15 Astonishing Charles Darwin Facts!
Get ready to head on a voyage of discovery with these fifteen fantastic facts about one of Britain's greatest scientific minds!
Charles Darwin was one of the most famous and influential people in the 19th century, and he's still so well known we bet you already know a few things about him! You probably know he was a scientist, and he was most famous for his theory of evolution. But there's a lot about him you probably don't know - like his special field of study (and why he didn't like it), his favourite board game, and how he decided to get married! It's all here, and your knowledge is about to evolve! Stick around when you're done for some more history facts! Learn all about Beatrix Potter, King Charles II, and Martin Luther King Jr.!
1. He had the same birthday as Abraham Lincoln
Charles Darwin was born on the exact same day as famous US president Abraham Lincoln - the 12th of February, 1809! Their lives were very different, at least at first. Lincoln was born in a log cabin to a poor family in Kentucky, while Darwin was born into a wealthy family in a grand Georgian house near Shrewsbury. But they grew up to have a lot in common! Not only did they both have a huge impact on history, both men believed in the abolition of slavery. Darwin saw slavery firsthand on his travels in South America and called it a "monstrous stain on our boasted liberty."
2. He dropped out of medical school
Darwin's father was a doctor, and Charles went to the prestigious University of Edinburgh to study medicine. He ended up dropping out - not only did he find the lectures boring, he was also terrified of the sight of blood. Medicine in the 19th century was not as well understood as it is now, so it would be very hard to work in the field if you were even a little bit squeamish. Darwin went to medical school in the 1820s, and anaesthesia wasn't used widely in surgery in the UK until the late 1840s. Yikes!
3. He was religious at first
After dropping out of medical school Darwin went to study theology (the study of God and religious belief) at the University of Cambridge. He wanted to become a country parson (a priest of the Church of England), which was an unchallenging job that would give him plenty of time to focus on his hobbies. This would end up being a little ironic, as Darwin's scientific theories annoyed the Church quite a lot! This is because they proposed that humans evolved from apes, which suggests that God might not exist as the Bible says that God created human beings in his image. Darwin ended up losing faith in religion after witnessing the evils of slavery on his travels, and after three of his children died. He never called himself an atheist though, and preferred to use the term "agnostic" (someone who believes the true nature of God cannot be truly known). The Church of England apologised to him in 2008, more than 120 years after he died!
4. He travelled extensively
In 1831 Darwin's life changed forever when he accepted a job as a companion to a Captain on a round-the-world voyage aboard the HMS Beagle. Captains weren't allowed to talk to the lowly crew, so a companion was employed to keep the Captain entertained with intelligent conversation. Darwin was interested in biology and natural history, so this would be a chance to study wildlife in distant countries. The Beagle travelled around the South American coast, and across the Pacific to Australasia, around the Cape of Good Hope and back to England. The voyage was difficult for Darwin as he was very seasick for a lot of it (plus he fell out with the Captain several times), but he collected a lot amazing specimens and witnessed incredible animals in the wild. When he got back, his samples made him a sensation in London's scientific circles, and his dad gave him money to become a full-time gentleman scientist!
5. He was quite sickly
Darwin became ill on the HMS Beagle with a condition that plagued him for the rest of his life. It may have been Chagas disease, a parasitic infection caused by bug bites, and he may have contracted it because he studied the feeding habits of insects by letting them bite him - for science! Whatever it was, he was never the same after returning home, and suffered from exhaustion, eczema, nausea, headaches and heart problems until his death from heart failure in 1882.
6. He was fifty when his most famous work was published
Darwin's most famous book is The Origin of the Species, but it took him a long time to write it! He started developing the idea of evolution during his voyage on the HMS Beagle, but spent twenty years working on the manuscript. This was because he knew the book would be very controversial, and he wanted to wait until the public, the church and the scientific community were ready. He decided to publish it in 1859 because another scientist, Alfred Russel Wallace, was going public with a similar idea. Wallace's essay and presentation didn't cause too much controversy so Darwin went ahead. His book was a massive success and got a lot more criticism from the church. Some people believe that Alfred Russel Wallace deserves more credit for his theories in evolution, though!
7. He loved backgammon
Darwin kept a strict evening schedule in his later life, because it helped keep his various illnesses at bay. His nighttime routine included two games of backgammon with his wife, Emma, and Charles always kept the score. He once wrote that he won "2,795 games to her piddling 2,490"!
8. He ate exotic animals
That's right, Darwin didn't just studied animals - he ate them! In Cambridge he was the president of the Glutton Club, a society dedicated to eating strange animals. Apparently Darwin gagged while trying to eat a brown owl, and wrote that the taste was "indescribable". He also ate many animals on his voyage, including ostrich, puma and armadillo (which apparently tastes like duck) and agouti, which was "the best meat [he] ever tasted." Er... yum?
9. He was on the £10 note
Darwin featured on the Bank of England £10 note for 18 years! The note had a portrait of Darwin against a background of the HMS Beagle and some of the animals and plants he found on his travels. The note was discontinued in 2018 when the bank switched to polymer notes. The new ones feature author Jane Austen (who died when Darwin was only eight years old).
10. He made a pro/con list about marriage
Charles loved to write, which is great because it means he kept records of his travels on the HMS Beagle. It's also great because some of his journal entries are very entertaining. In 1838 he drew up a pros and con list as he tried to decide whether or not to get married. In the "pros" column he wrote "children... constant companion (and friend in old age) … better than a dog anyhow”. The cons included "loss of time," "less money for books" and "conversation of clever men at clubs". He eventually decided to get married... to his first cousin, Emma.
11. He didn't make up the phrase "survival of the fittest"
The phrase "survival of the fittest" means that organisms (plants, animals and people) that are best adjusted to their environments will succeed in surviving and reproducing, while those that aren't well-adjusted will die out. It is usually attributed to Darwin - or at least, to his work in evolutionary biology. He didn't actually coin it though, it was first used by English philosopher Herbert Spencer in 1864. Darwin did use it in a later edition of The Origin of the Species, though.
12. His specialty was barnacles
Darwin spent a stunning eight years studying barnacles, from 1846 to 1854, in part to establish his credibility as a biologist. He intended to write a shorter study on them, but found they were a lot more complicated than he'd predicted. It ended up being very hard work, and he once wrote, "I am wonderfully tired: I hate a Barnacle as no man ever did before."
13. He was from a famous family
We've already seen that Darwin was born wealthy, but his family was also famous! His grandfather on his mother's side was Josiah Wedgwood, founder of the famous Wedgwood pottery company! You might know someone with posh Wedgwood china - well, Darwin's family started that! His other grandfather was Erasmus Darwin, a political thinker and poet. Both grandfathers supported ending the slave trade, so it's not surprising that Darwin would support the cause later.
14. He's a pop culture figure
In the 2002 TV series 100 Greatest Britons, Darwin came fourth - after Winston Churchill, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and Princess Diana. It's no wonder, because he's still very famous and influential mover a century after his death! Darwin has also inspired a lot of music, and has appeared as a character in a lot of fictional films. There was a biopic of him in 2009 starring Paul Bettany (aka Vision from the MCU) as Darwin - but our favourite is his role in The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists!
15. He's buried in Westminster Abbey
Darwin expected to be buried in the village of Downe, where he'd lived for forty years, but his colleagues and friends campaigned to have him buried in Westminster Abbey. This is a huge honour, as the Abbey is reserved for royalty and very important people. Darwin's grave is near Sir Isaac Newton's, who was one of the most influential scientists of all time.