Charles Darwin: A Life of Discovery
Grzimek's Animal Life Encyclopedia: Evolution. Ed. Michael Hutchins. Detroit, MI: Gale, 2011. p31-44.
Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 Gale, Cengage Learning

Early years

Charles Robert Darwin was born on February 12, 1809, in Shrewsbury, England. He grew up at The Mount, the family home that overlooked the River Severn. His father, Robert Waring Darwin (1766–1848), was a well-respected and successful physician. Darwin's mother, Susannah (1765–1817), died when he was eight years old, and he was brought up by his older sisters who took charge of the household.

From 1818 to 1825 he attended Shrewsbury School run by the Reverend Samuel Butler. In his autobiography Darwin wrote, “Nothing could have been worse for the development of my mind than Dr. Butler's school, as it was strictly classical, nothing else being taught except a little ancient geography and history.” (Darwin 1887). Darwin was more interested in the outdoors. At an early age, he developed a passion for collecting—shells, minerals, insects—and a love of fishing and hunting. But he was not a good student. At one point his father told him, “You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and ratcatching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family.” (Darwin 1887).

In 1825, hoping he would make something of himself, his father sent him off to Edinburgh University to study medicine. Darwin, however, was not cut out to be a doctor. He attended two operations, but he could not stay to see either finished (pre-anesthesia operations were grisly affairs).

In desperation, his father sent him to Cambridge University in 1827 to prepare him for the clergy, and it was there that he met John Stevens Henslow, Professor of Botany, who would become his mentor. They talked so often that Darwin became known as “the man who walks with Henslow.”

Darwin later wrote, “No pursuit at Cambridge was followed with nearly so much eagerness or gave me so much pleasure as collecting beetles. It was the mere passion for collecting; for I did not dissect them, and rarely compared their external characters with published descriptions, but got them named anyhow. I will give a proof of my zeal: one day, on tearing off some old bark, I saw two rare beetles, and seized one in each hand; then I saw a third and new kind, which I could not bear to lose, so that I popped the one which I held in my right hand into my mouth. Alas! it ejected some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, as was the third one.” (Darwin 1887).

But beetles were just the beginning. Soon after attending Cambridge he set out on a voyage that opened his eyes to the incredible diversity of life. As he himself said later, “The voyage of the Beagle has been by far the most important event in my life and has determined my whole career.” (Darwin 1887).

The voyage

Charles Darwin and his sister, Catherine (c. 1816).

Charles Darwin and his sister, Catherine (c. 1816). © Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

History is full of famous sea voyages—from Christopher Columbus's 1492 journey to the new world to the first Page 32  |  Top of Articlecircumnavigation of the Earth by Ferdinand Magellan's ship Vittoria. In modern atlases, colorful dotted lines crisscross the world's oceans, marking the routes of Vasco da Gama, Francis Drake, Captain Cook, and Jacques Cartier.

This drawing, not entirely accurate, first appeared in the 1890 edition of Voyage of the Beagle. It is based on a drawing by Darwins shipmate, P. G. King.

This drawing, not entirely accurate, first appeared in the 1890 edition of Voyage of the Beagle. It is based on a drawing by Darwin's shipmate, P. G. King. © Mary Evans Picture Library/Alamy.

Their adventures fill our history books and fire our imaginations with the thunder of cannons, the horrors of scurvy, and the discovery of new lands. Yet within this rich tapestry of triumph and disaster, only a few voyages truly altered the course of history. The Beagle expedition is one.

Circling the world from 1831 to 1836, the Beagle discovered no new continents, fought no decisive sea battles, nor returned laden with gold doubloons, bolts of silk, or exotic spices. But onboard was Darwin. As the expedition's de facto naturalist, he explored unknown reefs and volcanoes, described new birds and reptiles, and unearthed mysterious fossils and shells. He hacked his way through the rain forests of Brazil and clambered to the top of the Andes Mountains. He experienced a devastating earthquake that shook the west coast of Chile and explored the tranquil coral islands of the Indian Ocean. From the Antarctic to the tropics, Darwin studied the world's geology, plants, and animals and, as a result, forged the most far-reaching theory in the history of science: evolution by natural selection.

Riding the tide

In 1831 the British Admiralty commissioned HMS Beagle, under the command of Captain Robert FitzRoy (1805–1865), to conduct surveys of the South American coast. The voyage presented a rare opportunity for a naturalist to accompany the expedition, and Henslow recommended Darwin.

Getting Darwin onboard, however, was fraught with difficulties. First, Darwin's father objected—he thought it a waste of time. At one point, the position was offered to someone else. And as if there were not enough problems, FitzRoy did not like Darwin's nose. As Darwin wrote in his autobiography, “He [FitzRoy] was an ardent disciple of [Swiss physiognomist Johann Kaspar] Lavater, and was convinced that he could judge of a man's character by the outline of his features; and he doubted whether any one with my nose could possess sufficient energy and determination for the voyage. But I think he was afterwards well satisfied that my nose had spoken falsely.” (Darwin 1887).

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An illustration of the HMS Beagle in the Galpagos Islands. Trustees of John Chancellor.

An illustration of the HMS Beagle in the Galápagos Islands. Trustees of John Chancellor. ©

The first week of September 1831 was tumultuous. Letters flew back and forth; interviews were scheduled and canceled; plans made and abandoned. Darwin overcame one obstacle only to face another, but his destiny prevailed. On September 5, with the details of the voyage finally settled, he wrote to his sister, “There is indeed a tide in the affairs of men, & I have experienced it.” (The Darwin Correspondence Project, or DCP).

FitzRoy warned Darwin that space was tight, but nothing prepared him for what he found at Devonport on Tuesday, September 13: a ten-gun brig rebuilt as a three-masted bark (a third mast, the mizzenmast, had been added before the ship's first voyage), about 27.4 meters (90 feet) long with a beam of only 7.4 meters (24 feet). The Beagle carried more than seventy men, and in order to sleep at night, Darwin had to remove a drawer to make room for his feet. Lack of space, however, was the least of his problems. Although the voyage was originally scheduled to leave in October, there were many delays while the ship was refitted to FitzRoy's exacting specifications. Twice the crew departed only to be driven back by gales. Finally, on December 27, they set out for good on their five-year adventure. And the first thing Darwin learned was the agony of seasickness.

He was ill almost the entire voyage, scarcely able to get out of his hammock whenever the ship was at sea. He passed the tortuous hours reading the books he had brought along—Alexander von Humboldt's Personal Narrative, John Milton's Paradise Lost, and a copy of the New Testament in Greek. Finding it impossible to even stand up without becoming seasick, Darwin wondered if he had made a serious mistake.

The Beagle's first stop was Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, but upon arrival the crew faced a quarantine of twelve days because England was in the middle of a cholera epidemic. FitzRoy did not hesitate. “Up jib!” he ordered, and to Darwin's horror they sailed off immediately. Not only did Darwin want to visit the island, he desperately wanted to stand on dry land.

Fortunately, the break he needed was not far off. On January 16, 1832, the Beagle reached São Tiago in the Cape Verde Islands, about 480 kilometers (300 miles) off the African coast. Expecting it to be uninteresting, Darwin found it electrifying. He saw for the first time the lush tropical flora he had read about in Humboldt's Narrative, an account of Humboldt's visit to South America at the turn of the nineteenth century.

It was everything Darwin had dreamed of, a tangle of “Tamarinds, bananas & palms,” a riot of bright colors and strange flowers in striking contrast to the island's black volcanic rocks. To his father he wrote, “It is utterly useless to say anything about the Scenery—it would be as profitable to Page 34  |  Top of Articleexplain to a blind man colours, as to a person, who has not been out of Europe, the total dissimilarity of a Tropical view.” (DCP).

Route of HMS Beagle 18311836. Public domain.

Route of HMS Beagle 1831–1836. Public domain.

Law of the jungle

On February 16, they crossed the equator and on February 28 sailed into All Saints Bay at Bahia (Salvador), where Darwin took his first steps in South America. For the next year, the Beagle made its way down the coast, conducting surveys, taking soundings, and drawing charts, while Darwin collected insects, seashells, and rocks. He did not put the pieces together until he returned to England, but it was there—in the heart of South America—that Darwin made his first important discoveries.

Lost in the brilliance of Brazil's rain forest, surrounded by parrots, hummingbirds, and orchids, Darwin saw not only the incredible luxuriance and diversity of the Amazon but also the harsh reality of life within it. He watched a predatory wasp hunt down, kill, and drag off a spider—a fight to the death between two tiny monsters, a stark example of nature's first law: kill or be killed. Everywhere he looked was a ruthless struggle for survival: vampire bats attacking horses in the dead of night; an unstoppable column of army ants triggering panic throughout the forest. It was Darwin's first real glimpse of the never-ending battle between the hunters and the hunted.

In September at Bahía Blanca, south of Rio de Janeiro, Darwin excavated several huge skeletons, the remains of giant prehistoric beasts. One was a giant sloth similar to the present-day sloth—but much bigger. There were also bones of a giant llama and a giant armadillo. Darwin marveled at their close resemblance to modern species. He later wrote in his Journal of Researches, “This wonderful relationship in the same continent between the dead and the living will, I have no doubt, hereafter throw more light on the appearance of organic beings on our earth and their disappearance from it, than any other class of facts.” (Darwin 1845).

In October the ship returned to Montevideo, where Darwin received the second volume of Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology (1830–1833). Darwin had read volume one, but volume two conveyed a more profound message. Lyell argued that Earth was much older than most people imagined and that the same geological processes observed in modern times had been at work for millions of years. He said the world had come about through “causes now in operation,” not catastrophic events such as the biblical Flood. In his second volume, Lyell also argued that species became extinct because they no longer fit their environments as the world changed.

Lyell was not an “evolutionist,” but his observations must have made Darwin think: If there was an explanation for why species disappeared, there must be one for how they came about in the first place.

The ever-changing Earth

The Beagle's crew spent the second year of the voyage (1833) surveying the east coast of South America, while Darwin explored the interior on horseback. Eventually, the ship made its way back to Tierra del Fuego, where Darwin encountered another key piece of information.

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Earlier he had seen large rheas, ostrich-like birds, in the Pampas near Bahía Blanca and had heard of a smaller (and rarer) rhea to the south (which is now known unofficially as Darwin's rhea). Darwin was baffled by the presence of two similar kinds of birds in the same territory. While at Saint Gregory's Bay in the Straits of Magellan, he met the giant Patagonians and questioned them about the tiny rhea. He learned it lived south of the Río Negro, while the larger one lived only north of the river. Thus, Darwin acquired a small but important fact: Species appeared most similar to those in nearby, but geographically separated, areas (rheas are flightless birds).

After exploring the Santa Cruz River in April, the Beagle rounded Cape Horn for the last time in May. Fighting through the dangerous channels, lost in a world of “rugged snowy crags, blue glaciers … [and] rainbows,” the Beagle made its way to the island of Chiloé in June 1834.

After two weeks the ship headed north to Valparaíso, Chile. From there Darwin struck out for the foothills of the Andes and reached Santiago on August 27. In September he fell seriously ill and barely got back to Valparaíso before collapsing for a month, unable to get out of bed. Upon recovery, the first news he heard was bad: FitzRoy had suffered a nervous breakdown and had given up command of the Beagle. Ever the perfectionist, the captain had pushed himself too far and had snapped. Pringle Stokes, the Beagle's captain before FitzRoy, shot himself at Port Famine in 1828 during the Beagle's first voyage, and FitzRoy appeared to be next. His officers, however, eventually persuaded him to retake command and complete the journey.

On November 21 the ship returned to Chiloé. On an excursion across the island, Darwin observed three volcanoes billowing smoke, and on January 19, 1835, he saw Mount Osorno erupt. At midnight the sentry reported a fire on the horizon. At three in the morning, Darwin and the rest of the crew stood on deck to watch the explosion of rock, fire, and lava—so bright it lit up the sky.

The Beagle then sailed north to Valdivia. On February 20, Darwin once again experienced nature's terrifying power. While exploring inland the ground shook as an earthquake struck the west coast. At Concepción, about 320 kilometers (200 miles) to the north, the cathedral was left in ruins and a 6.2-meter (20-foot) tidal wave hit the city, carrying a schooner into the center of town. Fires blazed everywhere. Amid the wreckage, however, Darwin made another important discovery: The beds of dead mussels were now above the high-tide mark. The ground had risen several feet—proof that Lyell was right. Indeed, over millions of years, the continents rise and fall, creating and destroying mountains and reshaping the world in small, imperceptible steps.

As winter approached, the ship again made its way north to Valparaíso and Darwin set out for the Andes with guides and mules. Making his way back to Santiago, he pushed on through the mountains to Mendoza, Argentina, shivering through night frosts at 3,950 meters (13,000 feet) and fighting against the thin air, freezing winds, and icy clouds.

He spent one night in a small village just south of the city and he remembered it well. He wrote in his Journal of Researches: “At night I experienced an attack (for it deserves no less a name) of the Benchuca [vinchuca], a species of Reduvius, the great black bug of the Pampas. It is most disgusting to feel soft wingless insects, about an inch long, crawling over one's body. Before sucking they are quite thin, but afterwards become round and bloated with blood, and in this state they are easily crushed.” (Darwin 1839).

It is now known the vinchuca bug can transmit Chagas' disease, a debilitating (potentially fatal) disease that causes symptoms similar to many of those Darwin reported after he returned to England. His lifelong health problems may have started in Argentina.

Turning northwest he crossed back through Uspallata Pass and stumbled across fossilized trees, a petrified forest at the top of the world. The trees once must have stood on the coast, when the ocean had come up to the foot of the mountains. Buried with silt when the continent sank, and then thrust to the top when the continent rose up again, the trees were tilted at impossible angles, jutting out from the rock that had crumpled like paper. Darwin was slowly working out the puzzle. He fired off a letter to Henslow about his “absurd and incredible” discoveries. After Valparaíso, the Beagle visited Iquique, Peru, then set off for a destination now famously linked with Darwin's name—the Galápagos Islands.

Galápagos Islands

Although the Beagle stayed only five weeks in the Galápagos, it turned out to be an important stop for Darwin. The Galápagos Islands were a desolate, volcanic archipelago, ruled by giant tortoises and lizards. Located 965 kilometers (600 miles) off the coast of South America, the landscape was bleak and prehistoric, covered with black sand and lava, the islands cut in half by the equator. After visiting the islands in 1841, the American author Herman Melville wrote, “the chief sound of life is a hiss.” For Darwin, however, the Galápagos were a microcosm of the larger world, and they held important secrets.

Exploring James Island (San Salvador), Darwin found a large salt lake and stumbled over the skull of a captain murdered by his crew years before. He rode on the backs of the giant tortoises and played with huge, iguana-like lizards, up to 0.9 meters (3 feet) in length, entertaining himself by throwing cactus branches into their midst, triggering little tugs-of-war between the miniature dragons, which grabbed the ends in their sharp teeth.

The great variety of birds—hawks, mockingbirds, and herons—were clearly related to birds of South America but with significant differences. This puzzled Darwin and later proved critical to the development of his theory. And then there were the finches. Unfortunately, Darwin did not record which island he collected them from, it seemed sufficient to him at the time to simply record that they were from the Galápagos Islands. It was not until 1838 that the British ornithologist John Gould sorted them out and

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Galpagos finches from the Zoology of the Beagle, Birds Private collection of Angus Carroll.

Galápagos finches from the Zoology of the Beagle, Birds Private collection of Angus Carroll.

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identified thirteen different species of finch in the Beagle collections.

In his journal Darwin observed, “It is very remarkable that a nearly perfect gradation of structure in this one group can be traced in the form of the beak, from one exceeding in dimensions that of the largest gross-beak, to another differing but little from that of a warbler.” (Darwin 1839). But he would not realize the significance of this fact until much later. Darwin's finches, as they are now often called, would become one of the most famous examples of natural selection, but at the time Darwin did not grasp their full importance. In fact, the tortoises provided a better clue: Nicholas Lawson, the vice-governor of the islands, told Darwin he could “at once tell from which island any one was brought.”

From the Galápagos the Beagle crossed the Pacific, visiting Tahiti on the way to New Zealand, Australia, and Tasmania. In Australia, Darwin came across eucalyptus trees, the kangaroo rat, and the bizarre duck-billed platypus. The plants and animals he saw were much different from anything he had seen before. He wrote, “An unbeliever in every thing beyond his own reason might exclaim, ‘Two distinct Creators have been at work.’” (Darwin 1839). Ultimately, Darwin would not need to invoke two creators to explain the natural world—indeed, not even one.

Homeward bound

On March 14, 1836, the Beagle departed from King George's Sound, Australia, and headed north to the Keeling (Cocos) Islands. Here Darwin found giant clams, brightly colored corals, and emerald lagoons. At Keeling, Darwin tested his new theory of coral reefs. He had theorized they were formed when mountains sank back into the sea, and the coral reefs that originally surrounded the islands were left as rings around a lagoon—and he was right. Often thought of as an evolutionary theorist, Darwin was, in fact, an accomplished geologist, botanist, and zoologist.

The ship did not stay long in this tropical paradise before setting out across its third great body of water, the Indian Ocean. The Beagle arrived on Mauritius, east of Madagascar, on April 29. Captain J.A. Lloyd, the surveyor general, happened to have an elephant on the island and Darwin rode it back to the ship when they left. From Mauritius they sailed to the Cape of Good Hope and from there to the Ascension Islands in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. After almost five years the Beagle was almost home.

When it set out on July 23, however, it did not head north to England, but west-southwest. Unbelievably, FitzRoy returned to Bahia in Brazil to double-check his measurements. Fortunately, it would be the last detour. After five ocean crossings (the Atlantic three times), it was finally time to go home. The Beagle landed at Falmouth, England, on October 2, 1836, almost five years after it set out. Darwin had literally sailed around the world. He had spent one and a half years at sea and three and a quarter years on land. On his return, he wrote: “As far as I can judge of myself I worked to the utmost during the voyage from the mere pleasure of investigation, and from my strong desire to add a few facts to the great mass of facts in natural science.” (Darwin 1887). As for this last objective, it can be said that he certainly succeeded.

The making of a theory

Darwin set out in 1831, an aspiring naturalist headed for the clergy, but he stepped off the Beagle in 1836 a different man. Before the voyage he had read all of the major works of the English theologian and philosopher William Paley (1743–1805), including A View of the Evidences of Christianity (which was on the exams at Cambridge) and Natural Theology. In his autobiography (written in 1876, though not published until 1887) Darwin wrote, “The logic of this book [Evidences] and, as I may add, of his ‘Natural Theology,’ gave me as much delight as did Euclid. The careful study of these works, without attempting to learn any part by rote, was the only part of the academical course which, as I then felt and as I still believe, was of the least use to me in the education of my mind. I did not at that time trouble myself about Paley's premises; and taking these on trust, I was charmed and convinced by the long line of argumentation.” (Darwin 1887). In Natural Theology, Paley invoked his famous watchmaker analogy: Any reasonable person, on finding a watch and seeing its complex and intricate design, would assume it had been made by a watchmaker. In short, design implies a designer.

But at least as early as June 1836—while still on the voyage—Darwin began to have doubts about the fixity of species. In his notes about how the birds and tortoises of the Galápagos varied island to island, he speculated, “If there is the slightest foundation for these remarks, the Zoology of Archipelagos will be well worth examining; for such facts would undermine the stability of species.”

By the time he returned, the question in Darwin's mind was not do species evolve, but how. Evolution itself was not a new idea. In his 1809 book, Philosophie zoologique, the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck had proposed that species evolved through the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Even Darwin's own grandfather had written on the subject: In Zoonomia (1794–1796), Erasmus Darwin had proposed that species adapt to their environment driven by “lust, hunger and danger,” an idea at least superficially similar to the theory of natural selection. But these earlier ideas were either flawed or incomplete—few were convinced.

Malthus and population

In September 1838 Darwin read An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) by the English economist Thomas Malthus (1766–1834), and all the pieces fell into place. Malthus argued that human population growth, unless somehow checked, would necessarily outstrip food production because an unchecked population would grow exponentially while food production could only increase arithmetically. If, for example, two parents had four children, each of whom had four children, in only two generations there would be sixteen grandchildren, and soon sixty-four, etc.. Darwin Page 38  |  Top of Articlehimself used elephants as an example, estimating that from only two original animals there would be over 15 million elephants in only 500 years (Darwin 1859). Given the food supply cannot increase at such a rate, there follows an inevitable competition for food.

Malthus was referring to human populations, of course—his objectives were sociopolitical, not scientific. But Darwin saw how the same principle could apply to the natural world. Far more offspring were born than could possibly survive, because there simply was not enough food to go around. Individuals with a slight advantage would do better. Over a long period of time, even the smallest advantage would prove decisive. (Thanks to then-new geological theories such as those expounded by Lyell in his Principles of Geology, Darwin had millions of years with which to work.)

From the Brazilian rain forest to the Galápagos Islands, Darwin had witnessed the considerable variation between individuals of the same species. True, he did not know what caused such variations, but he did not need to—he theorized at a higher level. He contended that the struggle for existence acted on the smallest differences, however those differences came about. Forced to adapt to ever-changing environments, species evolved. In his autobiography Darwin wrote, “Here, then, I had at last got a theory by which to work.” (Darwin 1887).

A page out of Darwins notebook.

A page out of Darwin's notebook. Reproduced by permission of Cambridge University Library.

Marriage and family

In 1839 Darwin married Emma Wedgwood, his first cousin (a practice quite common in Victorian England among the propertied middle class). Although he had known Wedgwood all his life (she was one year older than he was, and the two families were close), it all happened rather quickly.

He visited Maer Hall, the Wedgwood family home, on his return from the voyage in late 1836 and made quite an impression on her. No longer the aimless young man who cared only for “shooting, dogs, and rat-catching,” he was now to be taken more seriously—a young man with fantastic stories about far-off places who spoke of new scientific discoveries. Wedgwood wrote to her sister Fanny, “We enjoyed Charles's visit uncommonly…. we plied him with questions without any mercy. Harry and Frank made the most of him and enjoyed him thoroughly. Caroline [Darwin's sister] looks so happy and proud of him it is delightful to see her.” (Healey 2001).

Wedgwood did not see him much over the next few months because he had to rush around organizing collections, manuscripts, and so on, but they met again at his brother's house in London in early 1837 and it confirmed her earlier impression. Darwin himself had begun to think about marriage. To decide, he made two columns headed “Marry” and “Not Marry” and wrote down pluses and minuses in each. If he married, he noted he would have “less money for books” and be “forced to visit relatives.” On the other hand, he would have a “constant companion (& friend in old age)” and the “charms of music and female chit-chat,” though he worried about the “loss of time.” In the end, he concluded he best get married.

Wedgwood was the obvious choice, but when she saw him in London in 1838, he struck her as uninterested. Wedgwood wrote to her Aunt Jessie, “The week I spent in London on my return from Paris, I felt sure he did not care about me.” (Healey 2001). This might have been nerves—Wedgwood was not only pretty but quite accomplished: She spoke French, Italian, and German; played the piano brilliantly (she had taken lessons from the Polish composer and pianist Frédéric Chopin); and was widely read. Furthermore, the Wedgwood family was connected to many famous people—one of Emma Wedgwood's aunts was a friend of the English nurse and hospital reformer Florence Nightingale, while an uncle was friends with the English poets Lord Byron, Samuel Coleridge, and William Wordsworth. To top it all off, Wedgwood had already turned down several suitors. Darwin may have thought his chances slim. Nevertheless, he summoned up his courage and proposed to her at Maer in November 1838. To his surprise, she said yes.

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Emma and Charles Darwins wedding portraits, 1840.

Emma and Charles Darwin's wedding portraits, 1840. © English Heritage Photo Library.

Over the next seventeen years they had ten children. Three died young: Mary Eleanor at three weeks (1842); Charles Waring at age one and a half (1856–1858); and Anne Elizabeth at age ten (1841–1851). Darwin was devastated when “Annie” died (he was very close to her), but the idea (often put forward) that her death influenced his work and/or religious views does not fit the facts. Darwin completed the first sketch of his theory in 1842. Two years later, he expanded it to about 200 pages. Clearly, Darwin had formulated his theory of natural selection long before Annie died. Nor did her death “drive him away from God.” Although he believed in Christianity when he was young, by the late 1830s that was no longer true. In his autobiography he writes, “Disbelief crept over me [1836 to 1839] at a very slow rate, but was at last complete.” (Darwin 1887). We know his views had changed before he got married because Wedgwood was concerned and said so in a number of letters she wrote him while they were still engaged. In November 1838 she wrote, “My reason tells me that honest & conscientious doubts cannot be a sin, but I feel it would be a painful void between us. I thank you from my heart for your openness with me & I should dread the feeling that you were concealing your opinions from the fear of giving me pain.” (DCP). Darwin had leveled with her, and although she had reservations (and hoped he might yet come to a different conclusion), she could find no fault in his goal—the search for truth. It was their mutual respect—he for her religious beliefs, she for his scientific worldview—that kept them together until the end.

In late 1838 Darwin took a flat on Gower Street in London, and he and Emma moved in together after their wedding on January 29, 1839. In July 1842 he moved the family (which then included William and Annie) to Down House, just outside the small village of Downe, Kent, about 24 kilometers (15 miles) southeast of London, where Darwin would spend the rest of his life.

A life of poor health

Darwin rarely left Down House because of ill-health. As noted earlier, he may have contracted Chagas' disease in South America. The idea that his illness was psychological, connected to his work, does not hold up because his health problems began on the voyage, long before he started theorizing about evolution. He did not record an encounter with the vinchuca bug on his first inland trip from Valparaíso to Santiago in South America (it was on his second excursion he recorded the “attack” outside Mendoza), but he was certainly exposed to the bug both times (the range of the vinchuca extends throughout the entire region), and at the end of the first excursion he barely made it back to Valparaíso before collapsing for a month. Although not all Page 40  |  Top of Articlehis symptomsmatch those of Chagas' disease, many do, including chronic fatigue, nausea, and abdominal pain.

His problems may have been aggravated by genetics. Both his grandfather (Erasmus) and father (Robert) were very large men. His father reportedly weighed over 350 pounds (he made his coachman—also a large man—walk through the houses he visited ahead of him to make sure the floors would hold). Both had health problems that Darwin may have inherited. The “cures” of the day may have hurt more than helped. At different times, Darwin was prescribed, given, or tried arsenic, opium, quinine, morphine, and even “batteries” (the height of quackery, which Darwin knew full well—though he tried it anyway in desperation—whereby one “galvanized” one's insides with electricity).

Whatever the cause, the effect was debilitating: He could work only a few hours a day. It is remarkable what he managed to accomplish under such circumstances: he wrote seventeen books, made major contributions to numerous others, and wrote dozens of important papers in geology, botany, and zoology. Often overlooked is the fact that had Darwin not published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, he would still have been one of the leading scientists of his day, highly respected in several fields.

Darwin-Wallace Paper in the Journal of the Linnean Society, 1858. Private collection of Angus Carroll.

Darwin-Wallace Paper in the Journal of the Linnean Society, 1858. Private collection of Angus Carroll.

Delaying or delayed?

One of the great myths surrounding the Origin is that Darwin delayed publishing the book for twenty years because he feared the inevitable controversy. The facts, however, do not support this popular misconception. True, Darwin had the critical insight in 1838 after reading Malthus, and true, he wrote out a sketch of the theory in 1842. Nevertheless, Darwin had no intention of publishing anything until he had the facts to back it up. And before he could amass the facts he needed, he had to finish the projects he had underway.

Between 1838 and 1858, Darwin published his Journal of Researches from the voyage (1839), three volumes on the geology of the voyage (1842, 1844, and 1846), and four volumes on barnacles (two in 1851, two in 1854). He also edited the five-volume Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle (1838–1843). R. B. Freeman's bibliography of Darwin's works lists sixteen major scientific papers between 1838 and 1858, and according to the Darwin Correspondence Project he wrote 1,624 letters over the same period (that still survive). He also got married, moved twice, and had ten children. He was not delaying, he was delayed.

Research in the first decade of the twenty-first century has shown that the idea Darwin held back because he was afraid of what people might think is a relatively modern invention. To the contrary, Darwin was determined to publish regardless of what people thought. (He had discussed his ideas with many people—most of whom disagreed with him—and always made it clear that he intended to publish his theory despite their objections.) From the perspective of the early twenty-first century, it might seem incredible that anyone would sit on a groundbreaking theory for twenty years, but in mid-nineteenth-century England the situation was much different. Darwin was in no hurry. Nor, until Alfred Russel Wallace's letter arrived in 1858 (see below), did he think anyone else was on the same track. Not under any economic pressure (the Darwin family was quite wealthy), he was in no rush to publish. More to the point, he knew the theory would not be accepted unless he could amass substantial evidence to support it, and he was determined to do just that.

By 1846, Darwin had wrapped up his geological work and had only the invertebrates left from the voyage. He decided to undertake the barnacles himself. But what he thought would be a yearlong project stretched into eight years because the whole group had to be described, not just the specimens he had found and brought back himself. Near the end he would lament, “I hate a Barnacle as no man ever did before,” (DCP) but he stuck it out and ultimately published two monographs so comprehensive they remain the definitive work on the subject. He finished the barnacles in 1854. Finally, he could give his full attention to his theory.

Darwin was not hesitant; he was busy. He did not “delay” twenty years; he was working. Only when he wrapped up the work from the voyage did he return to the “species question.” Page 41  |  Top of ArticleNot long after he did, a letter arrived that turned his world upside down.

Out of the blue

Darwin was still a long way away from publishing his “big species book,” when a package arrived on June 18, 1858, from Alfred Russel Wallace (1823–1913), a naturalist working in the Malay Archipelago (modern-day Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines). Wallace spent five years collecting on the Amazon before ending up in the Moluccas, or Spice Islands, and he, too, had read Malthus. As a result of his own observations he had reached the same conclusions as Darwin on the origin of species.

In early 1858, half-crazed in the grip of malaria, Wallace wrote a twenty-odd-page paper titled “On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type,” and posted it to Darwin for his opinion. When Darwin read it he was stunned. Although there were important differences, Darwin wrote to Lyell, “If Wallace had my MS sketch written in 1842 he could not have written a better abstract.” (DCP).

Darwin did not know what to do, but Lyell and the English botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817–1911) took charge and arranged for Wallace's paper to be presented along with an extract of Darwin's 1844 essay and part of a letter Darwin had written to the American botanist Asa Gray (1810–1888) in 1857. The joint paper was read at a meeting of the Linnean Society on July 1, 1858, but it went largely unnoticed. It was not until the theory came out in book form the following year that it made headlines.

Galvanized by Wallace's paper, Darwin worked furiously on the Origin, finishing it in only one year.

The book that shook the world

On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection was published on November 24, 1859. The first review, written by John R. Leifchild, appeared in the Athenaeum on November 19, 1859. It was negative but not scathing. Next came Thomas Henry Huxley's review in the Times of London, which was positive. There followed reviews in numerous periodicals and newspapers, some positive (Hooker in the Gardeners' Chronicle), some negative (Bishop Samuel Wilberforce in the Quarterly Review).

The first American review was written by Gray, and it appeared in the March 1860 issue of the American Journal of Science and Arts. It was critical, but positive. Darwin liked the review and wrote to Gray, “Your Review seems to me admirable; by far the best which I have read. I thank you from my heart both for myself, but far more for subject-sake.” (DCP).

Like Huxley in the United Kingdom, Gray became Darwin's main supporter in the United States, and just as Huxley sparred with Darwin's opponents in England, Gray squared off against Louis Agassiz at home (both Gray and Agassiz were professors at Harvard University). Gray was not uncritical of Darwin's theory; his main goal was to get it a fair hearing.

Natural selection

Darwin did not, of course, discover “evolution.” The idea that species “evolved” was not new. The problem was that no one—until Darwin—had offered a convincing explanation of how they evolved. Darwin called his theory “natural selection.”

Considering its incredible explanatory power, the theory of natural selection is remarkably simple. Limited resources (not enough food for all the offspring produced) leads to competition. Some individuals will do better than others because they happen to have certain characteristics that give them an edge—speed, strength, and so on. Because those individuals are more likely to survive, they are more likely to reproduce and pass on their characteristics to their offspring. Thus the “population” of a species evolves as more and more individuals are born (and survive) who have inherited the characteristics that provide advantage.

It was a relatively simple idea, but it represented a challenge to both accepted wisdom and faith. In a famous episode, Wilberforce ridiculed the theory at the 1860 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, but it was not just religious leaders who found fault with Darwin's theory. Many leading scientists criticized it too, including Agassiz and Richard Owen, who had been a friend of Darwin's until the publication of the Origin (he had edited Fossil Mammals, Part I of the Zoology of the Beagle). Both were vehement critics, Agassiz ending his review of the Origin with, “I shall therefore consider the transmutation theory as a scientific mistake, untrue in its facts, unscientific in its methods, and mischievous in its tendency.” Agassiz equated “species” to “thoughts of God.” In his mind there was no need—or place—for the concept of evolution, let alone a theory to explain it.

Beyond challenging specific religious beliefs, many scientists and nonscientists alike could not bring themselves to accept Darwin's theory because it lacked purpose or direction. Not only did it eliminate humanity's special position in the natural order of things, but it made humanity's very existence a function of chance. In late 1859 Darwin wrote to Lyell, “I have heard by round about channel that [John] Herschel says my Book ‘is the law of higgledy-piggledy.’” (DCP). The “random” nature of natural selection was simply too much for many people.

Darwin did not ignore his critics, but he did not put too much stock in them either. In 1859 he wrote to John Lubbock, “I should be grateful for any criticism. I care not for Reviews, but for the opinion of men like you & Hooker & Huxley & Lyell & c.” (DCP).

The simplicity of natural selection is striking. When Huxley first read the Origin he later recalled thinking, “How extremely stupid not to have thought of that.”

Darwin spent years gathering information to support it, but it is based on only three simple principles: the inevitability of competition, variability between individuals, and the effects of differential success. Add in an ever-changing world and from no more than that comes the history of life on Earth.

Page 42  |  Top of Article

Later life

The Origin went through six editions during Darwin's life, and he made many small changes, but in detail only—none to the basic theory itself. One change he later regretted. In the closing paragraph of the first edition Darwin wrote, “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed [by the Creator] into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

Darwin added “by the Creator” in the third edition (1861). In 1863 he wrote to Hooker, “I have long regretted that I truckled to public opinion & used Pentateuchal term of creation, by which I really meant ‘appeared’ by some wholly unknown process. It is mere rubbish thinking, at present, of origin of life; one might as well think of origin of matter.” (DCP).

But Darwin did more than make small edits and corrections to the Origin in his later years. Yet to come were several major works. In 1862 he published On the Various Contrivances by which British and Foreign Orchids Are Fertilised by Insects, known simply as Orchids. Darwin wrote to John Murray, his publisher, “I think this little volume will do good to the Origin, as it will show that I have worked hard at details.” (DCP).

In Orchids Darwin applied the principles of natural selection to make a startling prediction. First, he described a remarkable flower from Madagascar called Angraecum sesquipedale: “A whip-like nectary of astonishing length hangs down beneath the labellum. In several flowers sent to me by Mr. Bateman I found the nectaries eleven and half inches long, with only the lower inch and a half filled with very sweet nectar.” Then he added, “in Madagascar there must be moths with probosces capable of extension to a length of between ten and eleven inches!” (Darwin, 1862). No such moth was known, and some scientists ridiculed Darwin for suggesting it existed. But in the end he was proven right. The moth was found and described in 1903—forty-one years after Darwin's prediction. It had a wingspan of 13 to 15 centimeters (5 to 6 inches) and a proboscis 25 centimeters (10 inches) long. This new subspecies was named Xanthopan morgani praedicta—the “predicted” moth.

Darwins hawk moth Xanthopan morgani praedicta has an extraordinary long tongue to pollinate flowers with long tubes, such as orchids.

Darwin's hawk moth Xanthopan morgani praedicta has an extraordinary long tongue to pollinate flowers with long tubes, such as orchids. © Nick Garbutt/NPL/Minden Pictures.

In 1871 Darwin published The Descent of Man. He had deliberately avoided human evolution in the Origin, but that had not worked—the whole controversy centered around the obvious implication for humans, and by the time the Descent was published, the controversy was largely over. Nevertheless, it was an important work because it also dealt with sexual selection, an important aspect of the larger evolutionary picture.

Darwin considered sexual selection a separate mechanism for explaining evolutionary change, though it is now regarded as but one aspect of natural selection. He explained sexual differences such as male antlers and the peacock's tail as the result of differential success in males either competing against other males or being chosen by females and therefore leaving more offspring.

Darwin explained why sexual selection occupied so much of the work: “During many years it has seemed to me highly probable that sexual selection has played an important part in differentiating the races of man…. When I came to apply this view to man, I found it indispensable to treat the whole subject in full detail. Consequently the second part of the present work, treating of sexual selection, has extended to an inordinate length, compared with the first part; but this could not be avoided.” (DCP).

In 1872 came The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, another important book in which Darwin showed that humans and animals expressed similar emotions in similar ways (pointing to common descent), in contrast to the Scottish anatomist Charles Bell (1774–1842), who claimed, in his 1824 work, Essays on the Anatomy and Philosophy of Expression, that humans had special facial muscles to express uniquely human emotions. Darwin wrote five more books between 1875 and 1881, working almost up to his death.

Darwin on religion

Much has been written about the reception of Darwin's theory in his lifetime (and after), less about what Darwin thought himself. Generally, Darwin tended to think of science and religion as two separate and distinct areas of inquiry. In 1866 he wrote to Mary Boole (the wife of the mathematician John Boole and a mathematician herself): “I am grieved that my views should incidentally have caused trouble to your mind but I thank you for your judgment & honour you for it, that theology & science should each run its own course & that in the present case I am not responsible if their meeting point should still be far off.” (DCP).

Darwin viewed science and religion as separate and distinct—but not unconnected. His scientific worldview took precedence. He wrote to N. A. Mengden in 1879, “Science has nothing to do with Christ, except in so far as the habit of scientific research makes a man cautious in admitting evidence.” This was the crux of Darwin's skepticism—by Page 43  |  Top of Articlethe end of the voyage, having seen so much evidence firsthand, he could no longer accept anything on “faith.”

In his autobiography he wrote, “The old argument of design in nature, as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me as conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered. We can no longer argue that, for instance, the beautiful hinge of a bivalve shell must have been made by an intelligent being, like the hinge of a door by man. There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings and in the action of natural selection, than in the course which the wind blows. Everything in nature is the result of fixed laws.” (Darwin 1887).

Not believing himself, however, did not lead him to speak out against religion—partly because he did not think doing so would make any difference, and partly because he did not want to offend his wife. Darwin wrote to Edward Aveling in 1880, “I am a strong advocate for free thought on all subjects, yet it appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against Christianity & theism produce hardly any effect on the public; & freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men's minds which follows from the advance of science. It has, therefore, been always my object to avoid writing on religion, & I have confined myself to science. I may, however, have been unduly biased by the pain which it would give some members of my family, if I aided in any way direct attacks on religion.” (DCP).

Perhaps the deepest insight into Darwin's views on religion comes from a letter he wrote to John Fordyce in 1879, “In my most extreme fluctuations, I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God.” He added, “I think that generally (and more and more as I grow older), but not always, that an Agnostic would be a more correct description of my state of mind.” (DCP).

Death and funeral

Darwin died on April 19, 1882, at Down House, at age seventy-three. The funeral took place on April 26; the pallbearers included Huxley, Hooker, and Wallace. Darwin was buried at Westminster Abbey, next to John Herschel.

A man of great honesty and modesty, Darwin remains one of the giants in the history of science. On the Origin of Species is one of the most important books ever published—changing not only our understanding of the world around us, but of our place within it. But Darwin's legacy goes beyond the theory of natural selection. His story embodies the spirit of science itself: A keen observer with a love for natural history, he set out on a voyage of discovery with only an open mind and returned with the answer to one of life's greatest mysteries.


Works by (except as noted, published London: John Murray) (ed.) The Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, London: Henry Colburn, 1838–1843.

Journal of Researches, first published as Vol. 3 of The Narrative of the Voyages of H.M. Ships Adventure and Beagle, London: Henry Colburn, 1839; 2nd edition, 1845; definitive issue, 1860.

The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs, London: Smith, Elder, 1842.

Geological Observations on the Volcanic Islands Visited during the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, London: Smith, Elder, 1844.

Geological Observations on South America, London: Smith, Elder, 1846.

A Monograph of the Sub-class Cirripedia (Living Barnacles), 2 vols., London: Ray Society, 1851 and 1854.

A Monograph on the Fossil Lepadidae, or, Pedunculated Cirripedes of Great Britain (Fossil Barnacles), 2 vols., London: Palaeontographical Society, 1851 and 1854.

On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection; or, The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, 1859; 2nd edition, 1860; 3rd edition, 1861; 4th edition, 1866; 5th edition, 1869; 6th edition, 1st issue, 1872; 6th edition, 2nd (and definitive) issue, 1876.

On the Various Contrivances by which British and Foreign Orchids Are Fertilised by Insects, 1862.

The Movements and Habits of Climbing Plants, 1865. Published in book form, 1875.

The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication, 1868.

The Descent of Man, 1871; 2nd edition, 1874. The printing of 1877 is the definitive text.

The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, 1872.

Insectivorous Plants, 1875.

The Effects of Cross and Self-Fertilisation in the Vegetable Kingdom, 1876.

The Different Forms of Flowers on Plants of the Same Species, 1877.

The Power of Movement in Plants, 1880.

The Formation of Vegetable Mould, through the Action of Worms, 1881.

Works about

“” Available from

Browne, Janet. 1995. Charles Darwin: A Biography, Vol. 1: Voyaging. New York: Knopf.

Browne, Janet. 2002. Charles Darwin: A Biography, Vol. 2: Power of Place. New York: Knopf.

Burkhardt, Frederic, ed. 2008. The Beagle Letters, by Charles Darwin. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

“The Complete Works of Charles Darwin Online.” Available from All works by Darwin referred to herein can be found in their entirety at this site.

Page 44  |  Top of Article

“Darwin.” American Museum of Natural History. Available from

Darwin, Francis, ed. 1887. The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin. 3 vols. London: John Murray. Includes Darwin's autobiography.

“Darwin Correspondence Project.” Cambridge University Library. Abbreviation: DCP. Available from All letters quoted herein can be found in full at this site or in Life and Letters, 1887.

Dennett, Daniel C. 1995. Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. New York: Simon and Shuster.

Desmond, Adrian, and James Moore. 1991. Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist. New York: Warner Books.

di Gregorio, Mario A. 1984. T. H. Huxley's Place in Natural Science. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

“Evolution.” University of California Museum of Paleontology. Available from .

Healey, Edna. 2001. Emma Darwin: The Inspirational Wife of a Genius. London: Headline Books.

Keynes, Richard. 2002. Fossils, Finches, and Fuegians: Charles Darwin's Adventures and Discoveries on the Beagle, 1832–1836. London: HarperCollins.

Raby, Peter. 2001. Alfred Russel Wallace: A Life. London: Chatto and Windus.

Angus Carroll

John van Wyhe

Source Citation

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
Carroll, Angus, and John van Wyhe. "Charles Darwin: A Life of Discovery." Grzimek's Animal Life Encyclopedia: Evolution, edited by Michael Hutchins, Gale, 2011, pp. 31-44. Gale Virtual Reference Library, Accessed 23 Aug. 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX1919700013

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  • Agassiz, Louis
    • 1: 41
  • Agnosticism
    • 1: 42-43
  • Australia
    • Darwin, Charles, voyage of
      • 1: 37
  • Barnacles
    • 1: 40
  • Beagle expedition
  • Beagle (ship)
  • Biogeography
    • species similarity and geographic separation
      • 1: 35
  • Cambridge University
    • 1: 31
  • Cape Verde Islands
    • 1: 33
  • Coral reefs
    • 1: 37
  • Creationism
  • Darwin, Charles
    • Beagle expedition
      • 1: 31-37
    • Darwin-Wallace Paper
      • 1: 40
    • death and legacy of
      • 1: 43
    • delay in publication of theory of evolution
      • 1: 40-41
    • education
      • 1: 31
    • An Essay on the Principle of Population (Malthus), influence of
      • 1: 37-38
    • health issues
      • 1: 39-40
    • marriage and family
      • 1: 38
    • notebook
      • 1: 38
    • On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, publication of
      • 1: 41
    • post-Origin publications
      • 1: 42
    • religion
    • with sister
      • 1: 31
    • theory formation
      • 1: 37
    • wedding portrait
      • 1: 39
  • The Descent of Man (Darwin)
    • 1: 42
  • Diseases
    • Darwin, Charles
      • 1: 39-40
    • vinchuca
      • 1: 35
      • 1: 39
  • Earthquakes
    • 1: 35
  • Emotions
    • 1: 42
  • An Essay on the Principle of Population (Malthus)
    • 1: 37-38
  • The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animal (Darwin)
    • 1: 42
  • Extinction
    • Lyell, Charles
      • 1: 34
  • FitzRoy, Robert
  • Galápagos finches
    • Darwin, Charles
      • 1: 35
      • 1: 36
  • Galápagos Islands
    • Darwin, Charles
      • 1: 35-37
  • Gray, Asa
    • 1: 41
  • Hawk moths
  • Henslow, John Stevens
    • 1: 31
  • Hooker, Joseph Dalton
    • 1: 41
  • Huxley, Thomas Henry
  • Intelligent design
    • Darwin, Charles, views of
      • 1: 43
  • Journal of Researches (Darwin)
    • 1: 34
    • 1: 35
    • 1: 40
  • Journal of the Linnean Society
    • 1: 40
  • Keeling Islands
    • 1: 37
  • Lamarck, Jean-Baptiste de
  • Linnean Society
    • 1: 41
  • Lyell, Charles
    • 1: 34
    • 1: 41
  • Malthus, Thomas Robert
  • Medica profession
    • 1: 33
  • Messier
  • Morgan's sphinx moth
  • On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (Darwin)
    • 1: 41
  • Natural Theology (Paley)
    • 1: 37
  • On the Origin of Species (Darwin)
    • “by the Creator” insertion
      • 1: 42
    • publication of
      • 1: 41
  • “On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type”(Wallace)
    • 1: 41
  • On the Various Contrivances by which British and Foreign Orchids Are Fertilised by Insects (Darwin)
    • 1: 42
  • Orchids (Darwin)
    • 1: 42
  • Paley, William
    • 1: 37
  • Petrification
  • Populations
    • Malthusian theory
      • 1: 37-38
  • Predictions
    • Darwin, Charles
      • 1: 42
  • Principles of Geology (Lyell)
    • 1: 34
  • Religion
    • Darwin, Charles
      • 1: 39
      • 1: 42-43
  • On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (Darwin)
    • 1: 42
  • Rheas
    • 1: 35
  • São Tiago
    • 1: 33
  • Science
    • Darwin, Charles
      • 1: 42-43
    • predictive ability
      • 1: 42
  • Sexual selection
  • South America
    • Beagle expedition
      • 1: 34-35
  • A View of the Evidences of Christianity (Paley)
    • 1: 37
  • Vinchuca
    • 1: 35
    • 1: 39
  • Wallace, Alfred Russel
  • Wedgwood, Emma
    • 1: 38-39
    • 1: 39
  • Xanthopan morgani praedicta
  • Zoonomia (Darwin, E.)
    • 1: 37