Charles Darwin and On the Origin of Species

Charles Darwin and On the Origin of Species Photo Credit: Clipart.com
No conversation about evolution is complete without a discussion of British naturalist Charles Darwin and his biological studies touchstone, On the Origin of Species, which introduced evolution to the general public.

Darwin, whose Feb. 12 birthday is celebrated annually as Darwin Day, came from a family of doctors and was expected to follow in their path. However, he did not have the stomach for medicine and went to school to study theology instead. It was during his time at university when he became close with members of the science faculty. It was his biology professor who suggested to him that he accept a berth on the HMS Beagle, about to set sail to explore the South American coast. His discoveries and explorations on this journey would change the direction of his life forever.

Darwin was not the first scientist to propose the idea of evolution. Others had done so before him, but they lacked a cohesive explanation of how life evolved on Earth. Darwin's theory, that of natural selection, offered an explanation that the scientific community—and society in general—could, at the very least, vigorously discuss.

Natural selection states that living things with superior traits for a given environment, such as good camouflage or the ability to jump particularly high, are less likely to be killed off by day-to-day life. As specimens with less desirable traits for a given environment die off over time, the species as a whole is strengthened by those whose characteristics have enabled them to survive. This theory now stands as the backbone of many areas of scientific research.

On the Origin of Species, which outlined Darwin's theory of natural selection, was an instant best-seller when it was published on November 24, 1859. It quickly sold out, and five more editions would be printed in Great Britain before Darwin's death in 1882. Each contained Darwin's corrections and further clarifications and addendums, including the addition of the terms "survival of the fittest" and "evolution." The work was met with worldwide interest and was published in the United States within two months of its appearance in England. Translations to an additional 11 languages were completed in the following twenty years and expanded to nearly 20 more languages in the century that followed.

Science NetLinks offers these resources on Charles Darwin, evolutionary theory, and natural selection so you and your class can celebrate the anniversary of one of science's great texts.
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  • Where in the Wild?

    Where in the Wild?

    K-2  |  Audio
    This students introduces children to the concept of animal camouflage.
  • Animal Adaptations

    Animal Adaptations

    3-5  |  Interactive
    In this lesson, explore different types of animal features and behaviors that can help or hinder survival in a particular habitat.
  • Bird Beaks

    Bird Beaks

    3-5  |  Hands-On
    In this lesson, students will explore the relationship between a bird's beak and its ability to find food and survive in a given environment.
  • Fossils 1: Fossils and Dinosaurs

    Fossils 1: Fossils and Dinosaurs

    3-5  |  Hands-On
    In this lesson, students will explore what can be learned from fossils, how they are formed, and the difference between fact and theory.
  • Fossils 2: Uncovering the Facts

    Fossils 2: Uncovering the Facts

    3-5  |  Hands-On
    In this lesson, students explore how information is gained by studying fossils and see how fossil facts can be based on comparisons with living organisms.
  • Dinosaur Eggs Discovered! Unscrambling the Clues

    Dinosaur Eggs Discovered! Unscrambling the Clues

    This lesson introduces students to how the scientific enterprise, science, and technology were used in discovering and understanding dinosaur eggs found during a famous paleontological expedition in Argentina.
  • Nowhere to Hide

    Nowhere to Hide

    6-8  |  Interactive
    Through the use of an interactive activity, this lesson focuses on the concept of natural selection.
  • Passenger Pigeons: Nomads Lost

    Passenger Pigeons: Nomads Lost

    This lesson will help the class consider the human forces that drove the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon, including both the collective mentality regarding conservation and the new technologies that made extinction a possibility.
  • The Rise and Fall of the Mammoths

    The Rise and Fall of the Mammoths

    6-8  |  Interactive
    This lesson will help students to examine the evidence for evolution using the woolly mammoth and related species, of which there happens to be a sizable fossil record.
  • Comparing Theories: Lamarck and Darwin

    Comparing Theories: Lamarck and Darwin

    This lesson provides an opportunity for students to compare the theories of two historically important evolutionary scientists: Jean Baptiste Lamarck and Charles Darwin.
  • Cracking the Genetic Code

    Cracking the Genetic Code

    9-12  |  Website
    This lesson explores what the knowledge of DNA can tell us about ourselves and other organisms and species.
  • Variation in Human Skin Color

    Variation in Human Skin Color

    In this lesson, students explore the factors that control variation in human skin color and the implications of this information for human society.


  • Nowhere to Hide

    Nowhere to Hide

    K-12  |  Interactive
    This interactive is based on the classic story of evolution by natural selection—the story of the peppered moths in England during the Industrial Revolution.
  • A Touch of Class

    A Touch of Class

    3-8  |  Interactive
    This is an interactive activity in which students classify various plants and animals, including organisms such as a frog, jellyfish, venus flytrap, bat, human, and seaweed.
  • MARE's Build a Fish

    MARE's Build a Fish

    3-8  |  Interactive
    In this interactive activity, you must build a fish whose adaptations make it suited to its ocean environment.
  • The Amateur Naturalist

    The Amateur Naturalist

    3-12  |  Website
    This resource discusses The Amateur Naturalist, by Nick Baker, which is full of information to enhance any outdoor learning experience.
  • The Macaque Genome: An Interactive Poster

    The Macaque Genome: An Interactive Poster

    9-12  |  Interactive
    This resource was designed as an accompaniment to a special section of Science, in which five research papers detailed sequencing of the macaque genome.

Science Updates

  • Birdsong and Climate

    Birdsong and Climate

    6-12  |  Audio
    In this Science Update, you can learn how birds that live in more variable climates sing more sophisticated songs.
  • Dog Breeds

    Dog Breeds

    6-12  |  Audio
    Recently, designer mutts like the Labradoodle—a cross between a Labarador retriever and a poodle—have become popular. This Science Update explores whether or not some kinds of dogs are just too different to make puppies.
  • Genes and Geography

    Genes and Geography

    6-12  |  Audio
    In a study on genetic variation, the differences between populations aren't as dramatic as the researchers expected.
  • Lookalike Species

    Lookalike Species

    6-12  |  Audio
    Some animals that look exactly alike may be genetically separate species.
  • Platypus Genome

    Platypus Genome

    6-12  |  Audio
    In this Science Update, learn how scientists have sequenced the genetic code of one of nature's strangest animals.
  • Salamander Streambeds

    Salamander Streambeds

    6-12  |  Audio
    In this Science Update, learn how streambeds can shape a species.
  • Mountain Gorilla Genome

    Mountain Gorilla Genome

    6-12  |  Audio
    The genome of the critically endangered mountain gorilla provides clues to its genetic past as well as its prospects for future survival.



  • Introducing Ardi

    Introducing Ardi

    The following resources give students the chance to learn more about Ardipithecus ramidus (aka Ardi), paleontology, evolution, and prehistoric theories.

AAAS Resources

Evolution Special
Grade Band: 6-12
Description: This Science Update podcast celebrates Charles Darwin's 200th birthday with information on the evolution of kissing, mosquito love duets, robot sex, and the unhealthy history of the human diet. (This entry goes directly to the Science Update podcast and does not include extra Science NetLinks material to accompany the audio.)

Other Resources

Description: Amateur science history scholar David Leff created this resource to provide as much detail of the life and times of Charles Darwin as possible.

Becoming Human
Description: Becoming Human is a wonderful, rich resource on the story of evolution.

The Darwin 150 Project
Description: A public science education initiative, this site is focused on celebrating the 150th anniversary of On the Origin of Species and highlighting the important insights of Darwin and science in general.

Darwin and His Theory of Evolution
Description: This brief article examines the impact of Darwin's research and theory on the scientific and religious communities.

Darwin Day Celebration
Description: The dual mission of this site is to promote public education about science and to encourage the celebration of science and humanity throughout the global community.

Description: This resource is a content-rich, interactive site with  streaming imagery, animations, simulations, dynamic timelines, conversations with experts, current news bulletins, and extensive links to evolution-related learning resources worldwide.

An Origin of Species
Description: This interactive resource allows students to see for themselves how a new species can evolve.

Since Darwin: The Evolution of Evolution
Description: This exhibition at the National Museum of Natural History explores the theory of evolution and how it continues to affect science today, 150 years after the publication of On the Origin of Species.

Understanding Evolution
Description: Teachers looking for an up-to-date synthesis of what evolutionary theory does and doesn't say should check out Understanding Evolution, a primer from the University of California Museum of Paleontology.

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