This article covers his biography during the period following the inception of Darwin's theory up to Alfred Russel Wallace's involvement, and includes the context of his life, work and outside influences at the time. See the publication of Darwin's theory and the reaction to Darwin's theory for the periods that followed.
Charles Darwin became a naturalist at a point in the history of evolutionary thought when theories of Transmutation were being developed to explain discrepancies in the established faith based explanations of species. He considered these problems at first hand during the Voyage of the Beagle. On its return in 1836 his ideas developed rapidly. His collections and writings established him as an eminent geologist and collector.
Darwin read Malthus's Essay on the Principle of Population in the context of his findings about species relating to localities, enquiries into animal breeding, and ideas of Natural "laws of harmony". Around late November 1838 he related breeders selecting traits to a Malthusian Nature selecting from variants thrown up by "chance" so that "every part of newly acquired structure is fully practised and perfected", thinking this "the most beautiful part of my theory" of how species originated.
His theory of how species originated had now come together in principle, but he was vividly aware of the difficulties he would face in getting it accepted by his friends and colleagues in the scientific establishment. On 19 December 1838 as secretary of the Geological Society of London Darwin witnessed the vicious interrogation by Richard Owen and his allies of Darwin's old tutor Robert Edmund Grant in which they ridiculed Grant's Lamarckian heresy, showing establishment intolerance of materialist theories.
The publication in May of Darwin's Journal and Remarks (The Voyage of the Beagle) brought reviews accusing him of theorising rather than letting the facts speak for themselves. He turned his attention to a book on coral atolls.
In December as Emma's first pregnancy progressed, Charles fell ill and accomplished little during the following year. He did accept a position on the Council of the Geographical Society in May 1840. In 1841 he became able to work for short periods a couple of days a week, and produced a paper on stones and debris being carried by ice floes, but his condition did not improve. Having consulted his father he began looking for a house in the countryside to escape a city suffering from economic depression and civil unrest. Owen was one of the few scientific friends to visit Darwin at this time, but Owen's opposition to any hint of Transmutation made Darwin keep quiet about his theories.
Illness was a continuing problem, and as his books on Coral Reefs and Fish reached print he and Emma left London on 18 May, visiting her parents at Maer Hall then moving on to Shrewsbury on 15 June for rest and quiet. Here Darwin formulated a 35 page '"Pencil Sketch"' of his theory. This discussed farmers breeding animals, gave the analogy of overpopulation and competition leading to "Natural Selection" through the "war of nature" and the mechanism of descent. Every living thing was related in a branching pedigree, not ascending a Lamarckian ladder, and this pedigree was the proper basis for classification. He thought it "derogatory" to argue that God had made every kind of parasite and worm on an individual whim. He believed that everything resulted from grand laws that should "exalt our notion of the power of the omniscient Creator" and concluded that "From death, famine, rapine and the concealed war of nature we can see that the highest good, which we can conceive, the creation of the higher animals has directly come."
Darwin became a close friend of the botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker, and on 11 January 1844 wrote to him of Transmutation, describing this as being like confessing "a murder", hinting at Transmutation's association with radicals and riots. Hooker's reply was cautious but friendly, saying that there may have been "a gradual change of species. I shall be delighted to hear how you think that this change may have taken place, as no presently conceived opinions satisfy me on this subject."
Darwin worked up his "Sketch" into a 189 page '"Essay"' and in July entrusted the manuscript to the local schoolmaster to copy. He then wrote a difficult letter to be opened by his wife in the event of his death requesting that the essay be published posthumously. He started his Geological Observations on South America, and corresponded with Hooker about this, feeding in questions related to his secret "Essay". The copied "Essay", now 231 pages, was returned to him for corrections in September. Then one day he brought it to Emma and asked her to read it. She went through the pages, making notes in the margins pointing out unclear passages and showing where she disagreed.
By implying that God might not actively sustain the natural and social hierarchies, it threatened the social order and could provide ammunition to Chartists and revolutionaries. Anglican clergymen / naturalists attacked the book, revealing how many of the wealthy specialist naturalists were opposed to Transmutation. The Revd. Adam Sedgwick who had taught Darwin geology at university predicted "ruin and confusion in such a creed" which if taken up by the working classes "will undermine the whole moral and social fabric" bringing "discord and deadly mischief in its train." Darwin scorned such reaction as showing "the dogmatism of the pulpit".
The book was liked by many Quakers and Unitarians. Darwin's friend the Unitarian physiologist William Carpenter called it "a very beautiful and a very interesting book", and helped Chambers with correcting later editions. Critics thanked God that the author began "in ignorance and presumption", for the revised versions "would have been much more dangerous". Vestiges paved the way for discussion, but emphasised the need for secure mastery of awkward facts.
Hooker became Darwin's mainstay in the search to find and explain anomalous facts, though Darwin was greatly disappointed in February 1845 when Hooker was invited to teach botany at Edinburgh. Others helping included Captain Beaufort of the Admiralty who invited Darwin to list any facts he wanted checking, for investigation by ship's surgeons (naturalists) when their ship was in the appropriate part of the world.
In March Darwin followed his father's investment advice and became owner of a farmhouse and estate in Lincolnshire, where the Reverend Samuel Wilberforce advised local squires to take education in hand lest the countryfolk learn "a smattering of science" and forget their God-given duties. The publisher John Murray got Darwin to divert his attention from South America to a revised second edition of his Journal and Remarks incorporating latest information and interpretation. Darwin now saw the Galápagos Archipelago as "a little world within itself" where "we seem to be brought somewhat near to that great fact – that mystery of mysteries – the first appearance of new beings on this earth". He dedicated the new edition to Lyell, but having been horrified by Lyell's Travels in North America which saw no harm in slavery, he added a last section cataloguing atrocities starting with the words "I thank God, I shall never again visit a slave country."
Correspondence with Hooker continued, and later in 1845 Darwin offered his "rough Sketch" for comments, but when Hooker and a group of young naturalists visited Down in December Hooker, having no formed opinion of his own, stuck to the assumption that species were immutable. In the following year potato blight brought famine which impinged on the Darwins' servants and workmen, and led to overthrow of the Corn Laws. Darwin welcomed this, but as a landowner now found that it affected his income from rent and he wrote to his agent that "Although I am on principle a free-trader, of course I am not willing to make a larger reduction than necessary to retain a good tenant." Despite his own illness recurring, Darwin pressed on with South America, having to jointly subsidise it with the publisher when the Treasury grant ran out, and it was completed by October 1846.
On the Sunday Samuel Wilberforce, now the Bishop of Oxford, used his sermon at St. Mary's Church on "the wrong way of doing science" to deliver a stinging attack obviously aimed at Chambers. The church "crowded to suffocation" with geologists, astronomers and zoologists heard jibes about the "half-learned" seduced by the "foul temptation" of speculation looking for a self-sustaining universe in a "mocking spirit of unbelief", showing a failure to understand the "modes of the Creator's acting" or to meet the responsibilities of a gentleman. Chambers denounced this as an attempt to stifle progressive opinion, but others thought he must have gone home "with the feeling of a martyr". Darwin was not present, but in the following week at the Association dissociated himself from the error-ridden Vestiges in Lyell's presence, attacking the author's "poverty of intellect" and dismissing it as a "literary curiosity."
That summer Communist revolution in France was followed by a massive Chartist demonstration in London, with the wealthy and the Queen fleeing to safety. Darwin's friends were mustered to defend the scientific institutions against the possibility of attacks by rioters who would have welcomed his secret theory. Continuing with the barnacles he found that what seemed like minute parasites were in some cases the minute males "& half embedded in the flesh of their wives they spend their whole lives", a "wonder of nature" not flattering to the Creation idea that God appointed the social system.
Darwin visited The Mount, Shrewsbury for the 82nd birthday of his father who was now seriously ill. He became desperately ill himself and returned home to be nursed by Emma who gave birth to their third son in August, then in November was devastated when his father died. Emma sustained him, and they read religious books together. In February 1849 he drew some comfort from Harriet Martineau's new Eastern Life, Past and Present, a travelogue of tombs with the message that Christian beliefs in reward and punishment were founded in heathen superstitions.
The family enjoyed the spring weather and liked Dr Gully, and it developed into a delightful holiday in the festive atmosphere around the spa. His stomach trouble was diagnosed as nervous in origin, and he was soon free of sickness and walking seven miles (11 km) a day. Despite his suspicions of quackery the cure worked, and after staying 16 weeks they returned home, arriving on 30 June with Darwin eager to resume work on his barnacles.
He continued a slightly relaxed version of the treatment, having a hut built with a cold water douche and getting up a seven a.m. to get heated up with a spirit lamp then take a cold plunge bath and get scrubbed by his butler. In September his duties as Vice-President of the British Association and interest in a paper on barnacles led him to attend their meeting at Birmingham, but he found it unpleasant and the excitement brought back the sickness. Even after a quick visit to Dr Gully and rest at home he took weeks to recover.
As his work progressed on to fossil barnacles, pressures brought on illness again and in June 1850 he went to Malvern for a week of treatment. Hooker was helping search for evidence, now trying to test evolutionary ideas and writing that "they have possessed me, without however converting me". While Hooker was not finding gradations of varieties, Darwin's barnacles were showing this to the extent that defining species was extremely difficult.
An agonised Darwin stayed at Annie's bedside as the crisis deepened. Dr Gully attended through the night thinking her unlikely to last, but at 6 a.m. she vomited and her condition stabilised. She seemed to recover slightly and a series of ups and downs followed with Darwin and Fanny Wedgwood anxiously watching and writing home, but she deteriorated and on 23 April 1851 died.
During Annie's long illness Darwin had read books by Francis Newman, a Unitarian evolutionist who called for a new post-Christian synthesis and wrote that "the fretfulness of a child is an infinite evil". With Annie's death Darwin lost all faith in a beneficent God and saw Christianity as futile. For three years he had deliberated about the Christian meaning of mortality. This opened a new vision of tragically circumstantial nature. On 30 April Darwin wrote a brief and intensely emotional memoir of Annie for himself and Emma.
The Darwins went up to the Great Exhibition in 1851, staying with "Uncle Ras", but while the children enjoyed their several visits, Darwin's ailments returned with the excitement. The slog of describing barnacles continued. Family life was rewarding but also brought pressures. The worst of his bugbears was a fear of inherited weaknesses. His oldest son William was a slow learner, and after much agonising Darwin sent him to Rugby School. While they had inherited wealth, it had to be wisely invested. A large proportion was cautiously put in railway stock, then in a boom but subject to fluctuations. He had kept records of the effects of the continuing water treatment, and finding that it was of some help with relaxation but had no significant effect he stopped it in 1852 and proceeded to try various experimental therapies without any confidence in their effects.
In recognition of his work on South American geology, invertebrate research and particularly his work on Barnacles, Darwin was awarded the Royal Medal of the Royal Society and received it at their meeting on 30 November 1853. The excitement brought back illness and he resumed the water treatment. This time it was successful and his health improved. He finished the second volume of Barnacles, completing almost eight years of work which had made him the world's foremost authority on the subject.
In the spring of 1854 he joined the Royal Society's Philosophical Club. To his surprise his stomach was not troubled and he greatly enjoyed visiting London regularly and meeting with the new generation of scientists, in particular John Tyndall, Hooker and Huxley. Darwin supported them in gaining gold medals from the Society, saying that they would become "scientific giants" and he thought it only right that they should get the accolades to spur them on. Tyndall had taken the chair of natural philosophy at the Royal Institution in 1853 and was now helping Huxley run the science section of The Westminster Review. Huxley began teaching at the Royal School of Mines in November, then "sick of the dilettante middle class" began his famous working men's lectures a year later, and Hooker became ensconced at Kew Gardens.
Biology was becoming liberalised, even among churchmen. Hooker commented; "These parsons are so in the habit of dealing with the abstraction of doctrines as if there was no difficulty about them whatever... that they gallop over the [science] course... as if we were in the pews and they in the pulpit. Witness the self confident style of...Baden Powell". This was the Reverend Baden Powell, a mathematics professor at the University of Oxford who applied the theological argument that God is a lawgiver, miracles break the lawful edicts issued at Creation, therefore belief in miracles is atheistic.
In the Spring of 1855, as the Crimean war developed, Darwin was pondering the war of nature, taking the then current analogy with an industrial economy further than others, and wondering how species spread. He was dismissive of the ideas that others had put forward of sunken continents like Atlantis, and began experimenting in his house with soaking seeds in brine then seeing if they could germinate. He reported his results in Gardeners' Chronicle and roped in his curate friends including Henslow. The consul in Norway sent seed pods which had washed ashore. Hooker was able to identify them as coming from the Caribbean and get them to germinate at Kew. Investigation of variation brought him back to animal husbandry. He now began dissecting domestic animals and breeding pigeons, joining a pigeon fancier's club: very unorthodox behaviour for naturalists at that time.
Huxley had obtained a position and his friends had been having an impact on the establishment. In particular Huxley had strongly dismissed the transmutationist thesis of Chambers' Vestiges. He also argued vociferously against the dominant Owen who had demonstrated fossil evidence of an evolutionary sequence of horses as supporting his idea of development from archetypes in "ordained continuous becoming", and who had in 1854 given a British Association talk on the impossibility of bestial apes such as the recently discovered gorilla standing erect and being transmuted into men. Darwin tried at a gathering at Downe on 22 April 1856 to amiably argue Huxley and Hooker round towards accepting evolution as a process, without going into the mechanism.
See the publication of Darwin's theory for the resulting developments, in the context of his life, work and outside influences at the time.