THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES
CHARLES DARWIN was born on 12 February 1809 to Robert Darwin, a highly successful doctor, and his wife Susannah Wedgwood, a member of the famous pottery family. His paternal grandfather was the freethinking scientist and poet Erasmus Darwin, who was formulating evolutionary ideas at the end of the eighteenth century.
Initially training as a medical student, then intending to become a clergyman, Darwin found his life and thinking profoundly altered by a five-year round-the-world trip on HMS Beagle. Twenty-odd years lay between his initial formulation of the idea of natural selection and the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859, in the course of which he painstakingly drew together materials from an extraordinary range of sources and intellectual domains to confirm his observations and intuitions, which he understood from the start would challenge fundamentally both society's and science's assumptions. However, by 1871, when he published The Descent of Man, much of the first rancour of the debate concerning 'man's place in nature' had passed.
Throughout his life, Darwin was beset by intermittent debilitating illness, which nevertheless had the advantage of exempting him from public life and allowing him to concentrate on writing, reading, and observation. He was also profoundly affected by the death of several of his children in infancy. The Autobiography that he wrote late in life for his family makes it clear that he ceased relatively early in his career to have any religious faith and that he resented the punitive element in orthodox Christianity. He died on 19 April 1882 and, after controversy, was buried in Westminster Abbey.
GILLIAN BEER has written extensively about Darwin and about scientific writing in its cultural context. Her Darwin's Plots ( 1983) has been followed by a number of essays on related topics, collected in the (forthcoming) volume Open Fields, and she is at present completing a book on the English fascination with islands in the later nineteenth and earlier twentieth century. She is King Edward VII Professor of English at the University of Cambridge and President of Clare Hall.