Origin of species

Nov 2015
On 24 November 1859, Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species was published. This work of scientific literature is considered to be the foundation of evolutionary biology.

Darwin wasn't the first, by any means, to attempt to explain how living creatures have developed over time. Darwin's theory of natural selection, however, was the first to be backed up by hard evidence.

But Darwin wasn't the first to propose natural selection either. William Charles Wells had proposed a version of the same idea in 1813 on the origins of different skin colour.

In Darwin's lifetime, his now most popular and famous book was not his biggest seller. A book called The Formulation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms took that prize, which came as a surprise even to Darwin himself.

So how did Darwin find his path to examining evolutionary biology? Born in Shrewsbury, he was the son of Robert, who had the largest medical practice outside of London, and Susannah Wedgwood, from the family of the Wedgwood potteries. Susannah sadly died when Charles was just eight and he was brought up by his father and sisters in comparative luxury, in a household with servants.

Darwin went to university in Edinburgh when he was 16, as a student of medicine, but dropped out after two years having shown little interest and revulsion at the study of surgery (which at the time was performed without anaesthetic).

Darwin's father then sent him to Cambridge University in 1828 with a view to him becoming an Anglican parson since he'd turned his back on medicine.

Having demonstrated an interest in naturalism whilst at Edinburgh, he furthered this in Cambridge and developed a far keener interest in biology and geology than in his clerical career.

In 1831, he managed to secure a berth on a British Navy mapping expedition that was going around the world. His voyage on the HMS Beagle lasted five years. Perhaps the most significant part of the voyage was the five years spent on the Galapagos Islands, as it was here he made the observations that eventually led him to comprehend what causes animals and plants to evolve.

The Galapagos Islands is home to species found nowhere else in the world and Darwin realized the key to this difference was connected with the fact that various species live in different kinds of environments.

By 1858 Darwin had written a quarter of a million words on evolution, but had published none. He received a letter from a fellow scientist and realised he was about to be pipped to the post which propelled him to go public with his theory of evolution by natural selection.

In 1859, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection was published, a publication which is still being talked about 156 years later!