Victorians: Charles Darwin

Short Summary

Charles Darwin was a scientist who studied in Cambridge. He was supposed to train as a vicar, but he found beetle collecting much more interesting, and became a scientist instead after being invited on an exciting voyage on HMS Beagle as a naturist. His radical theory of evolution by natural selection made us rethink our place in the world.  Charles Darwin spread his ideas by giving lectures and talks and writing letters.  But most importantly, he wrote a famous book which was a best seller, called "On the Origin of Species" and it was first published on 24 November 1859.  His book is still read today and inspires scientists and thinkers.

Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection said that humans were descended from a common ape-like ancestor. In Victorian times, this was a controversial challenge to Christian ideas about God creating humans. As an old man, Darwin returned to Cambridge in 1877 to receive an honorary Doctor of Laws degree. During Darwin’s honorary degree ceremony, a prankster dangled this stuffed monkey dressed in academic robes from the gallery of the Senate House, which ‘excited some mirth’.  There is also a monkey that was carved in the roof at Great St Mary's centuries earlier.  See if you can spot it high up above the nave!

Do please download the pdf laminate illustrating this subject which you will find  useful to use for a class:

Story Content

Charles Darwin was born in Shrewsbury, Shropshire on 12th February 1809 to a Christian family but his family were one that were very much open to new ideas.

Darwin first went to Edinburgh to study Medicine, following his father’s footsteps, however he didn’t thrive in this environment, as he found it too stomach churning to cope with. However he did gain something from his time in Edinburgh, having an opportunity to listen to a variety of speakers on transmutation (which is what evolution was know as then), as Edinburgh was one of the best places to study science at the time and had academics who had much more liberal ideas, that would not have been tolerated at Cambridge or Oxford then.

However at 18 he abandoned his course at Edinburgh and decided to train to be a vicar, studying Divinity at Christ’s College, Cambridge. Although during his time studying at Cambridge he ended up spending much more time wandering the local countryside and Fens, observing nature and collecting beetles, than studying. Darwin graduated in 1831 however he did not take up a position of being a vicar in a church, as was offered an exciting opportunity by his tutor at Cambridge, which was too good to miss- to go on a sea voyage across the world on HMS Beagle!

Darwin was meant to be on this sea voyage for 2 years, however it ended up being a whole 5 years long! During his voyage he visited 4 different continents, spending lots of time exploring, collecting different species, reading and reflecting on what he had seen. Darwin’s voyage wasn’t an entirely enjoyable experience, as he suffered from terrible sea-sickness for most of the voyage and he wrote many letters to his family telling him how ill he felt! However when he returned he said it had been one of the best experiences of his life.

On their visit to South America in 1833, he also was witness to slavery taking place in Brazil which he was disgusted by (this was the same year that the Slavery Abolishment Act was passed) and also met the native people of Tiera del Fuego and was intrigued by the contrast between the behaviour of these native people and English gentlemen back home.

In 1839 Darwin married his cousin Emma and they had 10 children (although 3 of them sadly died in childhood). His wife and children all helped with his work, including sorting and drawing illustrations of his collections of species.

Although Darwin’s observations over many years led him write thousands of words on evolution and develop a theory of evolution he struggled to find the confidence to publish his findings, as he was plagued with the fear of the repercussions of such a controversial publication, having seen the fate of his grandfather, who had been ostricised following his publications on transmutation.

However this all changed when his admirer Wallace asked Darwin’s advice on how to go about publishing his own findings on the evolution of species. It was then that Darwin realised that he had to go ahead with publicising his findings or his many years of writing would be lost. Therefore Darwin went ahead and published his work, whilst also giving due credit to Wallace for his contributions.

Furthermore, on 24th November, 1859 Darwin published his first book ‘On the Origin of Species, it became a best-seller, however the content of his book caused much controversy, as it’s content describing the theory of the evolution of animals from (which hinted at man originating from apes) was at tension with the Christian teachings of the time about creation and the origin of man.

In 1871 Darwin published ‘The Decent of Man’ which much more explicit about the theory of the evolution of man from apes, caused even more controversy. Although many were in support of Darwin’s findings and theory about how animals had evolved over billions of years, a large number of people were astonished and offended by his theory. This led to a number of newspapers creating satirical cartoons of Darwin drawn with a monkey’s head, mocking his claims.

As an old man, Darwin returned to Cambridge in 1877 to receive an honorary Doctor of Laws degree. During Darwin’s honorary degree ceremony, a prankster dangled this stuffed monkey dressed in academic robes from the gallery of the Senate House, which ‘excited some mirth’.  There is also a monkey that was carved in the roof at Great St Mary's centuries earlier.  See if you can spot it high up above the nave!

Darwin suffered with ill health for many of his later years and died on 19th April 1882. He was given a ceremonial funeral and buried in Westminster Abbey in London.

 

Discover More:

 

Cambridge University Library Darwin Project Resources:

Timeline of Darwin's Life (with links to a selection of Darwin’s Letters)

http://learning.darwinproject.ac.uk/schoolsresources/#/

Powerpoint Presentation on Darwin’s Life

https://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/learning/7-11/darwin-and-evolution

Primary Lesson Plans and Resources  

https://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/learning/7-11

BBC iWonder – Charles Darwin and the Theory of Evolution:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/timelines/zq8gcdm

BBC Bitesize – Charles Darwin Quiz

http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/gcsebitesize/science/21c/life_on_earth/theory_evolutionact.shtml

Victorians: Charles Darwin

 

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