Founder of Evolutionary Theory
Darwin was born in Shrewsbury, England, on February 12, 1809. At first an undistinguished student, Darwin developed a passion for the natural sciences at Cambridge University, from which he graduated in 1831. That year he joined a scientific tour of North Wales and learned geologic fieldwork methods. He was then invited to serve as an unpaid naturalist on a voyage of the HMS Beagle, departing in December 1831.
Darwin took meticulous notes and collected biological and geological specimens during the Beagle’s survey of the coasts of South America. He noticed that fossils of some extinct species were similar to some living species and that there were distinct variations of certain species living on separate, but nearby; islands. He began to question the conventional view that species were immutable.
Upon Darwin’s return to England in 1836, he investigated the immutability question and soon became convinced that species do change over time. However, he was reluctant to reveal such a revolutionary view until he could explain how such evolution occurs. Darwin was led to such an explanation in 1838 when he read an essay by economist Thomas Malthus, who argued that a limited food supply checks human population growth. Darwin reasoned that every form of life must struggle for existence. This idea led Darwin to his theory of natural selection, which states that variation among individuals within a population exists, and that some traits allow certain individuals to be more successful survivors than others. Over time, the population transforms into a new species as individuals with those advantageous traits multiply.
Darwin secretly elaborated his theory until another naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, sent him an outline of the very same theory in 1858. A joint paper by Darwin and Wallace, summarizing the theory of evolution by natural selection, was made public later that year. In 1859, Darwin published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. The book’s first printing sold out immediately: In 1871, Darwin published The Descent of Man, which proposed the same principle of natural selection for human biology.
Darwin studied and wrote until he died at Down, England, on April 19, 1882.
Charles Darwin’s Legacy
Darwin’s introduction of evolutionary theory kindled a major revolution in biology in the nineteenth century and has influenced biological study and modern thought ever since.
The revolutionary nature of his theories caused an immediate uproar in the religious community. Christian leaders vehemently opposed Darwin’s theory because it described a grand biological design governed by laws of science, not by God. These controversies are still alive today.
The scientific impact of Darwin’s work was immediate also. Research into anatomy and paleontology expanded, as scientists searched for evidence supporting or refuting Darwin’s views. Most members of the scientific community quickly accepted the theory of evolution upon the publication of On the Origin of Species. Many scientists had been discussing the possibility of evolution for years, but Darwin and Wallace were the first to propose the idea of natural selection.
Within Darwin’s lifetime, proponents of evolution split into two conflicting camps, Darwinian and Lamarckian, which dispute the source of variation within populations. Darwin and his followers could not explain how variation occurred. Jean Lamarck, a French naturalist, had proposed in the early 1800s that organisms acquire traits during their lifetimes as they adapt to their environment and that their offspring inherit those traits. Lamarckians believed that those traits were the source of variation in populations. It was not until 1900, when the work of GREGOR MENDEL was rediscovered, that Lamarck was proved wrong and scientists began to understand that genetic mutations cause variation among individuals.
Darwin’s ideas permeated nearly all fields of study. His theory of natural selection was formulated into social Darwinism in the late 1800s. Social Darwinists, most notably British sociologist and philosopher Herbert Spencer, believed that competition for survival governed human society. Epitomized by the term “survival of the fittest,” coined by Spencer, social Darwinism was used as a scientific and philosophical justification for laissez faire economies, in which individuals are left on their own to compete for resources and achieve whatever they can. While social Darwinism has fallen out of favor in the fields of philosophy and sociology; its influence on economics and popular thought holds firm.
Charles Darwin – 1809-1882