Charles Darwin, who was the first scientist to explain evolution by natural selection, was born on 12th February 1809 in Shrewsbury, England. His father Robert Darwin was a doctor.
His mother Susannah Darwin was from the wealthy Wedgwood pottery family.
He was the youngest of five siblings; he had three older sisters and an older brother, Erasmus.
His older sister Caroline was given the responsibility of providing his early education. He was apparently a noisy and mischevious child.
One of his earliest memories was trying to break the windows of a room in which Caroline had locked him as a punishment. Caroline was an inexperienced and at times heavy handed teacher and Charles eventually came to dread being taught by her.
With his other siblings so much older than him, Charles learned to amuse himself. He used to read books about natural history borrowed from his father’s large library. He became fascinated by his mother’s fancy pigeons. He wandered round the gardens of his house with fruit trees and rare flowers. He used to fish for hours in the river that ran nearby.
Tragedy struck the family in July 1817 when Charles’s mother became terminally ill from cancer.
As Susannah Darwin lay dying in bed Charles was not allowed to visit her. Of the five siblings only Marianne and Caroline, who both helped with the nursing, were allowed to be at their dying mother’s side. On the 15th July, after the end had come, Charles was shown the body of his mother lying on the bed all dressed in black.
After the funeral the children’s feelings were all bottled up; the five siblings were discouraged from ever mentioning their mother’s name again.
At the family home the oldest sister Marianne, now aged 19 headed the household. The children became fearful of their father Robert who lectured, interrogated and reprimanded his children. Visitors noticed tension in the air; everyone had to conform to the doctor’s “orderly and correct” standards. He was harder on the two boys, whose untidiness he hated, but his three girls also suffered.
In September 1813 Charles joined Shrewsbury School where his 13 year old brother Erasmus was already a pupil. Charles lived at the school during the week and went home at weekends. At Shrewsbury school emphasis was placed on learning Latin and ancient Greek. The ability to read, write and understand these languages was the mark of a gentleman.Charles now became closer to his older brother Erasmus.
Darwin’s older sisters increasingly found the young Charles quite difficult; In July 1819 they took him to Wales for a three month summer vacation- a vacation during which he constantly argued with his sisters. To escape the arguments he would walk the beach alone, watch sea birds and collect insects.
In 1822 Erasmus took an interest in chemistry; Charles became his brother’s laboratory assistant. A laboratory was fitted out in the garden shed after their father banned them from conducting any experiments in the house.
Chemistry was an expensive hobby; the brothers spent £50 buying the equipment they needed for their laboratory. In 1822 £50 was a whole year’s wages for a servant.
After brother Erasmus moved to Cambridge University to study medicine, Charles spent long hours alone in the garden shed carrying out experiments. Word soon spread about Charles’s interest in Chemistry and he was given the nickname ‘Gas’.
Charles lost interest in everything that Shrewsbury School could offer by way of an education and increasingly spent more time on his new passion-shooting and hunting.
In the Summer of 1825 Robert became exasperated and shouted at Charles,”you care for nothing but shooting, dogs and rat catching and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family!”
Seeing no future for Charles at Shrewsbury School Robert decided that Charles, like his older brother Erasmus, should also study medicine. Charles was sent to Edinburgh…
where he arrived in 1825.
After arriving in Edinburgh to study medicine it did not long for Charles to realize that the medical profession was not for him. He became very distressed by all the human suffering he witnessed on the operating table.
This was the era of ‘heroic’ surgery; speed was vitally important to reduce trauma as surgeons cut off the limbs of screaming patients. The use of anesthetics during surgery was still 20 years away.
During one particularly bad operation on a child, Charles fled the operating theater, unable to watch.
Charles developed a dislike of some of the medical professors who taught him. In 1825 some professors at Edinburgh medical school inherited their chairs and treated them as family property.
Charles was particularly appalled by the Professor of Anatomy Alexander Munro III, who had inherited the post of Professor from his father- his father inheriting the post from his father. Of Professor Munro Charles commented, “I dislike him and his lectures so much that I cannot speak with decency about them…. he is so dirty in person and actions.”
About the only lectures Charles enjoyed were the popular chemistry lectures given by Professor Thomas Hope. Writing home to his sisters in Shrewsbury Charles commented, “I like him and his lectures very much”.
Charles missed many lectures, a fact that did not go unnoticed by his father. Robert Darwin wrote to Charles commenting, “If you do not discontinue your present indulgent way, your course of study will be utterly useless”.
The following is a summary of the ways in which Charles indulged himself during his Edinburgh years. With little interest in medicine he had plenty of time on his hands.
Freed black slave John Edmonstone
Darwin learnt valuable taxidermy skills from a freed black slave, John Edmonstone, whom Darwin found “very pleasant and intelligent.” As well as learning to stuff birds and animals Charles listened attentively to John’s stories about a slave’s life and the amazing wildlife that was to be found in the rain forests of South America.
Learning taxidermy would prove to be an invaluable skill that would allow him to preserve the specimens he caught during his round the world voyage some 4 years later.
The Plinian Society
Darwin joined the Plinian Society; this was a debating society frequented by radical, free thinking students. Students who joined the Plinian Society did not believe that science could be explained or understood by means of any religion. Instead they promoted the idea that Science could be explained through observable evidence found in the natural world.
Some of the talks Darwin listened to were controversial and bordered on the heretical. Contrary to the teachings of the Church one speaker even proposed that the ‘lower’ animals, like apes and monkeys, had minds very similar to those of humans.
Such views were anathema to the established church which held that God had created men and women to be superior to all other living things.
Not all talks were so controversial; at meetings of the Plinian Society Darwin would have listened to wide ranging of talks about whales, rare plants, sea snakes and the behavior of cuckoos.
Field trips to the sea
With his friends from the Plinian Society Darwin went on field trips searching shorelines for marine life, inspecting catches made by fishermen and accompanying fishing boats out to sea.
Darwin became absolutely fascinated by sea sponges…
and stalked feathery sea pens.
He searched for the answer to whether sea sponges and sea pens were plants or primitive animals. He became close friends with Robert Edmond Grant who was also interested in answering this question.
Robert Grant was a doctor sixteen years older than Darwin; he had given up medicine to devote his life to studying marine life. Grant lived at Prestonpans, ten miles from Edinburgh,where he bred sea sponges and sea pens from eggs and spending months studying them.
During the course of his research Grant was able to prove that these delicate organisms were not plants but were, in fact, primitive animals.
Grant saw these primitive life forms as ‘parents’ of ‘higher’ life forms such as monkeys and humans. He believed that changes to climatic and environmental conditions drove these primitive life forms to evolve into higher, warm blooded life forms.
Grant believed that studying primitive animals would provide clues to help us understand the origins of all life.
Grant also dissected molluscs such as this limpet…
…and declared that all animals, from molluscs to people, shared similar organs which differed only in their complexity. The organs of limpets were simpler versions of the organs found in higher life forms.
Grant was a radical free thinker who saw no spiritual power influencing evolution in the natural world. He rejected the conventional explanation that animals were designed by a deity, each unique and perfect for the environment in which it lived.
Grant would go to great lengths to collect specimens. He narrated one tale about how he had spent “eight or ten hours of a sleety day wading in the shallows of the Firth of Forth”…..
….during which time he had “nothing to eat or drink.” He was “wet through” and his hands were “half frozen”. However he was “amply rewarded” after finding “three beautiful little ” sea slugs.
Encouraged by Robert Grant, Darwin now made his very first scientific discoveries.
Aged only 18 his first discovery was about the sea mat Flustra.
He discovered that the larvae of the sea mat Flustra could swim using their cilia.
He also discovered that the black peppercorn-like specks inside oyster shells by fishermen were not seaweed spores….
….but were in fact the eggs of the skate leech.
It was these findings that he presented when he first spoke at the Plinian Society meeting of 27th March 1827.
The minutes of this meeting still exist. Some sentences have been crossed out in an attempt to conceal the radical views of another Plinian, William Browne.
Influences on Robert Grant
Grant’s beliefs were heavily influenced by two radical French intellectuals, Jean-Bapitste Lamarck (1744 -1829) and Etienne Geoffroy St. Hilaire (1772 – 1844). Lamarck and St Hilaire were both deists, but they believed in ‘natural’ rather than ‘supernatural’ causes of evolution.
Grant was a great admirer of Zoonomia (1794–1796), an important scientific work written by Charles Darwin’s paternal grandfather Erasmus Darwin. This work aimed to classify facts about animals, to set out laws describing organic life and to catalog diseases with their treatments.
In the chapter entitled ‘Generation’ Erasmus suggested that, “in the great length of time, since the earth began to exist…would it be too bold to imagine, that all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament…possessing the faculty of continuing to improve by its own inherent activity, and of delivering down those improvements by generation to its posterity”.
Another remarkable foresight in Zoonomia were Erasmus’s thoughts on how a species reproduced. There are echoes of Chatles Darwin’s future theory of ‘survival of the fittest’ when Erasmus states, ” [only] the strongest and most active animal should propagate the species, which should thence become improved”
Robert Jameson and his Museum
Jameson was well known as a neptunian geologist; neptunian geologists believed a huge ocean once covered the whole Earth.
They also believed that all strata of rocks, which now form the continents, originated as layers of sediment covering the ocean floor.
Jameson met his students three times a work for practical lessons in the museum of Edinburgh University. Here Dawin learnt how to identify rocks and the different rock strata.
Jameson’s geology field trips proved to be very popular. He took his students to Salisbury Crags just outside Edinburgh…
where he not only taught his students about rocks found on and around the Crags. but also taught them how to record any flora and fauna they encountered.
Jameson’s students were given free access to the magnificent museum of natural history at the university. Here Darwin spent many a long hour browsing the huge collection of rocks, minerals, birds, insects and fossils.
With no prospect of ever qualifying as a doctor Robert Darwin agreed that Charles should give up medicine.
Charles finally left Edinburgh by stage coach in April 1827.
Further information about Darwin’s early life in Shrewsbury from Discover Darwin.co.uk
Learn about the Museum of Zoology that Robert Grant established in 1827 to serve as a teaching collection at the newly founded University of London (later University College London).