From the time he was a little boy, Charles Darwin was an explorer. He loved to roam the fields and hills near his home in Shrewsbury, England . He was fascinated by the movements of small animals and insects and knew each wildflower by name. He was curious about everything he saw and heard and touched, wondering at the lives of ants and butterflies, examining and collecting rocks, delighting in the grasses, trees, leaves, and flowers that provided homes for his very favorite creature—the beetle.
Curiosity about the world and the place of humans in it was a gift given to Charles by both his grandfathers. They were Unitarians and believed that human beings did not yet know all the answers to life's great questions. The clues were to be found in observing the world around them.
When Charles was eight, his mother died. Not long after, his father decided to send Charles away to school, where he might learn the things that young gentlemen in his day were expected to know: Greek, Latin, and ancient history. But Charles was more interested in the workings of an anthill or the mysteries found in a rock pile than he was in what was taught at school. At every opportunity he took long walks outdoors—watching, listening, and collecting. He delighted in figuring out how creatures behaved and how the natural world worked.
This wasn't at all what Charles's father had in mind. He was worried. What would young Charles do when he grew up? What kind of man would he be?
When Charles was fifteen, his father sent him to medical school to become a doctor like his father and grandfather. But he was not interested in medicine. Instead, he found people who would teach him all about different kinds of plants. He began to draw these plants in great detail, labeling all the parts, learning to tell one variety from another.
Two years later, Charles left medical school; it was clear that he didn't want to be a doctor. His father was furious and thought that the endless hours Charles spent outdoors were a waste of time. Determined that Charles would make something of himself, his father sent him to Cambridge University to become a minister.
Charles was not unhappy with that decision; in those days, ministers often did science experiments and observations in their spare time. Charles planned to find a small church in the countryside and spend most of his time observing and drawing plants, animals, rocks, and insects.
He was still very interested in collecting beetles. One day, Charles tore a piece of bark off a tree and saw two rare kinds of beetles. He had one in each hand when he saw a third that he wanted to add to his collection. He quickly popped one beetle into his mouth in order to grab the third—with very bad results. The beetle squirted something nasty-tasting and Charles was forced to spit it out.
At Cambridge , Charles discovered what his life's work would be and he began to call himself a naturalist.
Charles went on a journey around the world and as he traveled, he filled notebooks with drawings and notes. He stayed open to the curiosities of the natural world as they presented themselves: frogs, salamanders, armadillos, insects, and lots of fossils. When he returned to England five years later, he understood how plants and animals evolved from one form to another over the course of many, many thousands and millions of years.
Twenty-two years later Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species. Scientists, preachers, and teachers took notice, and so did the press. The boy collector with the gift of wonder, a spirit of adventure, and openness to new ideas had become the scientist whose theory responded to the "mystery of mysteries." Today, people still take notice and debate what Charles Darwin had to say.
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