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Darwin's Diary

Introduction | 1809-1825 | 1826-1829 | 1831 | 1832 | 1833 | 1835 | 1836
1837 | 1838 | 1842-1854 | 1856 | 1858-1859 | 1881 | 1882


1826-1827 (Birth of a Theory)

Charles is in Edinburgh, Scotland, ostensibly to study medicine. This is an age of heroic surgery, before anesthetics. Brutal operations are performed quickly, with screaming patients strapped to tables.

"I ... attended on two occasions the operating theatre in the hospital at Edinburgh, and saw two very bad operations, one on a child, but I rushed away before they were completed. Nor did I ever attend again ... The two cases fairly haunted me for many a long year."

Watching the grisly operations turns Darwin from medicine. He later regrets that he never properly learned the art of dissection.

He finds other diversions in the cosmopolitan city -- including student societies, where fiery "freethinkers" explore scientific ideas. And he goes on collecting excursions along the rocky shore with his new mentor, Robert Grant, an expert on marine life whose intellectual passion captivates Darwin.

"He one day ... burst forth in high admiration of Lamarck and his views on evolution. I listened in silent astonishment ... I had previously read the Zoonomia of my grandfather, in which similar views are maintained ... it is probable that the hearing rather early in life such views maintained and praised may have favoured my upholding them under a different form ..."

In tidal pools along the Firth of Forth, Darwin and Grant collect sea mats, animals that resemble plants. Grant suspects that such creatures lie close to the roots of the animal kingdom. Grant pushes Darwin to see similarities in seemingly unrelated animals, such as the bones of a bird's wing and a man's hand. Grant believes that all creatures in the far distant past have a common ancestor, and that higher animals evolved from simpler forms.

Darwin learns the art of taxidermy at Edinburgh's natural history museum. He later writes, "a negro lives in Edinburgh, who ... gained his livelihood by stuffing birds, which he did excellently; he gave me lessons for a payment, and I used often to sit with him, for he was a very pleasant and intelligent man."

Darwin is not yet a convert to the idea of evolution. But these days in Edinburgh stoke his passion for collecting, dissecting, and striving to understand nature.

Fall 1827-Spring 1828 (Darwin's Struggle with Faith)

Queasy at the sight of blood and smell of camphor, Darwin clearly isn't fit for a medical career. His father has another idea.

"After having spent two sessions in Edinburgh, my father perceived ... that I did not like the thought of being a physician, so he proposed that I should become a clergyman. He was very properly vehement against my turning an idle sporting man, which then seemed my probable destination. I asked for some time to consider ..."

To test his piety before plunging too far, Charles reads Sumner's Evidences of Christianity, and scribbles pages of notes.

There is "no other way except by [Jesus's] divinity" to explain the miracles of the past. And, even if miracles could be dismissed, Jesus's religion is "wonderfully suitable ... to our ideas of happiness in this & the next world."

"I did not then in the least doubt the strict and literal truth of every word in the Bible."

So 19-year-old Charles charts a new career path. Darwin will spend three years at Cambridge University as a member of Christ's College. The university is a seminary for the Anglican Church. Proctors patrol the town, a campus vice squad; young women seen walking alone are committed to the university's own jail, just down the road. In his second year at Cambridge, Darwin lives in the former rooms of William Paley, then the most famous natural theologian, whose works were required reading. In this era, the word "scientist" has not been coined, and the study of nature and religion are inextricably linked.

Darwin embraces natural theology, a philosophical system that aims to understand God through study of the natural world. Through this lens, he sees the stunning adaptations of creatures to their environments as irrefutable evidence of God's plan. Nature, with its complex and beautiful designs, is a glorious expression of divine will.

Spring 1828-Summer 1831 (Birth of a Theory)

In his years at Cambridge, now studying for the clergy, Darwin is swept up by beetlemania. His cousin, William Darwin Fox, teaches him the art of hunting for rare insects. The collecting craze leads Darwin to marvel at how diverse and varied creatures can be. It also pays off with Darwin's first "publication."

"No poet ever felt more delight at seeing his first poem published than I did at seeing in Stephen's Illustrations of British Insects the magic words 'captured by C. Darwin, Esq.'"

Years later, Darwin writes of his beetling days, "[N]o pursuit at Cambridge was followed with nearly so much eagerness or gave me so much pleasure as collecting beetles ... I can remember the exact appearance of certain posts, old trees and banks where I made a good capture."

William Darwin Fox also introduces Charles to a group of mentors who change the course of his life. Reverend John Stevens Henslow, a 32-year-old professor of botany, becomes his idol and role model. Darwin spends so much time with Henslow that he is called "the man who walks with Henslow." For Darwin's mentor, like other ordained naturalists, studying nature is studying God's work.

Henslow hosts parties where young naturalists mix with senior men of science. Darwin is thrilled to hear them "conversing on all sorts of subjects with the most varied and brilliant powers."

One of the most brilliant of all, geologist Reverend Adam Sedgwick, takes Darwin on an excursion to explore the hills of Wales. Eager to impress, Darwin learns to identify geological strata on his own.

"[T]he Welch expedition ... has given me an interest in geology which I would not give up for any consideration."

Sedgwick will later become one of the harshest critics of Darwin's On the Origin of Species. Like other geologists of the day, he is no biblical literalist -- he accepts that Earth is ancient. Yet to him the notion that living species evolve is blasphemy.

May 1829 (Darwin's Struggle with Faith)

While Darwin is studying for the clergy, two atheist rabble-rousers charge into Cambridge. They hand out and post a call-to-arms against the church, which Darwin likely reads: "The Rev. Robert Taylor ... and Mr. Richard Carlile ... present their compliments as Infidel missionaries, to ... most respectfully and earnestly invite discussion on the merits of the Christian religion."

Robert Taylor's blasphemy is notorious. He publishes his revolutionary gospel in a pamphlet called "The Devil's Pulpit."

Blasphemy is a crime in England. Taylor and Carlile have been arrested before, and now the powers in Cambridge act quickly. They force the two radicals from town and, to the horror of many students, revoke the license of the landlord who housed them. The landlord pleads for mercy on his wife and six children, but to no avail.

Darwin sees the danger of speaking out against the established order and of challenging the Christian faith. Later, he remembers Taylor's nickname, "the Devil's Chaplain." But he will also, half-jokingly, apply the title to himself.

-> Go to 1831


Introduction | 1809-1825 | 1826-1829 | 1831 | 1832 | 1833 | 1835 | 1836
1837 | 1838 | 1842-1854 | 1856 | 1858-1859 | 1881 | 1882

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