Darwin planned to study medicine at Edinburgh university, but later, at the instigation of his father, changed to studying Divinity at Christ’s College, Cambridge University. Darwin was not a great student, preferring to spend time in outdoor pursuits; he spent a lot of time examining natural science and beetle collecting. After gaining a passionate interest in natural science, Darwin was offered a place on the HMS Beagle to act as natural scientist on a voyage to the coast of South America.
At the time, religion was a powerful force in society, and most people took the Bible as the infallible, literal word of God. This included the belief that God created the world in seven days, and the world was only a few thousand years old. However, on the voyage, Darwin increasingly began to see evidence of life being much older. In particular Lyell’s ‘Principles of Geology’ suggested that fossils were evidence of animals living hundreds of thousands of years ago.
On the voyage, Darwin made copious notes about specimens he found on his voyages. In particular, at the Galapagos Islands 500 miles west of South America, Darwin was struck by how the Finch was different on each individual island. He noticed that the Finch had somehow adapted to the different aspects of the particular island.
Over the next 20 years, Darwin worked on the dilemma of how species evolve and can end up being quite different on different islands. Influenced by the work of Malthus, Darwin came up with a theory of natural selection and gradual evolution over time.
“In the struggle for survival, the fittest win out at the expense of their rivals because they succeed in adapting themselves best to their environment.”
– Charles Darwin
Darwin continued to refine his theory, and would intensively breed plants to work on his theories. However, realising how controversial his ideas were, Darwin delayed publishing them. It was not until learning that another naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace had developed similar ideas, that Darwin was galvanised into publishing his own book.
In 1859, the ground-breaking ‘On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection‘ was published. It immediately gained widespread interest and attention, leading to intense debate about the contention that man – by implication was descended from animals like the ape.
“Owing to this struggle for life, any variation, however slight and from whatever cause proceeding, if it be in any degree profitable to an individual of any species, in its infinitely complex relationship to other organic beings and to external nature, will tend to the preservation of that individual, and will generally be inherited by its offspring.”
– Charles Darwin , Origin of Species (1859)
However, by the time he died on 19 April 1882, his ideas had increasingly become accepted – at least by the scientific and non-religious society. He was given a state burial at Westminster Abbey.
Darwin’s Religious Beliefs
Darwin was brought up in the Church of England, and at one point was being trained to be an Anglican priest. Like many of his generation, he took the Bible as the literal word of God, and often quoted it as a source of moral authority. However, after his epic voyage to South America, he become doubtful of the Bible as a source of history; he also felt no reason why all religions couldn’t be true.
From 1849, he stopped going to church, though he never considered himself to be an atheist. He felt that ‘agnostic’ suited his beliefs more closely. He wrote in his autobiography that he eventually gave up Christianity as he disagreed with the conclusion that all non-believers spend eternity in hell.
“I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished.”
He was politically liberal, being an opponent of slavery. He experienced the brutality of how people treated their slaves in a Spanish colony.
“I have watched how steadily the general feeling, as shown at elections, has been rising against Slavery. What a proud thing for England if she is the first European nation which utterly abolishes it!”
Letter to J. S. Henslow (March 1834)