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Charles Darwin

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Charles Darwin was born on February 12, 1809, in Shrewsbury, England and died at the Down House in Kent on April 19, 1882. He was born to Robert and Susannah Darwin. Robert was a successful physician whose father, Erasmus Darwin, had also been a physician but had made his name as a poet of the natural world. Susannah Wedgwood came from a family of potters; her father, Josiah Wedgwood, had made a small fortune making high-quality pottery. Both sides of Darwin's family were liberal in their politics and indifferent in their religion.

Darwin spent his childhood playing at The Mount, the Darwin home and estate in Shrewsbury. He was schooled at home by his sister Caroline until he was eight years old and Susannah died. He then spent a year at a day school and transferred to a boarding school, the Shrewsbury School, only a mile away from The Mount. There he studied, getting acceptable but unremarkable grades, until age sixteen, when his father sent him to the University of Edinburgh to study medicine. Darwin focused on collecting, hunting, and naturalizing instead of medicine. It was there that he first learned to study and collect beetles. The marine biologist Robert Grant took him under his wing. After two years, it was obvious that Darwin would not become a doctor, so with the help of his father Darwin transferred to the University of Cambridge to study for the clergy of the Anglican Church. There he became friends with the older botanist John Henslow.

Soon after graduating, in 1831, Darwin was offered a position on board the HMS Beagle, a ship that was mapping the coast of South America on a two or three year voyage around the world. He eagerly accepted the opportunity and spent the next five years on board the Beagle, taking copious notes and sending thousands of samples and specimens back to Henslow in England for safe- keeping.

When Darwin returned to England he found that Henslow and other geologists, zoologists, and botanists were fascinated by the specimens he had collected. He spent the next ten years cataloging and describing the discoveries he had made on his journey. He wrote books on coral reefs and volcanic islands, various papers, and a journal of his voyage. While working on these, he also started to think about a deeper, more important problem: the origin of species. He opened his first notebook on the topic in 1837, more than twenty years before he would finally be confident enough of his new theory of "evolution by natural selection" to publish it.

In 1839, Darwin married Emma Wedgwood, his cousin, and they moved in to a house in London where Darwin could focus on his work. Unfortunately, his health started to fail mysteriously, so they moved to the country. They lived in a small village where Darwin could find peace and quiet. After completing his work on the results of the Beagle voyage, still not ready to publish his thoughts on evolution, Darwin turned to what seemed at first like a small, insignificant problem: the classification of different kinds of barnacles. Darwin soon became entangled in the enormous project of dissecting and describing all of the barnacles of the world for what eventually became a four- volume work. Eight years later, in 1854, he finally finished, and was able to turn back to the problem of evolution.

In 1857, Alfred Russell Wallace sent Darwin a paper regarding the evolution of species. Wallace's theory was very similar to Darwin's. Wallace's paper and a sketch of Darwin's theory were presented at the Linnean Society. Darwin decided to produce an "abstract" of a longer book on evolution that he was working on, so as not to let anyone else take credit for an idea he had been developing for more than twenty years. The abstract was published in 1859 as On the Origin of Species, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. It was an immediate sensation, selling out the first printing within a day. Debates over the meaning of the theory for the nature of humanity began, though Darwin himself remained above the fray in his self-imposed isolation at Down House. His friends Joseph Hooker, the botanist, and especially Thomas Henry Huxley, the zoologist, defended his theory to the world while he continued to do research.

In the 1860s, Darwin worked on three books. One was about variation under domestication, which he saw as being parallel to variation in the wild. Another was about the evolution of humanity and the role of sexual selection. The final one regarded the expression of emotions. The book on humanity and sexual selection, The Descent of Man, was published in 1871. Darwin expected it to cause a sensation with its claims that humans were descended from other animals, but most of the thunder had been stolen twelve years ago by the Origin. In 1872, The Expression of Emotions in Animals and Man was published.

In his last decade, Darwin turned away from evolution and focused on the garden. His research on climbing plants and the geological role of earthworms turned his workshop into a virtual greenhouse and resulted in several books. The illness that had plagued Darwin throughout his life began to abate somewhat, so that although he was still not strong, he was able to enjoy his old age. By 1877, his theories were still controversial, but he was so well respected that the University of Cambridge gave him an honorary doctorate. In 1882, he weakened. Darwin died on April 19, 1882, at the Down House. He was buried in Westminster Abbey.

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