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About Charles Darwin

Through a combination of meticulous observation and innovative thinking, Darwin came up with an explanation for the incredible variety of living things: that evolution was driven by natural selection. By this process, organisms most suited to their environment survive and reproduce and pass their advantages to their offspring.

Title page of a first edition of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.

Title page of a first edition of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.

'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, whilst 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.' Charles Darwin

Although Darwin had already presented his theory to fellow scientists, it was the publication of his book, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, in 1859 that shook the rest of the world.

'We must, however, acknowledge, as it seems to me, that man with all his noble qualities... still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.' Charles Darwin

Initially greeted with controversy, Darwin's ideas now form the foundation of modern biology.

'It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.' Charles Darwin

A natural life

A beetle specimen collected by Charles Darwin.

A beetle specimen collected by Charles Darwin.

Charles Darwin was born on 12 February 1809. As a child he loved the outdoors and collecting beetles.

He abandoned his studies of medicine to study theology but then, when he was just 22 years old, joined a voyage around the world on the ship, the Beagle. During this five-year adventure, he keenly observed and collected hundreds of different types of plants, animals, fossils and rocks.

He spent the rest of his life carefully studying and interpreting what he had seen. Darwin came up with his original explanation for the variety of living things, the theory of evolution by natural selection, soon after his return from the Beagle voyage, but it was many years before he had accumulated enough evidence to publish his work.

'I can remember the very spot in the road, whilst in my carriage, when to my joy the solution occurred to me; and this was long after I had come to Down. The solution, as I believe, is that the modified offspring of all dominant and increasing forms tend to become adapted to many and highly diversified places in the economy of nature.' Charles Darwin

Although Darwin is the most familiar name associated with evolution, he was only persuaded to publish his work when another young scientist, Alfred Russel Wallace, came forward having independently come up with a similar explanation for how evolution occurs.

More about Darwin

There are a vast number of online resources about Darwin and evolutionary theory. Here are just a small selection.

Darwin's life and work

Visit the website of the Darwin exhibition on tour from the American Museum of Natural History, coming to the Natural History Museum, London, in October 2008.

Find out about Charles Darwin on The Victorian Web.

Explore the life and times of Charles Darwin.

Darwin's writings online

Read the complete works of Charles Darwin online.

Take a look at the most extensive collection of letters to and from Charles Darwin.

Darwin's heritage

Visit Darwin's birthplace, Shrewsbury.

See Darwin's home, Down House in the village of Downe in Kent and find out about Darwin at Downe, the proposed World Heritage Site.

Evolutionary theory

Understand the basics of evolution.

Explore the Understanding evolution website developed by the University of California Museum of Palaeontology.

Find out more about the creation/evolution controversy.

 

‘There is grandeur in this view of life... from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.’ Charles Darwin