Charles Darwin is today best remembered as the careful observer of nature who proposed the theory of evolution by natural selection, now widely accepted as the basis of our understanding of life.
Charles was born into a large and successful family with a history of achievement. On the Darwin side, his father Robert and grandfather Erasmus were well-respected physicians. On his mother's side, the Wedgwood family had built a respectable estate on the basis of Josiah Wedgwood's successful pottery business.
Erasmus Darwin, Charles's grandfather, was a physician, poet and biologist. He studied medicine at the University of Cambridge, took additional courses at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, and then set up a successful medical practice in Lichfield. Later in life, after his first wife died and he remarried and moved to Derby, he turned away from medicine and towards science and poetry. He was most renowned for his long poem on life, Zoonomia (1794, 1796), and for his poetry on botany (e.g. The Loves of the Plants), which, though now mostly forgotten, was quite popular in its time. Zoonomia is of particular interest because it contains a long section on the evolution of species that foreshadows the theory that was to bring Erasmus's grandson Charles renown some seventy years later.
Robert Darwin, Charles's father, was born in 1766. He was an enormous man both physically and in personality. Charles described him as the largest man he had ever seen and compared his return to the family home at the end of the day to the coming in of the tide. Robert was a very successful physician; Charles recalls in his Autobiography that he frequently consulted his patients for their emotional problems as much as for their physical ones. He regularly took his carriage on long trips to visit his patients, sometimes crossing the border into Wales.
Charles's mother, Susannah, was from the Wedgwood family. The Wedgwoods had been good friends of the Darwins since Josiah Wedgwood had turned to Erasmus Darwin for medical advice. It was only natural that their children, Robert and Susannah, should get married and thereby bring the two families closer together. Josiah had started a partnership to create high-quality pottery in the 1750's. By 1758 he was ready to start his own company using techniques he had discovered through experimentation with glazes and firing techniques. In 1803, with the fortune made by the success of Josiah's pottery, the Wedgwood family acquired an estate called Maer, with a large house and ample hunting grounds.
Erasmus, Josiah, and their children and friends all shared, to a greater or lesser extent, political and religious leanings. They were in favor of economic competition and against what they saw as the stranglehold of the Anglican Church over the intellectual life of England. Erasmus Darwin was known both for his radical politics and religion. Erasmus and Josiah actually participated in a monthly radical discussion group called the Lunar Society that consisted mostly of scientists, inventors, and manufacturers. By the time Charles was old enough to read Zoonomia, the Lunar Society had long been dissolved and the politics of the Darwin family had become more moderate. But the influence of Erasmus's ideas should not be ignored: he created an environment in which the questioning of established ideas, particularly religious ones, was highly valued.