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Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin's Education

General Information
Charles Darwin's Education
Inception of Darwin's theory
Development of Darwin's theory
Publication of Darwin's theory
Reaction to Darwin's theory
Charles Darwin's views on religion
Journey on the Beagle


Charles Darwin was born in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England, on 12 February 1809, at his family home, the Mount House. He was the fifth of six children of wealthy society doctor Robert Darwin and Susannah Darwin (née Wedgwood). He was the grandson of Erasmus Darwin on his father's side, and of Josiah Wedgwood on his mother's side, both from the prominent English Darwin – Wedgwood family which supported the Unitarian church. His mother died when he was only eight. He went to the nearby Shrewsbury School the next year as a boarder.

In 1825 after spending the summer as an apprentice doctor, helping his father with treating the poor of Shropshire, Darwin went to Edinburgh University to study medicine, but his revulsion at the brutality of surgery led him to neglect his medical studies. He learned taxidermy from John Edmonstone, a freed black slave, who told him exciting tales of the South American rainforest. In Darwin's second year he became active in student societies for naturalists. He became an avid pupil of Robert Edmund Grant, who pioneered development of the theories of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and of Charles' grandfather Erasmus concerning evolution by acquired characteristics. Darwin took part in Grant's investigations of the life cycle of marine animals on the shores of the Firth of Forth which found evidence for homology, the radical theory that all animals have similar organs and differ only in complexity. In March 1827 Darwin made a presentation to the Plinian society of his own discovery that the black spores often found in oyster shells were the eggs of a skate leech. He also sat in on Robert Jameson's natural history course in which he learnt about stratigraphic geology and received training in how to classify plants when assisting with work on the extensive collections of the Museum of Edinburgh University.

In 1827 his father, unhappy that his younger son had no interest in becoming a physician, shrewdly enrolled him in a Bachelor of Arts course at Christ's College, University of Cambridge, to qualify as a clergyman. This was a sensible career move at a time when many Anglican parsons were provided with a comfortable income, and when most naturalists in England were clergymen who saw it as part of their duties to "explore the wonders of God's creation". At Cambridge, Darwin preferred riding and shooting to studying. Along with his cousin William Darwin Fox, he became engrossed in the craze at the time for the competitive collecting of beetles, and Fox introduced him to the Reverend John Stevens Henslow, professor of botany, for expert advice on beetles. Darwin subsequently joined Henslow's natural history course, became his favourite pupil and came to be known as "the man who walks with Henslow". When exams began to loom, Darwin focused more on his studies and received private instruction from Henslow. Darwin became particularly enthused by the writings of William Paley, including the argument of divine design in nature. In his finals in January 1831, he performed well in theology and, having scraped through in classics, mathematics and physics, came tenth out of a pass list of 178.

Residential requirements kept Darwin at Cambridge until June. In keeping with Henslow's example and advice, he was in no rush to take holy orders. Inspired by Alexander von Humboldt's Personal Narrative, he planned to visit the Madeira Islands to study natural history in the tropics with some classmates after graduation. To prepare himself, Darwin joined the geology course of the Reverend Adam Sedgwick, a strong proponent of divine design, then in the summer went with him to assist in mapping strata in Wales. Darwin was surveying strata on his own when his plans to visit Madeira were dashed by a message that his intended companion had died, but on his return home he received another letter. Henslow had recommended Darwin for the unpaid position of gentleman's companion to Robert FitzRoy, the captain of HMS Beagle, on a two-year expedition to chart the coastline of South America which would give Darwin valuable opportunities to develop his career as a naturalist. His father objected to the voyage, regarding it as a waste of time, but was persuaded by his brother-in-law, Josiah Wedgwood, to agree to his son's participation. This voyage became a five-year expedition that would lead to dramatic changes in many fields of science.