Darwin's Obituary

Darwin's Obituary

D. Kim Wimpey

Target age or
ability group:
Class time
One class period
Materials and
Media resources and/or textbook.
Summary of
Students will read and analyze an obituary written for Charles Darwin.
concepts or
necessary to
Students should be familiar with Darwin and the theory of evolution. I suggest you complete the activity, Lamarck's Obituary in this manual prior to this activity. The two could also be used as an introduction to evolution, or in fact, an introduction to biology. ("Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution." -- T. Dobzhansky.)
Prepare copies of the obituary and analysis questions for each student. Students may work individually or in small groups. You may want to assign students specific scientists for the last activity.

Charles Darwin, Controversial
Scientist, Dies at 73
Yesterday, noted naturalist and controversial scientist Charles Darwin died. Mr. Darwin had been in declining health for several years. He passed at his home in Down (Kent), England.

Darwin was born on February 12, 1809, at Shrewsbury, England. Darwin gained notoriety after publication of the book, On Origin of Species, published November 24, 1859. Darwin began his academic career studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh, but soon switched to theology at Cambridge. However, the study of nature was Darwin's calling. "I was a born naturalist," he said of himself. Every aspect of nature intrigued him. He loved to collect, to fish and hunt, and to read nature books. The country town of Shrewsbury, population 20,000, was the perfect place for a "naturalist in training." Darwin's letters and notes give the impression he devoted more time to collecting, hunting and riding than to his prescribed studies at Cambridge. Yet he did well on his examinations, finishing tenth on the list of nonhonors students.

Immediately after graduation Darwin signed on the H.M.S. Beagle as naturalist and gentleman companion of Captain Robert FitzRoy. The good captain had been commissioned to survey the coasts of Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego, Chile and Peru. The Beagle left Plymouth, England on December 27, 1831 and returned on October 2, 1836. While on the voyage Darwin kept a travelogue (Journal of Researches) in which

he described all the places he visited. One of the most intriguing stops was the equatorial Galapagos Islands. Here Darwin studied many unusual plants and animals. When at sea, Darwin spent time reading academic works such as Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology which introduced him to the idea of uniformitarian geology and Jean Baptiste Lamarck's arguments for evolutionary thinking. After the five year voyage, Darwin spent his time sorting his collections and sending them to various specialists to be described.

The results of his voyage, the cataloguing of his collections, the ideas of other scientists and philosophers, especially Thomas Malthus's Essay on the Principle of Population, and Darwin's ability to think critically led him to the most controversial biological theory ever; evolution by common descent and the principle of natural selection. However, Darwin was reluctant to publish this theory. In fact he did not publish it until approached by Alfred Russel Wallace, who had developed the same theory independently. Together they announced the theory in 1858 and Darwin's famous book was published in 1859. If we could look into the future, we would see that the debate started by Darwin goes on and on.

In January 1839 Darwin married his cousin Emma Wedgwood, and in September 1842 the couple moved from London to the village of Down. They had twelve children, eleven of whom survive.

Questions for Further Thought

1. Make a list of facts about Darwin that you learned from the obituary. Can you add others? Should these have been included in the obituary? Why or why not? What facts would you like to know that were not included?

2. How is Lamarck's theory of evolution similar to Darwin's? How does it differ? What do you think Lamarck would say about Darwin's theory? Why? Arrange for a debate to take place between Darwin and Lamarck with students taking the roles of the scientists.

3. What key component is missing from Darwin's theory? Who supplied the answer? When was it discovered? How did this discovery affect scientific criticism of Darwin's theories?

4. It has been said that Darwin was the "Father of Biology." Do you agree with this statement? Why or why not?

5. Several other scientists were involved with Darwin's theory and the controversy that followed. Below you will find a list of those scientists. Choose one and research that person. Then, write an obituary for your scientist and share it with the class. Be sure to include the contribution or controversy associated with each man. Place all the obituaries in an anthology and place it in the media center as a resource for student use.

Charles Lyell
Richard Owen
Asa Grey
John Gould
Alfred Russel Wallace
Louis Agassiz
August Weismann
Joseph Dalton Hooker
Thomas Henry Huxley
Ernst Haeckel

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