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Who was Charles Darwin? A Beginner's Guide to the Theory of Evolution

Updated: Jun 14, 2023

Happy Charles Darwin Day everybody!

Wait, you haven’t heard of Charles Darwin Day? I can absolutely categorically assure you that it is definitely a real thing. You celebrate it on the 12th of February by putting on a big fake bushy beard and regaling everyone you meet, whether they want to know or not, about your latest scientific theories. Honest.

Anyway, whilst we’re talking about Mr Darwin, it might be a prudent time to answer the question, ‘just who is Charles Darwin anyway?’

Charles Darwin by Julia Margaret Cameron

Charles Robert Darwin was born on the 12th of February – and Charles Darwin Day is on the 12th of February too, how most unexpected – in the year 1809. Charles had quite the work load, he was a biologist (a scientist who studies living things), a geologist (a scientist who examines rocks, fossils and stuff like that) and a naturalist (someone who investigates nature).

Charles must have had an amazing memory to remember so much knowledge, whereas I can barely remember what I had for tea last night. Could have been fish and chips? Or chips and fish? Definitely one or the other.

On the 27th December, 1831, Charles Darwin took on the role of a naturalist aboard the ship HMS Beagle. Over the next 5 years Charles and the Beagle sailed all over the world. Charles was absolutely fascinated by all the different animals, plants, rocks and fossils he met on his voyage. How, Charlie boy wondered, did this diverse variety of life come to be? Why did some species survive and others went extinct? Why did birds fly? Why did a tortoise have a shell? Was there a theory that could explain all of it?

The epic 5 year voyage of HMS Beagle By © Sémhur / Wikimedia Commons

On his voyage, despite suffering from severe vomit inducing sea sickness, Charles made loads and loads of notes on everything he saw. He collected plants, birds and insects and sent them back to Cambridge in England for future study. Over the next twenty years Charles began to develop his Theory of Evolution.

All these species evolved from a common ancestor. Courtesy TimVickers

Right then, here’s the big question, what is the theory of evolution?

Basically it’s the idea that all living things began from a common ancestor. So, every single goat in the world could be traced back to one great great great great great great great great granddaddy goat. The thing is, each species has slowly changed over hundreds of thousands of years. Maybe goats used to have three heads and legs made of jam and then, thanks to evolution, they became the goats we know and love today.* They change because of ‘natural selection’. Some creatures will do much better at surviving than others.

Take a mouse as an example. Let’s say more dark furred mice survive than light furred mice because they are harder for a cat to spot. Those dark furred mice will have more babies than the light furred mice, which in turns means there will be many more dark furred mice who will do much better at surviving and having even more dark furred babies. Soon the species of mice is changed and they all have darker fur. With me so far? I don’t know if I am. I might have lost myself a while back there.

Some of Darwin's notes on Evolution

Where was I? Right, yes, Natural Selection. So, the species who do the best job of surviving will continue to survive, others will die out. We call this ‘Survival of the fittest’. Either way, all life changes. It transforms. Like Optimus Prime just without the ‘KUUU KKERR KKERRRR KEERRR KUUUUUU’ sound effect.

Darwin’s 1859 book ‘On the Origins of Species’ and his Theory of Evolution changed everything. Before Darwin it was believed that a species never changed. They could go extinct, perhaps due to a disaster of some sort, and then a new species would just happen to appear. The species were not connected in any way. The theory of Evolution got rid of that idea entirely. To begin with Darwin was worried that no-one would believe him but by the end of his life most scientists all agreed with the theory. Fast forward to today and the theory of evolution is accepted by pretty much everyone. We all know now that humans evolved from monkeys, that’s thanks to Charles Darwin.

Darwin became hugely famous due to his discovery. Loads of stuff has been named after him; mountains, ports, birds… you think of it and you’ll find something named after Charles Darwin.

We even celebrate his life and discoveries every year on Charles Darwin Day. So join me in a donning a great big bushy beard and lets use our brains to go think about clever things. Maybe someone reading this will come up their own world changing theory one day?

* Please note: No goat ever had three heads and legs made of jam. Please do not tell your teacher about this made up ‘fact’ as they will not be impressed.


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