The Descent of Man
On the 150th anniversary of its publication, Janet Browne looks at the initial controversy over ...
"I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term of Natural Selection. "
Charles Robert Darwin was born 12th February 1809 in Shrewsbury, Shropshire. He was the fifth of six children of wealthy society doctor and financier Robert Darwin, and Susannah Darwin (née Wedgwood). In 1817, when Charles was eight years old, his mother died. The following year, he joined his older brother Erasmus in attending the nearby Anglican Shrewsbury School as a boarder.
In 1825, Darwin spent the summer as an apprentice Doctor, helping his father treat the poor of Shropshire. In the autumn, he went to the university of Edinburgh to study medicine, but was revolted by the brutality of surgery and neglected his medical studies. In 1827, his father, unhappy at Charles’s lack of progress, enrolled him in a Bachelor of Arts course at Christ’s College, Cambridge to qualify as a clergyman. Charles, however, preferred riding and shooting to studying. Around this time, Darwin was introduced to the Reverend John Stevens Henslow, Professor of Botany, for expert advice on beetles, which Charles had taken to collecting competitively. Darwin quickly became Henslow’s favourite pupil and was recommended by him as a suitable naturalist for the unpaid position of gentleman’s companion to the captain of HMS Beagle. His travels on this ship are recorded by him in The Voyage of the Beagle.
Whilst on his five-year voyage on the Beagle, Darwin was puzzled by the geographical distribution of wildlife and fossils he collected. He investigated the transmutation of species and conceived his theory of natural selection in 1838.
His book, On the Origin of Species, established evolution by common descent as the dominant scientific explanation of diversification in nature. He examined human evolution and sexual selection in The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, followed by The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.
Charles Darwin and his wife had ten children: two died in infancy, and Annie’s death at the age of ten had a devastating effect on her parents. Charles was a devoted father and uncommonly attentive to his children. Whenever they fell ill he feared that they might have inherited weaknesses from inbreeding due to the close family ties he shared with his wife and cousin, Emma Wedgewood. Despite his fears, most of the surviving children went on to have distinguished careers.
Charles Darwin died on the 19th April 1882. In recognition of his pre-eminence, he was one of only five nineteenth century United Kingdom non-royal personages to be honoured by a state funeral, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.
During Darwin’s lifetime, many species and geographical features were given his name. Mount Darwin in the Andes was named in celebration of Darwin’s 25th birthday. Darwin College, Cambridge, founded in 1964, was named in honour of the Darwin family, partially because they owned some of the land it was on. The fourteen species of finches he collected in the Galápagos Islands are affectionately named 'Darwin’s finches' in honour of his legacy. In 2000, Darwin’s image appeared on the Bank of England ten-pound note, replacing Charles Dickens. His impressive, luxuriant beard (which was reportedly difficult to forge) was said to be a contributory factor to the bank’s choice. As a humorous celebration of evolution, the annual Darwin Award is bestowed on individuals who “improve our gene pool by removing themselves from it”.
TITLES BY CHARLES DARWIN