Darwin, Charles Robert (1809–82)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-Q022-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved February 01, 2023, from

1. Scientific work

Darwin was born in 1809 in Shrewsbury, England. After a brief spell as a medical student he moved to Cambridge, where he received extra-curricular training in natural history and geology. Travelling on the survey ship HMS Beagle (1831–6), he studied the geology of South America and accepted what he took to be Charles Lyell’s uniformitarian theory of geological change (see Geology, philosophy of §1). He proposed a new theory to explain the formation of coral reefs, and collected fossils and studied the geographical distribution of South American animals. In particular he was struck by the existence of distinct but related species of birds on the individual islands of the Galapagos group, off the west coast of South America.

Soon after his return to England, he became convinced that the Galapagos species could only be explained as the modified descendants of migrants from the mainland. Evolution theories were highly controversial at the time, but Darwin was soon a complete convert. He studied animal breeding and was led to the theory of natural selection. Having been active in the scientific life of London, in 1842 he moved to Down House in Kent, where he spent the rest of his life suffering from a debilitating illness. He kept up his studies of biogeography and produced a major taxonomic survey of barnacles. This work was intended to throw light on his theory, which remained unpublished until a similar idea was proposed by A.R. Wallace in 1858. On the Origin of Species was published at the end of 1859; following an intense controversy, the basic idea of evolution was accepted by the majority of scientists.

In The Descent of Man (1871) Darwin extended his theory to the human race. Much of his later scientific work centred on the application of his theory in botany, to explain the activity of climbing and insectivorous plants, and the relationship between flower structure and insect pollination. He also wrote a study of earthworms.

Citing this article:
Bowler, Peter J.. Scientific work. Darwin, Charles Robert (1809–82), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-Q022-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2023 Routledge.

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