Charles Robert Darwin

Charles Darwin was the British naturalist who became famous for his theories of evolution and natural selection. Like several scientists before him, Darwin believed all the life on earth developed gradually over millions of years from a few common ancestors.

Charles Robert Darwin was born on February 12, 1809, at the family home in Shrewsbury, England. Charles was the fifth of six children of Robert Waring Darwin and Susannah Wedgwood. His mother died in 1817. His father, Robert Darwin, was a wealthy doctor and the son of Erasmus Darwin, who was an English physician.

At age sixteen, Darwin went to Edinburgh University to study medicine. In Edinburgh Darwin investigated marine invertebrates. His teacher and friend was one of the foremost biologists, Robert Grant. Darwin did not like the study of medicine and could not bear the sight of blood or suffering and so his father proposed the church as a respectable alternative. Charles was admitted a member of Christ's College, Cambridge. Darwin was never a model student, but he did become a passionate amateur naturalist. He began avidly collecting beetles. He came to know the botanist John Henslow, who introduced him to certain questions about the origins of life and embryological development.

Through the aid of Henslow, Darwin had opportunity to sail to the tropics on H.M.S. Beagle. The Beagle, under the command of the twenty-seven-year-old Robert FitzRoy, had the task of charting the waters off the coasts of South America, Australia, and the Pacific Islands. Darwin was to act as ships naturalist. The round-the-world journey lasted five years (27 December 1831, 4 October 1836).

On the morning of 27 December 1831, the Beagle sailed out of Plymouth harbor. The Beagle arrived at the Cape Verde Islands. Darwin made detailed observations of a cuttle-fish that populated the tide pools around the island, and was fascinated by their ability to change colors. Darwin made his first curious discovery. He found a horizontal white band of shells within a cliff. This layer was forty-five feet above sea level. It was obvious that this layer of shells was at one time under the ocean. How did it end up forty-five feet above sea level? Was it possible that small upward movements of the land raised the shell layer? More violent movements of the earth would have otherwise broken up the nearly horizontal line of shells.