Charles Darwin changed our understanding of the world. His theory of evolution — that living things, including humans, change over time in order to survive better in their environment — is one of the most important ideas in history. He explained to a shocked world that we share with chimpanzees, a common ape ancestors that lived millions of years ago! 

"Disinterested love for all living creatures is the most noble attribute of man."

HMS Beagle

Darwin was born on February 12, 1809. His parents sent him to Edinburgh University to study medicine, but he quickly moved to Cambridge to study Divinity. His life changed forever in 1831 when his tutor recommended him as a “gentleman naturalist” on a voyage on the ship HMS Beagle. Darwin spent five years visiting four continents, collecting specimens and investigating local geology. He was fascinated by the multiple species of finches he found on the Galápagos Islands, off the coast of Ecuador. While in Chile he saw fossilised trees in sandstone (once seashore mud) which had been raised a thousand metres by enormous forces, and began to think in terms of “deep time”.

Finding Fame

When Darwin published his account of his travels in 1839, he immediately became famous. But the scientist was already working on his revolutionary theory. In 1837, an examination of finches from the Galápagos helped him to realise that the fourteen species of finches had evolved from a common ancestor and their beaks had adapted to suit different diets and habitats. Animals more suited to their environment survive longer and have more young. Evolution occurred by a process he called “natural selection”. His ideas pained him as they contradicted his Bible-based, Christian point of view. The Church underpinned British society and he could lose everything if he published his work. He decided on more investigation. In 1842, he retired from society and moved to a former parsonage, Down House, in Kent. 

Origin of Species

Darwin was finally forced to publish his theory in July 1858. Alfred Russel Wallace, a British naturalist, had independently arrived at the same theory. The two men presented their accounts at the same time.

In November 1859, Darwin published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, one of the most important books ever written, the foundation of evolutionary biology. He described writing it like “living in Hell”, fearing the loss of reputation. The book was attacked by the Church and parts of the press, but it became a world bestseller and would deeply influence modern Western thought and society. In the fifth edition, Darwin introduced the famous phrase ‘“survival of the fittest”. 

Much-Loved Figure

On April 19, 1882, Charles Darwin, now a virtual recluse, died of a heart attack. A much-loved figure, he was described by one newspaper as having a “sweet and gentle nature blossomed into perfection”. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, the ultimate British accolade