Charles Darwin Goes to College

| By on Reading the Book of Nature

Old College, Edinburgh, around 1827, when Darwin was a student there (image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

Nearly three months ago I ambitiously began a new series on the American conversation about science and religion after Darwin, as a sequel to an earlier series about the Antebellum conversation.  You might be wondering what happened, since I never got past first base—the opening column about Darwin’s family background.

You might say we got flooded out. With the Ark Encounter opening in early July, it seemed appropriate to focus on that for several weeks, so I wrote a column about it and edited a series of excerpts from a really good book about Christianity and geology, The Bible, Rocks and Time: Geological Evidence for the Age of the Earth by Davis Young and Ralph Stearley. Thus, I haven’t been able to get back to the new series until now.

A little review is in order. American thinking before the Civil War was dominated by the notion that God has written two “books”, nature and Scripture, which ought to be read together and ultimately must agree. That general attitude is still popular among Evangelicals, regardless of any differences they may have on precisely how to put it into practice.  But, before we talk about the twenty-first century (at some point we will), we need to return to the mid-nineteenth century. We need to see what happened to the “two books” approach once Darwin’s ideas took hold in the United States. How did Darwin change American thinking about science and the Bible? And, to do that, we should begin with Darwin.

Today I continue Darwin’s personal story with his experiences at university—at two universities, to be precise.

A Tale of Two Schools: Edinburgh

Edinburgh is a beautiful city, though sometimes very cold, even in mid-summer.  I still remember a July afternoon nearly thirty years ago, when a bitter wind blew me off the streets and into the woolen shops for for something to fortify me against the icy blast.  Charles Darwin went there in 1825 at age 16, sent by his father to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh, where he had studied himself. It didn’t work out. He was revolted by operations in the surgical theatre—who wouldn’t be, at a time before the invention of anesthesia? As he recalled decades later, he “saw two very bad operations, one on a child, but I rushed away before they were completed. Nor did I ever attend again, for hardly any inducement would have been strong enough to make me do so; this being long before the blessed days of chloroform. The two cases fairly haunted me for many a long year.”

On the other hand, he very much liked learning about natural history, especially from Robert Grant, an Edinburgh native twice Darwin’s age who was the leading invertebrate zoologist in Great Britain. Having studied in Paris with Cuvier and Geoffroy St Hilaire, Grant brought French evolutionary ideas to Scotland and began to proclaim them while Darwin was there. An atheist, anti-clerical materialist, and perhaps a homosexual, Grant was a genuine radical. He was also a prominent member of two important organizations of naturalists, the Plinian Society and the Wernerian Society. Grant took Darwin and some other students to the meetings of those societies and on field trips to collect specimens of marine life in the rich ecosystem of the Firth of Forth. He was especially fond of sponges and sea-slugs.

Although they soon had a falling out, when Darwin felt that Grant had not properly credited him for certain discoveries that Grant published, he was initially enthralled by Grant and thrived under his tutelage. He was not yet an evolutionist himself, but as Peter Bowler says, “the programme of research begun in Edinburgh would be revived on the Beagle voyage,” and Darwin would move ever closer to Grant’s view that the animal and vegetable kingdoms were linked historically (quoting Bowler, cited below, p. 40).

Darwin also sat through Robert Jameson’s lectures on geology. (I talked about Jameson in connection with Benjamin Silliman last year.) He found Jameson “incredibly dull,” adding that “The sole effect they produced on me was the determination never as long as I lived to read a book on Geology, or in any way to study the science.” How little he really knew about himself, it seems. It’s no secret that Darwin wasn’t the most studious person on campus, so we mustn’t judge Jameson solely on this basis.

Since a medical career was clearly not in the offing, Darwin’s father suggested that he consider becoming a clergyman in the Church of England. Coming from a “freethinker” like Robert Darwin, that may seem a bit surprising, but he loved his son, accepted his son’s religious faith, and knew that it would make for a respectable career, with a guaranteed income and plenty of time for doing natural history. Charles wasn’t sure that he fully accepted the 39 Articles of the Church of England (their statement of faith, formulated during the Reformation), but he took his father’s advice. He left Edinburgh and enrolled at Christ’s College, Cambridge.

A Tale of Two Schools: Cambridge

Portrait of John Henslow by Thomas Herbert Maguire (1849), about two decades after Darwin knew him at Cambridge. (Image source)

 At Cambridge, Darwin studied classics, divinity, and mathematics—not biology, at least not officially within the curriculum. Cambridge was only just getting up to speed in many of the sciences, so students weren’t examined on them yet, but they could opt to hear lectures and take part in various scientific activities. Darwin particularly enjoyed hearing the lectures and going on field trips with botany professor John Henslow, an ordained minister, to whom Darwin was introduced by his cousin, the future clergyman W. Darwin Fox, who also taught him how to collect insects. He became a frequent dinner guest at Henslow’s home, and Henslow encouraged him to become a “naturalist,” someone who studied widely in geology, botany, zoology, and natural history. Darwin was interested in all of those areas.

Geologist Adam Sedgwick was also at Cambridge then, but Darwin did not attend his lectures—recall his experience with Jameson’s geology lectures at Edinburgh. In his final year, however, he did go on field trips with Sedgwick and became fascinated with learning how to interpret rock strata, just at that time in the history of geology when interpreting rock strata was the biggest game in town.

Overall, however, Darwin was not a particularly good student; he’d much rather go “shooting” (hunting for birds and small game) and he was not very good at mathematics, though he did better in divinity classes. One topic that did catch his attention was the natural theology of William Paley. As many readers know, Paley brought the centuries’ old English tradition of writing natural theological works to a height. Although he had few original thoughts of his own, he was unusually gifted at capturing the essence of well-known arguments from others and composing very persuasive prose in which to present it. Paley stressed how creatures were exquisitely adapted to specific environments, and their inter-relatedness in what was commonly known as the “economy of nature”, a concept and term originating with the great naturalist Linnaeus that Darwin would fully embrace, even to the extent of using that exact term himself. The crucial difference would be that Darwin later turned Paley on his head, explaining the whole economy of nature in terms of common ancestry driven by natural selection, a concept he took from Thomas Malthus’ work on the “economy of man.”

Darwin’s encounter with Paley at Cambridge was shared by students on both sides of the Atlantic at that time. For example, seniors at Yale in the 1830s had tutorials spread over three terms, as shown in the Catalogue of the Officers and Students in Yale College, 1838-39. Note the presence of three books by Paley, the same three books which Darwin had studied at Cambridge just a few years earlier. Photograph by Edward B. Davis.

When Darwin finished his degree in the spring of 1831, he was more interested in science than the ministry. Consequently, when a major opportunity to pursue scientific research came his way a few months later, thanks to Henslow, he jumped at it. What happened next is our story the next time.

Looking Ahead: The Education of a Naturalist

Join us in two weeks to see how Darwin became a naturalist.




Davis, Ted. "Charles Darwin Goes to College" N.p., 7 Sep. 2016. Web. 20 October 2017.


Davis, T. (2016, September 7). Charles Darwin Goes to College
Retrieved October 20, 2017, from

References & Credits

Of the many authoritative biographies of Charles Darwin, one of the most accessible is Peter J. Bowler, Charles Darwin: The Man and his Influence (1996), which I highly recommend. Readers who want many more details than Bowler provides should consult Janet Browne, Charles Darwin. Voyaging (1995), the first part of her two-volume biography, and Adrian Desmond & James Moore, Darwin (1991), both of which are especially good for information about Robert Grant.

About the Author

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. A former high school science teacher, Ted studied history and philosophy of science at Indiana University, where his mentor was the late Richard S. Westfall, author of the definitive biography of Isaac Newton. With the English historian Michael Hunter, Ted edited The Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), but his interests include the whole 2000-year interaction of Christianity and science. Author of dozens of scholarly articles and essays, Ted is one of few historians who have written extensively about both the Scientific Revolution and modern America. He and his wife Kathy enjoy theater, music, and traveling to new places.

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