Charles Darwin was an English scientist who is famous for formulating the theory of natural selection and for his phenomenal book On the Origin of Species, which laid the foundation for evolutionary studies and is considered a landmark work in human history. Darwin also produced a large number of works which affected a variety of fields. Know about the impact of Darwin’s work on the evolutionary theory as well as his contribution to biology, botany, geology, psychology and other scientific fields by studying his 10 major accomplishments and achievements.

 

#1 Darwin did important work during H.M.S. Beagle’s five-year voyage around the globe

Natural history is the research and study of organisms in their environment and a person who studies it is known as a naturalist. The captain of HMS Beagle, Robert FitzRoy was looking for a naturalist as a companion during its voyage to circumnavigate the earth and Charles Darwin accepted the opportunity. During the voyage, which lasted from 27 December 1831 to 2 October 1836, Darwin spent most of his time (around 1200 days) on land studying plants, animals, fossils and geological formations. He made several important finds during the voyage including that of gigantic fossils of extinct mammals, then known only from a very few specimens. Darwin’s observations and work during the voyage established him as an eminent geologist.

H.M.S. Beagle voyage route (1831–1836)
The route of the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle (1831–1836)

 

#2 He solved the mystery of the formation of coral reefs and atolls

Darwin had read Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology which postulated the gradual rising and falling of the earth’s crust. During his H.M.S. Beagle voyage, Darwin found sea shells forty feet above sea level which convinced him of Lyell’s thesis. At the time the formation of coral reefs and atolls was a scientific puzzle. Darwin theorized that the various types of coral reefs and atolls could be explained by uplift and subsidence of vast areas of the Earth’s crust under the oceans. His theory is now supported by modern investigations. Darwin published his theory in his 1842 monograph titled The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs. In 1853, Darwin was awarded the Royal Society’s Royal Medal for this monograph and for his eight years of work on barnacles.

The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs
Darwin’s monograph on Coral Reefs

 

#3 He wrote a popular book on his travels known as The Voyage of the Beagle

In the years following his return from the voyage, Charles Darwin compiled a book in which he shared his experiences and observations during the voyage. Now known as The Voyage of the Beagle, the book was published in 1839. It was a lively and exciting account of Darwin’s travels as well as a detailed scientific field journal. It brought Darwin considerable fame and respect; and remains in print to this day.

Depiction of HMS Beagle
HMS Beagle in the Straits of Magellan, Illustration from Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle

 

#4 Charles Darwin independently conceived the theory of natural selection in 1838

Exposed to life all over the globe during the voyage, Darwin noticed similarities among species with variations based on specific locations. In September 1838, he read the Essay on the Principle of Population by English economist Thomas Malthus in which he wrote that population increases geometrically, whereas food production rises arithmetically and how some members of society were able to survive difficult living conditions. Darwin realized that population explosions would lead to a struggle for resources and that the ensuing competition would eliminate the unfit. He applied the idea to nature and called his modified Malthusian mechanism “natural selection”, a process by which species select beneficial traits in their struggle for existence.

Thomas Robert Malthus
Thomas Robert Malthus

 

#5 Along with Alfred Russel, he is credited for discovering the theory of natural selection

Though he conceived the theory of natural selection in 1838, Darwin needed time for further research. Also his geological work kept him busy. In 1858, while Darwin was writing his theory, British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace sent him an essay that described the idea of natural selection too. This led to the joint presentation of their scientific papers to the Linnean Society of London on 1 July 1858 under the title On the Tendency of Species to form Varieties; and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection. This was the first announcement of the Darwin – Wallace theory of evolution by natural selection, which became the foundation of modern evolutionary studies.

Alfred Russel Wallace
Alfred Russel Wallace

 

#6 Darwin’s book Origin of Species deeply influenced Western society and thought

On 24 November 1859, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection was published. In it Darwin theorized how populations evolve over the course of generations through natural selection and presented evidence he had gathered during the years that indicated diversity of life arose by common descent through a branching pattern of evolution. Written in non-technical language, Origin of Species attracted widespread attention and sparked scientific, philosophical and religious debates. The book is considered Darwin’s greatest work and it deeply influenced modern Western society and thought.

Origin of Species Title Page
The title page of the 1859 edition of On the Origin of Species

 

#7 His work laid the foundation of evolutionary biology

At the time of Darwin, the widespread belief was that species either existed from the beginning of the world or were created over the course of history and they were believed to remain the same throughout. Also it was believed that species were unchanging parts of a designed hierarchy; and that humans were unique and unrelated to other animals. Darwin’s work had the greatest impact in changing that belief and overcoming scientific rejection of earlier concepts of transmutation of species. However it was not until the 1930s and 1940s that full significance of Darwin’s work was realized. His theory of evolution has now become the unifying theory of the life sciences.

Depiction of evolution of man
Famous depiction of the evolution of man derived from Darwin’s theory

 

#8 He did ground-breaking work regarding the evolution of plants

Charles Darwin in 1869
Charles Darwin (1869) in his later years.

Charles Darwin carried out thorough and innovative investigations into plants. The first in a series of books he wrote on the subject was Fertilisation of Orchids, which was published in 1862. It demonstrated the power of natural selection by explaining how complex ecological relationships resulted in the coevolution of orchids and insects. Though it was not a financial success, it established Darwin as a leading botanist. Other books by Darwin in the evolution of plants include The Effects of Cross and Self Fertilisation in the Vegetable Kingdom. Published in 1876, it was the first to provide overwhelming experimental support in favour of the idea that inbreeding may have severe detrimental effects on progeny.

 

#9 Charles Darwin put forth the concept of sexual selection

In 1871, Darwin’s book The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex was published. The book extended the theory of natural selection to human evolution and suggested that humans and apes share a common ancestor. It also introduced the concept of sexual selection to explain conspicuous physical traits (such as pronounced coloration, increased size, or striking adornments) in animals. In sexual selection members of one sex compete to be chosen as a sexual partner of the other sex leading to them developing certain characteristics like the peacock plumage. Though Darwin’s ideas on sexual selection were initially met with scepticism, they were deemed relevant by biologists by mid-21st century.

Peacock plumage
Peacock using its brilliant plumage to court a peahen

 

#10 Darwin wrote numerous books which had a considerable impact on diverse fields

Charles Darwin was a prolific writer. After Origin of Species and Descent of Man, his most important work is The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, which was published in 1872. One of the first books to be illustrated with photographs, it is considered Darwin’s main contribution to psychology. In it Darwin traces animal origins of human characteristics to establish a continuity of emotions and expressions between humans and animals. The most important book by Darwin on botany is The Power of Movement in Plants, which was considerably influential in modern study of plant growth. In 1887, five years after his death, The Autobiography of Charles Darwin was published.

Illustration depicting Horror and Agony from Darwin's The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals
Illustration depicting Horror and Agony from Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals

 

The Mysterious Health of Charles Darwin

During his adult life, Charles Darwin was impaired for long periods of time due to ill health, the cause for which was never determined. Numerous hypotheses have been made to explain his condition such as panic disorder, as he usually used to fall ill following stressful situations; Oedipal complex, due to his supposed repressed anger towards his tyrannical father; emotional turmoil, due to his complex relationship with religion; and Chagas disease, which he might have contracted by being bitten by an insect during the Beagle expedition. Darwin often complained of the time he lost due to his illness but even so, many scholars rate his scientific contributions as comparable to those of Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein.

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