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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Darwin, Charles Robert (1809–1882)

by K. A. Townley

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

Charles Darwin, n.d. [detail]

Charles Darwin, n.d. [detail]

National Library of Australia, 9542964

Charles Robert Darwin (1809-1882), naturalist, was born on 12 February 1809, the son of Robert Darwin and his wife Susannah, daughter of Josiah Wedgwood, and the grandson of Erasmus Darwin. He was educated at Shrewsbury, Edinburgh University, and Christ's College, Cambridge. At Cambridge he came under the influence of J. S. Henslow, professor of botany, and on graduation in 1831 was recommended by him for the post of naturalist in H.M.S. Beagle, on a five-year survey voyage, chiefly along the coast of South America. Although Darwin was passionately interested in natural history, he was at this time primarily a geologist by inclination, and his predilections are reflected in his records of the voyage. Nevertheless, his observations during this period formed the nucleus from which he developed his theory of evolution by natural selection, set out in On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (London, 1859) and The Descent of Man (London, 1871).

The Beagle was anchored at Sydney from 12 to 30 January 1836. During this time Darwin journeyed to Bathurst, making superficial observations on the geology of the Blue Mountains and collecting some native fauna and flora. He was 'rather disappointed in the state of society', and made the misjudgment that 'agriculture can never succeed on an extended scale'. His interest in Van Diemen's Land, where the Beagle stayed for ten days in February, was mostly geological and sociological: he gave a graphic account of the subjugation of the Aboriginals. On 6 March the Beagle arrived at King George Sound; Darwin was noticeably unimpressed: 'we did not during our voyage pass a more dull and uninteresting time'; though he did see a 'corrobery'. The Beagle left Australia on 14 March. He published an account of the voyage, Journal of Researches into the Geology and Natural History of the Various Countries Visited by H.M.S. Beagle (London, 1839) which ran to several editions.Darwin never visited the site of the city, now the capital of the Northern Territory, which has borne his name since 1911. The Beagle, under the command of Lieutenant John Lort Stokes, visited northern waters in 1839, and Stokes named Port Darwin for his former shipmate. A settlement named for the British Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, was established there in 1869 and re-named when the Northern Territory came under Commonwealth control. Charles Darwin University was formed in 2003 after the amalgamation of several institutions of higher learning in the territory. A national park also bearing his name has been established on Port Darwin to protect native species including mangroves, and sites of significance to the Larrakia people.

The geographical isolation of Australian fauna and flora gave Darwin some very valuable evidence on evolution; and Australian Aboriginals provided support for his theory of natural selection. Darwin maintained a continuing interest in Australia through correspondence with a number of her scientists, including Gerard Krefft, R. D. Fitzgerald, Thomas Mitchell and Rev. W. B. Clarke. He also corresponded with Conrad Martens and his letters addressed to a former shipmate named Covington, who settled in New South Wales, were published in the Sydney Mail in 1884. When (Sir) Joseph Hooker published the Flora Tasmaniae (London, 1860), Darwin expressed to his friend his pride in his 'adopted country' and confided that emigration to Tasmania was his castle in the air. He never returned to Australia; nor after the Beagle voyage did he leave England again. In January 1839 Darwin married his cousin Emma Wedgwood, by whom he had six sons and four daughters. He died on 19 April 1882.

Darwin was one of the last, and probably the greatest, of the eclectic scientists who preceded the age of professional specialization. His genius lay in his ability to select, from the facts which he so diligently collected, every relevant point and fit it into his bold and far-reaching theories. He was not the first to advance a theory of evolution; but his massive weight of evidence carried conviction where earlier theorists had failed. He was shy and modest and shrank from controversy, an unfortunate trait in the author of the most controversial book of the century. Luckily he had devoted friends, including Thomas Huxley, Hooker, Lubbock, John Gray and Haeckel, who were happy and eager to maintain the sometimes acrimonious discussions which were so distasteful to him.

Select Bibliography

  • F. Darwin, Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, vols 1-3 (Lond, 1887)
  • N. Barlow (ed), Charles Darwin's Diary of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle (Cambridge, 1933)
  • N. Barlow (ed), Autobiography of Charles Darwin (Lond, 1958)
  • W. Irvine, Apes, Angels and Victorians (Lond, 1955)
  • G. de Beer, ‘Darwin and Australia’, in G. W. Leeper (ed), The Evolution of Living Organisms (Melb, 1962), pp 15-22.

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Citation details

K. A. Townley, 'Darwin, Charles Robert (1809–1882)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 1 October 2020.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

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