People of Science: Charles Darwin

The Royal Society

Charles Robert Darwin (1809-1882)
Darwin stands as a major figure in the history of science: he revolutionised our understanding of nature and of the origins of man. Most famously, he contributed to proving the theory of evolution against that of transmutation, using examples from zoology, botany and geology.  
The Voyage of the Beagle
Between 27 December 1831 to 2 October 1836, a recently graduated Darwin sailed across the world as the appointed naturalist on the second expedition of HMS Beagle. This engraving served as the cover illustration of The Voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin's field journals for the scientific expedition published on his return in 1839. Darwin describes in details the geological and zoological discoveries made during his journey.

This is the mountain barometer Darwin took on board of HMS Beagle. The instrument, purchased personally by Darwin before the expedition, allowed him to measure the altitude of the reliefs he was encountering.

Barometers were crucial instruments in expeditions until well into the 20th century.

A scientific life
Darwin was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1839. At the age of 30, he was recognised for his contribution as a naturalist on the Beagle and for being 'well acquainted with geology, botany, zoology & many other branches of natural knowledge'. Darwin was also awarded the Royal Medal in 1853 and the Copley Medal in 1864, both highest distinctions bestowed by the Royal Society. He was also made a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, Linnean Society and Zoological Society. 
Darwin's work remained interdisciplinary throughout his life. His theories were developed by crossing geological observations, an excellent knowledge of botany, population studies and analyses of the zoological world. 
Darwin was involved in various Royal Society scientific activities. This letter indicates his contribution to the publication of biological papers in the Philosophical Transactions, the Royal Society scientific periodical. In this early form of peer reviewing, Darwin discusses the article on Foraminifera (or 'Orbitolites' as Darwin calls the shells) submitted by zoologist William B. Carpenter (1813-1885) FRS for publication. Peer review is still today an essential part of science. 
On the 'Origins of Species' was published by Darwin in 1859. In it, Darwin demonstrated that life evolved from a common branch and sketched the theory of natural selection. The book has become a foundation for evolutionary biology. 
Doubts and reflections 
In this letter to Sir John Frederick William Herschel (1792-1871), Darwin discusses intelligent design and declares himself "in a complete jumble on the point". However, he expresses his confidence in the ultimate acceptance of his views and hopes that Herschel will at least partially agree.

This portrait of Darwin was photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron in Kent.

Julia Margaret Cameron, née Pattle (1815-1879) considered photography both as science and art. Her softly-focused portraits and medievalist tableaux were influenced by the raphaelites but did not foster much enthusiasm amongst her contemporaries, now her talents are being recognised.

At the bottom of the photograph Darwin writes: 'I like this photograph very much better than any other which has been taken of me'.

In this letter, Darwin thanks his neighbour, John William Lubbock (1803-1865), for agreeing to grant him access to sheltered land adjacent to his property. This became known as Darwin's 'thinking path'.  
Down House, Home of Charles Darwin
An accomplished botanist, Darwin used his garden and greenhouses as laboratories to test his theories. The 'thinking path' loaned from Lubbock can still be walked to the West of the property.  
Darwin's legacies
The young John William Lubbock (1834-1913), Darwin's neighbour, became an influential naturalist. Throughout the pages of this notebook, Lubbock relates his exchanges with Darwin regarding collecting, illustrating and identifying samples. In this section, Lubbock names a species of crab after Darwin, the Pontella Darwinii. 

The legacy of Darwin's evolutionary theories can be felt in all branches of biology and beyond, in paleontology, economics, etc... Darwin was not the first to theorise evolution, but he carefully analysed evidence and explained the process of natural selection with unique clarity and strength.

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For more information about the Royal Society Library and Archive please visit our website: https://royalsociety.org/collections/

Visit Down House: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/home-of-charles-darwin-down-house/

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