Natural Selection: Charles Darwin & Alfred Russel Wallace (1 of 3)

Charles Darwin

The genius of Darwin (left), the way in which he suddenly turned all of biology upside down in 1859 with the publication of the Origin of Species, can sometimes give the misleading impression that the theory of evolution sprang from his forehead fully formed without any precedent in scientific history. But as earlier chapters in this history have shown, the raw material for Darwin’s theory had been known for decades. Geologists and paleontologists had made a compelling case that life had been on Earth for a long time, that it had changed over that time, and that many species had become extinct. At the same time, embryologists and other naturalists studying living animals in the early 1800s had discovered, sometimes unwittingly, much of the best evidence for Darwin’s theory.


Read Darwin's On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.


Pre-Darwinian Ideas about Evolution
It was Darwin’s genius both to show how all this evidence favored the evolution of species from a common ancestor and to offer a plausible mechanism by which life might evolve. Lamarck and others had promoted evolutionary theories, but in order to explain just how life changed, they depended on speculation. Typically, they claimed that evolution was guided by some long-term trend. Lamarck, for example, thought that life strove over time to rise from simple single-celled forms to complex ones. Many German biologists conceived of life evolving according to predetermined rules, in the same way an embryo develops in the womb. But in the mid-1800s, Darwin and the English biologist Alfred Russel Wallace independently conceived of a natural, even observable, way for life to change: a process Darwin called natural selection.

The Pressure of Population Growth
Interestingly, Darwin and Wallace found their inspiration in economics. An English parson named Thomas Malthus published a book in 1797 called Essay on the Principle of Population in which he warned his fellow Englishmen that most policies designed to help the poor were doomed because of the relentless pressure of population growth. A nation could easily double its population in a few decades, leading to famine and misery for all.

When Darwin and Wallace read Malthus, it occurred to both of them that animals and plants should also be experiencing the same population pressure. It should take very little time for the world to be knee-deep in beetles or earthworms. But the world is not overrun with them, or any other species, because they cannot reproduce to their full potential. Many die before they become adults. They are vulnerable to droughts and cold winters and other environmental assaults. And their food supply, like that of a nation, is not infinite. Individuals must compete, albeit unconsciously, for what little food there is.

 Darwin's finches
A visit to the Galapagos Islands in 1835 helped Darwin formulate his ideas on natural selection. He found several species of finch adapted to different environmental niches. The finches also differed in beak shape, food source, and how food was captured.
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