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Charles Darwin, one of the most celebrated characters of the previous millennium, is also one of history's great enigmas.
Born on February 12th 1809 to a father who still embraced the freethinking of his father, Erasmus Darwin, and a Unitarian mother from the wealthy Wedgwood family, young Charles was given an Anglican education at Shrewsbury School. By all accounts he hated the strict curriculum, based largely on learning by rote and reciting the classics with little thought to their real meaning, and preferred to spend his time combing the countryside, for interesting specimens for his many collections.
His father wanted Charles to be a doctor, so in 1825 he was enrolled at Edinburgh University to obtain his medical degree. His revulsion at having to practice surgery on un-anesthetized patients soon put an end to that. He later went on to study for the Clergy at Cambridge, but that also did not suit his temperament. He later remembered his education thus;
'During the three years which I spent at Cambridge, my time was wasted, as far as the academical studies were concerned, as completely as at Edinburgh and at school…'
The young man showed little promise, but on September 5th, 1831 he was summoned to London to meet Captain Robert FitzRoy. This is one of those fortuitous moments in history that tend to become the stuff of legend. Darwin was offered the position of naturalist on the H.M.S Beagle, and, eager to escape the drudgery of the pulpit, he accepted.
The Voyage of the Beagle took five years as FitzRoy carefully mapped the coast of South America, and Darwin made his many observations. Upon his return Darwin had his journals published as 'The Voyage of the Beagle'. It was an instant best seller.
It had been the influential botanist John Steven Henslow who had taken a liking to the young Darwin and had recommended him for the position of naturalist on the Beagle, and it was Henslow who provided young Joseph Hooker with a copy of Darwin's unpublished manuscript to read before embarking on his own journey of discovery. Many years later Joseph recalled his first introduction to Darwin, and how he seemed a;
'...rather tall and rather broadshouldered man, with a slight stoop, an agreeable and animated expression when talking, and a hollow but mellow voice. His greeting of his old acquaintance was sailor-like that is delightfully frank and cordial.'
This was the beginning of a lifelong friendship and scientific collaboration that was to last through the years until Charles Darwin's death on April 19th, 1882.
It is an interesting, if frustrating, fact of life is that society tends to focus on only one individual as the sole inventor, developer or theorist of a particular historical concept - and Charles Darwin is an excellent example of this phenomenon.
Charles Darwin was a great man - generous, affable, adventurous, and intelligent. But, to adhere to the myth that he produced his theory of evolution in isolation does a great disservice to not only his forbears, but to the scientists and naturalists who preceded him, or were his contemporaries, and even those who have refined and often altered the basic theory of evolution since his lifetime. And Charles Darwin would have been among the first to admit this. After all, he really was a great man.
Erasmus Darwin, his grandfather, was an accomplished scientist and naturalist in his own right, and had developed his own theory of biological evolution long before Charles was even born. It was the generous and intellectually open atmosphere in the Darwin home that inspired Charles to pursue the path that he did, eventually reviving and enhancing his grandfather's theory of evolution.
Charles Darwin's life has been covered in such intense and minute detail, that it would seem almost redundant to go into it at length in these pages, but here are some excellent resources on the web ...
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