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Charles Darwin's education

Charles Darwin's education gave him a foundation in the doctrine of Creation prevalent throughout the West at the time, as well as knowledge of medicine and theology. More significantly, it led to his interest in natural history, which culminated in his taking part in the second voyage of the Beagle and the eventual inception of his theory of natural selection. Although Darwin changed his field of interest several times in these formative years, many of his later discoveries and beliefs were foreshadowed by the influences he had as a youth.


Background and influences


Charles Darwin grew up in a conservative era when repression of revolutionary Radicalism had displaced the 18th century Enlightenment. The Church of England dominated the English scientific establishment. The Church saw natural history as revealing God's underlying plan and as supporting the existing social hierarchy. It rejected Enlightenment philosophers such as David Hume who had argued for naturalism and against belief in God.

The discovery of fossils of extinct species was explained by theories such as catastrophism. Catastrophism claimed that animals and plants were periodically annihilated as a result of natural catastrophes and then replaced by new species created ex nihilo (out of nothing). The extinct organisms could then be observed in the fossil record, and their replacements were considered to be immutable.

Darwin's extended family of Darwins and Wedgwoods was strongly Unitarian. One of his grandfathers, Erasmus Darwin, was a freethinker who hypothesized that all warm-blooded animals sprang from a single living "filament" long, long ago. Erasmus Darwin further proposed evolution by acquired characteristics, anticipating the theory later developed by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. Although Charles was born after his grandfather Erasmus died, his father Robert found the texts an invaluable medical guide and Charles read them as a student. Doctor Robert also followed Erasmus in being a freethinker, but as a wealthy society physician was more discreet and attended the Church of England patronised by his clients.


  As a young child at The Mount, Shrewsbury, Charles Darwin avidly collected animal shells, postal franks, bird's eggs and minerals. Young Charles was influenced by his father's fashionable interest in natural history. Early in 1817, soon after becoming eight years old, he started at the small local school run by a Unitarian minister, the Reverend George Case. At this time Charles learnt to ride ponies, shoot and fish. He was very fond of gardening, an interest his father shared and encouraged, and would follow the family gardener around. In pursuing his interest in natural history Charles would tell elaborate stories to his family and friends "for the pure pleasure of attracting attention & surprise", including hoaxes such as pretending to find apples he'd hidden earlier, and downright lies such as what he later called the "monstrous fable" which persuaded his friend that the colour of primula flowers could be changed by dosing them with special water. However, his father benignly ignored these passing games, and Charles later recounted that he stopped them because no-one paid any attention.[1]

In July 1817 his mother died after the sudden onset of violent stomach pains and amidst the grief his older sisters had to take charge, with their father continuing to dominate the household whenever he returned from his doctor's rounds. To the eight and a half year old Charles this situation was not a great change, as his mother had frequently been ill and her available time taken up by social duties, so his upbringing had largely been in the hands of his three older sisters who were nearly adults by then. In later years he had difficulty in remembering his mother, and his only memory of her death and funeral was of the children being sent for and going into her room, and his "Father meeting us crying afterwards".[1]

As had been planned previously, in September 1818 Charles joined his older brother Erasmus Alvey Darwin (nicknamed "Eras") in staying as a boarder at the Shrewsbury School, where he loathed the required rote learning, and would try to visit home when he could. Family holidays in Wales brought Charles new opportunities for collecting, but an older sister ruled that "it was not right to kill insects" for his collections, and he had to find dead ones. Eras took an interest in chemistry and Charles became his assistant, with the two using a garden shed at their home fitted out as a laboratory. When Eras went on to a medical course at the University of Cambridge, Charles continued to rush home to the shed on weekends, and for this received the nickname "Gas". The headmaster was not amused at this diversion from studying the classics, calling him a poco curante (trifler) in front of the boys. At fifteen, his interest shifted to hunting and bird-shooting at local estates, particularly at Maer in Staffordshire, the home of his relatives, the Wedgwoods.

After leaving school in 1825, Charles spent the summer as an apprentice doctor, helping his father with treating the poor of Shropshire. He had half a dozen patients of his own, and would note their symptoms for his father to make up the prescriptions.

University of Edinburgh


Darwin went to Edinburgh University in 1825 to study medicine, accompanied by Eras doing his external hospital study. Charles was a diligent student, but too sensitive to the sight of blood. At Edinburgh his disgust at the anatomy lectures of professor Alexander Monro tertius and his revulsion at the brutality of surgery at the time led him to neglect his medical studies, but he enjoyed the chemistry lectures. Darwin wrote home that "I am going to learn to stuff birds, from a blackamoor... he only charges one guinea, for an hour every day for two months". Darwin studied taxidermy with the freed black slave John Edmonstone, hearing his tales of the South American rain-forest of Guiana. During his summer holiday Charles read Zoönomia by his grandfather Erasmus Darwin, which his father valued for medical guidance but which also proposed evolution by acquired characteristics.

In his second year Charles became active in student societies for naturalists. The 21-year-old radical demagogue William Browne and the 19-year-old John Coldstream both proposed Darwin for membership of the Plinian society on 21 November 1826. John Coldstream came from an evangelical background and shared Darwin's fascination with sea life. Darwin was elected to its Council on 5 December, and at the same meeting Browne presented an attack on Charles Bell's Anatomy and Physiology of Expression (which in 1872 Darwin would target in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals).

Lamarckian anatomy

Darwin became a keen student of Robert Edmund Grant, a Lamarckian anatomist. Grant had cited Erasmus Darwin in his doctoral thesis and shared the evolutionist ideas of Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire on evolution by acquired characteristics. Charles joined Grant in pioneering investigations of the life cycle of invertebrate marine animals on the shores of the Firth of Forth. Darwin and Grant collected tiny animals from the rock pools and walked along the rocky shore at Prestonpans where Grant had taken a house. Grant began taking Darwin as a guest to professor Robert Jameson's Wernerian Natural History Association. There Charles saw John James Audubon give a demonstration of how he used wires to prop up birds and draw or paint them in natural positions. In 1826 Jameson had written an anonymous paper praising "Mr. Lamarck" for explaining how the higher animals had "evolved" from the "simplest worms" – this was the first use of the word "evolved" in a modern sense.

During their walks Grant expounded to Darwin his radical theory of homology, an extension of the idea of unity of plan in vogue in Paris at the time. He argued that all animals had similar organs differing only in complexity and, controversially, that this showed their common descent. Grant announced to the Wernerian his identification of the pancreas in a pinned-out sea-slug, showing an organ molluscs shared with mammals. He assumed that as the earth cooled, changing conditions drove life towards higher, hotter blooded forms, as shown by a progressive sequence of fossils, and that study of eggs of the simplest creatures would help reveal monads, elementary living particles. Darwin listened in "silent astonishment". While this showed that naturalists could try to "lift the veil that hangs over the origin and progress of the organic world", he was troubled by Grant's atheism and could see that transmutation was far from respectable.

Grant announced to the Wernerian on 24 March 1827 the discovery by his "zealous young friend Mr. Darwin" that black spores often found in oyster shells were the eggs of a skate leech. Darwin also observed cilia on the larvae of a species of the bryzoan Flustra, confirming Grant's belief that the larvae of these marine animals were free swimming. Darwin made a presentation of both discoveries to the Plinian society on 27 March, his first public presentation. Later in the meeting Browne argued that mind and consciousness were simply aspects of brain activity, not "souls" or spiritual entities separate from the body. A furious debate ensued, and later someone deleted all mention of this materialist heresy from the minutes. This was Darwin's first exposure to militant freethought and the storm it stirred up. Shortly afterwards the religious Coldstream graduated and went to Paris for his hospital study. Coldstream then suffered a nervous breakdown, being "troubled with doubts arising from certain Materialist views".

Geology and Origin of the Species

Darwin also took the popular natural history course of Professor Robert Jameson, learning about stratigraphic geology. Jameson was a Neptunian geologist who taught that strata had precipitated from a universal ocean: he held debates with Professor Hope who held that granites had crystallized from molten crust, ideas closer to the Plutonism of James Hutton. Jameson's view was that "It would be a misfortune if we all had the same way of thinking... Dr, Hope is decidedly opposed to me, and I am opposed to Dr. Hope, and between us we make the subject interesting." Darwin liked Hope and found Jameson a boring speaker. It is not known what he made of Jameson's closing lectures on the "Origin of the Species of Animals". Darwin enjoyed practicals in the Museum and course field trips, learning the sequence of strata. The Museum of Edinburgh University was Jameson's preserve and was then one of the largest in Europe. Darwin assisted and made full use of the collections, spending hours studying, taking notes and stuffing animal specimens.

Even medical lectures proved of some use. In January 1826 Darwin had written home complaining of "a long stupid lecture" from Dr. Andrew Duncan secundus about medicine, but the lectures introduced him to Augustin de Candolle's natural system of classification and emphasis on the "war" between competing species. However, he loathed medicine and left in April 1827 without a degree.

He toured Scotland, went on to Belfast and Dublin and in May made his first trip to London to visit his sister Caroline. They joined his uncle Josiah Wedgwood II on a trip to France. There Charles fended for himself for a few weeks in Paris with Browne and Coldstream who was recovering having "found joy and peace in believing". Charles rejoined his relations and then returned to his home at Shrewsbury, Shropshire by July.

University of Cambridge


His father was unhappy that his younger son would not become a physician and feared that Charles would become a "ne'er do well". He therefore enrolled him at Christ's College, Cambridge in 1827 on a Bachelor of Arts course to qualify as a clergyman. He enrolled for an ordinary degree, as at that time only capable mathematicians would take the Tripos honours degree.[1]

This was a sensible career move at a time when a "living" as an Anglican parson could provide a comfortable income and when most naturalists in England were clergymen who saw it as part of their duties to "explore the wonders of God's creation". Charles had nagging doubts about his faith after all the unorthodoxy of Edinburgh, so as well as hunting and fishing, he studied divinity books. He was particularly convinced by the reasoning of the Revd. John Bird Summer's Evidences of Christianity. John Bird Summer wrote that Jesus's religion was "wonderfully suitable... to our ideas of happiness in this & the next world" and there was "no other way... of explaining the series of evidence & probability." His Classics had lapsed since school, and he spent the autumn term at home studying Greek with a tutor. Eras returned from Edinburgh ready to sit his Bachelor of Medicine exam, and early in the new year of 1828 he and Charles set out together for Cambridge.

Beetle collecting

At the University of Cambridge extra-mural activities were important. While Charles did not take up sports or debating, in his first term his interests included music and his main passion was the current national craze for the (competitive) collecting of beetles. Trainee clergymen scoured Cambridgeshire for specimens, referring to An Introduction to Entomology by William Kirby and William Spence. Charles joined his older cousin William Darwin Fox who was already a skilled collector and like him got a small dog. The two and their dogs became inseparable. They explored the countryside as Charles learnt about natural history from his cousin. Charles became obsessed with winning the student accolade and collected avidly. Once he stripped bark from a dead tree and caught a rare beetle in each hand, then saw another new species. With the habits of an egg-collector, he popped one in his mouth to free his hand, but it was a bombardier beetle and, Charles was forced to spit it out. He lost all three. The specimens he did not lose had to be mounted and identified, and his knowledge from Edinburgh of Lamarck proved useful. Fox introduced him for advice on identification to the Revd. John Stevens Henslow, professor of botany, and Charles began attending his soirées, a club for budding naturalists. Here he could meet other professors including the geologist the Revd. Adam Sedgwick and the new mineralogist, the Revd. William Whewell.

In the summer Charles paid visits to Squire Owen, where romance seemed to be blossoming with the squire's daughter Fanny, and joined other Cambridge friends on a three month "reading party" at Barmouth on the coast of Wales to revise their studies with private tutors. For Charles it was an "Entomo-Mathematical expedition". Though he badly needed to catch up with his mathematics, the insect collecting predominated along with pleasant diversions such as hill walking, boating and fly-fishing. In one conversation he asked the older student John Herbert if he really felt "moved by the Holy Spirit" to become an ordained priest. Charles got a negative response and replied, "Neither can I, and therefore I cannot take orders". Then Charles laughed it off by dubbing his friend "Cherbury" after Herbert of Cherbury, the father of English Deism.

Second year doldrums

At the start of his second year Charles became the tenant of the rooms at Christ's College which traditionally had been occupied by the theologian William Paley. He now had breakfast every day with his older cousin William Darwin Fox. This was Fox's last term before his BA exam, and he now had to cram desperately to make up for lost time. At the Christmas holiday Charles visited London with Eras, toured the scientific institutions "where Naturalists are gregarious" and through his friend the Revd. Hope met other insect collectors. These included James Stephens, author of Illustrations of British Entomology".

The January term brought miserable weather and a struggle to keep up with his studies. Even his interest in insect collecting waned. He fell out with one of the two locals he employed to catch beetles when he found that the local was giving first choice to a rival collector. In the doldrums, he joined a crowd of drinking pals in a frequent "debauch". He put in some hard riding. On one night he and three friends saw the sky lit up and "rode like incarnate devils" eleven miles to see the blaze. They arrived back at two in the morning and violated curfew. He was risking "rustication", being expelled. Such behaviour would be noticed by the Proctors, professors who went around the town in a plain gown to police the students.

Student resentment against two unpopular Proctors built up, and on 9 April 1829 a tumult broke out. Charles described how the Senior Proctor was "most gloriously hissed.. & pelted with mud", being "driven so furious" that his servant "dared not go near him for an hour." The Proctors had noted some faces in the mob, and four were rusticated and one fined for being out-of-gown and shouting abuse. Outraged by this leniency, the Proctors quit en masse and printed their resignation to post up around the colleges. Though the unpopular Proctors were gone, Charles was jolted into thinking of the consequences of law-breaking.

Cambridge was briefly visited by the Radicals Richard Carlile and the Revd. Robert Taylor, both recently jailed for blasphemy, on an "infidel home missionary tour". They rented lodgings as their "Infidel Head-Quarters", gave out circulars challenging the merits of Christianity and sought out freethinkers around the colleges. The Proctors responded by revoking their landlord's licence and making the lodgings out of bounds, at which the Radical pair put up a notice challenging this persecution of the innocent landlord. The next day all the students were talking about this iniquitous situation, and a group of them decided on vigilante action against the Radicals to avenge the landlord. Carlile and Taylor slipped out of town, satisfied that they had uncovered "about fifty... young collegians, who were somewhat bold in vowing Infidelity among each other", though few would "break... the shackles" of their education and they would have "a most painful conflict to endure." Taylor would be remembered by Charles as "the Devil's Chaplain", a warning example of an outcast from society who had challenged Christianity and had been imprisoned for blasphemy.

That summer, amongst horse riding and beetle collecting, Charles visited his cousin Fox, and this time Charles was teaching entomology to his older cousin. Home at Shrewsbury, Shropshire, he saw his brother Erasmus whose "delicate frame" led to him now giving up medicine and retiring at the age of 26. The brothers visited the Birmingham Music Festival for what Charles described as the "most glorious" experience.

Third year, theology and natural history

Back at Cambridge, Charles studied hard for his Little Go preliminary exam, as a fail would mean a re-sit the following year. He dropped his drinking companions and resumed attending Henslow's Friday evening soirées. For the exam he slogged away at Greek and Latin, and studied William Paley's Evidences of Christianity, becoming so delighted with Paley's logic that he learnt it by heart. Later, on the Voyage of the Beagle, he saw evidence which challenged Paley's rose-tinted view, but at this time he was convinced that the Christian revelation established "a future state of reward and punishment" which "gives order for confusion: makes the moral world of a piece with the natural". As with Cambridge University, God gave authority and assigned stations in life, misconduct was penalised and excellence bountifully rewarded. Charles took the one day verbal examination on 24 March 1830. There were three hours in the morning on the classics and three in the afternoon on the New Testament and Paley. The next day he was delighted to be informed that he had passed.

Over Easter Charles stayed at Cambridge, mounting and cataloguing his beetle collection. He then became an enthusiastic member of the botany course which the "good natured & agreeable" professor Henslow taught five days a week in the Botanic Gardens and on field trips. Henslow's outings were attended by 78 men including professor Whewell. Charles became the "favourite pupil", known as "the man who walks with Henslow", helping to find specimens and to set up "practicals" dissecting plants. He became interested in pollen. One day he watched through a microscope and saw "transparent cones" emerge from the side of a geranium pollen grain. Then one burst spraying out "numberless granules". Henslow explained that the granules were indeed the constituent atoms of pollen, but they had no intrinsic vital power – life was endowed from outside and ultimately derived its power from God, whatever more "speculative" naturalists argued regarding self-activating power. Darwin had been taught otherwise by Grant, and reflected quietly on this, biding his time.

Fourth year finals

As his final exams loomed a "desperate" Charles focused on his studies and got private tuition from Henslow whose subjects were mathematics and theology. This term he had to learn Paley's Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy, though this old text was becoming outdated. It opposed arguments for increased democracy, but saw no divine right of rule for the sovereign or the state, only "expediency". Government could be opposed if grievances outweighed the danger and expense to society. The judgement was "Every man for himself". These ideas had suited the conditions of reasonable rule prevailing when the text was published in 1785, but in 1830 they were dangerous ideas. At this time the French king was deposed by middle class republicans and given refuge in England by the Tory government. In response, radical street protests demanded suffrage, equality and freedom of religion. Then in November the Tory administration collapsed and the Whigs took over. Paley's text even supported abolition of the Thirty-nine Articles of the Anglican faith which every student at Cambridge (and Oxford University) was required to sign. Henslow insisted that "he should be grieved if a single word... was altered" and emphasised the need to respect authority. This happened even as campaigns of civil disobedience spread to starving agricultural labourers and villages close to Cambridge suffered riots and arson attacks.

In the third week of January 1831 Charles sat his final exam. There were three days of written papers covering the Classics, the two Paley texts and John Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, then mathematics and physics. At the end of the week when the results were posted he was dazed and proud to have come 10th out of a pass list of 178 doing the ordinary degree.[1] Charles shone in theology and scraped through in the other subjects. He was also exhausted and depressed, writing to Fox "I do not know why the degree should make one so miserable."

Natural theology and geology

Residence requirements kept Darwin in Cambridge till June. He resumed his beetle collecting, took career advice from Henslow, and read William Paley's Natural Theology which set out to refute David Hume's argument that "design" by a Creator was merely a human projection onto the forces of nature. Paley saw a rational proof of God's existence in the complexity of living beings exquisitely fitted to their places in a happy world. While this was at odds with the ideas of Grant and Erasmus Darwin, it convinced Charles and encouraged his interest in science. He later wrote "I could have written out the whole of the 'Evidences' with perfect correctness, but not of course in the clear language of Paley....I do not think I hardly ever admired a book more than Paley's 'Natural Theology.' I could almost formerly have said it by heart." He read Sir William Herschel's new Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy and was inspired by the scope for progress in scientific knowledge.

Henslow had taken holy orders only after he married and obtained his first chair. Before this he took opportunities for reading and travel, but even so, he now confided that he still had an unfulfilled ambition to "explore regions but little known, and enrich science with new species." Darwin read Alexander von Humboldt's Personal Narrative and made plans to study natural history in the tropics with a month long visit to Tenerife along with Henslow and some class-mates. Only Henslow and three others were interested, but he rushed home at Easter to get his father's backing. The Doctor gave Charles "a 200£ note" to pay his debts, and permission to cost out the trip. Charles then visited his brother Erasmus in a London excited by the Whig Reform Bill which would redistribute Parliamentary seats and extend the middle class vote. Before he left King William IV of the United Kingdom had dissolved Parliament, and Charles returned to a Cambridge excitedly preparing for a snap General Election. As a lodger he had no voting rights, but he put in a word for the Whigs.

He "plagued" his friends about the "Canary scheme" and made preparations, studying Spanish language and expecting Henslow to "cram me" in geology. Instead, Henslow formally introduced Charles to the great geologist the Revd. Adam Sedgwick who had been his own tutor. Henslow fully agreed with Segwick on religion, politics and morals. Charles was fired up by Sedgwick's Spring course of lectures and its vistas of the grandeur of God's creation, so much of which was yet unexplored. He wrote "What a capital hand is Sedgewick for drawing large cheques upon the Bank of Time!". When Sedgwick mentioned the effects of a local spring from a chalk hill depositing lime on twigs, Charles rode out to find the spring and threw a bush in, then later brought back the white coated spray which Sedgwick exhibited in class, inspiring others to do the same.

In the summer Charles obtained instruments and practised mapping Shropshire. On 4 August 1831 Sedgwick arrived in his gig at The Mount, Shrewsbury, to take Charles as his assistant on a geological expedition mapping strata in Wales. Sedgwick had run into problems sorting out the oldest rocks in northern England, and hoped that the missing ancient strata and fossils could be found in the Welsh mountains. After less than a week of doing hard practical work Charles had learnt how to identify specimens, interpret strata and generalise from his observations. Then he went off on his own to collect samples and investigate the Vale of Clwyd. He reported back, and Sedgwick's discussion made him "exceedingly proud". They went on to Capel Curig where Charles struck out on his own across 30 miles (50 km) of "some strange wild places" to Barmouth, determined to show Sedgwick what he could accomplish in mapping strata.

Voyage on the Beagle

At Barmouth Charles met up with a "reading party" of Cambridge friends for a fortnight, and was preparing to go partridge shooting with his Wedgwood relatives at Maer. Then he received a message that an intended companion had died, dashing his plans to visit Madeira. He went straight home and arrived on 29 August. There he found another letter. Henslow had recommended Darwin for the position of gentleman's companion to Robert FitzRoy, the captain of HMS Beagle. The ship was departing in December on a two-year expedition to chart the coastline of South America. This would give him opportunities as a naturalist. Henslow wrote "I assure you I think you are the very man they are in search of [for the position] more as a companion than a mere collector", and George Peacock, speaking for his friend Captain Francis Beaufort, wrote that the post was at Darwin's "absolute disposal".

His father thought the voyage a waste of his son's time and refused permission. Dejected, Charles went to Maer for the partridge shooting with a note from his father to "Uncle Jos" Wedgwood. This contained a prescription for a bowel ailment and a note outlining the proposed "voyage of discovery" which was "folly", but "if you think differently from me I shall wish him to follow your advice." Charles' hopes were revived by this unexpected news, and his relatives came out in favour of the voyage. He sat up that night drafting a reply with his uncle. Jos wrote that it would shape character and could ready him for a profession, as "Natural History... is very suitable to a Clergyman." For "a man of enlarged curiosity" this was a golden opportunity to see "men and things", and the Admiralty would look after him well, but "you & Charles... must decide." Charles begged "one favour... a decided answer, yes or no." After a sleepless night for Charles the reply was sent post-haste on 1 September and he went shooting. No sooner had he bagged his first bird than he received word from his uncle that they should go to The Mount, Shrewsbury at once. When they arrived a few hours later, Charles' father told them that he had relented and would give "all the assistance in my power".


  • Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin (London: Michael Joseph, the Penguin Group, 1991). ISBN 0-7181-3430-3
  • William Paley, Natural Theology; or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity (Full text)
  1. ^ a b c d Browne, Janet (7 Aug 2003). Charles Darwin: Voyaging. Pimlico. ISBN 1-84413-314-1. 
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Charles_Darwin's_education". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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