Charles Darwin is the first of the evolutionary biologists, and he was the creator of the concept of natural selection. His works, The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871) were marked by violent attacks by unbelievers that continue even to this day.
Charles Robert Darwin was born at Shrewsbury, England. His father was a doctor, and Darwin studied medicine at Edinburgh, although it soon became apparent that he was not cut out for the medical field. He was then sent to Cambridge to train for the ministry, where a friendship with a biology professor encouraged his developing interest in biology and zoology. By invitation of a geologist on the faculty, Darwin was asked to go aboard the Beagle, a cruise along the South American coast and Australia that would last five years . While aboard the Beagle, Darwin served as a geologist, botanist, zoologist, and all-around man of science. This was unusual, since during the early 19th century it was rare to have a man who could read and write aboard a sailing ship, let alone a man who was collecting data and conducting research about his surroundings. Darwin published his findings in the 1840 Zoology of the Beagle.
Through his travels and the zoological, botanical, geological, and paleontological evidence that he collected, Darwin lost his belief in the teachings of Genesis in the Bible, and began to believe in a process of evolution. His main question for twenty years was to find out how small lifeforms could develop into the current state of existence. He researched widely, even consulting breeders of domestic animals for his work. In 1859, Darwin's The Origin of Species was published. His thesis was that life evolves by a process he termed "natural selection." Darwin posited that evolution is a continuous process, and that all phenomena can be explained naturally.
The theory of evolution is no longer just a theory, as no one has ever successfully refuted it. The theory presented in The Origin of Species was not entirely Darwin's invention, however. Such notions had been around since the time of Aristotle and Lucretius, but Darwin gathered indisputable evidence to support his claim. He also explained how evolution worked, through natural selection.
Julian Huxley eloquently sums up Darwin's contribution to the history of science in his 1992 work, Evolutionary Humanism:
"Darwin's work ... put the world of life into the domain of natural law. It was no longer necessary or possible to imagine that every kind of animal or plant had been specially created, nor that the beautiful and ingenious devices by which they get their food or escape their enemies have been thought out by some supernatural power, or that there is any conscious purpose behind the evolutionary process. If the idea of natural selection holds good, then animals and plants and man himself have become what they are by natural causes, as blind and automatic as those which go to mould the shape of a mountain, or make the earth and the other planets move in ellipses round the sun. The blind struggle for existence, the blind process of heredity, automatically result in the selection of the best adapted types, and a steady evolution of the stock in the direction of progress... Darwin's work has enabled us to see the position of man and of our present civilization in a truer light. Man is not a finished product incapable of further progress. He has a long history behind him, and it is a history not of a fall, but of an ascent. And he has the possibility of further progressive evolution before him. Further, in the light of evolution we learn to be more patient. The few thousand years of recorded history are nothing compared to the million years during which man has been on earth, and the thousand million years of life's progress. And we can afford to be patient when the astronomers assure us of at least another thousand million years ahead of us in which to carry evolution onwards to new heights."
Quotes from the Faculty:
"Charles Darwin. His articulation of the fundamental principles of evolution by natural selection forever changed biological science, creating a new framework for interpreting biology that unified the entire science in a meaningful way. Virtually everything about biology makes more sense because of our understanding of evolution."
-- Dr. Kevin Myers