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Charles Robert Darwin (1809-1882)

Charles Robert Darwin was born to a prominent family in Shrewsbury, Shropshire in 1809. His paternal grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, was one of the most renowned intellects of his day, who mastered skills in various scientific fields, including geology, chemistry, physics, biology and meteorology, and he formed theories on evolution around 70 years before his grandson, Charles. However, it was as a doctor he earned his crust. Charles Darwin’s maternal grandfather was Josiah Wedgwood, who established the world famous ‘Wedgwood’ pottery company.

Having departed from Shrewsbury School, Darwin enrolled on a Medicine course at Edinburgh University, but soon realised that his future did not lie in medicine – mainly because of his hatred of the look of blood and the fact that operations were performed without anaesthetic. During his time in Edinburgh, however, Darwin was given the opportunity to develop his interest in natural science by studying the wildlife in the Firth of Forth. He changed his University course and enrolled on a Theology BA course at Cambridge University, graduating in January 1831. Although Darwin is mainly commemorated as a biologist, up until 1850, he was mostly regarded as a geologist, and held geological studies o board HMS Beagle, as well as observing various species of animals.

Charles Darwin

Charles Robert Darwin

In the summer of 1831, Darwin joined his Geology tutor, Adam Sedgwick on his annual geology fieldtrip to north Wales. They both travelled through Llangollen, Corwen and Ruthin and then forwards to Anglesey, where they parted company. Sedgwick travelled onwards to Ireland, while Darwin travelled to Bangor before leaving for Capel Curig, Cwm Idwal, and then Barmouth. During this journey, Darwin developed skills in various geological fields, such as chemical observation and these skills were invaluable to him as he developed his theory on natural selection/ Michael Roberts refers to this journey in 1831 as “one of the most formative aspects of Darwin’s scientific development”.

On August 29th, Darwin returned to Shrewsbury, where letters from John Stevens Henslow and George Peacock were waiting for him, inviting him to join the HMS Beagle voyage to explore the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific Ocean. Darwin’s geological work in north Wales with Sedgwick was key to his geological work on board the Beagle, e.g. in Quail Island. This journey to the Galapagos formed the basis of Charles Darwin’s ‘Theory of Evolution’.

In nineteenth century Europe, there was a consensus that God created the world in seven days, as accorded in the book of Genesis in the Bible, however, while reading Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology, a publication which theorises that fossils are evidence of life that existed millions of years ago, on board HMS Beagle, Darwin felt that the theory supported the existence of the abundance of wildlife and unique geology that he saw on the voyage. Having reached the Galapagos Islands, Darwin’s ideas were confirmed, as he saw that each island was home to a different kind of finch, which were all part of the same species but possessed different characteristics.

These ideas engaged Darwin and after returning to Britain in 1836, he expanded on his theories on how species would evolve. Under the influence of Malthus’ work, Darwin came to the conclusion that evolution occurred through natural selection as beings who better suit their natural habitat are more likely to reproduce than those who are less suited, and they, in turn, pass on those characteristics which permitted their survival, onto the next generation, and thus evolving the species over time.

During the 1830s, it was a hot race over who would be first to publish ideas on evolution and natural selection, and therefore, Charles Darwin and the naturist, Alfred Russel Wallace, who was developing his own ideas on evolution, published their theories jointly 1858. In 1859, Darwin published his most well known work, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.

This was an extremely controversial publication considering the social religious conventions of the day. Darwin’s work was fiercely attacked, especially by the church, as it, in fact, suggested that humans were animals and that it was possible that they had also evolved, possibly from the ape.

Charles Darwin’s autobiography was published in 1887. At the time, it was considered to be a contentious publication, and subsequently, parts of the work was censored. This censorship was a direct result of the publication of ‘On the Origin of Species’ in 1859 and the uproar that derived from it. Certainly, this publication was a serious blow to the attitudes and beliefs of the Victorian society, and the belief that God created the world.

Charles Darwin’s family was torn by his statements regarding his religious convictions. Francis Darwin, son of Charles was editor of his autobiography and was keen to publish his father’s memoirs in their entirety. Other members of the family objected to this as Charles Darwin never intended to publish them in the first place and the result of doing so would damage Darwin’s legacy and his good name. This family rift was important as the Darwins were a generally close and united family. The rift was highlighted as some of Darwin’s children sympathised with their Father’s scientific nature, while others sympathised with their Mother’s religious beliefs.

Looking back over 150 years of history since the publication of ‘On the Origin of Species’, it’s difficult to appreciate the rage ignited by the publication among the Victorian society. Evolution is widely accepted today, but developing the theory was a long and hard labour on the part of Darwin, and he was forced to convince himself of the possibility of evolution, by analysing volumes of evidence, before he could begin to reprove his peers.

Charles Darwin died in 1882, and is buried in Westminster Abbey.


‘The Autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809-1882: the First Complete Version’, Gol.Nora Barlow, Collins, St.James’ Place, London, pp.11-15.
‘The Survival of Charles Darwin: a Biography of a Man and an Idea’, Ronald W.Clark, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, Llundain (1984).
‘Just Before the Beagle: Charles Darwin’s Geological Fieldwork in Wales, Summer 1831’, Michael Roberts, pp. 33-37.
‘Darwin’s dog-leg: the last stage of Darwin’s Welsh field trip of 1831’, Michael Roberts. Archives of Natural History (1998) 25 (1), pp.59-73.
‘Darwin at Llanymynech: the evolution of a geologist’, Michael Roberts.

Header image - Cwm Idwal (© Crown copyright (2014) Visit Wales)