Portrait of Charles Darwin

Date: 1870
Owner: Library of Congress
Source Type: Images


Charles Darwin (1809-1882), the famous scientist known for his theory of evolution, studied many subjects throughout his academic career, including medicine, theology, and geology. In 1838, after five years of working on the HMS Beagle, he developed his theory of natural selection. He was not yet thirty years old. In 1859, he used this theory as the basis for a book, The Origin of Species; the book introduced the theory of evolution, which shook the scientific community and forever changed ideas concerning nature and human existence. His theory was highly controversial and threw the scientific communities into disarray for many years. It continues to be hotly contested today. Despite the controversy he caused, Darwin continued writing scientific treatises until his death in 1882.

It is important to note, however, that Darwin's notion of evolution was not unique at the time. Over fifty years prior to The Origin of Species, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck had posited his theory of evolution in which acquired characteristics could be passed down through generations, thus changing species. (Lamarckian evolution would continue to have an important impact on Latin American science throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, especially in the "science" of Eugenics). Darwinian evolution was based on the theory of natural selection, yet Darwin was not the only naturalist to forward this notion; the British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace was formulating his own theory of natural selection based on the biogeographical distribution of plants and animals. In 1858, Wallace sent a copy of his essay "On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type" to Darwin for Review. Darwin was in the process of articulating his own theory but was preoccupied by his son's illness, so he forwarded Wallace's manuscript to naturalist Charles Lyell who arranged for a joint presentation of the work of both men at a meeting of the Linnean Society.  Wallace did not have the same social or scientific clout as Darwin, and he accepted his role as the secondary co-discoverer of natural selection.

Darwin still deserves credit for formulating natural selection, but the work of contemporaries like Wallace does much to demystify Darwin's legacy as a genius who stood alone among his peers. No scientist ever works in isolation from either the scientific community or his/her society, and even the most groundbreaking theories must be understood in context.
CITATION: Charles Darwin. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ61-104.