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by Don Moore
Charles Darwin was born in Shrewsbury, England, in 1809. His father was a doctor, and his grandfather Erasmus Darwin was both a doctor and an evolutionary theorist himself. Darwin’s mother was the daughter of Josiah Wedgwood of pottery fame. Darwin attended Edinburgh University and Cambridge. While at Cambridge, he began working with John Stevens Henslow, a famous professor of botany who helped a 22-year-old Darwin join the discovery ship H.M.S. Beagle on its five-year circumnavigation of the world. In his autobiography, Darwin wrote of the 1831-1836 cruise as the ship’s “gentleman’s naturalist,” and said “The voyage of the Beagle has been by far the most important event in my life and has determined my whole career…I have always felt that I owe to the voyage the first real training or education of my mind. I was led to attend closely to several branches of natural history, and thus my powers of observation were improved.”
Darwin read and applied Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology during the voyage, and was able to think deeply about the age of life, how fossils that he found during the voyage gave evidence for the great age of life, how animals he observed on different continents could be related given the great length of geologic time, and other evidence which would then allow him to make a clear and logical case for his great theory of evolution via “descent through modification” (which we now call “natural selection”). From 1832 through 1834, the Beagle remained in the southern cone region of South America, and the great diversity of life there helped Darwin to form many of his later views.
— DON MOORE is the associate director of animal care at the National Zoo. He is also an accomplished writer and author of a successful children’s book.
If you have a comment about Smithsonian Zoogoer magazine, please email it to us.Smithsonian Zoogoer 38(6) 2009. Copyright 2009 Friends of the National Zoo. All rights reserved.