darwin




Introduction

It is commonly thought today that the theory of evolution originated from Charles Darwin in the nineteenth century. However, the idea that species mutate over time has been around for a long time in one form or another. Therefore, by Darwin’s time the idea that species change from one type into another was by no means new, but was rejected by most because the proponents of evolution could not come up with a satisfactory mechanism that would explain this change.
But how did Darwin come up with an acceptable theory of evolution, and how did Darwin’s proposal of natural selection impact the theory of evolution? The answer lies in the study of the works of others, and in the works of Darwin himself, through his theories, his travels and his scientific pioneering.
The most influential evolutionary theories prior to Darwin were those of Lamarck and Geoffrey St. Hilaire, developed between 1794 and 1830. Lamarck suggested that species evolve through the use or disuse of particular organs. In the classic example a giraffe that stretches its neck slightly to reach higher leaves will gain in neck length, and this small gain would be passed on to its offspring. (Poirier, McKee, 1999) St. Hilaire, on the other hand suggested that the change was discontinuous, large in magnitude, and occurred at the production of offspring. However, these theories of evolution were based on explanations that offered no demonstrated mechanism. (Bowler, 1990)
Darwin’s theory of evolution differs in that it is based on three easily verified observations. First, individuals within a species vary from one another in morphology, physiology, and behavior. Second, variation is in some part heritable so that variant forms have offspring that resemble them. Third, different variants leave different number of offspring(Wilson, 1999). Darwin than proceeded to elaborate on the mechanism of evolution by suggesting that in the universal struggle for life, nature “selects” those individuals who are best suited for the struggle, and these individuals in turn reproduce more than those who are less fit, thus changing the composition of the population. In addition to natural selection, Darwin also suggested that species also evolve through the complementary process of sexual selection.(Wilson, 1999)
According to Darwin, in sexual selection, one gender of a species develops a preference for individuals of the other gender who possess certain features. The individuals who possess these features will than have a reproductive advantage over others, resulting in a greater number of offspring, and thus, again, a change in the composition of the population.(Poirier, McKee, 1999) Therefore, it was Darwin who made the theory of evolution feasible by providing the mechanisms of natural and sexual selection. The possibility of a feasible theory of evolution made the idea more acceptable by the scientific community, although there were those that still opposed it.

Darwin’s Formative Years

Charles Darwin was born in England in 1809 and belonged to a wealthy and respectable family. His grandfather, Erasamus Darwin, was a noted botanical expert in his day who published two important books, Zoonomia, and the Botanic Garden. In these books, Erasamus speculated about various evolutionary ideas that were dismissed as too radical (i.e., the nose of the swine has become hard for the purpose of turning up the soil in search of insects and roots). Darwin who in his youth read his grandfather’s books with admiration, later commented that his grandfather “anticipated the views and erroneous grounds of opinion” of Lamarck. Nevertheless, Erasamus may have unconsciously influenced Darwin in preparing the way for evolution by natural selection.(Darwin, 1958)
In 1818, at the age of 9, Darwin entered the Shrewsbury school, which was ran by Dr. Butler. Darwin later recalled that “nothing could have been worse for the development of my mind than Dr. Butler’s school, as it was strictly classical, nothing else being taught , except a little ancient geography and history. The school as a means of education to me was simply a blank”(Darwin, 1958). He was removed from the school in 1825, and was sent to Edinburgh to study medicine. There he studied for two years before deciding that he didn’t like medicine. But before he left Edinburgh, he was introduced for the first time to the theories of Lamarck. According to Darwin at the time he was not very impressed with Lamarck’s ideas. (Bowler,