In This Article Charles Darwin

  • Introduction
  • Darwin and After
  • Social Darwinism
  • Darwinism and Eugenics

Ecology Charles Darwin
Vassiliki Betty Smocovitis
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0122


Charles Robert Darwin (12 February 1809–19 April 1882) was a British naturalist best known for his work establishing the theory of organic evolution by means of natural selection. Based on his early training, his circle of mentors and colleagues, and most importantly the many observations that he made aboard the celebrated five-year voyage of the HMS Beagle, Darwin formulated a theory of species change he termed descent with modification through the primary means of natural selection. The first hints of this theory began to appear in 1837 and were recorded in his private notebooks, but only after over twenty years of additional research, the collection of many examples, extensive reading, and much reflection did he publish it in 1859, and then only after learning that the younger British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace had independently formulated a similar understanding of species change. With the support of a small circle of colleagues, an abbreviated version of his theory was first presented, and it was then published in conjunction with Wallace in 1958. He then turned to writing what was intended to be an abstract of a planned longer series of works in support of his theory, but which became instead On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, published in 1859. His scientific oeuvre is dominated by this book, but he subsequently published a number of important books that either extended or supported the theory set forth in 1859 including his reflections on human evolution set forth in The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex published in 1871. Though he is best known for his theory of species change, Darwin had a number of other interests. He was a keen experimentalist, performing a series of small but elegant studies involving plants and other organisms that reflected a grasp of the complex interactions between organisms at a time when ecological thinking was only just emerging. Indeed, Darwin is considered one of the first ecological thinkers, using the phrase “economy of nature,” on multiple occasions in his On the Origin of Species. His many botanical studies as laid out in no less than six books are now considered both pathbreaking but also imaginative and crucial to laying the foundations of what is now plant evolutionary biology, plant ecology, and invasion biology, and his examination of the behavior of humans as shown in his The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals published in 1872 is considered foundational in behavioral studies and in the field called evolutionary psychology. With the help of many commentators, furthermore, his influence spread well outside scientific circles and shaped prevailing social and political views, as well as challenging belief in a purposive, anthropocentric universe.

General Overviews

Because of Darwin’s importance, and because he left behind a rich trail of documents that are now useful sources, historians of science have probably devoted more attention to him than to any other figure in the history of science. Though it often has something of a derogatory connotation, historians of science frequently speak of a “Darwin industry,” referring to the group of workers who have made Darwin’s life and work the centerpiece of their scholarly careers. Members associated with this industry routinely mine archival sources, with the goal of compiling annotated or edited collections of “Darwiniana” to be published or digitized and made available for use in scholarship, teaching, or general education. To some extent these began with the early effort to record his correspondence and the salient features of his life by his son Francis, following Charles Darwin’s death; but the Darwin Correspondence Project located at the University of Cambridge (Darwin’s former university) now forms the backbone of these efforts, as does an earlier project editing Darwin’s many notebooks. A large number of edited or annotated collections have now appeared compiling Darwin’s many letters, notebooks, or other memorabilia, and usually published by Cambridge University Press. Other scholars literally stumble onto Darwin or some aspect of his theory while pursuing other subjects, as in the case of the many studies of colonialism and imperialism that shaped Britain’s “long 19th century.” Yet other scholars are not so much concerned with Darwin or with the impact of his thinking in wider circles, but instead with the broader science devoted to understanding evolution and its many stunning manifestations, or with the way that it too was put to use in social theory or in political contexts. For these reasons it is helpful to distinguish scholarship directly on Darwin that is biographical in nature from scholarship that deals with aspects of Darwin’s life and work, or with Darwinism, or even with the general history of evolution, which includes consideration of other thinkers and their influences. Scholarly literature began to appear only around the time of the Darwin Centennial year of 1959, which generated a new wave of interest in Darwin’s life and work, as well as the history of evolutionary biology, a new discipline of research. Such works should ideally be evaluated based on the timing of their publication as well as the disciplinary methodology employed. Online resources, some encyclopedias or special companion volumes, bibliographic guides, and some general readers that include excerpts from his many works make good starting points for Darwin studies. Readers should always pay careful attention to the editions of Darwin’s works. The best edition of his On the Origin of Species remains the first, available in a facsimile edition with an introduction by Ernst Mayr, published by Harvard University Press in 1964, though Mayr’s introduction is now dated and too hagiographic in tone. A more recent facsimile annotated edition is by the field biologist James T. Costa, published by Harvard University Press in 2009. A helpful variorum edition, edited by Morse Peckham and published in 1959 by the University of Pennsylvania Press, provides a word-by-word summary or comparison of the changes Darwin made through subsequent editions. A number of special edited collections of his life and letters and notebooks are also available in published form or are available online. Darwin’s life, his travels aboard the HMS Beagle, his influence, and evolutionary science as a whole have appreciable popular appeal, so that a number of works are targeted for a wider audience, including younger readers, or may be written for a crossover audience of both scholars and members of the public. Many are reliable, well written, and may prove useful at the introductory level for readers, or for teaching, while others perpetuate a number of myths about Darwin or about the discovery of his theory.

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