Charles Darwin: Voyages, Theories & Works

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  • 0:02 Charles Darwin
  • 0:39 Early Life
  • 1:27 Voyages and Evolution
  • 4:41 Later Life and Death
  • 5:12 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson we explore the life and voyages of the 19th-century British naturalist Charles Darwin and his formulation of the theory of natural selection.

Charles Darwin

Have you ever forgotten about something in your fridge? When you finally found it again, it was likely crawling with fuzzy, multi-colored mold, wasn't it? While you likely threw out the ruined food, you were also throwing out a microcosm of life itself! There were likely hundreds of different bacteria floating around in that old sour cream container or jam jar, and the one particular strain which grew into the white stuff on top of your food was particularly well-suited to thrive in that environment. The process by which that bacterial strain was allowed to grow was illuminated over 150 years ago by the British naturalist Charles Darwin.

Early Life

Born in Shrewsbury, England, in 1809, Charles Darwin was the son of the local doctor and grandson of a famous botanist. His mother, Susanna, died when Darwin was only eight. Intending to follow in his father's footsteps, Darwin entered the University of Edinburgh in 1825, intending to apprentice as a doctor. Darwin went on to study at Cambridge, where he took an avid interest in the natural world and received a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1831.

After graduation, Darwin was unemployed only a short while, as his friend, mentor, and former professor John Henslow recommended him for a position aboard the H.M.S. Beagle as the ship's naturalist. The Beagle was slated to begin a five-year exploration of the world, and Darwin jumped at this opportunity of a lifetime.

Voyages and Evolution

The Beagle set sail on December 27, 1831. Over the course of the long sea voyage, Darwin had an enormous amount of free time in between ports to read, study, and think. Most importantly, Darwin later recounted that he had read Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology, which contradicted the contemporary belief that the world had been constructed in seven days by God, approximately 6,000 years ago. Lyell claimed that fossil evidence and geological formations suggested that the Earth was formed over a far longer period of time and was likely much older.

Darwin's major breakthrough came in the South Pacific when the Beagle stopped for supplies at the uninhabited Galapagos Islands. There, Darwin noticed that each island had its own species of finch, differentiated by beak size, shape, coloring, and other characteristics. Darwin realized that each species of finch possessed a beak that was tailored to enable the finches to crack the nuts, berries, or other food items present on each island.

When Darwin returned to England, he began publishing his findings concerning the Galapagos finches and his other observations of flora, fauna, and geology from his travels. He also personally explored theories as to how the finches could have come to have such different beaks.

Darwin worked on various theories for over 20 years. He eventually arrived at the idea of natural selection, meaning that each animal or plant which possessed the traits best suited to its environment were more likely to survive and thrive than other animals or plants with less advantageous traits. These traits can be anything: from size to coloration and everything in between.

Most importantly, according to Darwin's theory of natural selection, these more successful plants and animals were more likely to reproduce, thereby spreading their advantageous traits to the next generation, while the unsuccessful animals would die out. Over time, nature naturally selected the strongest, most fit members of each species, shaping each animal to its environment.

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