Charles Darwin did not invent anything but he discovered a lot as a scientist and naturalist; and, as an author, he impacted science and the way we think about our world. He developed and proposed a theory about evolution. His theory has had far-reaching affects on science and the way we understand life.
What Did Charles Darwin Discover?
Darwin's Life and Work
Charles Darwin was born in Shrewsbury, England in 1809. At 16 he studied medicine at Edinburgh University. He found out that surgery was not his calling and started studying to be a clergyman at Christ College, Cambridge. He obtained his degree in Theology in 1831.
From August of 1831 through 1836, he signed on as a naturalist on a scientific voyage aboard the HMS Beagle which sailed the world in an effort to study various aspects of science and the natural world.
Darwin assisted and led multiple studies aboard the ship, focusing on plants, animals, and the natural Earth; a few years after the voyage, he published his first major work on his findings, entitled Zoology of the Beagle.
Later Publications on Evolution and Natural Selection
It was his research on natural selection during that voyage that formed the basis of his later work. He examined all the areas he visited, including South America, the Galapagos Islands, Africa and islands in the Pacific Ocean and made detailed records of his observations.
The work that influenced him the most was Sir Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology. Lyell explained a new way of looking at nature. He showed that small changes, over time, can cause large changes. He felt that natural and observable causes should be used to explain things that happen in nature.
Darwin was able to observe many of these natural phenomenons, like earthquakes, erosion, volcanoes, and such. He came to believe that Lyell was right. Darwin returned to England in 1836.
The Origin of Species
While his early work shows some indications of later theories that would make Darwin famous, his main discoveries and ideas did not really come into existence until 1859. By that time, having studied multiple texts and having done multiple scientific studies on his own, Darwin had developed what would become known as his theory of evolution.
In 1859, Darwin’s most famous work, Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, was published. In this book, he laid out the theory for which he would ultimately be known. His argument was essentially that all species of living things, including humans, developed and adapted over time, modifying themselves to suit their lifestyles and their environments.
He no longer thought of life as different lines of ancestry, but as a single tree, branching and re-branching. That way, characteristics shared by different living things could be explained by their shared ancestry. He realized that if reproduction went unchecked, and grew geometrically, then the world would be overpopulated in a few hundred generations.
That has not happened so he thought that a large number of living things must be destroyed before they can reproduce. This came to be called, “natural selection,” a connected idea which states that the strongest of the species survive while the weaker, less-adapted are weeded out, thus ensuring the species survives and thrives to the best of its ability.
Charles Darwin and Evolution
Charles Darwin changed the way people look at living things. Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection ties together all of the life sciences and explains where living things came from and how they adapt. In life, there is heredity, selection, and variation. Only certain members of a species reproduce, by natural selection, and pass along their characteristics. Variation deals with the environment and adaptation to it.
His theory of evolution flew directly in the face of most religious beliefs, and upset many scholars who were not necessarily ready to make the intellectual connection between humans and animals.
At that time in history, however, as a great many things were changing in the world (including the Industrial Revolution), Darwin’s ideas were part of a huge movement of modernization, and as difficult as they were for many people to accept, they gained support from many scholars and scientists.
Darwin's Later Life
Charles Darwin was a kind and pleasant man, and suffered from intestinal illness and chronic fatigue all his life, possibly from Chagas Disease which he contracted while in South America.
Darwin wrote a few follow-up books that further outlined his studies and his theories. He continued to publish various essays and books on all aspects of evolution, after spending many years studying various species and drawing conclusions from them to support his ideas. The incredible evidence he collected to support his logic is still with us today, and is still debated by scientists, zoologists, geologists, and even sociologists the world over.
He died in April of 1882 and is buried in Westminster Abbey.