Happiest at home with his notebooks and his microscope, he shunned the public eye. Controversy made him ill. This brilliant observer of nature kept his most original and revolutionary idea under wraps for decades. Yet today, two centuries after Charles Darwin's birth, nearly everyone knows his name. What did Darwin do, and why does he still matter so much?
Keenly observing nature in all its forms--from fossil sloths to mockingbirds, primroses to children--Darwin saw that we all are related. Every living thing shares an ancestry, he concluded, and the vast diversity of life on Earth results from processes at work over millions of years and still at work today. Darwin's explanation for this great unfolding of life through time--the theory of evolution by natural selection--transformed our understanding of the living world, much as the ideas of Galileo, Newton, and Einstein revolutionized our understanding of the physical universe.
Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection underlies all modern biology. It enables us to decipher our genes and fight viruses, and to understand Earth's fossil record and rich biodiversity. Simple yet at times controversial, misunderstood and misused for social goals, the theory remains unchallenged as the central concept of biology. Charles Darwin, reluctant revolutionary, profoundly altered our view of the natural world and our place in it.
Charles Darwin looked closely at life. The vast and marvelous diversity of life on Earth, from barnacles to butterflies, ostriches to orchids, made him curious. Countless species, living and extinct--why so many? Some were only slightly different from one another--what could explain that? Each organism so beautifully adapted to its environment--how could it happen?
With persistence and passion, Darwin set out to find answers. He conducted experiments. He read widely and corresponded with fellow naturalists around the world. And he studied the evidence using simple tools, at times little more than a microscope or a magnifying glass. Darwin looked closely--and we saw the world in a new way.
Before Darwin was born, most people in England accepted certain ideas about the natural world as given. Species were unconnected, unrelated, and unchanged since the moment of their creation. Earth itself was thought to be only 6,000 years old.
Birds' eggs and sea shells, beetles and coins, moths, and minerals--as a child, Charles Darwin collected all of these and more. He never tired of studying the details of the natural world.
In 1831, Charles Darwin received an astounding invitation: to join the HMS Beagle as ship's naturalist for a trip around the world.
Within months of stepping off the deck of the Beagle, Darwin settled in London, the nerve center of Britain. It was here that he brilliantly put together the pieces of his theory of evolution by natural selection.
In 1842, Charles Darwin and his family fled London in search of peace and quiet. They found it in a tiny village 16 miles outside the city, and for the next 40 years their home--called Down House--was Darwin's retreat, research station, and the hub of his vast scientific network.
A century and a half ago, Charles Darwin offered the world a single, simple scientific explanation for the diversity of life on Earth: evolution by natural selection. Since then, countless scientists--whether fighting viruses, decoding DNA, or analyzing the fossil record--have found that Darwin's work is fundamental to their own.
Orchid plants, members of a vast and ancient family, enchanted Darwin late in life and intrigue us still, more than a century later.
Meet Dr. Niles Eldredge, Curator of Darwin.
Darwin was designed and produced by the Museum's Department of Exhibition, under the direction of David Harvey, Vice President for Exhibition.
Darwin was organized by the American Museum of Natural History, New York, in collaboration with the Museum of Science, Boston; The Field Museum, Chicago; the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada; and the Natural History Museum, London, England.
The American Museum of Natural History gratefully acknowledges The Howard Phipps Foundation for its leadership support. Significant support for Darwin has also been provided by Chris and Sharon Davis, Bill and Leslie Miller, the Austin Hearst Foundation, Jack and Susan Rudin, and Rosalind P. Walter. Additional funding provided by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, Dr. Linda K. Jacobs, and The New York Community Trust—Wallace Special Projects Fund.