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  • Print publication year: 2002
  • Online publication date: June 2014

7 - Charles Darwin


Charles Darwin came up to Christ's College, Cambridge, late in 1827 to read for a BA degree. His intention was to prepare for ordination into the Church of England. He eventually obtained a rather undistinguished degree, but by then he had become determined to devote himself to natural history. Cambridge thus played a key role in turning Darwin to science, and it was his Cambridge contacts who arranged for his voyage on the survey vessel HMS Beagle, the event which changed Darwin's life completely. In the years following his return to England he developed the theory of evolution by natural selection, eventually published in the Origin of Species in 1859. The resulting debates made Darwin world famous. When Cambridge awarded him an honorary degree in 1877, the undergraduates in the audience dangled the figure of a monkey from the balcony. They, at least, appreciated the lesson of the Descent of Man, Darwin's analysis of human origins published six years earlier.

Historians all agree that the Cambridge years were a vital part of Darwin's development as a scientist. Although not actually studying science, he immersed himself in extra-curricular activity devoted to natural history and geology, and by the time he went aboard the Beagle he had a fair degree of competence in both areas. But the Anglican ethos of the Cambridge scientists was also a source of tension in Darwin's later life.