Does it matter that Darwin never had a formal education in biology?

The short answer

No, for two reasons:

  1. There was no such thing as formal education in biology in Darwin’s time, so Darwin cannot be faulted for lacking it. He did receive the best informal science education possible at the time.
  2. Darwin’s accomplishments speak for themselves.

The longer answer

I. No formal courses in biology in Darwin’s time.

In Darwin’s time, “science as a school subject simply did not exist” (Howe 1999:32). However, when Darwin went to the University of Cambridge, he received the best informal science education available to anyone at the time:

Although there were no formal courses in the sciences—Darwin did not get a science degree at Cambridge because there were none—this was just the time when a group of men was starting to take a serious interest in the natural sciences (including geology and biology). Anyone with a like concern, including an untutored undergraduate, was welcome to join in. For three years, Darwin did formal courses — Latin, Greek, mathematics—and informal courses covering many aspects of the contemporary sciences. (Ruse 2000:32-33)

To criticize Darwin for his lack of a formal science education is about as misplaced as complaining that Jesus was never ordained by the Roman Catholic Church.

II. Darwin’s accomplishments speaks for themselves

Even had Darwin lacked any education at all in the sciences, this would not have taken away from his importance: Darwin simply would have been one of the most brilliant and important amateurs in the history of science. In fact, given his impact upon the scientific world—given the fact that, in Theodosius Dobzhansky’s (1973) famous words, “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”—Darwin’s being an amateur would have meant that he was also a genius. Hence, it is mystifying when creationists attempt to dismiss Darwin as an amateur for his lack of a formal science education.

III. The one serious defect in Darwin’s science education

With all of this said, one must admit to one very serious defect in Darwin’s informal science education: the unfortunate vagaries of spacetime and personal identity conspired to deny poor young Darwin the opportunity ever to learn about evolution from Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. We may rejoice that today’s students are more fortunate.


Dobzhansky T. 1973. Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. The American Biology Teacher 35(3):125-129

Howe MJA. 1999. Genius Explained. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ruse M. 2000. The Evolution Wars: A Guide to the Debates. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.