Indiana University Bloomington

Charles Darwin: A Chronology.


Charles Robert Darwin born on February 12 (the same day as Abraham Lincoln) in Shrewsbury, England, the second son and fifth of six children of the physician Robert Waring Darwin and his wife Susannah, daughter of Josiah Wedgwood I, master-potter of Staffordshire. His grandfather is Erasmus Darwin, poet (The Loves of Plants, 1789), doctor, and inventor. Erasmus already suspected that species had evolved from different forms in the past and were not fixed and immutable: “all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament,” during a time-span of “millions of ages.” Among other things, Erasmus invented a horizontal windmill, used to grind colors at his friend Josiah Wedgwood’s pottery.


July 15: death of Darwin’s mother, aged 52.


Darwin enters Shrewsbury School as a boarding student, despite the fact that it was close to his father’s house.


Darwin arrives in Edinburgh (accompanied by his brother Erasmus) to study medicine. He is an indifferent student. Repulsed by anatomy classes, but his interest in natural history ultimately superseded his passion for hunting partridges and hares. Engages in lectures and field trips, joins the Plinian Society, and works on mollusks.


Transfers to Christ’s College, Cambridge.


Gains a B. A. in January, passing tenth in a list of 178 candidates. After his uncle Josiah’s intervention on his behalf (“looking on him as a man of enlarged curiosity, it affords him such an opportunity of seeing men and things as happens to few”), Darwin sails on December 27 for South America on the survey ship, H.M.S. Beagle, from Plymouth, England, for a tour of the globe that includes South America, the Pacific Islands, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and numerous islands. Entering the Bay of Biscay, after his first week at sea, Darwin’s sea-sickness sets in (“The misery is excessive”), which stays with him for the rest of the voyage, making him look forward to the considerable periods of time spent on shore. Reads Lyell, Principles of Geology, who argues that species become extinct when physical changes in area lead to competitive imbalances (Darwin would come to favor a generational theory of extinction).


February 29, arrival in Bahia: “Delight itself ... is a weak term to express the feelings of a naturalist who, for the first time, has been wandering by himself in a Brazilian forest.”


September: arrives on the Galápagos Islands and is impressed by the strange “Cyclopean scene.” Observes the famous finches, the beak of each one, as he determines later, precisely shaped for different ecological functions: prying out plant seeds, catching insects, foraging on the ground. Later, in the first edition of Origin of Species, Darwin remarked: “the several islands of the Galápagos Archipelago are tenanted ... by very closely related species; so that the inhabitants of each separate island, though mostly distinct, are related in an incomparably closer degree to each other than to the inhabitants of any other part of the world.”


In London, busy sorting through the material collected during the expedition. From early 1839 until late 1842, CD lives in a house at 12 Upper Gower Street. July 1837: Darwin begins his first notebook on “Transmutation of Species.”


First signs of his chronic illness, accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and headaches, which would stay with him for the rest of his life. Various hypotheses have been offered, ranging from hypochondria to an infection resulting from the bite of the Chagas Beetle. Darwin reads Thomas Malthus’ Essay on the Principle of Population as It Affects the Future Improvement of Society (first published 1798) and appreciates its conclusion that the human population increases geometrically while its resources (food) increase at best arithmetically. “Being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of new species. Here then I had at last got a theory by which to work.”


Elected Fellow of the Royal Society. January 19: Marries Emma Wedgwood, his first cousin (Darwin’s sisters successively married Emma’s brother and brother-in-law). Charles and Emma were both descended from at least two branches of the Wedgwoods. Before his marriage, CD tabulated reasons to marry and not to marry on a scrap of paper. Examples: “Not MARRY: ... Loss of time—cannot read in the evenings—fatness and idleness—anxiety and responsibility—less money for books etc—if many children forced to gain one’s bread.” On the plus side: “My God, it is intolerable to think of spending one’s whole life, like a neuter bee, working, working and nothing after all. —No, no won’t do.”


Publication of Journal of Researches into the Geology and Natural History of the Various Countries Visited by H.M.S. Beagle, first published as vol. 3 of Captain Fitzroy’s Narrative. First version of what is now known as The Voyage of the Beagle.


First sketch of his “theory.” Publishes The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs. September 17: Charles and Emma move to Down House, near the small village of Down in Kent, where all but the first two of their ten children are born.


Geological Observations on South America.


A Monograph on the Sub-class Cirripedia, the result of Darwin’s long preoccupation with barnacles, work he undertook to give himself a thorough grounding in empirical science.


April 23: death of the “joy of the household,” his beloved daughter Annie. “We must be more & more to each other, my dear wife....”


Writes to Joseph Hooker on July 13: “What a book a Devil’s chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low & horridly cruel works of nature!”


June 18: receives letter from naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, along with a paper detailing a theory of evolution strikingly similar to Darwin’s “natural selection.” July 1: a joint Darwin-Wallace paper on evolution is presented, in the absence of both authors, to a remarkably indifferent Linnean Society.


November 22: Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. The first printing sells out in a day. Thomas Carlyle calls Darwin’s “natural selection”—the idea that, without any involvement of a hands-on God, some individual in each generation are likelier to survive and reproduce than others, because they are better suited to their environment—a “gospel of dirt.”


June 30: Famous meeting of the British Association for the Advancement Science in Oxford, during which Bishop Samuel Wilberforce (“Soapy Sam”) asks Darwin’s defender, Thomas Henry Huxley, whether it was on his grandfather’s or his grandmother’s side that he was descended from an ape. To which Huxley says he replied: “If then ... the question is put to me would I rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly endowed by nature and possessed of great means & influence & yet who employs these faculties & that influence to the mere purpose of introducing ridicule onto a grave scientific discussion I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape.”


On the Various Contrivances By Which British and Foreign Orchids Are Fertilised by Insects, and on the Good Effects of Intercrossing. Offering detailed evidence for Darwin’s new theory, the book “completely changed our conception of sexuality and gave rise to the enormous literature on pollination” (Michael T. Ghiselin). Or, in Darwin’s own words from the conclusion: “It has, I think, been shown that the Orchideae exhibit an almost endless diversity of beautiful adaptations.”


The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication, 2 vols.


The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. “The courtship of animals is by no means so simple and short an affair as might be thought” (part II, chapter 8). “He, who is not content to look, like a savage, at the phenomena of nature as disconnected, cannot any longer believe that man is the work of a separate act of creation. He will be forced to admit that the close resemblance of the embryo of ‘man to that, for instance, of a dog—the construction of his skull, limbs and whole frame on the same plan with that of other mammals, independently of the uses to which the parts may be put ... and a crowd of analogous facts—all point in the plainest manner to the conclusion that man is the co-descendant with other mammals of a common progenitor” (part II, chapter 21).


The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals.


The Movements and Habits of Climbing Plants; Insectivorous Plants.


The Effects of Self- and Cross-Fertilization in the Vegetable Kingdom.


Writes “Recollection of the Development of My Mind and Character,” published in unexpurgated form only in 1958, as The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, edited by his granddaughter Nora Barlow. “ for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry: I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me.... My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts.”


The Different Forms of Flowers on Plants on the Same Species.


The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms. “When we behold a wide, turf-covered expanse, we should remember that its smoothness, on which so much of its beauty depends, is mainly due to all the inequalities having been slowly levelled by worms. It is a marvellous reflection that the whole of the superficial mould over any such expanse has passed, and will again pass, every few years through the bodies of worms. The plough is one of the most ancient and most valuable of man's inventions; but long before he existed the land was in fact regularly ploughed, and still continues to be thus ploughed by earth-worms. It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organized creatures.”


April 19: dies at Down House. “I am not the least afraid to die.” His wife of 43 years writes to her brother: “I hardly know how I shall get through my days so empty & desolate .... I feel that the memory of his life is so full of sweetness that I shall always like to speak of him.” April 26, 1882: Darwin is buried in Westminster Abbey (despite his own wish to be laid to rest in Downe). Among his pallbearers were the Dukes of Devonshire and Argyll; the Earl of Derby; and the poet James Russell Lowell, then the United States minister to England, as well as Thomas Huxley, Joseph Hooker, and Alfred Russel Wallace. From the United States, Asa Gray wrote to Darwin’s niece, Julia Wedgwood, that his friend’s death was “like the annihilation of a good bit of what is left of my own life.”