human history.
Today we know that he was the man that changed the world forever.
"Charles Darwin really solved the problem of existence, the problem of the existence of all living things - humans, animals, plants, fungi, bacteria. Everything we know about life, Darwin essentially explained."