An English naturalist whose theory of organic evolution through natural selection revolutionized science.
Charles Robert Darwin was born in Shrewsbury, England. His father was a successful provincial physician, and his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin (1731– 1802), had been a distinguished intellectual figure, a physician and natural philosopher. Young Darwin attended the Shrewsbury School, and his early failure to achieve academic distinction continued at Edinburgh University, where he studied medicine, and at Cambridge University, where he studied theology. While at Cambridge, however, Darwin enthusiastically pursued natural history as an avocation, drawing the attention of botanist John Stevens Henslow (1796–1861) and geologist Adam Sedgwick (1785–1873). In 1831, through his connection with Henslow, Darwin joined the expedition team aboard the survey ship H.M.S. Beagle headed for the coasts of South America, the Galápagos Islands, New Zealand, and Tasmania. There is some indication that Darwin went on the voyage in order to accompany Vice-Admiral Robert FitzRoy (1805–1865). FitzRoy, as captain, was not to socialize with the lower status crew members on the ship, and he was worried about maintaining his mental health during the long, solitary voyage. (FitzRoy later committed suicide.) During what turned out to be a five-year voyage, Darwin, a creationist, recorded his observations and mailed back to England thousands of specimens he collected at the various places where the ship stopped. Upon his return to England, Darwin began a life-long study of his specimens and slowly developed his theory of evolution, one of the major intellectual achievements of the nineteenth century. When another scientist, Alfred Russell Wallace (1823–1913) shared his own observations based on research he conducted in the Malay Archipelago, Darwin hastened to present his own findings to the scientific community of the day and publish The Origin of Species (1859) to ensure his own work would receive recognition.
arwin's theory of evolution postulates that all species on Earth change over time, and that process is governed by the principles of natural selection. These principles hold that in the struggle for existence, some individuals, because of advantageous biological adaptation, are better able to occupy effectively a given ecological niche and, therefore, will reach maturity and produce more offspring than individuals who are less able. Thus, the survival-essential traits are passed along to subsequent generations. Realizing that his theory challenged biblical views about the nature and origins of humans and animals, Darwin was extremely concerned about how the public would receive his book. Every copy was sold on the first day of publication. Within a few years, scientists were convinced of the soundness of the theory, although popular debate about its ideological and theological implications continued into the twenty-first century. Even today, there are schools in the United States where Darwin's theory is not included in science classes.
Although psychology was one of the fields for which Darwin's theory had revolutionary implications, it was largely left to others—notably Darwin's cousin Francis Galton (1822–1911)—to expand them publicly. However, toward the end of his career, Darwin published three books in which he explored how human mental qualities could be understood as the result of evolution. In The Descent of Man (1871), he supported the controversial position that human beings are descended from primate ancestors. In line with this idea, he argued that the mental activities of humans and animals are fundamentally similar. He identified the presence in animals of seemingly human qualities such as courage and devotion, and human emotions, including pride, jealousy, and shame. After examining these and other common mental functions, such as memory, attention, and dreaming, Darwin concluded that the mental difference between humans and the higher primates is one of degree rather than kind.
In The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), Darwin posited that human emotional expressions have evolved over time because of their link with reactions that have had adaptive or survival value. For example, an animal baring its teeth in rage is literally preparing to fight; thus its emotion gives it a physical advantage. Similarly, Darwin postulated that the fight-or-flight reaction, a heightened state of nervous arousal, is a mechanism that aids survival. He also put forth that human reactions that no longer have any clear survival value probably did in the past and that the similarity of emotional expression among all known human groups suggests a common descent from an earlier pre-human ancestor.
Darwin's final contribution to psychology was the publication in 1877 of Biographical Sketch of an Infant, based on a detailed log he kept on the development of his eldest child, who was born in 1840. This milestone in the history of child psychology is probably the first publication of its type. One idea expressed in this short work is that the individual's development parallels the development of the species to which it belongs. (Darwin had earlier made a similar observation about the development of the fetus during gestation.)
Darwin's work had far-reaching influences on the theory and practice of psychology. Its emphasis on the individual's adaptation to the environment helped establish the functional view of the mind and of human behavior, influencing such thinkers as John Dewey (1859–1952) and James Angell (1869–1949) in the United States, who together founded the functionalist movement at the University of Chicago. Darwin's conception of the continuity between humans and other species gave the study of animal behavior a new importance. Sigmund Freud's younger colleague, George J. Romanes (1848–1894), to whom Darwin turned over his notes on animal behavior shortly before his death, established the field of comparative psychology. Paralleling the science of comparative anatomy, this field seeks to provide insights about human beings by studying the similarities and differences between human and animal psychological functioning. In addition, Darwin's principle of natural selection led to a greater interest in variation and individual differences among members of the same species.
Darwin's other books include The Variations of Animals and Plants under Domestication (1868), Insectivorous Plants (1875), and The Power of Movement in Plants (1880). Darwin was awarded membership in the London Geological Society in 1836 and won election to the Royal Society in 1839.
Anderson, Margaret Jean. Charles Darwin: Genius of a Revolutionary Theory. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow, 2015.
Curtis, Johnson. Darwin's Dice: The Idea of Chance in the Thought of Charles Darwin. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.
Darwin, Charles. The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809–1882. Edited by Nora Barlow. New York: Norton, 1969.
Darwin, Charles. Journal of Researches into the Geology and Natural History of the Various Countries Visited by H.M.S. Beagle. Minneapolis: Zenith Press, 2015.
Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.
Sullivan, Laura. Charles Darwin: Groundbreaking Naturalist and Evolutionary Theorist. Minneapolis: Abdo, 2016.