Charles darwin.

Charles Darwin and his observations while aboard the HMS Beagle , changed the understanding of evolution on Earth.

Biology, Earth Science, Geography, Physical Geography

Historic photograph of Charles Darwin in profile.

Photograph by Chronical/Alamy Stock Photo

Historic photograph of Charles Darwin in profile.

Charles Darwin was born in 1809 in Shrewsbury, England. His father, a doctor, had high hopes that his son would earn a medical degree at Edinburgh University in Scotland, where he enrolled at the age of sixteen. It turned out that Darwin was more interested in natural history than medicine—it was said that the sight of blood made him sick to his stomach. While he continued his studies in theology at Cambridge, it was his focus on natural history that became his passion.

In 1831, Darwin embarked on a voyage aboard a ship of the British Royal Navy, the HMS Beagle, employed as a naturalist . The main purpose of the trip was to survey the coastline of South America and chart its harbors to make better maps of the region. The work that Darwin did was just an added bonus.

Darwin spent much of the trip on land collecting samples of plants, animals, rocks, and fossils . He explored regions in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and remote islands such as the Galápagos. He packed all of his specimens into crates and sent them back to England aboard other vessels.

Upon his return to England in 1836, Darwin’s work continued. Studies of his samples and notes from the trip led to groundbreaking scientific discoveries. Fossils he collected were shared with paleontologists and geologists, leading to advances in the understanding of the processes that shape the Earth’s surface. Darwin’s analysis of the plants and animals he gathered led him to question how species form and change over time. This work convinced him of the insight that he is most famous for— natural selection . The theory of natural selection says that individuals of a species are more likely to survive in their environment and pass on their genes to the next generation when they inherit traits from their parents that are best suited for that specific environment. In this way, such traits become more widespread in the species and can lead eventually to the development of a new species .

In 1859, Darwin published his thoughts about evolution and natural selection in On the Origin of Species . It was as popular as it was controversial. The book convinced many people that species change over time—a lot of time—suggesting that the planet was much older than what was commonly believed at the time: six thousand years.

Charles Darwin died in 1882 at the age of seventy-three. He is buried in Westminster Abbey in London, England.

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Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin


Who Was Charles Darwin?

Charles Robert Darwin was a British naturalist and biologist known for his theory of evolution and his understanding of the process of natural selection. In 1831, he embarked on a five-year voyage around the world on the HMS Beagle , during which time his studies of various plants and an led him to formulate his theories. In 1859, he published his landmark book, On the Origin of Species .

Darwin was born on February 12, 1809, in the tiny merchant town of Shrewsbury, England. A child of wealth and privilege who loved to explore nature, Darwin was the second youngest of six kids.

Darwin came from a long line of scientists: His father, Dr. R.W. Darwin, was a medical doctor, and his grandfather, Dr. Erasmus Darwin, was a renowned botanist. Darwin’s mother, Susanna, died when he was only eight years old.

His father hoped he would follow in his footsteps and become a medical doctor, but the sight of blood made Darwin queasy. His father suggested he study to become a parson instead, but Darwin was far more inclined to study natural history.

While Darwin was at Christ's College, botany professor John Stevens Henslow became his mentor. After Darwin graduated Christ's College with a bachelor of arts degree in 1831, Henslow recommended him for a naturalist’s position aboard the HMS Beagle .

The ship, commanded by Captain Robert FitzRoy, was to take a five-year survey trip around the world. The voyage would prove the opportunity of a lifetime for the budding young naturalist.

On December 27, 1831, the HMS Beagle launched its voyage around the world with Darwin aboard. Over the course of the trip, Darwin collected a variety of natural specimens, including birds, plants and fossils.


Charles Darwin Fact Card

Darwin in the Galapagos

Through hands-on research and experimentation, he had the unique opportunity to closely observe principles of botany, geology and zoology. The Pacific Islands and Galapagos Archipelago were of particular interest to Darwin, as was South America.

Upon his return to England in 1836, Darwin began to write up his findings in the Journal of Researches , published as part of Captain FitzRoy's larger narrative and later edited into the Zoology of the Voyage of the Beagle .

The trip had a monumental effect on Darwin’s view of natural history. He began to develop a revolutionary theory about the origin of living beings that ran contrary to the popular view of other naturalists at the time.

Theory of Evolution

Darwin’s theory of evolution declared that species survived through a process called "natural selection," where those that successfully adapted or evolved to meet the changing requirements of their natural habitat thrived and reproduced, while those species that failed to evolve and reproduce died off.

Through his observations and studies of birds, plants and fossils, Darwin noticed similarities among species all over the globe, along with variations based on specific locations, leading him to believe that the species we know today had gradually evolved from common ancestors.

Darwin’s theory of evolution and the process of natural selection later became known simply as “Darwinism.”

At the time, other naturalists believed that all species either came into being at the start of the world or were created over the course of natural history. In either case, they believed species remained much the same throughout time.

'Origin of Species'

In 1858, after years of scientific investigation, Darwin publicly introduced his revolutionary theory of evolution in a letter read at a meeting of the Linnean Society . On November 24, 1859, he published a detailed explanation of his theory in his best-known work, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.

In the next century, DNA studies provided scientific evidence for Darwin’s theory of evolution. However, controversy surrounding its conflict with Creationism — the religious view that all of nature was born of God — is still found among some people today.

Social Darwinism

Social Darwinism is a collection of ideas that emerged in the late 1800s that adopted Darwin’s theory of evolution to explain social and economic issues.

Darwin himself rarely commented on any connections between his theories and human society. But while attempting to explain his ideas to the public, Darwin borrowed widely understood concepts, such as “survival of the fittest” from sociologist Herbert Spencer.

Over time, as the Industrial Revolution and laissez faire capitalism swept across the world, social Darwinism has been used as a justification for imperialism, labor abuses, poverty, racism, eugenics and social inequality.

Following a lifetime of devout research, Charles Darwin died at his family home, Down House, in London, on April 19, 1882. He was buried at Westminster Abbey .

More than a century later, Yale ornithologist Richard Brum sought to revive Darwin's lesser-known theory on sexual selection in The Evolution of Beauty .

While Darwin's original attempts to cite female aesthetic mating choices as a driving force of evolution was criticized, Brum delivered an effective argument via his expertise in birds, earning selection to The New York Times ' list of 10 best books of 2017.


  • Name: Charles Darwin
  • Birth Year: 1809
  • Birth date: February 12, 1809
  • Birth City: Shrewsbury
  • Birth Country: England
  • Gender: Male
  • Best Known For: Charles Darwin was a British naturalist who developed a theory of evolution based on natural selection. His views and “social Darwinism” remain controversial.
  • Science and Medicine
  • Astrological Sign: Aquarius
  • University of Edinburgh
  • Interesting Facts
  • Although Charles Darwin originally went to college to be a physician, he changed career paths when he realized that he couldn't stomach the sight of blood.
  • Charles Darwin had a mountain named after him, Mount Darwin, in Tierra del Fuego for his 25th birthday. The monumental gift was given by Captain FitzRoy.
  • Death Year: 1882
  • Death date: April 19, 1882
  • Death City: Downe
  • Death Country: England

We strive for accuracy and fairness.If you see something that doesn't look right, contact us !


  • Article Title: Charles Darwin Biography
  • Author: Biography.com Editors
  • Website Name: The Biography.com website
  • Url: https://www.biography.com/scientists/charles-darwin
  • Access Date:
  • Publisher: A&E; Television Networks
  • Last Updated: March 29, 2021
  • Original Published Date: April 3, 2014
  • A man who dares to waste one hour of time has not discovered the value of life.
  • [How great the] difference between savage and civilized man is—it is greater than between a wild and [a] domesticated animal.
  • If all men were dead, then monkeys make men. Men make angels.
  • I am a complete millionaire in odd and curious little facts.
  • Multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die.
  • For the shield may be as important for victory, as the sword or spear.
  • I see no good reason why the views given in this volume should shock the religious feelings of anyone."[In 'Origin of the Species']
  • A grain in the balance may determine which individuals shall live and which shall die—which variety or species shall increase in number, and which shall decrease, or finally become extinct.
  • If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down. But I can find out no such case.
  • The extinction of species and of whole groups of species, which has played so conspicuous a part in the history of the organic world, almost inevitably follows from the principle of natural selection.
  • There is grandeur in this view of life...from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

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Darwin: From the Origin of Species to the Descent of Man

This entry offers a broad historical review of the origin and development of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection through the initial Darwinian phase of the “Darwinian Revolution” up to the publication of the Descent of Man in 1871. The development of evolutionary ideas before Darwin’s work has been treated in the separate entry evolutionary thought before Darwin . Several additional aspects of Darwin’s theory of evolution and his biographical development are dealt with in other entries in this encyclopedia (see the entries on Darwinism ; species ; natural selection ; creationism ). The remainder of this entry will focus on aspects of Darwin’s theory not developed in the other entries. It will also maintain a historical and textual approach. Other entries in this encyclopedia cited at the end of the article and the bibliography should be consulted for discussions beyond this point. The issues will be examined under the following headings:

1.1 Historiographical Issues

1.2 darwin’s early reflections, 2.1. the concept of natural selection.

  • 2.2. The Argument of the Published Origin

3.1 The Popular Reception of Darwin’s Theory

3.2 the professional reception of darwin’s theory, 4.1 the genesis of darwin’s descent, 4.2 darwin on mental powers, 4.3 the ethical theory of the descent of man.

  • 4.4 The Reception of the Descent

5. Summary and Conclusion

Other internet resources, related entries, acknowledgments, 1. the origins of darwin’s theory.

Charles Darwin’s version of transformism has been the subject of massive historical and philosophical scholarship almost unparalleled in any other area of the history of science. This includes the continued flow of monographic studies and collections of articles on particular aspects of Darwin’s theory (Prestes 2023; R. J. Richards and Ruse 2016; Ruse 2013a, 2009a,b,c; Ruse and Richards 2009; Hodge and Radick 2009; Hösle and Illies 2005; Gayon 1998; Bowler 1996; Depew and Weber 1995; Kohn 1985a). The continuous production of popular and professional biographical studies on Darwin provides ever new insights (Ruse et al. 2013a; Johnson 2012; Desmond and Moore 1991, 2009; Browne 1995, 2002; Bowlby 1990; Bowler 1990). In addition, major editing projects on Darwin’s manuscripts and the completion of the Correspondence , project through the entirety of Darwin’s life, continue to reveal details and new insights into the issues surrounding Darwin’s own thought (Keynes [ed.] 2000; Burkhardt et al. [eds] 1985–2023; Barrett et al. [eds.] 1987). The Cambridge Darwin Online website (see Other Internet Resources ) serves as an international clearinghouse for this worldwide Darwinian scholarship, functioning as a repository for electronic versions of all the original works of Darwin, including manuscripts and related secondary materials. It also supplies a continuously updated guide to current literature.

A long tradition of scholarship has interpreted Darwin’s theory to have originated from a framework defined by endemic British natural history, a British tradition of natural theology defined particularly by William Paley (1743–1805), the methodological precepts of John Herschel (1792–1871), developed in his A Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy (1830 [1987]), and the geological theories of Charles Lyell (1797–1875). His conversion to the uniformitarian geology of Charles Lyell and to Lyell’s advocacy of “deep” geological time during the voyage of the HMS Beagle (December 1831–October 1836), has been seen as fundamental in his formation (Norman 2013; Herbert 2005; Hodge 1983). Complementing this predominantly anglophone historiography has been the social-constructivist analyses emphasizing the origins of Darwin’s theories in British Political Economy (Young 1985: chps. 2, 4, 5). It has also been argued that a primary generating source of Darwin’s inquiries was his involvement with the British anti-slavery movement, a concern reaching back to his revulsion against slavery developed during the Beagle years (Desmond and Moore 2009).

A body of recent historiography, on the other hand, drawing on the wealth of manuscripts and correspondence that have become available since the 1960s (online at Darwin online “Papers and Manuscripts” section, see Other Internet Resources ) has de-emphasized some of the novelty of Darwin’s views and questions have been raised regarding the validity of the standard biographical picture of the early Darwin. These materials have drawn attention to previously ignored aspects of Darwin’s biography. In particular, the importance of his Edinburgh period from 1825–27, largely discounted in importance by Darwin himself in his late Autobiography , has been seen as critical for his subsequent development (Desmond and Moore 1991; Hodge 1985). As a young medical student at the University of Edinburgh (1825–27), Darwin developed a close relationship with the comparative anatomist Robert Edmond Grant (1793–1874) through the student Plinian Society, and in many respects Grant served as Darwin’s first mentor in science in the pre- Beagle years (Desmond and Moore 1991, chp. 1). Through Grant he was exposed to the transformist theories of Jean Baptiste Lamarck and the Cuvier-Geoffroy debate centered on the Paris Muséum nationale d’histoire naturelle (see entry on evolutionary thought before Darwin , Section 4).

These differing interpretive frameworks make investigations into the origins of Darwin’s theory an active area of historical research. The following section will explore these origins.

In its historical origins, Darwin’s theory was different in kind from its main predecessors in important ways (Ruse 2013b; Sloan 2009a; see also the entry on evolutionary thought before Darwin ). Viewed against a longer historical scenario, Darwin’s theory does not deal with cosmology or the origins of the world and life through naturalistic means, and therefore was more restricted in its theoretical scope than its main predecessors influenced by the reflections of Georges Louis LeClerc de Buffon (1707–1788), Johann Herder (1744–1803, and German Naturphilosophen inspired by Friederich Schelling (1775–1854) . This restriction also distinguished Darwin’s work from the grand evolutionary cosmology put forth anonymously in 1844 by the Scottish publisher Robert Chambers (1802–1871) in his immensely popular Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation , a work which in many respects prepared Victorian society in England, and pre-Civil War America for the acceptance of a general evolutionary theory in some form (Secord 2000; MacPherson 2015). It also distinguishes Darwin’s formulations from the theories of his contemporary Herbert Spencer (1820–1903).

Darwin’s theory first took written form in reflections in a series of notebooks begun during the latter part of the Beagle voyage and continued after the return of the Beagle to England in October of 1836 (Barrett et al., 1987). His reflections on the possibility of species change are first entered in March of 1837 (“Red Notebook”) and are developed in the other notebooks (B–E) through July of 1839 (Barrett et al. 1987; Hodge 2013a, 2009). Beginning with the reflections of the third or “D” “transmutation” Notebook, composed between July and October of 1838, Darwin first worked out the rudiments of what was to become his theory of natural selection. In the parallel “M” and “N” Notebooks, dating between July of 1838 and July of 1839, and in a loose collection called “Old and Useless Notes”, dating from approximately 1838–40, he also developed many of his main ideas on human evolution that would only be made public in the Descent of Man of 1871 (below, Section 4).

To summarize a complex issue, these Notebook reflections show Darwin proceeding through a series of stages in which he first formulated a general theory of the transformation of species by historical descent from common ancestors. He then attempted to work out a causal theory of life that would explain the tendency of life to complexify and diversify (Hodge 2013a, 2009, 1985; Sloan 1986). This causal inquiry into the underlying nature of life, and with it the search for an explanation of life’s innate tendency to develop and complexify, was then replaced by a dramatic shift in focus away from these inquiries. This concern with a causal theory of life was then replaced by a new emphasis on external forces controlling population, a thesis developed from his reading of Thomas Malthus’s (1766–1834) Essay on the Principle of Population (6th ed. 1826). For Malthus, human populaton was assumed to expand geometrically, while food supply expanded arithmetically, leading to an inevitable struggle of humans for existence. The impact of Darwin’s reading of this edition of the Essay in August of 1838, was dramatic. It enabled him to theorize the existence of a constantly-acting dynamic force behind the transformation of species.

Darwin’s innovation was to universalize the Malthusian “principle of population” to apply to all of nature. In so doing, Darwin effectively introduced what may be termed an “inertial” principle into his theory, although such language is never used in his text. Newton’s first law of motion, set forth in his Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (1st ed. 1687), established his physical system upon the tendency of all material bodies to persist eternally either at rest or in uniform motion in a straight line, requiring a causal force explanation for any deviations from this initial state. But Newton did not seek a deeper metaphysical explanation of this inertial state. Law One is simply an “axiom” in Newton’s Principia. Similarly, the principle of population supplied Darwin with the assumption of an initial dynamic state of affairs that was not itself explained within the theory—there is no attempt to account causally for this tendency of living beings universally to reproduce geometrically. Similarly for Darwin, the principle of population functions axiomatically, defining a set of initial conditions from which any deviance from this ideal state demands explanation.

This theoretical shift enabled Darwin to bracket his earlier efforts to develop a causal theory of life, and focus instead on the means by which the dynamic force of population was controlled. This allowed him to emphasize how controls on population worked in company with the phenomenon of slight individual variation between members of the same species, in company with changing conditions of life, to produce a gradual change of form and function over time, leading to new varieties and eventually to new species. This opened up the framework for Darwin’s most important innovation, the concept of “natural” selection.

2. Darwinian Evolution

The primary distinguishing feature of Darwin’s theory that separates it from previous explanations of species change centers on the causal explanation he offered for how this process occurred. Prior theories, such as the theory of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (see entry on evolutionary thought before Darwin ), relied on the inherent dynamic properties of matter. The change of species was not, in these pre-Darwinian efforts, explained through an adaptive process. Darwin’s emphasis after the composition of Notebook D on the factors controlling population increase, rather than on a dynamic theory of life grounded in vital forces, accounts for many of the differences between Darwin’s theory and those of his predecessors and contemporaries.

These differences can be summarized in the concept of natural selection as the central theoretical component of Darwinian theory. However, the exact meaning of this concept, and the varying ways he stated the principle in the Origin over its six editions (1859–1872), has given rise to multiple interpretations of the meaning of this principle in the history of Darwinism, and the different understandings of his meaning deeply affected different national and cultural receptions of his theory (see below, Section 3 .1).

One way to see the complexity of Darwin’s own thinking on these issues is to follow the textual development of this concept from the close of the Notebook period (1839) to the publication of the Origin of Species in 1859. This period of approximately twenty years involved Darwin in a series of reflections that form successive strata in the final version of his theory of the evolution of species. Understanding the historical sequence of these developments also has significance for subsequent controversies over this concept and the different readings of the Origin as it went through its successive revisions. This historical development of the concept also has some bearing on assessing Darwin’s relevance for more general philosophical questions, such as those surrounding the relevance of his theory for such issues as the concept of a more general teleology of nature.

The earliest set of themes in the manuscript elaboration of natural selection theory can be characterized as those developed through a particular form of the argument from analogy. This took the form of a strong “proportional” form of the analogical argument that equated the relation of human selection to the development of domestic breeds as an argument of the basic form: human selection is to domestic variety formation as natural selection is to natural species formation (White, Hodge and Radick 2021, chps. 4–5). This makes a direct analogy between the actions of nature with those of humans in the process of selection. The specific expressions, and changes, in this analogy are important to follow closely. As this was expressed in the first coherent draft of the theory, a 39-page pencil manuscript written in 1842, this discussion analogized the concept of selection of forms by human agency in the creation of the varieties of domestic animals and plants, to the active selection in the natural world by an almost conscious agency, a “being infinitely more sagacious than man (not an omniscient creator)” who acts over “thousands and thousands of years” on “all the variations which tended towards certain ends” (Darwin 1842 in Glick and Kohn 1996, 91). This agency selects out those features most beneficial to organisms in relation to conditions of life, analogous in its action to the selection by man on domestic forms in the production of different breeds. Interwoven with these references to an almost Platonic demiurge are appeals to the selecting power of an active “Nature”:

Nature’s variation far less, but such selection far more rigid and scrutinizing […] Nature lets <<an>> animal live, till on actual proof it is found less able to do the required work to serve the desired end, man judges solely by his eye, and knows not whether nerves, muscles, arteries, are developed in proportion to the change of external form. (Ibid., 93)

These themes were continued in the 230 page draft of his theory of 1844. Again he referred to the selective action of a wise “Being with penetration sufficient to perceive differences in the outer and innermost organization quite imperceptible to man, and with forethought extending over future centuries to watch with unerring care and select for any object the offspring of an organism produced” (Darwin 1844 in ibid., 101). This selection was made with greater foresight and wisdom than human selection. As he envisions the working of this causal agency,

In accordance with the plan by which this universe seems governed by the Creator, let us consider whether there exist any secondary means in the economy of nature by which the process of selection could go on adapting, nicely and wonderfully, organisms, if in ever so small a degree plastic, to diverse ends. I believe such secondary means do exist. (Ibid., 103).

Darwin returned to these issues in 1856, following a twelve-year period in which he published his Geological Observations on the Volcanic Islands (1844), the second edition of his Journal of Researches (1845), Geological Observations on South America (1846), the four volumes on fossil and living barnacles ( Cirripedia ) (1851, 54, 55), and Geological Observations on Coral Reefs (1851). In addition, he published several smaller papers on invertebrate zoology and on geology, and reported on his experiments on the resistance of seeds to salt water, a topic that would be of importance in his explanation of the population of remote islands.

These intervening inquiries positioned Darwin to deal with the question of species permanence against an extensive empirical background. The initial major synthesis of these investigations takes place in his long manuscript, or “Big Species Book”, commenced in 1856, known in current scholarship as the “Natural Selection” manuscript. This formed the immediate background text behind the published Origin . Although incomplete, the “Natural Selection” manuscript provides insights into many critical issues in Darwin’s thinking. It was also prepared with an eye to the scholarly community. This distinguishes its content and presentation from that of the subsequent “abstract” which became the published Origin of Species . “Natural Selection” contained tables of data, references to scholarly literature, and other apparatus expected of a non-popular work, none of which appeared in the published Origin .

The “Natural Selection” manuscript also contained some new theoretical developments of relevance to the concept of natural selection that are not found in earlier manuscripts. Scholars have noted the introduction in this manuscript of the “principle of divergence”, the thesis that organisms under the action of natural selection will tend to radiate and diversify within their “conditions of life”—the contemporary name for the complex of environmental and species-interaction relationships (Kohn 1985b, 2009). Although the concept of group divergence under the action of natural selection might be seen as an implication of Darwin’s theory from his earliest formulations of the 1830s, nonetheless Darwin’s explicit definition of this as a “principle”, and its discussion in a long late insertion in the “Natural Selection” manuscript, suggests its importance for Darwin’s mature theory. The principle of divergence was now seen by Darwin to form an important link between natural variation and the conditions of existence under the action of the driving force of population increase.

Still evident in the “Natural Selection” manuscript is Darwin’s implicit appeal to some kind of teleological ordering of the process. The action of the masculine-gendered “wise being” of the earlier manuscripts, however, has now been given over entirely to the action of a selective “Nature”, now referred to in the traditional feminine gender. This Nature,

…cares not for mere external appearance; she may be said to scrutinise with a severe eye, every nerve, vessel & muscle; every habit, instinct, shade of constitution,—the whole machinery of the organisation. There will be here no caprice, no favouring: the good will be preserved & the bad rigidly destroyed.… Can we wonder then, that nature’s productions bear the stamp of a far higher perfection than man’s product by artificial selection. With nature the most gradual, steady, unerring, deep-sighted selection,—perfect adaption [sic] to the conditions of existence.… (Darwin 1856–58 [1974: 224–225])

The language of this passage, directly underlying statements about the action of “natural selection” in the first edition of the published Origin , indicates the complexity in the exegesis of Darwin’s meaning of “natural selection” when viewed in light of its historical genesis (Ospovat 1981). The parallels between art and nature, the intentionality implied in the term “selection”, the notion of “perfect” adaptation, and the substantive conception of “nature” as an agency working toward certain ends, all render Darwin’s views on teleological purpose more complex than they are typically interpreted from the standpoint of contemporary Neo-selectionist theory (Lennox 1993, 2013). As will be discussed below, the changes Darwin subsequently made in his formulations of this concept over the history of the Origin have led to different conceptions of what he meant by this principle.

The hurried preparation and publication of the Origin between the summer of 1858 and November of 1859 was prompted by the receipt on June 18 of 1858 of a letter and manuscript from Alfred Russel Wallace (1823–1913) that outlined his remarkably similar views on the possibility of continuous species change under the action of a selection upon natural variation (Wallace 1858 in Glick and Kohn 1996, 337–45). This event had important implications for the subsequent form of Darwin’s published argument. Rapidly condensing the detailed arguments of the unfinished “Natural Selection” manuscript into shorter chapters, Darwin also universalized several claims that he had only developed with reference to specific groups of organisms, or which he had applied only to more limited situations in the manuscript. This resulted in a presentation of his theory at the level of broad generalization. The absence of tables of data, detailed footnotes, and references to the secondary literature in the published version also resulted in predictable criticisms which will be discussed below in Section 3.2 .

2.2. The Central Argument of the Published Origin

The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservaton of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life was issued in London by the publishing house of John Murray on November 24, 1859 (Darwin 1859 [1964]). The structure of the argument presented in the published Origin has been the topic of considerable literature and can only be summarized here. Although Darwin himself described his book as “one long argument”, the exact nature of this argument is not immediately transparent, and alternative interpretations have been made of his reasoning and rhetorical strategies in formulating his evolutionary theory. (Prestes 2023; White, Hodge and Radick 2021; Hodge 2013b, 1977; Hoquet 2013; Hull 2009; Waters 2009; Depew 2009; Ruse 2009; Lennox 2005; Hodge 1983b).

The scholarly reconstruction of Darwin’s methodology employed in the Origin has taken two primary forms. One approach has been to reconstruct it from the standpoint of currently accepted models of scientific explanation, sometimes presenting it as a formal deductive model (Sober 1984). Another, more historical, approach interprets his methodology in the context of accepted canons of scientific explanation found in Victorian discussions of the period (see the entry on Darwinism ; Prestes 2023; White, Hodge and Radick 2021; Hodge 2013b, 1983b, 1977; Hoquet 2013; Hull 2009; Waters 2009; Depew 2009; Lennox 2005). The degree to which Darwin did in fact draw from the available methodological discussions of his contemporaries—John Herschel, William Whewell, John Stuart Mill—is not fully clear from available documentary sources. The claim most readily documented, and defended particularly by White, Hodge and Radick (2021) and M. J. S. Hodge (1977, 1983a), has emphasized the importance of John Herschel’s A Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy (1830 [1987]), which Darwin read as a young student at Cambridge prior to his departure on the HMS Beagle in December of 1831.

In Herschel’s text he would have encountered the claim that science seeks to determine “true causes”— vera causae— of phenomena through the satisfaction of explicit criteria of adequacy (Herschel, 1830 [1987], chp. 6). This concept Newton had specified in the Principia as the third of his “Rules of Reasoning in Philosophy” (see the entry on Newton’s philosophy , Section 4). Elucidation of such causes was to be the goal of scientific explanation. Vera causae , in Herschel’s formulation, were those necessary to produce the given effects; they were truly active in producing the effects; and they adequately explained these effects.

The other plausible methodological source for Darwin’s mature reasoning was the work of his older contemporary and former Cambridge mentor, the Rev. William Whewell (1794–1866), whose three-volume History of the Inductive Sciences (Whewell 1837) Darwin read with care after his return from his round-the-world voyage (Ruse 2013c, 1975). On this reading, a plausible argument has been made that the actual structure of Darwin’s text is more closely similar to a “Whewellian” model of argument. In Whewell’s accounts of his philosophy of scientific methodology (Whewell 1840, 1858), the emphasis of scientific inquiry is, as Herschel had also argued, to be placed on the discovery of “true causes”. But evidence for the determination of a vera causa was to be demonstrated by the ability of disparate phenomena to be drawn together under a single unifying “Conception of the Mind”, exemplified for Whewell by Newton’s universal law of gravitation. This “Consilience of Inductions”, as Whewell termed this process of theoretical unification under a few simple concepts, was achieved only by true scientific theories employing true causes (Whewell 1840: xxxix). It has therefore been argued that Darwin’s theory fundamentally produces this kind of consilience argument, and that his methodology is more properly aligned with that of Whewell.

A third account, related to the Whewellian reading, is that of David Depew. Building on Darwin’s claim that he was addressing “the general naturalist public,” Darwin is seen as developing what Depew has designated as “situated argumentation”, similar to the views developed by contemporary Oxford logician and rhetorical theorist Richard Whately (1787–1863) (Depew 2009). This rhetorical strategy proceeds by drawing the reader into Darwin’s world by personal narration as it presents a series of limited issues for acceptance in the first three chapters, none of which required of the reader a considerable leap of theoretical assent, and most of which, such as natural variation and Malthusian population increase, had already been recognized in some form in the literature of the period.

As Darwin presented his arguments to the public, he opens with a pair of chapters that draw upon the strong analogy developed in the manuscripts between the action of human art in the production of domestic forms, and the actions of selection “by nature.” The resultant forms are presumed to have arisen through the action of human selection on the slight variations existing between individuals within the same species. The interpretation of this process as implying directional, and even intentional, selection by a providential “Nature” that we have seen in the manuscripts was, however, downplayed in the published work through the importance given by Darwin to the role of “unconscious” selection, a concept not encountered in the Natural Selection manuscript. Such selection denotes the practice even carried out by aboriginal peoples who simply seek to maintain the integrity and survival of a breed or species by preserving the “best” forms.

The domestic breeding analogy is, however, more than a decorative rhetorical strategy. It repeatedly functions for Darwin as the principal empirical example to which he could appeal at several places in the text as a means of visualizing the working of natural selection in nature, and this appeal remains intact through the six editions of the Origin.

From this model of human selection working on small individual natural variations to produce the domestic forms, Darwin then developed in the second chapter the implications of “natural” variation, delaying discussion of the concept of natural selection until Chapter IV. The focus of the second chapter introduces another important issue. Here he extends the discussion of variation developed in Chapter I into a critical analysis of the common understanding of classification as grounded on the definition of species and higher groups based on the possession of essential defining properties. It is in this chapter that Darwin most explicitly develops his own position on the nature of organic species in relation to his theory of descent. It is also in this chapter that he sets forth the ingredients for his attack on one meaning of species “essentialism”.

Darwin’s analysis of the “species question” involves a complex argument that has many implications for how his work was read by his contemporaries and successors, and its interpretation has generated a considerable literature (see the entries on species and Darwinism ; Mallet 2013; R. A. Richards 2010; Wilkins 2009; Stamos 2007; Sloan 2009b, 2013; Beatty 1985).

Prior tradition had been heavily affected by eighteenth-century French naturalist Buffon’s novel conception of organic species in which he made a sharp distinction between “natural” species, defined primarily by fertile interbreeding, and “artificial” species and varieties defined by morphological traits and measurements upon these (see the entry on evolutionary thought before Darwin , Section 3.3). This distinction was utilized selectively by Darwin in an unusual blending of two traditions of discussion that are conflated in creative ways in Darwin’s analysis.

Particularly as the conception of species had been discussed by German natural historians of the early nineteenth-century affected by distinctions introduced by philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), “Buffonian” species were defined by the material unity of common descent and reproductive continuity. This distinguished them by their historical and material character from the taxonomic species of the “Linnean” tradition of natural history. This distinction between “natural” and “logical” species had maintained a distinction between problems presented in the practical classification of preserved specimens, distinguished by external characters, and those relating to the unity of natural species, which was grounded upon reproductive unity and the sterility criterion (Sloan 2009b).

Remarkable in Darwin’s argument is the way in which he draws selectively in his readings from these two preexistent traditions to undermine the different grounds of species “realism” assumed within both of these traditions of discourse. One framework—what can be considered in his immediate context the “Linnean” tradition—regarded species in the sense of universals of logic or class concepts, whose “reality” was often grounded on the concept of divine creation. The alternative “Buffonian” tradition viewed species more naturalistically as material lineages of descent whose continuity was determined by some kind of immanent principle, such as the possession of a conserving “internal mold” or specifying vital force (see evolutionary thought before Darwin 3.3). The result in Darwin’s hands is a complex terminological interweaving of concepts of Variety, Race, Sub-species, Tribe, and Family that can be shown to be a fusion of different traditions of discussion in the literature of the period. This creative conflation also led to many confusions among his contemporaries about how Darwin actually did conceive of species and species change in time.

Darwin addresses the species question by raising the problems caused by natural variation in the practical discrimination of taxa at the species and varietal levels, an issue with which he had become closely familiar in his taxonomic revision of the Sub-class Cirripedia (barnacles) in his eight-year study on this group. Although the difficulty of taxonomic distinctions at this level was a well-recognized problem in the literature of the time, Darwin subtly transforms this practical problem into a metaphysical ambiguity—the fuzziness of formal taxonomic distinctions created by variation in preserved specimens is seen to imply a similar ambiguity of “natural” species boundaries.

We follow this in reading how natural variation is employed by Darwin in Chapter Two of the Origin to break down the distinction between species and varieties as these concepts were commonly employed in the practical taxonomic literature. The arbitrariness apparent in making distinctions, particularly in plants and invertebrates, meant that such species were only what “naturalists having sound judgment and wide experience” defined them to be ( Origin 1859 [1964], 47). These arguments form the basis for claims by his contemporaries that Darwin was a species “nominalist”, who defined species only as conventional and convenient divisions of a continuum of individuals.

But this feature of Darwin’s discussion of species captures only in part the complexity of his argument. Drawing also on the tradition of species realism developed within the “Buffonian” tradition, Darwin also affirmed that species and varieties are defined by common descent and material relations of interbreeding. Darwin then employed the ambiguity of the distinction between species and varieties created by individual variation in practical taxonomy to undermine the ontological fixity of “natural” species. Varieties are not simply the formal taxonomic subdivisions of a natural species as conceived in the Linnaean tradition. They are, as he terms them, “incipient” species (ibid., 52). This subtly transformed the issue of local variation and adaptation to circumstances into a primary ingredient for historical evolutionary change. The full implications to be drawn from this argument were, however, only to be revealed in Chapter Four of the text.

Before assembling the ingredients of these first two chapters, Darwin then introduced in Chapter Three the concept of a “struggle for existence”. This concept is introduced in a “large and metaphorical sense” that included different levels of organic interactions, from direct struggle for food and space to the struggle for life of a plant in a desert. Although described as an application of Thomas Malthus’s parameter of geometrical increase of population in relation to the arithmetical increase of food supply, Darwin’s use of this concept in fact reinterprets Malthus’s principle, which was formulated only with reference to human population in relation to food supply. It now becomes a general principle governing all of organic life. Thus all organisms, including those comprising food for others, would be governed by the tendency to geometrical increase.

Through this universalization, the controls on population become only in the extreme case grounded directly on the traditional Malthusian limitations of food and space. Normal controls are instead exerted through a complex network of relationships of species acting one on another in predator-prey, parasite-host, and food-web relations. This profound revision of Malthus’s arguments rendered Darwin’s theory deeply “ecological” as this term would later be employed. We can cite two thought experiments employed by Darwin himself as illustrations (ibid., 72–74). The first concerns the explanation of the abundance of red clover in England. This Darwin sees as dependent on the numbers of pollinating humble bees, which are controlled in turn by the number of mice, and these are controlled by the number of cats, making cats the remote determinants of clover abundance. The second instance concerns the explanation of the abundance of Scotch Fir. In this example, the number of fir trees is limited indirectly by the number of cattle.

With the ingredients of the first three chapters in place, Darwin was positioned to assemble these together in his grand synthesis of Chapter Four on “natural” selection. In this long discussion, Darwin develops the main exposition of his central theoretical concept. For his contemporaries and for the subsequent tradition, however, the meaning of Darwin’s concept of “natural” selection was not unambiguously evident for reasons we have outlined above, and these unclarities were to be the source of several persistent lines of disagreement and controversy.

The complexities in Darwin’s presentation of his central principle over the six editions of the published Origin served historically to generate several different readings of his text. In the initial introduction of the principle of natural selection in the first edition of Darwin’s text, it is characterized as “preservation of favourable variations and the rejection of injurious variations” (ibid., 81). When Darwin elaborated on this concept in Chapter Four of the first edition, he continued to describe natural selection in language suggesting that it involved intentional selection, continuing the strong art-nature analogy found in the manuscripts. For example:

As man can produce and certainly has produced a great result by his methodical and unconscious means of selection, what may not nature effect? Man can act only on external and visible characters: nature cares nothing for appearances, except in so far as they may be useful to any being. She can act on every internal organ, on every shade of constitutional difference, on the whole machinery of life. Man selects only for his own good; Nature only for that of the being which she tends. Every selected character is fully exercised by her; and the being is placed under well-suited conditions of life. (Ibid., 83)

The manuscript history behind such passages prevents the simple discounting of these statements as mere rhetorical imagery. As we have seen, the parallel between intentional human selectivity and that of “nature” formed the proportional analogical model upon which the concept of natural selection was originally constructed.

Criticisms that quickly developed over the overt intentionality embedded in such passages, however, led Darwin to revise the argument in editions beginning with the third edition of 1861. From this point onward he explicitly downplayed the intentional and teleological language of the first two editions, denying that his appeals to the selective role of “nature” were anything more than a literary figure. Darwin then moved decisively in the direction of defining natural selection as the description of the action of natural laws working upon organisms rather than as an efficient or final cause of life. He also regrets in his Correspondence his mistake in not utilizing the designation “natural preservation” rather than “natural selection” to characterize his principle (letter to Lyell 28 September 1860, Burkhardt Correspondence 8, 397; also see Darwin Correspondence Project in Other Internet Resources ). In response to criticisms of Alfred Russel Wallace, Darwin then adopted in the fifth edition of 1869 his contemporary (1820–1903) Herbert Spencer’s designator, “survival of the fittest”, as a synonym for “natural selection” (Spencer 1864, 444–45; Darwin 1869, 72). This redefinition further shifted the meaning of natural selection away from the concept that can be extracted from the early texts and drafts. These final statements of the late 1860s and early 70s underlie the tradition of later “mechanistic” and non-teleological understandings of natural selection, a reading developed by his disciples who, in the words of David Depew, “had little use for either his natural theodicy or his image of a benignly scrutinizing selection” (Depew 2009, 253). The degree to which this change preserved the original strong analogy between art and nature can, however, be questioned. Critics of the use of this analogy had argued since the original formulations that the comparison of the two modes of selection actually worked against Darwin’s theory (Wallace 1858 in Glick and Kohn 1997, 343). This critique would also be leveled against Darwin in the critical review of 1867 by Henry Fleeming Jenkin discussed below.

The conceptual synthesis of Chapter Four also introduced discussions of such matters as the conditions under which natural selection most optimally worked, the role of isolation, the causes of the extinction of species, and the principle of divergence. Many of these points were made through the imaginative use of “thought experiments” in which Darwin constructed possible scenarios through which natural selection could bring about substantial change.

One prominent way Darwin captured for the reader the complexity of this process is reflected in the single diagram to appear in all the editions of the Origin . In this illustration, originally located as an Appendix to the first edition, but thereafter moved into Chapter Four, Darwin summarized his conception of how species were formed and diverged from common ancestral points. This image also served to depict the frequent extinction of most lineages, an issue developed in detail in Chapter Ten. It displayed pictorially the principle of divergence, illustrating the general tendency of populations to diverge and fragment under the pressure of population increase. It supplied a way of envisioning relations of taxonomic affinity to time, and illstrated the persistence of some forms unchanged over long geological periods in which stable conditions prevail.

Graph labeled on the horizontal-axis with the letters A to L and on the vertical-axis with Roman numerals I to XIV. From A branch up several dashed lines; all but two stop before reaching vertical-level I; from those two branch up several more dashed lines, some stop before the next vertical-level those that don't sprout up more lines, repeat though in some cases no line from a particular branch reaches the next vertical-level. Further description in the text following.

Figure: Tree of life diagram from Origin of Species ( Origin 1859:“Appendix”.

Remarkable about Darwin’s diagram of the tree of life is the relativity of its coordinates. It is first presented as applying only to the divergences taking place in taxa at the species level, with varieties represented by the small lower-case letters within species A–L of a “wide ranging genus”, with the horizontal lines representing time segments measured in terms of a limited number of generations. However, the attentive reader could quickly see that Darwin’s destructive analysis of the distinction between “natural” and “artificial” species in Chapter Two, implied the relativity of the species-variety distinction, this diagram could represent eventually all organic relationships, from those at the non-controversial level of diverging varieties within fixed species, to those of the relations of Species within different genera. Letters A–L could also represent taxa at the level of genera, families or orders. The diagram can thus be applied to relationships between all levels of the Linnaean hierarchy with the time segments representing potentially vast expanses of time, and the horizontal spread of branches the degree of taxonomic divergence over time. In a very few pages of argument, the diagram was generalized to represent the most extensive group relations, encompassing the whole of geological time. Extension of the dotted lines at the bottom could even suggest, as Darwin argues in the last paragraph of the Origin , that all life was a result of “several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one” (Darwin 1859 [1964], 490). This could suggest a single naturalistic origin of all original forms either by material emergence, or through the action of a vitalistic power of life. Darwin’s use of Biblical language could also be read as allowing for the action of a supernatural cause.

In response to criticisms concerning this latter point, Darwin quickly added to the final paragraph in the second edition of 1860 the phrase “by the Creator” (1860: 484), which remained in all subsequent editions. as did the quotations on the frontispiece from familiar discussions in British natural theology concerning creation by secondary causation. Conceptual space was thereby created for the reading of the Origin by some contemporaries, notably by the Harvard botanist Asa Gray (1810–88), as compatible with traditional natural theology (Gray 1860).

The sweep of the theoretical generalization that closed the natural selection chapter, one restated even more generally in the final paragraph of the book, required Darwin to deal with several obvious objections to the theory that constitute the main “defensive” chapters of the Origin (Five–Nine), and occupy him through the numerous revisions of the text between 1859 and 1872. As suggested by David Depew, the rhetorical structure of the original text developed in an almost “objections and response” structure that resulted in a constant stream of revisions to various editions of the original text as Darwin engaged his opponents (Depew 2009; Peckham 2006). Anticipating at first publication several obvious lines of objection, Darwin devoted much of the text of the original Origin to offering a solution in advance to predictable difficulties. As Darwin outlined these main lines of objection, he discussed, first, the apparent absence of numerous slight gradations between species, both in the present and in the fossil record, of the kind that would seem to be predictable from the gradualist workings of the theory (Chps. Six, Nine). Second, the gradual development of organs and structures of extreme complexity, such as the vertebrate eye, an organ which had since Antiquity served as a mainstay of the argument for external teleological design (Chp. Six). Third, the evolution of the elaborate instincts of animals and the puzzling problem of the evolution of social insects that developed sterile neuter castes, proved to be a particularly difficult issue for Darwin in the manuscript phase of his work and needed some account (Chp. Seven). As a fourth major issue needing attention, the traditional distinction between natural species defined by interfertility, and artificial species defined by morphological differences, required an additional chapter of analysis in which he sought to undermine the absolute character of the interbreeding criterion as a sign of fixed natural species (Chp. Eight).

In Chapter Ten, Darwin developed his interpretation of the fossil record. At issue was the claim by Lamarckian and other transformists, as well as Cuvierian catastrophists such as William Buckland (1784–1856) (see the entry on evolutionary thought before Darwin , Section 4.1), that the fossil record displayed a historical sequence beginning with simpler plants and animals, arriving either by transformism or replacement, at the appearance of more complex forms in geological history. Opposition to this thesis of “geological progressionism” had been made by none other than Darwin’s great mentor in geology, Charles Lyell in his Principles of Geology (Lyell 1832 [1990], vol. 2, chp. xi; Desmond 1984; Bowler 1976). Darwin defended the progressionist view against Lyell’s arguments in this chapter.

To each of the lines of objection to his theory, Darwin offered his contemporaries plausible replies. Additional arguments were worked out through the insertion of numerous textual insertions over the five revisions of the Origin between 1860 and 1872, including the addition of a new chapter to the sixth edition dealing with “miscellaneous” objections, responding primarily to the criticisms of St. George Jackson Mivart (1827–1900) developed in his Genesis of Species (Mivart 1871).

For reasons related both to the condensed and summary form of public presentation, and also as a reflection of the bold conceptual sweep of the theory, the primary argument of the Origin could not gain its force from the data presented by the book itself. Instead, it presented an argument from unifying simplicity, gaining its force and achieving assent from the ability of Darwin’s theory to draw together in its final synthesizing chapters (Ten–Thirteen) a wide variety of issues in taxonomy, comparative anatomy, paleontology, biogeography, and embryology under the simple principles worked out in the first four chapters. This “consilience” argument might be seen as the best reflection of the impact of William Whewell’s methodology (see above).

As Darwin envisioned the issue, with the acceptance of his theory, “a grand untrodden field of inquiry will be opened” in natural history. The long-standing issues of species origins, if not the the explanation of the ultimate origins of life, as well as the causes of their extinction, had been brought within the domain of naturalistic explanation. It is in this context that he makes the sole reference in the text to the claim that “light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history”. And in a statement that will foreshadow the important issues of the Descent of Man of 1871, he speaks of how “Psychology will be based on a new foundation, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation” (ibid., 488)

3. The Reception of the Origin

The broad sweep of Darwin’s claims, the brevity of the empirical evidence actually supplied in the Origin , and the implications of his theory for several more general philosophical and theological issues, opened up a controversy over Darwinian evolution that has waxed and waned over more than 160 years. The theory was inserted into a complex set of different national and cultural receptions the study of which currently forms a scholarly industry in its own right. European, Latin American and Anglophone receptions have been most deeply studied (Bowler 2013a; Gayon 2013; Largent 2013; Glick 1988, 2013; Glick and Shaffer 2014; Engels and Glick 2008; Gliboff 2008; Numbers 1998; Pancaldi, 1991; Todes 1989; Kelly 1981; Hull 1973; Mullen 1964). To these have been added analyses of non-Western recptions (Jin 2020, 2019 a,b; Yang 2013; Shen 2016; Elshakry 2013; Pusey 1983). These analyses display common patterns in both Western and non-Western readings of Darwin’s theory, in which these receptions were conditioned, if not determined, by the pre-existing intellectual, scientific, religious, social, and political contexts into which his works were inserted.

In the anglophone world, Darwin’s theory fell into a complex social environment that in the United States meant into the pre-Civil War slavery debates (Largent 2013; Numbers 1998). In the United Kingdom it was issued against the massive industrial expansion of mid-Victorian society, and the development of professionalized science. To restrict focus to aspects of the British reading public context, the pre-existing popularity of the anonymous Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation of 1844, which had reached 11 editions and sold 23,350 copies by December of 1860 (Secord “Introduction” to Chambers 1844 [1994], xxvii]), with more editions to appear by the end of the century, certainly prepared the groundwork for the general notion of the evolutionary origins of species by the working of secondary natural laws. The Vestiges ’s grand schema of a teleological development of life, from the earliest beginnings of the solar system in a gaseous nebula to the emergence of humanity under the action of a great “law of development”, had also been popularized for Victorian readers by Alfred Lord Tennyson’s epic poem In Memoriam (1850). This Vestiges backdrop provided a context in which some could read Darwin as supplying additional support for the belief in an optimistic historical development of life under teleological guidance of secondary laws with the promise of ultimate historical redemption. Such readings also rendered the Origin seemingly compatible with the progressive evolutionism of Darwin’s contemporary Herbert Spencer (see the entry on Herbert Spencer ). Because of these similarities, Spencer’s writings served as an important vehicle by which Darwin’s views, modified to fit the progressivist views expounded by Spencer, were first introduced in non-Western contexts (Jin 2020, 2019 a,b; Lightman [ed.] 2015; Pusey 1983). Such popular receptions ignored or revised Darwin’s concept of evolution by natural selection to fit these progressivist alternatives.

Outside the United Kingdom, the receptions of Darwin’s work display the importance of local context and pre-existent intellectual and social conditions. Three examples—France, Germany, and China—can be elaborated upon. In France, Darwin’s theory was received against the background of the prior debates over transformism of the 1830s that pitted the theories of Lamarck and Etienne Geoffroy St. Hilaire against Cuvier (Gayon 2013; entry on evolutionary thought before Darwin , 4.1). At least within official French Academic science, these debates had been resolved generally in favor of Cuvier’s anti-transformism. The intellectual framework provided by the “positive philosophy” of Auguste Comte (1798–1857) also worked both for and against Darwin. On one hand, Comte’s emphasis on the historical progress of science over superstition and metaphysics allowed Darwin to be summoned in support of a theory of the progress of science. The Origin was so interpreted in the preface to the first French translation of the Origin made by Clémence Royer (Harvey 2008). On the other hand, the Comtean three stages view of history, with its claim of the historical transcendence of speculative and metaphysical periods of science by a final period of experimental science governed by determinate laws, placed Darwinism in a metaphysical phase of speculative nature philosophy. This view is captured by the assessment of the leading physiologist and methodologist of French Science, Claude Bernard (1813–78). As he stated this in his 1865 treatise on scientific methodology, Darwin’s theory was to be regarded with those of “a Goethe, an Oken, a Carus, a Geoffroy Saint Hilaire”, locating it within speculative philosophy of nature rather than granting it the status of “positive” science (Bernard 1865 [1957], 91–92]).

In the Germanies, Darwin’s work entered a complex social, intellectual and political situation in the wake of the failed efforts to establish a liberal democracy in 1848. It also entered an intellectual culture strongly influenced by the pre-existent philosophical traditions of Kant, Schelling’s Naturphilosophie , German Romanticism, and the Idealism of Fichte and Hegel (R. J. Richards 2002, 2008, 2013; Gliboff 2007, 2008; Mullen 1964). These factors formed a complex political and philosophical environment into which Darwin’s developmental view of nature and theory of the transformation of species was quickly assimilated, if also altered. Many readings of Darwin consequently interpreted his arguments against the background of Schelling’s philosophy of nature. The marshalling of Darwin’s authority in debates over scientific materialism were also brought to the fore by the enthusiastic advocacy of Darwinism in Germany by University of Jena professor of zoology Ernst Heinrich Haeckel (1834–1919). More than any other individual, Haeckel made Darwinismus a major player in the polarized political and religious disputes of Bismarckian Germany (R. J. Richards 2008). Through his polemical writings, such as the Natural History of Creation (1868), Anthropogeny (1874), and Riddle of the Universe (1895–99), Haeckel advocated a materialist monism in the name of Darwin, and used this as a stick with which to beat traditional religion. Much of the historical conflict between religious communities and evolutionary biology can be traced back to Haeckel’s polemical writings, which went through numerous editions and translations, including several English and American editions that appeared into the early decades of the twentieth century.

To turn to a very different context, that of China, Darwin’s works entered Chinese discussions by a curious route. The initial discussions of Darwinian theory were generated by the translation of Thomas Henry Huxley’s 1893 Romanes Lecture “Evolution and Ethics” by the naval science scholar Yan Fu (1854–1921), who had encountered Darwinism while being educated at the Royal Naval College in Greenwich from 1877 to 1879. This translation of Huxley’s lecture, published in 1898 under the name of Tianyan Lun , was accompanied with an extensive commentary by Yan Fu that drew heavily upon the writings of Herbert Spencer which Yan Fu placed in opposition to the arguments of Huxley. This work has been shown to have been the main vehicle by which the Chinese learned indirectly of Darwin’s theory (Jin 2020, 2019 a, b; Yang 2013; Pusey 1983). In the interpretation of Yan Fu and his allies, such as Kan Yuwei (1858–1927), Darwinism was given a progressivist interpretation in line with aspects of Confucianism.

Beginning in 1902, a second phase of Darwinian reception began with a partial translation of the first five chapters of the sixth edition of the Origin by the Chinese scientist, trained in chemistry and metallurgy in Japan and Germany, Ma Junwu (1881–1940). This partial translation, published between 1902 and 1906, again modified the text itself to agree with the progressive evolutionism of Spencer and with the progressivism already encountered in Yan Fu’s popular Tianyan Lun. Only in September of 1920 did the Chinese have Ma Junwu’s full translation of Darwin’s sixth edition. This late translation presented a more faithful rendering of Darwin’s text, including an accurate translation of Darwin’s final views on natural selection (Jin 2019 a, b). As a political reformer and close associate of democratic reformer Sun Yat-Sen (1866–1925), Ma Junwu’s interest in translating Darwin was also was involved with his interest in revolutionary Chinese politics (Jin 2019a, 2022).

The reception of the Origin by those who held positions of professional research and teaching positions in universities, leadership positions in scientific societies, and employment in museums, was complex. These individuals were typically familiar with the empirical evidence and the technical scientific issues under debate in the 1860s in geology, comparative anatomy, embryology, biogeography, and classification theory. This group can usually be distinguished from lay interpreters who may not have made distinctions between the views of Lamarck, Chambers, Schelling, Spencer, and Darwin on the historical development of life.

If we concentrate attention on the reception by these professionals, Darwin’s work received varied endorsement (Hull 1973). Many prominent members of Darwin’s immediate intellectual circle—Adam Sedgwick, William Whewell, Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, and Thomas Huxley—had previously been highly critical of Chambers’s Vestiges in the 1840s for its speculative character and its scientific incompetence (Secord 2000). Darwin himself feared a similar reception, and he recognized the substantial challenge facing him in convincing this group and the larger community of scientific specialists with which he interacted and corresponded widely. With this group he was only partially successful.

Historical studies have revealed that only rarely did members of the scientific elites accept and develop Darwin’s theories exactly as they were presented in his texts. Statistical studies on the reception by the scientific community in England in the first decade after the publication of the Origin have shown a complicated picture in which there was neither wide-spread conversion of the scientific community to Darwin’s views, nor a clear generational stratification between younger converts and older resisters, counter to Darwin’s own predictions in the final chapter of the Origin (Hull et al. 1978). These studies also reveal a distinct willingness within the scientific community to separate acceptance of Darwin’s more general claim of species descent with modification from common ancestors from the endorsement of his explanation of this descent through the action of natural selection on slight morphological variations.

Of central importance in analyzing this complex professional reception was the role assigned by Darwin to the importance of normal individual variation as the source of evolutionary novelty. As we have seen, Darwin had relied on the novel claim that small individual variations—the kind of differences considered by an earlier tradition as merely “accidental”—formed the raw material upon which, by cumulative directional change under the action of natural selection, major changes could be produced sufficient to explain the origin and subsequent differences in all the various forms of life over time. Darwin, however, left the specific causes of this variation unspecified beyond some effect of the environment on the sexual organs. Variation was presented in the Origin with the statement that “the laws governing inheritance are quite unknown” (Darwin 1859 [1964], 13). In keeping with his commitment to the gradualism of Lyellian geology, Darwin also rejected the role of major “sports” or other sources of discontinuous change in this process.

As critics focused their attacks on the claim that such micro-differences between individuals could be accumulated over time without natural limits, Darwin began a series of modifications and revisions of the theory through a back and forth dialogue with his critics that can be followed in his revisions to the text of the Origin . In the fourth edition of 1866, for example, Darwin inserted the claim that the continuous gradualism depicted by his branching diagram was misleading, and that transformative change does not necessarily go on continuously. “It is far more probable that each form remains for long periods unaltered, and then again undergoes modification” (Darwin 1866, 132; Peckham 2006, 213). This change-stasis-change model allowed variation to stabilize for a period of time around a mean value from which additional change could then resume. Such a model would, however, presumably require even more time for its working than the multi-millions of years assumed in the original presentation of the theory.

The difficulties in Darwin’s arguments that had emerged by 1866 were highlighted in a lengthy and telling critique in 1867 by the Scottish engineer Henry Fleeming Jenkin (1833–1885) (typically Fleeming Jenkin). Using an argument previously raised in the 1830s by Charles Lyell against Lamarck, Fleeming Jenkin cited empirical evidence from domestic breeding that suggested a distinct limitation on the degree to which normal variation could be added upon by selection (Fleeming Jenkin 1867 in Hull 1973). Using a loosely mathematical argument, Fleeming Jenkin argued that the effects of intercrossing would continuously swamp deviations from the mean values of characters and result in a tendency of the variation in a population to return to mean values over time. It is also argued that domestic evidence does not warrant an argument for species change. For Fleeming Jenkin, Darwin’s reliance on continuous additive deviation was presumed to be undermined by these arguments, and only more dramatic and discontinuous change—something Darwin explicitly rejected—could account for the origin of new species.

Fleeming Jenkin also argued that the time needed by Darwin’s theory to account for the history of life under the gradual working of natural selection was simply unavailable from scientific evidence, supporting this claim by an appeal to the physical calculations of the probable age of the solar system presented in publications by his mentor, the Glasgow physicist William Thompson (Lord Kelvin, 1824–1907) (Burchfield 1975). On the basis of Thompson’s quantitative physical arguments concerning the age of the sun and solar system, Fleeming Jenkin judged the time since the presumed first beginnings of life to be insufficient for the Darwinian gradualist theory of species transformation to have taken place.

Jenkin’s multi-pronged argument gave Darwin considerable difficulties and set the stage for more detailed empirical inquiries into variation and its causes by Darwin’s successors. The time difficulties were only resolved in the twentieth-century with the discovery of radioactivity that could explain why the sun did not lose heat in accord with Newtonian principles.

As a solution to the variation question, Darwin developed his “provisional hypothesis” of pangenesis, which he presented the year after the appearance of the Fleeming Jenkin review in his two-volume Variation of Plants and Animals Under Domestication (Darwin 1868; Olby 2013). Although this theory had been formulated independently of the Jenkin review (Olby 1963), in effect it functioned as Darwin’s reply to Jenkin’s critique. The pangenesis theory offered a causal theory of variation and inheritance through a return to a theory resembling Buffon’s theory of the organic molecules proposed in the previous century (see entry on evolutionary thought before Darwin section 3.2). Invisible material “gemmules” were presumed to exist within the cells. According to theory, these were subject to external alteration by the environment and other external causes. The gemmules were then shed continually into the blood stream (the “transport” hypothesis) and assembled by “mutual affinity for each other, leading to their aggregation either into buds or into the sexual elements” (Darwin 1868, vol. 2, 375). In this form they were then transmitted—the details were not explained—by sexual generation to the next generation to form the new organism out of “the modified physiological units of which the organism is built” (ibid., 377). In Darwin’s view, this hypothesis united together numerous issues into a coherent and causal theory of inheritance and explained the basis of variation. It also explained how use-disuse inheritance, a theory which Darwin never abandoned, could work.

The pangenesis theory, although not specifically referred to, seems to be behind an important distinction Darwin inserted into the fifth edition of the Origin of 1869 in his direct reply to the criticisms of Jenkin. In this textual revision, Darwin distinguished “certain variations, which no one would rank as mere individual differences”, from ordinary variations (Darwin1869, 105; Peckham 2006, 178–179). This revision shifted Darwin’s emphasis away from his early reliance on normal slight individual variation, and gave new status to what he now termed “strongly marked” variations. The latter were now the forms of variation to be given primary evolutionary significance. Presumably this strong variation was more likely to be transmitted to the offspring, although details are left unclear, and in this form major variation could presumably be maintained in a population against the tendency to swamping by intercrossing as Fleeming Jenkin had argued.

Darwin’s struggles over this issue defined a set of problems that British life scientists in particular were to deal with into the 1930s. These debates over the role of somatic variation in the evolutionary process placed Darwinism in a defensive posture that forced its supporters into major revisions in the Darwinian research program (Gayon 1998; Vorzimmer 1970). The consequence was a complex period of Darwinian history in which natural selection theory was rejected by many research, or defended in modified form by others (Bowler 1983, 2013a; Largent 2009).

4. Human Evolution and the Descent of Man

Darwin had retained his own conclusions on human evolution quietly in the background through the 1860’s while the defense of his general theory was conducted by advocates as diverse as Thomas Henry Huxley (1825–95) in England, Asa Gray (1810–88) in the United States, and Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919) in the emerging new Germany. Darwin’s own position on the “human question” remained unclear to the reading public, and his rhetorical situating of the Origin within a tradition of divine creation by secondary law, captured in the frontispiece quotations from William Whewell and Francis Bacon, allowed many before 1871 to see Darwin as more open to religious interpretations of human origins than those of some of his popularizers.

Darwin’s interest in developing his insights into the origins of human beings and the explanation of human properties through descent with modification was, however, evident in his correspondence as early as January of 1860 when he began collecting evidence on the expressions of the emotions in human beings (Browne 2002, chp. 9). He then developed a questionnaire specifically intended to gain such information from contacts in Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego (Radick 2018). Further engagement with these issues was then generated by the discussions of Lyell (1863) and A. R. Wallace (1864), both of whom suggested that natural selection could not account for the development of the “higher” rational faculties, language, and ethical motivation (R. J. Richards 1987, chp. 4). It was then in February of 1867 that Darwin decided to remove material from his massive manuscript of the Variation of Plants and Animals Under Domestication to create a “very small volume, ‘an essay on the origin of mankind’” (Darwin to Hooker, 8 February 1867 and CD to Turner, 11 February 1867, Burkhardt, Correspondence 15: 74, 80). At this time he also sent to several international correspondents a more detailed questionnaire asking for information on human emotional expression. Further impetus to develop his views was created by the arguments of William R. Greg (1809–1881) in an essay in Fraser’s Magazine (1868), with further support by arguments of A. R. Wallace in 1869, both of whom drew a sharp distinction between human properties and those of animals (R. J. Richards 1987, 172–184). These arguments denied that natural selection could explain the origins of these “higher powers”.

Darwin’s drafting of his views on human issues, begun in early 1868, expanded into a major enterprise in which he became deeply engaged with the issue of the implications of his theory for ethics. The result of this effort devoted to anthropological topics was two separate works: the Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex , delivered to the publisher in June of 1870 with publication in 1871, and its companion, Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals , which he commenced in early 1871 with publication in early 1872.

As commentators have noted, these two works differ markedly in their arguments, and reflect different relationships to Darwin’s causal theories of natural and sexual selection, with sexual selection predominting over natural selection for the major portion of the Descent , and both of these causal theories generally missing from the descriptive approach of the Expression (Radick 2018).

Sexual selection—the choosing of females by males or vice versa for breeding purposes—had received a general statement by Darwin in Chapter IV of the Origin , but this played only a minor role in the original argument, and its importance was denied by co-evolutionist A. R. Wallace. In the Descent this was now developed in extensive detail as a major factor in evolution that could even work against ordinary natural selection. Sexual selection could be marshaled to explain sexual dimorphism, and also the presence of unusual characters and properties of organisms—elaborate feeding organs, bright colors, and other seemingly maladaptive structures such as the antlers on the Irish Elk or the great horn on the Rhinoceros beetle—that would appear anomalous outcomes of ordinary natural selection working for the optimal survival of organisms in nature. In a dramatic extension of the principle to human beings, the combination of natural and sexual selection is used to explain the origins of human beings from simian ancestors. It also accounts for the sexual dimorphism in humans, and is a major factor accounting for the origin of human races (E. Richards 2017; R. A. Richards 2013).

Although the secondary causal role of sexual selection in the development of species generally was to be the main topic of the bulk of the Descent , this plays an ambiguous role initially in the “treatise on man” that occupies the initial chapters, and functions differently in his treatment of the origins of mental powers, the moral sense, and the origin of races in this opening discussion.

In constructing this presentation, Darwin reaches back to the early Notebooks that he had separated out from the “transformist” discussions to deal with his inquiries into ethics, psychology, and emotions (see Section 1.2 above). Of particular importance for the opening discussions of the Descent was the “M” notebook, commenced in July of 1838, and “N”, begun in October of that year. On occasion he also samples the collection of entries now entitled “Old and Useless Notes”, generally written between 1838 and 1840.

The initial topic of focus in the Descent deals with the far-reaching issues concerning the status and origin of human mental properties, faculties presumed traditionally to be possessed uniquely by human beings. These properties Darwin now places on an evolutionary continuum with those features of animal behavior long regarded as instinctual. In this he placed himself in opposition to the long tradition of discourse that had distinguished humans from animals due to the possession of a “rational principle” related to their possession of a rational soul. This tradition had been given a more radical foundation in the revolutionary reflections on the relation of mind and body initiated by René Descartes (1596–1650) in the middle of the seventeenth century. Descartes deepened this distinction with the separation of the two substances—thinking substance, or res cogitans , possessed only by humans, and extended material substance, res extensa that constituted the rest of the natural world, including animals and plants, rendering animals only lifeless machines without rational faculties.

Darwin’s collapse of this Cartesian barrier with his theory of human origins outlined in the Descent continued a discussion that had been a concern of his transformist predecessors, especially Jean Baptiste Lamarck (Sloan 1999). But Darwin took this issue to a new level as he interpreted the human-animal relationship in the context of his novel theory of divergent evolution from common ancestors. Darwin also broke with the view of humans as the summit of a natural teleological process. Darwin instead denies such teleological ordering, and effectively reduces human properties to those of animals—mental as well as physical—by tracing them to their origin in properties of lower organisms.

The warrant for the identification of human and animal mental properties, however, is not supported by substantial argumentation in the Descent. The opening discussions of the treatise summarize the anatomical evidence for “homologies” —true identities—between humans and animals due to descent from common ancestors, claims already set out in Chapter Thirteen of the Origin. But the transferal of this identity of structure to inner non-anatomical “mental” properties rested on premises that are not made explicit in this text, and were not identities drawn by Huxley, Wallace and Lyell, for example, in their treatments of humans in relation to evolutionary theory, although they acknowledged the anatomical continuities.

To understand Darwin’s arguments, it is useful to return to his Notebook discussions on which he was drawing for his reasoning (see above, Section 1.2). In his “C” Notebook, opened in February of 1838, Darwin has a remarkable entry that displays very early on his commitment to a metaphysical “monism”—the thesis that there is only one substance underlying both mind and body. With this goes the thesis of a parallelism of the complexity of mental properties with those of material structure. In this entry in “C” following on Darwin’s reflections on the issue of instinct, and also recording some of his observations on animals at the Regents Park zoological gardens, Darwin comments:

There is one living spirit, prevalent over this wor[l]d, (subject to certain contingencies of organic matter & chiefly heat), which assumes a multitude of forms <<each having acting principle>> according to subordinate laws.—There is one thinking […] principle (intimately allied to one kind of organic matter—brain. & which <prin> thinking principle. seems to be given or assumed according to a more extended relations [ sic ] of the individuals, whereby choice with memory, or reason ? is necessary.—) which is modified into endless forms, bearing a close relation in degree & kind to the endless forms of the living beings.— We see thus Unity in thinking and acting principle in the various shades of <dif> separation between those individuals thus endowed, & the community of mind, even in the tendency to delicate emotions between races, & recurrent habits in animals.— (Barrett 1987, 305)

As we follow these issues into the “M” Notebook, the assumption of a single “thinking principle,” allied to one kind of organic matter, seems then to underlie Darwin’s subsequent reflections on mind and matter. The “M” Notebook cites numerous “mental”properties common to humans and animals that generally parallel levels of material organization, similar to the identities expressed in the later Descent. The range of this universal extension of mental properties is far-reaching in these early discussions: consciousness and “free will” extends to all animals, including invertebrates:

With respect to free will, seeing a puppy playing cannot doubt that they have free will, if so all animals., then an oyster has & a polype (& a plant in some senses […]; now free will of oyster, one can fancy to be direct effect of organization, by the capacities its senses give it of pain or pleasure, if so free will is to mind, what chance is to matter […] (Barrett 1987, 536).

When these themes reappear in Chapter Two of the first edition of the Descent , Darwin seems to draw implicitly upon this matter-mind identity theory as an obvious consequence of his theory of descent from common ancestry. There he enumerates a long list of traditional human mental and emotional properties to claim that each of them are identities with the properties of simpler forms of life. The list is expansive: courage, deceit, play, kindness, maternal affection, self-complacency, pride, shame, sense of honor, wonder, dread, imitation, imagination, and dreaming. All are considered to be represented in a wide range of animals, with “play”and “recognition” found even in the ants.

When he addresses the more complex mental properties that specifically had been considered by a long tradition of discussion to be the distinctive human properties—possession of language, reason, abstract conceptual thinking, self-reflection—these again are treated as having their manifestations in other forms of life, with none of them unique to human beings. Language, the property that Descartes, for example, had considered to be the primary distinguishing character denoting the human possession of mind as distinct from matter, Darwin treats a developing in a gradual process from animal sounds that parallel the differentiation of species, illustrated by the fact that languages “like organic beings, can be classed in groups under groups” (Darwin 1871 [1981], 60). He closes his discussion of mental powers with an analysis of religious belief that derives it from imagination and belief in spirits found in aboriginal peoples. It can even be homologized with the “deep love of a dog for his master, associated with complete submissions, some fear, and perhaps other feelings” (ibid., 68). Darwin’s discussions of the relation of human and animal mental and emotional properties would set the agenda for a complex discussion that would carry into contemporary debates over animal cognition and the relations of human and animal properties (see the entries on animal cognition ; methods in comparative cognition ; and animal consciousness ).

The subsequent treatment of ethical issues in the third chapter of the Descent was for Darwin a topic to be approached “exclusively from the side of natural history” (ibid., 71). This issue also presented him with some of his most difficult conceptual problems (CD to Gray, 15 March 1870, Burkhardt, Correspondence 18, 68). In this discussion he also employs natural selection theory as an explanatory cause.

Under the heading of “Moral Sense”, Darwin offered some innovations in ethics that do not easily map on to standard ethical positions classified around the familiar categories of Rule or Act Utilitarianism, Kantian Deontology, Hedonism, and Emotivism. Darwin’s closest historical affinities are with the Scottish “Moral Sense” tradition of Frances Hutcheson (1694–1746), Adam Smith (1723?–1790), and David Hume (1711–1776). More immediately Darwin drew from the expositions of the moral sense theory by his distant relative, Sir James Macintosh (1765–1832) (R. J. Richards 1987, 114–122, 206–219).

Traditional moral sense theory linked ethical behavior to an innate property that was considered to be universal in human beings, although it required education and cultivation to reach its full expression (see the entry on moral sentimentalism ). This inherent property, or “moral” sense, presumably explained such phenomena as ethical conscience, the sense of moral duty, and it accounted for altruistic actions that could not be reduced to hedonic seeking of pleasure and avoiding pain. It also did not involve the rational calculation of advantage, or the maximization of greatest happiness by an individual prior to action, as implied by Utilitarianism. For this reason Darwin criticized John Stuart Mill’s version of Utilitarian theory because it relied on acquired habits and the calculation of advantage (Darwin 1871 [1981], 71n5).

Darwin’s reinterpretation of the moral sense tradition within his evolutionary framework also implied important transfomations of this theory of ethics. The moral sense was not to be distinguished from animal instinct but was instead derived historically from the social instincts and developed by natural selection. From this perspective, Darwin could claim a genuine identity of ethical foundations holding between humans and animals, with the precursors of human ethical behavior found in the behavior of other animals, particularly those with social organization. Natural selection then shaped these ethical instincts in ways that favored group survival over immediate individual benefit (ibid., 98). Human ethical behavior is therefore grounded in a natural property developed by natural selection, with the consequence that ethical actions can occur without moral calculus or rational deliberation.

When moral conflict occurs, this is generally attributed to a conflict of instincts, with the stronger of two conflicting instincts favored by natural selection insofar as it favors group benefit (ibid. 84). In human beings the “more enduring Social Instincts” thus come to override the less persistent “individual” instincts.

The adequacy of evolutionary ethical naturalism as a foundation for ethical realism proved to be a point of contention for Darwin’s contemporaries and successors following the publication of the Descent . For some moral philosophers, Darwin had simply reduced ethics to a property subject to the relativizing tendencies of natural selection (Farber 1994: chp. 5). It was, in the view of Darwin’s philosophical critics, to reduce ethics to biology and in doing so, to offer no way to distinguish ethical goods from survival advantages. Not even for some strong supporters of Darwinism, such as Thomas Huxley and Alfred Russel Wallace, was Darwin’s account adequate (ibid., chp. 4). Much of subsequent development of moral philosophy after Darwin would be grounded upon the canonical acceptance of the “is-ought” distinction, which emerged with new force from the critique of “evolutionary” ethical theory. This critique began with Thomas Huxley’s own break with Darwinian ethical theory in his Romanes Lecture, “Evolution and Ethics”of 1893 (Huxley 1893). This lecture, reflecting Huxley’s views eleven years after Darwin’s death, would play an important role in the Chinese reception of Darwinism (Huxley 1895; see above, section 3.1). This line of critique also received an influential academic expression in G. E. Moore’s (1873–1958) Principia Ethica —itself an attack on Spencer’s version of evolutionary ethics (Moore 1903). Debates over the adequacy of evolutionary ethics continue into the present (see the entries on biological altruism and morality and evolutionary biology ; see also, R. J. Richards 2015, 2009, 1999, 1987, Appendix 2; Charmetant 2013; Boniolo and DeAnna (eds.) 2006; Hauser 2006; Katz (ed.) 2000; Maienschein and Ruse (eds.) 1999).

4.4 Reception of the Descent

The international reception of the Descent of Man and Expression of the Emotions is a topic in need of the kind of detailed studies that surround the historical impact of the Origin. These works presented the reading public after 1871 with a more radical and controversial Darwin than had been associated with the author of the popular Journal of Researches or even the Origin itself, and his anthropological works created a watershed in the public reception of Darwin’s views (Radick 2013). The Descent finally made public Darwin’s more radical conclusions about human origins, and seemed to many of his readers, even those previously sympathetic to the Origin , to throw Darwin’s authority behind materialist and anti-religious forces. Public knowledge of Darwin’s own conclusions on human evolution before 1871 had rested on the one vague sentence on the issue in the Origin itself. The Descent made public his more radical conclusions. Even though the question of human evolution had already been dealt with in part by Thomas Huxley in his Man’s Place in Nature of 1863 (Huxley 1863), and by Charles Lyell in the same year in his Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man (Lyell 1863), followed by Alfred Russel Wallace’s articles in 1864 and 1870 (Wallace 1864 and online), these authors had either not dealt with the full range of questions presented by the inclusion of human beings in the evolutionary process, or they had emphasized the moral and mental discontinuity between humans and animals. Only Ernst Heinrich Haeckel had drawn out a more general reductive conception of humanity from evolutionary theory and he had not ventured into the specific issues of ethics, social organization, the origins of human races, and the relation of human mental properties to those of animals, all of which are dealt with in the Descent . Darwin’s treatise presented, as one commentator has put it, “a closer resemblance to Darwin’s early naturalistic vision than anything else he ever published” (Durant 1985, 294).

Darwin’s extension of his theory to a range of questions traditionally discussed within philosophy, theology, and social and political theory, has shaped the more general history of Darwinism since the 1870s. It set the agenda for much of the development of psychology of the late nineteenth century (R. J. Richards 1987). It also hardened the opposition of many religiously-based communities against evolutionary theory, although here again, distinctions must be made between different communities (Ellegård 1990, chp. 14). Such opposition was not simply based upon the denial of the literal scriptural account of the origins of humankind, an issue that played out differently within the main religious denominations (Haught 2013; Finnegan 2013; Swetlitz 2013; Artigas, Glick, & Martinez 2006; Moore 1979). The more fundamental opposition was due to the denial of distinctions, other than those of degree, between fundamental human properties and those of animals.

Furthermore, the apparent denial of some kind of divine guidance in the processes behind human evolution and the non-teleological character of Darwin’s final formulations of the natural selection theory in the fifth and sixth editions of the Origin , hardened this opposition. His adoption from Herbert Spencer of designator “survival of the fittest” as a synonym for “natural selection” in the fifth edition of 1869 added to this growing opposition. As a consequence, the favorable readings that many influential religious thinkers—John Henry Newman (1801–1890) is a good example—had given to the original Origin , disappeared. The rhetoric of the Descent , with its conclusion that “man is descended from a hairy quadruped, furnished with a tail and pointed ears” (Darwin 1871 [1981], 389), presented to the public a different Darwin than many had associated with the popular seagoing naturalist.

The new opposition to Darwin is reflected in the many hostile reviews of the Descent to appear in the periodical press (R. J. Richards 1987, 219–230). Particularly at issue were Darwin’s accounts of the origin of ethical principles and intelletual powers, including language, self-reflection, abstract thinking and religious belief as derivations from animal properties (Anon. 1871)

The profound revolution in thought that Darwin created, however, was eventually recognized even by his one-time harsh critics. The once leading British comparative anatomist Richard Owen (1804–1892), who had long been estranged from Darwin since his harsh review of the Origin in 1860, nonetheless could comment on the occasion of Darwin’s burial in Westminster Abbey in a letter to Horace Walpole:

The great value of Darwin’s series of works, summarizing all the evidence of Embryology, Paleontology, & Physiology experimentally applied in producing Varieties of Species, is exemplified in the general acceptance by Biologists of the Secondary Law, by Evolution, of the ‘Origin of Species’ […] In this respect Charles Darwin stands to Biology in the relation which Copernicus stood to Astronomy. […] [Copernicus] knew not how the planets revolved around the sun. To know that required the successive labours of a Galileo, a Kepler and finally a Newton […] Meanwhile our British Copernicus of Biology merits the honour and the gratitude of the Empire, which is manifest by a Statue in Westminster Abbey. (Richard Owen to Horace Walpole, 5 November, 1882, Royal College of Surgeons of England Archives, MS0025/1/5/4).

The subsequent history of the debates surrounding Darwin’s achievement forms a complex story that involves much of the history of life science, as well as ethical theory, psychology, philosophy, theology and social theory since 1870. For a general summary of recent scholarship see Ruse 2013a and articles from this encyclopedia listed below.

This article has intended to give a historical overview of the specific nature of Darwinian theory, and outline the ways in which it differed from the theories of predecessors in the nineteenth century (see the entry evolution before Darwin ). The eventual general consensus achieved by the middle of the twentieth century around the so-named “Synthetic” theory of evolution that would combine population genetics with a mathematical analysis of evolutionary change, has formed a successful research program for more than half a century (Smocovitis 1996; Mayr and Provine 1980; Provine 1971). This “synthesis” has been challenged in recent decades by the current movement known as evolutionary developmental theory, or “evo-devo”. This development represents in some important respects a return to presumably discarded traditions and lines of exploration of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries which sought to link evolution with embryological development, and to a complex understanding of genetics, with re-examination of the effects of external conditions on inheritance (Gilbert 2015; Newman 2015; Laubichler and Maienschein 2007; Gissis and Jablonka 2011; Pigliucci and Müller 2010; Amundson 2005; Gilbert, Opitz and Raff 1996). Where these debates and revisions in evolutionary theory may lead in another fifty years is a matter of speculation (Gayon 2015 in Sloan, McKenny and Eggleson 2015).

More general philosophical issues associated with evolutionary theory—those surrounding natural teleology, ethics, the relation of evolutionary naturalism to the claims of religious traditions, the implications for the relation of human beings to the rest of the organic world—continue as issues of scholarly inquiry. The status of Darwin’s accounts of human mental powers and moral properties continue to be issues of philosophical debate. The adequacy of his reliance on sexual selection to explain sex and gender roles in human society form heated topics in some feminist scholarship. Such developments suggest that there are still substantial theoretical issues at stake that may alter the future understanding of evolutionary theory in important ways (Sloan, McKenny, & Eggleson [eds] 2015).

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  • Artigas, Mariano, Thomas F. Glick, and Rafael A. Martínez, 2006, Negotiating Darwin: The Vatican Confronts Evolution, 1877–1902 , Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
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  • –––, 2013a, “Darwinism in Britain”, in Ruse 2013a: 218–225. doi:10.1017/CBO9781139026895.028
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  • –––, 1860, second edition [ Origin second edition available online ]
  • –––, 1861, third edition, [ Origin third edition available online ]
  • –––, 1862, first French edition, De l’origine des espèces , Clémence Royer (trans.), Paris: Guillaumin. [ Origin French first edition available online ]
  • –––, 1866, fourth edition, [ Origin fourth edition available online ]
  • –––, 1869, fifth edition, [ Origin fifth edition available online ]
  • –––, 1872, sixth edition, [ Origin sixth edition available online
  • –––, 1868, The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication , two volumes, London: John Murray. First edition available online
  • –––, 1871 [1981], The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex , two volumes, London: John Murray. Reprinted, ed John T. Bonner and Robert May, Princeton: Princeton University Press [ Descent 1871 available online ]
  • –––, 1872, Expression of the Emotions in Man and the Animals , London: John Murray. [ Expression available online ]
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  • Desmond, Adrian J., 1984, Archetypes and Ancestors: Palaeontology in Victorian London, 1850–1875 , Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • –––, and James R. Moore, 1991, Darwin , London: Michael Joseph.
  • –––, and James R. Moore, 2009, Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution , Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt.
  • Durant, John R., 1985, “The Ascent of Nature in Darwin’s Descent of Man ”, in Kohn 1985a: 283–306. doi:10.1515/9781400854714.283
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  • Elshakry, Marwa, 2013, Reading Darwin in Arabic, 1860–1950. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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How to cite this entry . Preview the PDF version of this entry at the Friends of the SEP Society . Look up topics and thinkers related to this entry at the Internet Philosophy Ontology Project (InPhO). Enhanced bibliography for this entry at PhilPapers , with links to its database.
  • The Complete Works of Charles Darwin Online , maintained by John van Wyhe, Cambridge University Library. In particular note the Darwin Papers & Manuscripts section
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  • Works by Ernst Heinrich Haeckel , Project Gutenberg.
  • Wallace Online , maintained by John van Wyhe, Cambridge University Library.

adaptationism | altruism | altruism: biological | animal: cognition | animal: consciousness | biology: philosophy of | comparative cognition, methods in | creationism | Darwinism | evolution: concept before Darwin | evolution: cultural | fitness | genetics: ecological | life | morality: and evolutionary biology | moral sentimentalism | natural selection | natural selection: units and levels of | Newton, Isaac: philosophy | species | Spencer, Herbert | teleology: teleological notions in biology | Whewell, William

The author wishes to acknowledge the valuable comments on this version of the article by David Depew, Gregory Radick, M. J. S. Hodge, Alan Love, and Xiaoxing Jin. Additional comments were made on an earlier version by Michael Ruse, Robert J. Richards, Edward Zalta, M. Katherine Tillman, and the anonymous reviewers for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. I am particularly indebted to Dr. Xiaoxing Jin for information contained in his substantial doctoral work and subsequent research on the reception of Darwinism into China. Responsibility for all interpretations is my own.

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How darwin’s theory of evolution evolved.

A new Smithsonian Book highlights firsthand accounts, diaries, letters and notebooks from aboard the HMS Beagle

Adrian Lister, Natural History Museum, London

Charles Darwin

The skulls and bones of extinct mammals were the crowning glory of Charles Darwin’s fossil collecting in South America, not only for him but for the eager recipients of the cargoes he sent home. They were the discoveries that made his name known beyond his immediate circle.

When the first consignment of fossil bones arrived at the Royal College of Surgeons in 1833, the puzzled curator, William Clift, recorded them as apparently “from a Mr Darwin at Rio de la Plata.” Only a few months later, however, after the specimens had been exhibited in Cambridge, Darwin's friend Frederick William Hope wrote to tell him that his “name was in every mouth.” Even more significantly, Darwin later credited the fossil mammals as one of the two main factors that led him to embrace the reality of evolution.

The most complete fossil of any mammal discovered by Darwin was an almost entire skeleton, later recognized as another new species of ground sloth by Richard Owen, a professor at the Royal College of Surgeons who described and named Darwin's fossils. It appears to have been found on the beach, partially embedded in loose sand, and Darwin concluded that the whole mass had fallen from the cliff.

The skeleton comprised the skull, vertebral column, ribs and limb bones down to the claws, “all nearly in their proper relative positions,” including even the kneecaps. This remarkable discovery was first noted by Darwin on September 1, 1833, and must have been made at some point during his second phase of collecting at Punta Alta, Argentina, the previous week.

Scelidotherium, Darwin's Fossils

Darwin quickly recognized the significance of finding an articulated skeleton; whereas odd bones might have been washed out of earlier deposits or fallen in from above, a complete skeleton embedded in sand demonstrated conclusively the contemporaneity of the living animal with the ancient deposit in which it was found. “Gran bestia all nonsense,” he exclaimed in his notebook, referring to a local legend, for it was perfectly clear that the remains were ancient and not those of a mysterious creature that still roamed the Pampas.

He wrote to his sister Caroline that he had discovered the skeleton of an animal “of which I do not think there exists at present on the globe any relation.” Later he wondered if it might represent the same species as the mandible whose four teeth he had previously illustrated, subsequently named Mylodon darwinii . On detailed comparison, however, Owen confirmed it as a different genus, smaller and with a more elongate skull, and named it Scelidotherium leptocephalum.

Another sloth species discovered by Darwin was found in November 1833 during his two-week excursion across present-day Uruguay. It was part of the back of a skull, later named Glossotherium by Owen. The find was made in the same stream, the Sarandi, where a larger, more complete skull of the celebrated mammal Toxodon had been discovered. It is not quite clear whether Darwin himself found the Glossotherium specimen at the stream, or obtained it from the finder together with the Toxodon , although the former seems more likely. At any event the specimen, which Darwin described as from “an animal rather larger than the horse,” was remarkable for its superb state of preservation; he wrote that it appeared “so fresh that it was difficult to believe [it had] lain buried for ages under ground.”

Glossotherium, Darwin's Fossils

Darwin's Fossils: The Collection That Shaped the Theory of Evolution

Richly illustrated with photos from the fossil collection and line drawings produced when Darwin was alive, Lister’s work is an essential acquisition for every library prizing quality books on evolution.

Not only was the appearance of the bone fresher than any of his other fossil finds, it preserved delicate parts that are usually broken away in ancient remains. This included the tympanic bone, one of the tiny ear bones. Its preservation in place in the skull lead Owen to praise “the care and attention devoted to his specimens by their gifted discoverer.”

Darwin wanted to know more. He held a piece of the bone in the flame of a spirit-lamp, finding that it not only burnt with a small flame, but “exhaled a very strong animal odour.” He sent a piece to Trenham Reeks at the Museum of Economic Geology in London, who had undertaken chemical analyses of several of his rock samples, asking what percentage of animal matter it contained. By this he meant organic material aside from bone mineral, and the answer was 7 percent. We would now recognize that around a quarter of the original protein content had been retained. The remarkable state of preservation of this skull, and its different appearance from others in Darwin’s collection, make it very likely to have fallen from a higher, later level in the river bank than the Toxodon and glyptodont remains found nearby.

Having only a fragment of skull at his disposal, Owen was characteristically cautious and identified it as an edentate without specifying to which group it belonged. A large attachment surface for the bone supporting the tongue, and a wide hole for the nerve supplying the latter, led him to reconstruct a very large tongue and to devise the name Glossotherium (tongue-beast). He later abandoned the name, considering the skull to belong the same species as the jaw that he had named Mylodon darwinii .

It is now recognized as being distinct, however, so Owen’s name has been reinstated and the species is known as Glossotherium robustum . Owen considered the animal might have been an insect-eater, breaking open termite nests like an anteater, but it is now known to have been herbivorous in its habits. Its wide muzzle suggests unselective bulk-feeding on grasses and low-growing herbs.

Glossotherium, Darwin's Fossils

In 2017, based on collagen protein extracted from Darwin's Glossotherium skull, a radiocarbon date of around 12,660 years ago was obtained. This is one of the latest known records of the genus, close to the time of its extinction. Glossotherium robustum had an estimated body weight of around 1.5 tonnes [1 ton U.S.].

In spite of this, a remarkable recent suggestion is that Glossotherium and/or Scelidotherium may have constructed large burrows to escape predation or unfavorable weather. Several lines of evidence support this idea. First, several large “fossil burrows” have been discovered, especially in the area around Buenos Aires, their diameter of 3 to 4.5 feet matches the body width of these species. Second, the forelimb bones of these animals appear modified for very powerful movements like digging. Third, claw marks have been found on the inside of some of the burrows, forming pairs of grooves that match closely the claws of the large second and third digits seen in these species. These sloths would be by far the largest animals known to burrow in this way—and one of the fossil burrows is more than 130 feet in length.

Darwin’s discovery on this journey of four genera of large ground sloths, Mylodon, Glossotherium, Scelidotherium and Megatherium was remarkable, and also serendipitous in that the area in which he was collecting happened to be the only region where all four could have been found together. Mylodon is distributed in the southern half of the continent, Glossotherium in the northern half, and Scelidotherium in the middle. The genus Megatherium is widespread, but M. americanum is known mainly from Argentina. Only in the Pampas region and La Plata basin do they overlap. The differing forms of their skulls, and teeth and limbs show how several species could have co-existed in the Late Pleistocene, using different food and habitat resources.

For Darwin, the relationship of the extinct giant sloths to the living species was one of the examples that led him to his “law of succession of types,” whereby there was an affinity between the past and present inhabitants of a particular region (in this case South America). This general pattern was one of the key factors that ultimately persuaded him of the reality of evolution.

Darwin’s Fossils: Discoveries that Shaped the Theory of Evolution by Adrian Lister, a research leader in the earth science department at the Natural History Museum, London, is published by Smithsonian Books.

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Charles Darwin: Biography, Theories, Contributions

Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."

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Biography of Charles Darwin

  • Best Known For

Natural Selection and Evolution

  • Controversies
  • Research on Emotions
  • Views on Women
  • Contributions

Charles Darwin was a renowned British naturalist and biologist best known for his theory of evolution through natural selection. His theory that all life evolved from a common ancestor is now a cornerstone of modern science, making Darwin one of the most influential individuals in history. It is difficult to overstate the monumental influence his work has had on our scientific understanding of the world.

This article discusses Charles Darwin's life and work, including his famous theory of natural selection as well as some of his lesser-known research on human emotion.

Charles Darwin was born in Shrewsbury, England, on February 12, 1809. His father was a wealthy doctor, and his grandfather on his mother's side was the noted potter Josiah Wedgwood. After his mother’s death when he was eight, Darwin began attending boarding school with his older brother. 

Darwin originally began his studies at the University of Edinburgh Medical School, but later developed an interest in ministry and botany, eventually receiving his degree from Cambridge in 1831.

His famed voyage to the Galapagos Islands led to the observations that served as the basis for Darwin's groundbreaking theory of natural selection.

In 1839, Darwin married his cousin Emma Wedgwood. They had 10 children together, with seven surviving to adulthood. In 1859, he published his observations and ideas in his book "On the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection."

Darwin's ideas were heavily debated in his own time and continue to spark controversy today. In contrast to this, Darwin himself lived a secluded life at his home in England, where he continued to work as a highly regarded scientist.

Darwin died on April 19, 1882, and is buried at Westminster Abbey in London, England.

Darwin's Illness

For much of his adult life, Darwin had an undiagnosed chronic illness that limited his activities. Symptoms included physical complaints such as stomach pain and dizziness, as well as signs of panic attacks such as shortness of breath and heart palpitations.

One theory suggests that he may have had panic disorder with agoraphobia . This diagnosis would also explain his secluded lifestyle, difficulty with public speaking, and struggles when meeting with colleagues.

Other proposed diagnoses include mercury poisoning, allergies, Crohn's disease, and irritable bowel syndrome. However, many researchers now believe that he had an adult-onset mitochondrial disorder.

What Was Charles Darwin Most Famous For?

Charles Darwin is most famous for his theory of evolution through the process of natural selection. Since introducing his ideas in “On the Origin of the Species,” his work has revolutionized the scientific understanding of how species evolve over time. This helped lay the foundation for modern biological sciences .

His Studies on the Galapagos Islands

During a voyage on a ship called the HMS Beagle, Darwin traveled to the Galapagos Islands, a journey that had a profound influence on his thinking and ideas. During this trip, he noticed interesting variations in the different species of finches that lived on the islands.

The beaks of these birds appeared to vary depending on the native food sources where the birds lived. Darwin hypothesized that the variations he observed resulted from natural selection that favored birds with beaks suited to the local food sources.  

There are 14 species of finches found on the Galapagos Islands, which are now collectively referred to as "Darwin's finches."

In “On the Origin of the Species,” Darwin suggested that all species on Earth, including humans, evolved from common ancestors. The diversity found in all species, he explained, results from changes that occur gradually over very long periods of time, a process he referred to as “descent with modification.” This happens through natural selection, where certain traits that benefit an organism's survival are more likely to be passed down. 

Because these organisms are more likely to survive and reproduce, those beneficial traits are more likely to be handed down. This leads to the adaptation and evolution of species.

Charles Darwin's concept of evolution through natural selection suggested that species change slowly over time as a response to their environment. This theory changed our scientific understanding of the diversity of life on Earth and laid the groundwork for the development of modern biology.

How Does Natural Selection Work?

According to Darwin, the individuals within a population possess variations, some of which are better suited to the environment in which they live. As a result, those with these adaptations are more likely to survive, reproduce, and thus pass these advantageous characteristics down to their offspring.

Over time, this process gradually leads the adaptive traits to become more prominent and can eventually lead to the emergence of new species.

The Five Principles of Natural Selection

The five principles of natural selection described by Charles Darwin can be remembered using the acronym VISTA, standing for variation, inheritance, selection, time, and adaptation.

  • Variation : In all populations of any species, there are individual variations in different traits. The species' members can vary in appearance, size, abilities, immunity, and numerous other characteristics. Many of these variations result from genetic inheritance but can also occur due to random mutations.
  • Inheritance : The various traits organisms possess can be inherited through genetic inheritance. In other words, when members of a species reproduce, their offspring are more likely to also possess those same traits.
  • Selection : Environmental resources are limited, so organisms with advantageous characteristics that make it easier for them to survive are more likely to thrive in their environment and reproduce. This increased chance of reproduction means that their children are more likely to have the same traits that helped their ancestors survive.
  • Time : As time passes, each generation continues to produce more offspring with advantageous characteristics. With the passage of time, the beneficial traits continue to accumulate, resulting in significant changes in the characteristics of the entire population.
  • Adaptation : Such traits eventually become more common in the population, making the entire species better suited to survive in their environment.

What Does ‘Survival of the Fittest’ Mean?

An important part of natural selection is the idea of ‘survival of the fittest.’ The phrase was first introduced in 1854 by Herbert Spencer in his book "The Principles of Biology."

The idea suggests that when it comes to each organism's struggle to survive and reproduce, those with traits that make them the best suited to their environment are the most likely to survive and pass down their genes to the next generation.

In this context, "fitness" refers to an organism's ability to survive in its environment and reproduce. It is the traits that help the individual survive that are considered most advantageous. 

Fitness does not refer to physical strength. Instead, it means the individual has traits that make them better suited for life in a specific environment. For example, an organism with coloring that camouflages it from predators would be considered a better fit, from an evolutionary perspective, than coloring that makes it more susceptible to becoming prey.

Fitness can refer to a wide variety of characteristics. This might include physical attributes such as camouflage, speed, strength, or agility. It might also refer to behavioral adaptations that confer a greater chance of survival. Migration, hibernation, and courtship behaviors are a few examples of behavioral adaptations influenced by evolution.

Controversies Surrounding Darwin’s Theory of Evolution

Darwin's theory was considered shocking and controversial after its introduction. While the theory is accepted by nearly all scientists today, Darwin's ideas are still disputed or rejected by some people.

Darwin and his work have remained controversial in the more than 140 years since his death. One survey found that a third of U.S. adults reject the idea that humans evolved through natural selection, views that correspond with rates of religious belief.

One critic during Darwin's time was the English comparative anatomist and paleontologist Richard Owen. While Owen agreed that evolution occurred, he was a vocal critic of Darwin's idea of natural selection. Instead, he proposed the existence of predetermined "archetypes" that guide the evolutionary changes that species experience. 

During Darwin's time, some critics suggested that the lack of transitional fossils (demonstrating the gradual progression of a species over time) was evidence that Darwin’s evolutionary theory was wrong. In the subsequent years, however, many of these so-called "missing links" have been added to the fossil record, providing paleontological support for these evolutionary transitions.

Other critics focus on their belief that all life results from divine creation. However, it is important to note that Darwin's theory of evolution does not focus on how life originated. Instead, Darwin's theory of natural selection explains how life evolved over time and how this explains the diversity of life on Earth.

While there have been debates and criticisms from various sources, it is important to note that Darwin was highly regarded in his own time. Support from the scientific community continued to build over the years, and more evidence supporting Darwin's theory accumulated from various fields.

Charles Darwin’s Research on Human Emotions

While Darwin is best known for his theory of evolution, he also studied and wrote about a wide range of topics, from plants to sea life. Beyond his work as a naturalist, he also conducted one lesser-known experiment on the study of human emotions , making him one of the earliest experimental psychology researchers. 

In archival research looking at Darwin's letters and other writings, researchers found references to a small experiment that Darwin had conducted at home. Darwin had corresponded with the French physician Guillaume Duchenne de Boulogne, who had used electrical impulses to stimulate facial muscles into specific expressions, which were then recorded on photographic plates. Using this method, Duchenne suggested that the human face is capable of expressing at least 60 distinct emotions.

Darwin disagreed. Using Duchenne's plates, Darwin devised his own experiment, a single-blind study in which he randomized the order of the plates and then presented them to over 20 participants (i.e., Darwin's guests). He then asked his guests to identify the emotions represented in the photographic slides. 

In studying Darwin's notes, researchers discovered that the participants agreed when it came to the basic emotions , such as happiness , surprise, and fear. For more ambiguous photographs, responses were much more mixed.

In Darwin's view, only those emotions that were readily identifiable and agreed upon by observers represented universal emotions.

Darwin's observations and conclusions in this and other studies he conducted helped inform his 1872 book "The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals." In this book, Darwin emphasized the importance of emotional expression in both humans and animals, suggesting that:

  • Some emotional expressions are universal
  • Some emotions have a biological, evolutionary basis
  • These universal expressions evolved through natural selection because they aid in survival, reproduction, and communication
  • Humans and animals display similar emotions, suggesting they have a common evolutionary origin

Darwin's work offered insights into the importance of emotions, their evolutionary roots, and their universality across cultures and species . His observations also helped lay the groundwork for future research on the psychology of human emotions.

However, Darwin's ideas about emotion were eclipsed by his more famous theory of natural selection. It wasn't until the 1960s that psychologist Paul Ekman returned to Darwin's findings and, using methods similar to those originally pioneered by Darwin, found additional evidence for the existence of basic, universal human emotions.

Try the emotion experiment yourself!

The Darwin Correspondence Project allows viewers to see the original photographic plates Duchenne and Darwin used this in their experiments. You can also give your own response and see how your interpretation compares to those of Darwin's guests.

What Were Charles Darwin’s Views on Women?

While Darwin revolutionized the field of science, his views on women were far from progressive. His attitudes reflected the prevailing sexist, misogynistic ideas of his time. In his published writings, he echoed the societal and cultural beliefs that women were inferior to men, viewing them as less intelligent.

In his book "The Descent of Man," Darwin wrote, "Woman seems to differ from man in her mental disposition, chiefly in her greater tenderness and less selfishness."

Darwin suggested that the purported superiority of men stemmed from sexual selection, a mode of natural selection in which men compete for mates, leading to the evolution of characteristics that improve their reproductive fitness, including intelligence, physical strength, and competitiveness.

He believed that women's roles were primarily as domestic caretakers and nurturers, which, in his view, did not require strong intellectual capabilities.

There is evidence that Darwin's ideas changed somewhat over time, often influenced by the women in his life, including his wife, daughters, and women intellectuals. While he could not be regarded as a feminist thinker, research on his private correspondence suggests that his views on women were more complex than what appears in his published writing.

Who Did Charles Darwin Influence?

In addition to his profound influence on the biological sciences, Darwin inspired a number of other scientists and researchers in their own work.

Some of these thinkers included:

  • Alfred Russel Wallace : A contemporary of Darwin, Wallace was an English naturalist and explorer who independently introduced the idea of evolution through natural selection. His own ideas were published in 1858 along with some of Darwin's earlier writings, prompting Darwin to publish "On the Origin of the Species" the next year.
  • William James : The founder of the functionalist school of thought in psychology was heavily influenced by the work of Charles Darwin. This school of thought suggests that the functions of the mind exist because they serve a purpose in survival and adaptation. This idea has its roots in Darwin's theory of natural selection. James was also heavily influenced by Darwin's writings on the topic of emotions. According to the James-Lange theory of emotions , emotions stems from the physiological reactions people experience in response to environmental stimuli.
  • Ronald A. Fisher : A British mathematician and biologist, Fisher is considered a founder of modern statistical science. He also played an important role in what is known as modern synthesis, which involved integrating Darwin's natural selection with Mendelian genetics in order to explain how genetic variations within a group can be affected by natural selection.

How Does Charles Darwin’s Work Affect Modern Science Today?

It is difficult to overstate the enormous impact of Darwin's work on modern science. Some of the ways that science continues to be impacted by Darwin's theory of evolution include:

  • Evolutionary sciences : The theory of evolution plays an essential role in biology as well as other fields that explain how life has adapted and changed over time, including genetics and evolutionary psychology .
  • Medicine : Researchers continue to use their understanding of evolutionary science to study how diseases originate, spread, and mutate.
  • Scientific education : While Darwin's ideas remain controversial for some, his work has helped advance scientific literacy and understanding among the general public.

Barloon TJ, Noyes R Jr. Charles Darwin and panic disorder . JAMA . 1997;277(2):138-141. doi:10.1001/jama.1997.03540260052035

Hayman J, Finsterer J. Charles Darwin's mitochondrial disorder: Possible neuroendocrine involvement . Cureus . 2021;13(12):e20689. doi:10.7759/cureus.20689

Cohen JI. Exploring the nature of science through courage and purpose: a case study of Charles Darwin's way of knowing . Springerplus . 2016;5(1):1532. doi:10.1186/s40064-016-3053-0

Palmer DH, Kronforst MR. Divergence and gene flow among Darwin's finches: A genome-wide view of adaptive radiation driven by interspecies allele sharing . Bioessays . 2015;37(9):968-974. doi:10.1002/bies.201500047

National Academy of Sciences (US). Evidence Supporting Biological Evolution . Science and Creationism: A View from the National Academy of Sciences: Second Edition. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 1999.

American Museum of Natural History. How does natural selection work ?

Offer J. From ‘natural selection’ to ‘survival of the fittest’: On the significance of Spencer’s refashioning of Darwin in the 1860s . Journal of Classical Sociology . 2014;14(2):156-177. doi:10.1177/1468795X13491646

Lampe DJ, Kantorski B, Pollock JA. Charles Darwin Synthetic Interview: A 19th century scientist speaks in the 21st century . J STEM Outreach . 2018;1(1):10.15695/jstem/v1i1.1. doi:10.15695/jstem/v1i1.1

Johnson CN. Charles Darwin, Richard Owen, and natural selection: A question of priority . J Hist Biol . 2019;52(1):45-85. doi:10.1007/s10739-018-9514-2

Snyder PJ, Kaufman R, Harrison J, Maruff P. Charles Darwin's emotional expression "experiment" and his contribution to modern neuropharmacology . J Hist Neurosci . 2010;19(2):158-170. doi:10.1080/09647040903506679

Reynolds EH, Broussolle E. Allbutt of Leeds and Duchenne de Boulogne: Newly discovered insights on Duchenne by a British neuropsychiatrist . Rev Neurol (Paris) . 2018;174(5):308-312. doi:10.1016/j.neurol.2017.07.012

Ludwig RJ, Welch MG. Darwin's other dilemmas and the theoretical roots of emotional connection . Front Psychol . 2019;10:683. Published 2019 Apr 12. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00683

Wolf K. Measuring facial expression of emotion . Dialogues Clin Neurosci . 2015;17(4):457-462. doi:10.31887/DCNS.2015.17.4/kwolf

Darwin, C. R. 1871. The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex . London: John Murray. Volume 1. 1st edition.

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University of Cambridge. Darwin's women .

National History Museum. Who was Alfred Russel Wallace ?

Reddy RP, Korde SP, Kanungo S, et al. Neural correlates of emotion: Acquisition versus innate view point . Indian J Psychol Med . 2014;36(4):385-391. doi:10.4103/0253-7176.140720

Bradley B. Natural selection according to Darwin: cause or effect ? Hist Philos Life Sci . 2022;44(2):13. doi:10.1007/s40656-022-00485-z

National Academy of Sciences (US); Avise JC, Ayala FJ, editors.  13, Darwin and the Scientific Method . In the Light of Evolution: Volume III: Two Centuries of Darwin . Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2009.

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."

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AP®︎/College Biology

Course: ap®︎/college biology   >   unit 7.

  • Introduction to evolution and natural selection
  • Natural selection and the owl butterfly
  • Biodiversity and natural selection
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Darwin, evolution, & natural selection

Natural selection.

research on charles darwin

Key points:

  • Charles Darwin was a British naturalist who proposed the theory of biological evolution by natural selection.
  • Darwin defined evolution as "descent with modification," the idea that species change over time, give rise to new species, and share a common ancestor.
  • The mechanism that Darwin proposed for evolution is natural selection . Because resources are limited in nature, organisms with heritable traits that favor survival and reproduction will tend to leave more offspring than their peers, causing the traits to increase in frequency over generations.
  • Natural selection causes populations to become adapted , or increasingly well-suited, to their environments over time. Natural selection depends on the environment and requires existing heritable variation in a group.

What is evolution?

Early ideas about evolution, influences on darwin, darwin and the voyage of the beagle.

  • Traits are often heritable. In living organisms, many characteristics are inherited, or passed from parent to offspring. (Darwin knew this was the case, even though he did not know that traits were inherited via genes.)
  • More offspring are produced than can survive. Organisms are capable of producing more offspring than their environments can support. Thus, there is competition for limited resources in each generation.
  • Offspring vary in their heritable traits. The offspring in any generation will be slightly different from one another in their traits (color, size, shape, etc.), and many of these features will be heritable.
  • In a population, some individuals will have inherited traits that help them survive and reproduce (given the conditions of the environment, such as the predators and food sources present). The individuals with the helpful traits will leave more offspring in the next generation than their peers, since the traits make them more effective at surviving and reproducing.
  • Because the helpful traits are heritable, and because organisms with these traits leave more offspring, the traits will tend to become more common (present in a larger fraction of the population) in the next generation.
  • Over generations, the population will become adapted to its environment (as individuals with traits helpful in that environment have consistently greater reproductive success than their peers).

Example: How natural selection can work

Key points about natural selection, natural selection depends on the environment, natural selection acts on existing heritable variation, heritable variation comes from random mutations, natural selection and the evolution of species, attribution:, works cited:.

  • Wilkin, D. and Akre, B. (2016, March 23). Influences on Darwin - Advanced. In CK-12 biology advanced concepts . Retrieved from http://www.ck12.org/book/CK-12-Biology-Advanced-Concepts/section/10.18/ .
  • Reece, J. B., Urry, L. A., Cain, M. L., Wasserman, S. A., Minorsky, P. V., and Jackson, R. B. (2011). The voyage of the Beagle . In Campbell Biology (10th ed., p. 466). San Francisco, CA: Pearson.
  • Darwin's finches. (2016, April 25). Retrieved March 16, 2016 from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Darwin%27s_finches .
  • Reece, J. B., Urry, L. A., Cain, M. L., Wasserman, S. A., Minorsky, P. V., and Jackson, R. B. (2011). Figure 1.18. Natural selection. In Campbell biology (10th ed., p. 14). San Francisco, CA: Pearson.

Additional references:

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Charles Darwin's Finches

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Charles Darwin is known as the father of evolution . When he was a young man, Darwin set out on a voyage on the HMS Beagle . The ship sailed from England in late December of 1831 with Charles Darwin aboard as the crew's naturalist. The voyage was to take the ship around South America with many stops along the way. It was Darwin's job to study the local flora and fauna, collecting samples and making observations he could take back to Europe with him of such a diverse and tropical location.

The crew made it to South America in a few short months, after a brief stop in the Canary Islands. Darwin spent most of his time on land collecting data. They stayed for more than three years on the continent of South America before venturing on to other locations. The next celebrated stop for the HMS Beagle was the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador .

Galapagos Islands

Charles Darwin and the rest of the HMS Beagle crew spent only five weeks in the Galapagos Islands, but the research performed there and the species Darwin brought back to England were instrumental in the formation of a core part of the original theory of evolution and Darwin's ideas on natural selection which he published in his first book . Darwin studied the geology of the region along with giant tortoises that were indigenous to the area.

Perhaps the best known of Darwin's species he collected while on the Galapagos Islands were what are now called "Darwin's Finches". In reality, these birds are not really part of the finch family and are thought to probably actually be some sort of blackbird or mockingbird. However, Darwin was not very familiar with birds, so he killed and preserved the specimens to take back to England with him where he could collaborate with an ornithologist.

Finches and Evolution

The HMS Beagle continued to sail on to as far away lands as New Zealand before returning to England in 1836. It was back in Europe when he enlisted in the help of John Gould, a celebrated ornithologist in England. Gould was surprised to see the differences in the beaks of the birds and identified the 14 different specimens as actual different species - 12 of which were brand new species. He had not seen these species anywhere else before and concluded they were unique to the Galapagos Islands. The other, similar, birds Darwin had brought back from the South American mainland were much more common but different than the new Galapagos species.

Charles Darwin did not come up with the Theory of Evolution on this voyage. As a matter of fact, his grandfather Erasmus Darwin had already instilled the idea that species change through time in Charles. However, the Galapagos finches helped Darwin solidify his idea of natural selection . The favorable adaptations of Darwin's Finches' beaks were selected for over generations until they all branched out to make new species .

These birds, although nearly identical in all other ways to mainland finches, had different beaks. Their beaks had adapted to the type of food they ate in order to fill different niches on the Galapagos Islands. Their isolation on the islands over long periods of time made them undergo speciation. Charles Darwin then began to disregard the previous thoughts on evolution put forth by Jean Baptiste Lamarck who claimed species spontaneously generated from nothingness.

Darwin wrote about his travels in the book The Voyage of the Beagle and fully explored the information he gained from the Galapagos Finches in his most famous book On the Origin of Species . It was in that publication that he first discussed how species changed over time, including divergent evolution, or adaptive radiation, of the Galapagos finches.

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1859: Darwin Published On the Origin of Species, Proposing Continual Evolution of Species

1859: darwin published on the origin of species , proposing continual evolution of species.

Darwin's exploratory survey on the H.M.S. Beagle had brought him into contact with a wide variety of living organisms and fossils. The adaptations he saw in the finches and tortoises on the Galapagos Islands struck him particularly acutely. Darwin concluded that species change through natural selection, or - to use Wallace's phrase - through "the survival of the fittest" in a given environment.

Darwin's book immediately attracted attention and controversy, not only from the scientific community, but also from the general public, who were ignited by the social and religious implications of the theory. Darwin eventually produced six editions of this book.

In time, a growing understanding of genetics and of the fact that genes inherited from both parents remain distinct entities - even if the characteristics of parents appear to blend in their children - explained how natural selection could work and helped vindicate Darwin's proposal.

Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life remains in print, in many languages.

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Darwin in America

The evolution debate in the united states.

A lmost 160 years after Charles Darwin publicized his groundbreaking theory on the development of life, Americans are still arguing about evolution. In spite of the fact that evolutionary theory is accepted by all but a small number of scientists, it continues to be rejected by many Americans. In fact, about one-in-five U.S. adults reject the basic idea that life on Earth has evolved at all. And roughly half of the U.S. adult population accepts evolutionary theory , but only as an instrument of God’s will.

research on charles darwin

Most biologists and other scientists contend that evolutionary theory convincingly explains the origins and development of life on Earth. Moreover, they say, a scientific theory is not a hunch or a guess, but is instead an established explanation for a natural phenomenon, like gravity, that has repeatedly been tested and refined through observation and experimentation.

So if evolution is as established in the scientific community as the theory of gravity, why are people still arguing about it more than century and a half after Darwin proposed it? The answer lies, in large part, in the theological implications of evolutionary thinking. For many religious people, the Darwinian view of life – a panorama of brutal struggle and constant change – conflicts with both the biblical creation story and the Judeo-Christian concept of an active, loving God who intervenes in human events. (See “ Religious Groups’ Views on Evolution .”)

This basic concern with evolutionary theory has helped drive the decadeslong opposition to teaching it in public schools. Even over the last 15 years, educators, scientists, parents, religious leaders and others in more than a dozen states have engaged in public battles in school boards, legislatures and courts over how school curricula should handle evolution. The issue was even discussed and debated during the runups to the 2000 and 2008 presidential elections . This battle has ebbed in recent years, but it has not completely died out.

Outside the classroom, much of the opposition to evolution has involved its broader social implications and the belief that it can be understood in ways that are socially and politically dangerous. For instance, some social conservatives charge that evolutionary theory serves to strengthen broader arguments that justify practices they vehemently oppose, such as abortion and euthanasia. Evolutionary theory also plays a role in arguments in favor of transhumanism and other efforts to enhance human abilities and extend the human lifespan . Still other evolution opponents say that well-known advocates for atheism, such as Richard Dawkins, view evolutionary theory not just as proof of the folly of religious faith, but also as a justification for various types of discrimination against religion and religious people.

A look back at American history shows that, in many ways, questions about evolution have long served as proxies in larger debates about religious, ethical and social norms. From efforts on the part of some churches in the 19th and early 20th centuries to advance a more liberal form of Christianity, to the more recent push and pull over the roles of religion and science in the public square, attitudes toward evolution have often been used as a fulcrum by one side or the other to try to advance their cause.

Darwin comes to America

research on charles darwin

In formulating his theory of evolution through natural selection, Charles Darwin did not set out to create a public controversy. In fact, his concerns over how his ideas would be received by the broader public led him to wait more than 20 years to publicize them. He might never have done so if another British naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, had not in 1858 independently come up with a very similar theory. At that point, Darwin, who had already shared his conclusions with a small number of fellow scientists, finally revealed his long-held ideas about evolution and natural selection to a wider audience.

Darwin built his theory on four basic premises. First, he argued, each animal is not an exact replica of its parents, but is different in subtle ways. Second, he said, although these differences in each generation are random, some of them convey distinct advantages to an animal, giving it a much greater chance to survive and breed. Over time, this beneficial variation spreads to the rest of the species, because those with the advantage are more likely than those without it to stay alive and reproduce. And, finally, over longer periods of time, cumulative changes produce new species, all of which share a common ancestor. (For more on this, see “ Darwin and His Theory of Evolution .”)

research on charles darwin

In November 1859, Darwin published “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection,” which laid out his theory in detail. The book became an instant bestseller and, as Darwin had feared, set off a firestorm of controversy in his native Britain. While many scientists defended Darwin, religious leaders and others immediately rejected his theory, not only because it directly contradicted the creation story in the biblical book of Genesis, but also because – on a broader level – it implied that life had developed due to natural processes rather than as the creation of a loving God.

In the United States, which was on the verge of the Civil War, the publication of “Origin” went largely unnoticed. By the 1870s, American religious leaders and thinkers had begun to consider the theological implications of Darwin’s theory. Still, the issue didn’t filter down to the wider American public until the end of the 19th century, when many popular Christian authors and speakers, including the famed Chicago evangelist and missionary Dwight L. Moody, began to inveigh against Darwinism as a threat to biblical truth and public morality.

At the same time, other dramatic shifts were taking place in the country’s religious landscape. From the 1890s to the 1930s, the major American Protestant denominations gradually split into two camps: modernist, or theologically liberal Protestantism (what would become mainline Protestantism); and evangelical, or otherwise theologically conservative, Protestantism.

This schism owed to numerous cultural and intellectual developments of the era, including, but not limited to, the advent of new scientific thinking. Theologians and others also grappled with new questions about the historical accuracy of biblical accounts, as well as a host of provocative and controversial new ideas from such thinkers as Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud about both the individual and society. Modernist Protestants sought to integrate these new theories and ideas, including evolution, into their religious doctrine, while more conservative Protestants resisted them.

research on charles darwin

By the early 1920s, evolution had become perhaps the most important wedge issue in this Protestant divide, in part because the debate had taken on a pedagogical dimension, with students throughout the nation now studying Darwin’s ideas in biology classes. The issue became a mainstay for Protestant evangelists, including Billy Sunday, the most popular preacher of this era. “I don’t believe the old bastard theory of evolution,” he famously exclaimed during a 1925 revival meeting. But it was William Jennings Bryan, a man of politics, not the cloth, who ultimately became the leader of a full-fledged national crusade against evolution.

Bryan, a populist orator and devout evangelical Protestant who had thrice run unsuccessfully for president, believed that teaching of evolution in the nation’s schools would ensure that whole generations would grow up believing that the Bible was no more than “a collection of myths,” and would undermine the country’s Christian faith in favor of the doctrine of “survival of the fittest.”

Bryan’s fear of social Darwinism was not entirely unfounded. Evolutionary thinking had helped birth the eugenics movement, which maintained that one could breed improved human beings in the same way that farmers breed better sheep and cattle. Eugenics led to now-discredited theories of race and class superiority that helped inspire Nazi ideology ; in America, some used social Darwinism to argue in favor of restricting immigration (particularly from Southern and Eastern Europe) or to enact state laws requiring sterilization to stop “mental deficients” from having children.

Many who favored the teaching of evolution in public schools did not support eugenics, but simply wanted students to be exposed to the most current scientific thinking. For others, like supporters of the newly formed American Civil Liberties Union, teaching evolution was an issue of freedom of speech as well as a matter of maintaining a separation of church and state. And still others, like famed lawyer Clarence Darrow, saw the battle over evolution as a proxy for a wider cultural conflict between what they saw as progress and modernity on the one side, and religious superstition and backwardness on the other.

research on charles darwin

Scopes and its aftermath

At the urging of Bryan and evangelical Christian leaders, evolution opponents tried to ban the teaching of Darwin’s theory in a number of states. Although early legislative efforts failed, evolution opponents won a victory in 1925 when the Tennessee Legislature overwhelmingly approved legislation making it a crime to teach “any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible.” Soon after the Tennessee law was enacted, the ACLU offered to defend any science teacher in the state who was willing to break it. John Scopes, a teacher in the small, rural town of Dayton, Tennessee, agreed to take up the ACLU’s offer.

The subsequent trial popularly referred to as the Scopes “monkey” trial, was one of the first true media trials of the modern era, covered in hundreds of newspapers and broadcast live on the radio. Defending Scopes was Darrow, then the most famous lawyer in the country. And joining state prosecutors was Bryan. From the start, both sides seemed to agree that the case was being tried more in the court of public opinion than in a court of law.

As the trial progressed, it seemed increasingly clear that Darrow’s hope of spurring public debate over the merits of teaching evolution was being stymied by state prosecutors. But then Darrow made the highly unorthodox request of calling Bryan to the witness stand. Although the politician was under no obligation to testify, he acceded to Darrow’s invitation.

With Bryan on the stand, Darrow proceeded to ask a series of detailed questions about biblical events that could be seen as inconsistent, unreal or both. For instance, Darrow asked, how could there be morning and evening during the first three days of biblical creation if the sun was not formed until the fourth? Bryan responded to this and similar questions in different ways. Often, he defended the biblical account in question as the literal truth. On other occasions, however, he admitted that parts of the Bible might need to be interpreted in order to be fully understood.

research on charles darwin

Scopes was convicted of violating the anti-evolution law and fined, although his conviction was later overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court on a technicality. But the verdict was largely irrelevant to the broader debate. The trial, particularly Darrow’s questioning of Bryan, created a tremendous amount of positive publicity for the pro-evolution camp, especially in northern urban areas, where the media and cultural elites were sympathetic toward Scopes and his defense.

At the same time, this post-Scopes momentum did not destroy the anti-evolution movement. Indeed, in the years immediately following Scopes, the Mississippi and Arkansas state legislatures enacted bills similar to Tennessee’s. Other states, particularly in the South and Midwest, passed resolutions condemning the inclusion of material on evolution in biology textbooks. These actions, along with a patchwork of restrictions from local school boards, prompted most publishers to remove references to Darwin from their science textbooks.

Efforts to make evolution the standard in all biology classes stalled, due largely to the fact that the government prohibition on religious establishment or favoritism, found in the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, applied at the time only to federal and not state actions. State governments could set their own policies on church-state issues. Only in 1947, with the Supreme Court’s decision in Everson v. Board of Education, did the constitutional prohibition on religious establishment begin to apply to state as well as federal actions. Evolution proponents also received a boost a decade after Everson, in 1957, when the Soviet launch of the first satellite, Sputnik I, prompted the United States to make science education a national priority.

research on charles darwin

Meanwhile, beginning in the late 1960s, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a number of important decisions that imposed severe restrictions on state governments that opposed the teaching of evolution. In 1968, in Epperson v. Arkansas, the high court unanimously struck down as unconstitutional an Arkansas law banning the teaching of evolution in public schools. Specifically, the justices said, the law violated the First Amendment’s establishment clause because it sought to prevent students from learning a particular viewpoint antithetical to conservative Christianity, and thus promoted religion.

Almost 20 years after Epperson, the court issued another key ruling, this time involving the teaching of “creation science” in public schools. Proponents of creation science contend that the weight of scientific evidence supports the creation story as described in the biblical book of Genesis, with the formation of Earth and the development of life occurring in six 24-hour days. The presence of fossils and evidence of significant geological change are attributed to the catastrophic flood described in the eighth chapter of Genesis.

In Edwards v. Aguillard (1987), the high court struck down a Louisiana law requiring public schools to teach “creation science” alongside evolution, ruling (as in Epperson) that the statute violated the establishment clause because its aim was to promote religion. (For more on the legal aspects of the evolution debate, see “ The Social and Legal Dimensions of the Evolution Debate in the U.S. ”)

research on charles darwin

Partly due to these and other court decisions, opposition to teaching evolution itself evolved, with opponents changing their goals and tactics. In the first decade of the 21st century, for instance, some local and state school boards mandated the teaching of what they argued were scientific alternatives to evolution – notably the concept of “intelligent design,” which posits that life is too complex to have developed without the intervention of an outside, possibly divine, force. While rejected by most scientists as creationism cloaked in scientific language, supporters of intelligent design cite what they call “irreducibly complex” systems (such as the eye or the process by which blood clots) as proof that Darwinian evolution is not an adequate explanation for the development of life.

But efforts to inject intelligent design into public school science curricula met the same fate as creation science had decades earlier. Once again, courts ruled that intelligent design is a religious argument, not science, and thus couldn’t be taught in public schools. Other efforts to require schools to teach critiques of evolution or to mandate that students listen to or read evolution disclaimers also were struck down.

In the years following these court decisions, there have been new efforts in Texas, Tennessee, Kansas and other states to challenge the presence of evolutionary theory in public school science curricula. For instance, in 2017, the South Dakota Senate passed legislation that would allow teachers in the state’s public schools to present students with both the strengths and weaknesses of scientific information. The measure, which critics claimed was clearly aimed at critiquing evolution, ultimately stalled in the state’s House of Representatives. And in 2018, an internal review at the Arizona State Board of Education led to an unsuccessful effort to dilute references to evolution in the state’s science standards.

For more information about how Pew Research Center asks the U.S. public about their views on evolution, see “ The Evolution of Pew Research Center’s Survey Questions About the Origins and Development of Life on Earth ” and “ How highly religious Americans view evolution depends on how they’re asked about it .”

Title photo: Famed attorney Clarence Darrow makes a point at the “Scopes Monkey Trial” in 1925. Darrow defended teacher John Scopes, who had run afoul of Tennessee’s law against teaching evolution in public schools. (Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

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What is Darwin's Theory of Evolution?

Charles Darwin's Theory of Evolution is one of the most solid theories in science. But what exactly is it?

The hominin wall at the Natural History Museum of Utah in Salt Lake City.

  • Natural selection
  • Origin of whales
  • Rival theories of evolution
  • Modern evolutionary synthesis
  • Evidence for evolution
  • Is evolution controversial?

Additional resources

The Theory of Evolution by natural selection was first formulated in Charles Darwin's book " On the Origin of Species " published in 1859. In his book, Darwin describes how organisms evolve over generations through the inheritance of physical or behavioral traits, as National Geographic explains. The theory starts with the premise that within a population, there is variation in traits, such as beak shape in one of the Galapagos finches Darwin studied. 

According to the theory, individuals with traits that enable them to adapt to their environments will help them survive and have more offspring, which will inherit those traits. Individuals with less adaptive traits will less frequently survive to pass them on. Over time, the traits that enable species to survive and reproduce will become more frequent in the population and the population will change, or evolve, according to BioMed Central . Through natural selection, Darwin suggested, genetically diverse species could arise from a common ancestor . 

Darwin did not know the mechanism by which traits were passed on, according to National Geographic. He did not know about genetics , the mechanism by which genes encode for certain traits and those traits are passed from one generation to the next. He also did not know about genetic mutation, which is the source of natural variation. But future research by geneticists provided the mechanism and additional evidence for evolution by natural selection

What is natural selection?

Darwin chose the term "natural selection" to be in contrast with "artificial selection," in which animal breeders select for particular traits that they deem desirable. In natural selection, it's the natural environment, rather than a human being, that does the selecting.

Put simply, the theory of evolution by means of natural selection can be described as "descent with modification," said Briana Pobiner , an anthropologist and educator at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., who specializes in the study of human origins. The theory is sometimes described as "survival of the fittest," but that characterization can be misleading, Pobiner said. Here, "fitness" refers not to an organism's strength or athleticism but rather its ability to survive and reproduce.

Natural selection can alter a species in small ways, causing a population to change color or size over the course of several generations, according to The Natural History Museum . When this process happens over a relatively short period of time and in a species or small group of organisms, scientists call it " microevolution ."

Archaeopteryx, shown here in this illustration, is considered the first bird-like dinosaur on record, dating to about 150 million years ago during the Jurassic period.

But when given enough time and accumulated changes, natural selection can create entirely new species, a process known as "macroevolution," according to Derek Turner and Joyce C. havstad in " The Philosophy of Macroevolution ." This long-term process is what turned dinosaurs into birds , amphibious mammals (such as an animal called Indohyus ) into whales and a common ancestor of apes and humans into the people, chimps and gorillas we know today. 

Darwin also described a form of natural selection that depends on an organism's success at attracting a mate — a process known as sexual selection, according to Nature Education . The colorful plumage of peacocks and the antlers of male deer are both examples of traits that evolved under this type of selection. 

How did whales evolve?

One of the best examples scientists have of natural selection, is the evolution of whales . By using Darwin's theory as a guide, and understanding how natural selection works, biologists determined that the transition of early whales from land to water occurred in a series of predictable steps.

The evolution of the blowhole, for example, might have started with random genetic changes that resulted in at least one whale having its nostrils farther back on its head, according to Phys.org .

The whales with this adaptation would have been better suited to a marine lifestyle, since they would not have had to completely surface to breathe. Such individuals were more successful and had more offspring. In later generations, more genetic changes occurred, moving the nose farther back on the head.

Other body parts of early whales also changed. Front legs became flippers. Back legs disappeared. Their bodies became more streamlined, and they developed tail flukes to better propel themselves through water, according to the Natural History Museum .

Even though scientists could predict what early whales should look like, for a long time they lacked the fossil evidence to back up their claim. Creationists viewed this absence, not just with regard to whale evolution but more generally, as proof that evolution didn't occur, as pointed out in a Scientific American article .

An illustration of the semiaquatic

However, since the early 1990s, scientists have found evidence from paleontology , developmental biology and genetics to support the idea that whales evolved from land mammals. These same lines of evidence support the theory of evolution as a whole.

In the first edition of "On the Origin of Species," Darwin speculated about how natural selection could cause a land mammal to turn into a whale. As a hypothetical example, Darwin used North American black bears ( Ursus americanus ), which were known to catch insects by swimming in the water with their mouths open, according to the Darwin Correspondence Project .

"I can see no difficulty in a race of bears being rendered, by natural selection, more aquatic in their structure and habits, with larger and larger mouths, till a creature was produced as monstrous as a whale," he speculated.

The idea didn't go over very well with the public or with other scientists. Darwin was so embarrassed by the ridicule he received that the swimming-bear passage was removed from later editions of the book. Scientists now know that Darwin had the right idea but the wrong animal. Instead of looking at bears, he should have been looking at cows and hippopotamuses .

Other theories of evolution

Darwin wasn't the first or only scientist to develop a theory of evolution. Around the same time as Darwin, British biologist Alfred Russel Wallace independently came up with the theory of evolution by natural selection, according to the Natural History Museum . However this had little impact.

"The concept of evolution as a historical event was a hot topic among biologists and geologists prior to Darwin’s book because there was so much evidence accumulating, but I suspect biological evolution hadn’t really impinged on people outside of the academic bunker," Dr. P John D. Lambshead, a retired science research leader in marine biodiversity, ecology, and evolution at The Natural History Museum, London, told All About History Magazine . "As long as science knew of no mechanism to explain how evolution happened it could be safely dismissed as a crank idea."

Meanwhile, French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck proposed that an organism could pass on traits to its offspring, though he was wrong about some of the details, according to the University of California’s Museum of Paleontology .

Like Darwin, Lamarck believed that organisms adapted to their environments and passed on those adaptations. He thought organisms did this by changing their behavior and, therefore, their bodies — like an athlete working out and getting buff — and that those changes were passed on to offspring. 

Maasai giraffe browses on leaves of a tall tree in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya.

For example, Lamarck thought that giraffes originally had shorter necks but that, as trees around them grew taller, they stretched their necks to reach the tasty leaves and their offspring gradually evolved longer and longer necks. Lamarck also believed that life was somehow driven to evolve through the generations from simple to more complex forms, according to Understanding Evolution , an educational resource from the University of California Museum of Paleontology .

Though Darwin wasn't sure of the mechanism by which traits were passed on, he did not believe that evolution necessarily moved toward greater complexity, according to Understanding Evolution — rather, he believed that complexity arose through natural selection. 

A Darwinian view of giraffe evolution, according to Quanta Magazine , would be that giraffes had natural variation in their neck lengths, and that those with longer necks were better able to survive and reproduce in environments full of tall trees, so that subsequent generations had more and more long-necked giraffes. 

The main difference between the Lamarckian and Darwinian ideas of giraffe evolution is that there's nothing in the Darwinian explanation about giraffes stretching their necks and passing on an acquired characteristic.

What is modern evolutionary synthesis?

According to Pobiner, Darwin did not know anything about genetics. "He observed the pattern of evolution, but he didn't really know about the mechanism," she said. That came later, with the discovery of how genes encode different biological or behavioral traits, and how genes are passed down from parents to offspring. The incorporation of genetics into Darwin's theory is known as "modern evolutionary synthesis."

The physical and behavioral changes that make natural selection possible happen at the level of DNA and genes within the gametes, the sperm or egg cells through which parents pass on genetic material to their offspring. Such changes are called mutations . "Mutations are basically the raw material on which evolution acts," Pobiner said. 

Mutations can be caused by random errors in DNA replication or repair, or by chemical or radiation damage, according to Nature Education . Usually, mutations are either harmful or neutral, but in rare instances, a mutation might prove beneficial to the organism. If so, it will become more prevalent in the next generation and spread throughout the population. 

In this way, natural selection guides the evolutionary process, preserving and adding up the beneficial mutations and rejecting the bad ones. "Mutations are random, but selection for them is not random," Pobiner said.

A molecule of DNA is coiled inside a cell nucleus.

But natural selection isn't the only mechanism by which organisms evolve, she said. For example, genes can be transferred from one population to another when organisms migrate or immigrate — a process known as gene flow. And the frequency of certain genes can also change at random, which is called genetic drift. 

The reason Lamarck's theory of evolution is generally wrong is that acquired characteristics don't affect the DNA of sperm and eggs. A giraffe's gametes, for example, aren't affected by whether it stretches its neck; they simply reflect the genes the giraffe inherited from its parents. But as Quanta reported , some aspects of evolution are Lamarckian.

For example, a Swedish study published in 2002 in the European Journal of Human Genetics found that the grandchildren of men who starved as children during a famine passed on better cardiovascular health to their grandchildren. Researchers hypothesize that although experiences such as food deprivation don't change the DNA sequences in the gametes, they may result in external modifications to DNA that turn genes "on" or "off."

Such changes, called epigenetic changes, do not modify the actual DNA sequence itself. For instance, a chemical modification called methylation can affect which genes are turned on or off. Such epigenetic changes can be passed down to offspring. In this way, a person's experiences could affect the DNA he or she passes down, analogous to the way Lamarck thought a giraffe craning its neck would affect the neck length of its offspring.

What is the evidence for evolution?

The Theory of Evolution is one of the best-substantiated theories in the history of science. It is supported by evidence from a wide variety of scientific disciplines, including  genetics, which shows that different species have similarities in their DNA . 

There is also evidence supporting the Theory of Evolution in paleontology and geology. This is through the fossil record, which shows how that species that existed in the past are different from those present today, according to Bruce S. Lieberman and Roger L. Kaesler in " Prehistoric Life: Evolution and the Fossil Record " (Wiley, 2010).

There is also evidence for Darwin's theory found in developmental biology . It has been discovered that species that seem very different as adults pass through similar stages of embryological development, suggesting a shared evolutionary past, according to the open-access textbook " Concepts of Biology ." 

Evidence for whale evolution from paleontology

Ambulocetus natans swimming underwater.

The critical piece of evidence was discovered in 1994, when paleontologists found the fossilized remains of Ambulocetus natans , which means "swimming-walking whale," according to a 2009 review published in the journal Evolution: Education and Outreach . Its forelimbs had fingers and small hooves, but its hind feet were enormous relative to its size. The animal was clearly adapted for swimming, but it was also capable of moving clumsily on land, much like a seal.

When it swam, the ancient creature moved like an otter , pushing back with its hind feet and undulating its spine and tail.

Modern whales propel themselves through the water with powerful beats of their horizontal tail flukes, but A. natans still had a whip-like tail and had to use its legs to provide most of the propulsive force needed to move through water.

In recent years, more and more of these transitional species, or " missing links ," have been discovered, lending further support to Darwin's theory. For example, in 2007, a geologist discovered the fossil of an extinct aquatic mammal, called Indohyus , that was about the size of a cat and had hooves and a long tail. 

Scientists think the animal belonged to a  group related to cetaceans such as Ambulocetus natans . This creature is considered a "missing link" between artiodactyls — a group of hoofed mammals (even-toed ungulates) that includes hippos, pigs, and cows — and whales, according to the National Science Foundation . 

Researchers knew that whales were related to artiodactyls, but until the discovery of this fossil, there were no known artiodactyls that shared physical characteristics with whales. After all, hippos, thought to be cetaceans' closest living relatives , are very different from whales. Indohyus , on the other hand, was an artiodactyl, indicated by the structure of its hooves and ankles, and it also had some similarities to whales, in the structure of its ears, for example.  

Evidence for whale evolution from genetics & developmental biology

The last shore-dwelling ancestor of modern whales was Sinonyx, top left, a hyena-like animal. Over 60 million years, several transitional forms evolved: from top to bottom, Indohyus, Ambulocetus, Rodhocetus, Basilosaurus, Dorudon, and finally, the modern humpback whale.

Genetic evidence also supports the idea that whales evolved from land mammals and provides information about the exact branching of the evolutionary tree. For instance, in 1999, researchers reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that according to genetic analysis of " jumping gene " sequences, which copy and paste themselves into genomes, hippos were whales' closest living relatives. Before 1985, researchers thought pigs were more closely related to whales, but this 1999 study overturned that idea, as the Associated Press reported. 

In 2019, researchers reported in the journal Science Advances about which genes within the whale genome were inactivated during the process of the creature's evolution from land mammals, as Science Friday reported. The researchers could tell that certain genes, including one involved in making saliva, had been inactivated because there are remnants of them, which the researchers call genomic fossils, in whale genomes. This indicates that whales evolved from a salivating creature.  

There's also evidence of cetacean evolution from developmental biology. Developmental biology illustrates the fact that animals that are very different as adults share similarities as embryos because they are evolutionarily related. For example, as embryos, cetaceans started to develop hind limbs, which disappear later in development, while the forelimbs remain and develop into flippers, according to the journal Evolution: Education and Outreach . This suggests that cetaceans evolved from a four-legged ancestor.

Is the theory of evolution controversial?

Despite the wealth of evidence from the fossil record, genetics and other fields of science, some people still question the theory of evolution 's validity. Some politicians and religious leaders denounce the theory, invoking a higher being as a designer to explain the complex world of living things, especially humans.

School boards debate whether the theory of evolution should be taught alongside other ideas, such as intelligent design or creationism. 

Mainstream scientists see no controversy. "A lot of people have deep religious beliefs and also accept evolution," Pobiner said, adding, "there can be real reconciliation."

Evolution is well supported by many examples of changes in various species leading to the diversity of life seen today. "Natural selection, or to put it another way — variation, heredity, and differential fitness — is the core theory of modern biology," John Lambshead explains. "It is to biology what, say quantum mechanics and special relativity are to physics or the atomic model is to chemistry."

Additional reporting by contributors Alina Bradford, Ashley P. Taylor and Callum McKelvie

  • The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has a presentation on whale evolution.
  • To read the theory in its original form, see Darwin's book, " On the Origin of Species ."
  • Check out this article for an overview of natural selection.
  • To understand the difference between a theory and fact, see this National Academy of Sciences website .

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Tom Garner is the Features Editor for History of War magazine and also writes for sister publication All About History . He has a Master's degree in Medieval Studies from King's College London and has also worked in the British heritage industry for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust , as well as for English Heritage and the National Trust . He specializes in Medieval History and interviewing veterans and survivors of conflicts from the Second World War onwards. 

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10 Things You May Not Know About Charles Darwin

By: Christopher Klein

Updated: May 31, 2023 | Original: February 12, 2014

English naturalist and co-originator of the theory of evolution, Charles Darwin (1809 - 1882)

1. Darwin was born on the same day as Abraham Lincoln.

Both Darwin and Lincoln were born on February 12, 1809, but in much different settings. While America’s 16th president was born in a rude log cabin in the Kentucky wilderness, Darwin was born in a grand Georgian house on an estate overlooking the River Severn and the medieval market town of Shrewsbury, England.

2. He waited more than 20 years to publish his groundbreaking theory on evolution.

Darwin’s five-year voyage around the world on HMS Beagle, which ended in 1836, provided him with invaluable research that contributed to the development of his theory of evolution and natural selection. Concerned, however, about the public and ecclesiastical acceptance of his deeply radical idea, he did not present his theory on evolution until 1858 when he made a joint announcement with British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, who was about to go public with a similar concept to Darwin’s. The next year, Darwin published his seminal work, “The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life."

3. Darwin suffered from chronic illnesses.

After returning from his trip around the world, Darwin began to suffer from exhaustion, eczema and chronic bouts of nausea, headaches and heart palpitations that would persist for the rest of his life. Some speculate that during his travels Darwin may have contracted a parasitic illness called Chagas disease that can eventually result in cardiac damage, which ultimately caused Darwin’s death.

Timothy Dickinson tells us about Charles Darwin and the depth of the human past.

4. He composed a pro/con list to decide on whether to marry.

Displaying a logical inclination even in matters of the heart, Darwin in 1838 composed a list with two columns delineating the upsides and downsides of marriage. In the “Marry” column: “children,” “constant companion (and friend in old age)…better than a dog anyhow” and “someone to take care of house.” In the “Not Marry” ledger: “freedom to go where one liked,” “conversation of clever men at clubs” and “loss of time.” Not on Darwin’s list, however, were family ties for he married his first cousin Emma Wedgwood in 1839.

5. He dropped out of medical school.

Darwin’s father was a successful doctor who groomed his son to follow in his footsteps. After spending the summer of 1825 serving as an apprentice in his father’s practice, he entered one of Britain’s top medical schools at the University of Edinburgh. Darwin, however, hated the sight of blood and was bored with the lectures. He left medical school and dashed his father’s dreams.

6. Darwin was a divinity student.

After leaving the University of Edinburgh, the man who would challenge the established religious dogma of creationism enrolled at Cambridge to study theology. “I did not then in the least doubt the strict and literal truth of every word in the Bible,” he later wrote. However, Darwin’s faith began to waver after encountering the evils of slavery on his trip around the world and following the deaths of three of his children. Darwin, though, never characterized himself as an atheist. He instead referred to himself as an agnostic.

7. He dined on exotic animals.

Darwin not only studied an eclectic menagerie of animals from around the globe, he ate them as well. As a student at Cambridge, he formed the Gourmet Club, also known as the Glutton Club, for the purpose of dining on “birds and beasts, which were before unknown to human palate.” Darwin ate hawk and bittern but couldn’t choke down a brown owl that was served. While circumnavigating the globe on HMS Beagle, Darwin continued his adventurous eating by snacking on armadillo, ostrich and puma (“remarkably like veal in its taste,” he described).

8. He didn’t coin the phrase “survival of the fittest.”

Although associated with Darwin’s theory of natural selection, the phrase “survival of the fittest” was actually first used by English philosopher Herbert Spencer in his 1864 “Principles of Biology” to connect his economic and sociological theories with Darwin’s biological concepts. Darwin first adopted the phrase in his fifth edition of “The Origin of Species,” published in 1869, by writing of natural selection that “the expression often used by Mr. Herbert Spencer of the survival of the fittest is more accurate, and is sometimes equally convenient.”

9. Darwin is buried inside Westminster Abbey.

After Darwin passed away on April 19, 1882, his family began preparations to bury him in the village where he had spent the last 40 years of his life. However, Darwin’s friends and colleagues began a lobbying campaign to give him the high honor of burial inside London’s Westminster Abbey. After newspapers and the public joined the chorus, the Dean of Westminster gave his approval. A week after his death, Darwin was laid to rest in England’s most revered church near fellow scientists John Herschel and Isaac Newton.

10. Darwin appeared on the 10-pound note for 18 years.

Beginning in 2000, a portrait of a bearded Darwin appeared on the back of the British 10-pound note along with an image of HMS Beagle, a magnifying lens and flora and fauna seen on his travels. The Bank of England discontinued his £10 note in 2018, however.

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A unified account of Darwinism's varieties

A new paper published in The Quarterly Review of Biology examines the question of what Darwinism is and how its nonscientific uses relate to the scientific theory of evolution.

Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859 as a work in biology. However, in the past century and a half, Darwin's ideas have impacted a broad range of domains and stimulated scientists and scholars to advance "evolutionary approaches" in domains as diverse as economics, engineering, psychology, and history. The ideas have been used (and abused) to undermine religiously inspired ideas about the origin of humans and their status concerning other species, to support state-sponsored eugenicist policies, or to support laissez-faire economic policies.

In "The Varieties of Darwinism: Explanation, Logic, and Worldview," authors Hugh Desmond, André Ariew, Philippe Huneman, and Thomas Reydon observe that while some people claim Darwinism's meaning should be limited to scientific content, others call for its abolition altogether. The authors propose a unified account of these varieties of Darwinism. "We show how the theories introduced by Darwin have grounded a 'logic' or style of reasoning about phenomena, as well as various ethically and politically charged 'worldviews.'" They posit that the full meaning of Darwinism and how this meaning has changed over time can only be understood through the interaction between these dimensions.

The authors point out that while it is not novel to ask the question "What is Darwinism?" novel sources of confusion warrant revisiting the question. They provide a framework to make sense of how the different significant uses of the term interrelate and what, if any, such ethical and political uses of the term Darwinism have to do with the underlying scientific dimension of Darwinism.

The authors argue against the view that "they have nothing to do with each other." They advance a "thick" conception of Darwinism, where the scientific, ethical, and political dimensions are understood to be intertwined and constitute Darwinism's full meaning. In their account of the thick conception of Darwinism, the authors rely on Darwinism as an explanatory scheme, Darwinism as logic or methodology, and Darwinism as a worldview or ideology.

The authors conclude that restricting Darwinism to a purely scientific context is not ideal, noting that theoretical elements play a methodological role in structuring scientific inquiry into natural phenomena. They conceded that while the thick conception complicates the analysis of Darwinism it is necessary to do justice to the richness of Darwinism and its influence in the past century and a half.

The premier review journal in biology, The Quarterly Review of Biology has presented insightful historical, philosophical, and technical treatments of important biological topics since 1926. The QRB publishes outstanding review articles of generous length that are guided by an expansive, inclusive, and often humanistic understanding of biology.

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Journal Reference :

  • Hugh Desmond, André Ariew, Philippe Huneman, Thomas Reydon. The Varieties of Darwinism: Explanation, Logic, and Worldview . The Quarterly Review of Biology , 2024; 99 (2): 77 DOI: 10.1086/730667

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Paper proposes a unified account of Darwinism's varieties

by University of Chicago

Charles Darwin

A new paper published in The Quarterly Review of Biology examines the question of what Darwinism is and how its nonscientific uses relate to the scientific theory of evolution.

Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859 as a work in biology . However, in the past century and a half, Darwin's ideas have impacted a broad range of domains and stimulated scientists and scholars to advance "evolutionary approaches" in domains as diverse as economics, engineering, psychology, and history.

The ideas have been used (and abused) to undermine religiously inspired ideas about the origin of humans and their status concerning other species, to support state-sponsored eugenicist policies, or to support laissez-faire economic policies.

In " The Varieties of Darwinism: Explanation, Logic, and Worldview ," authors Hugh Desmond, André Ariew, Philippe Huneman, and Thomas Reydon observe that while some people claim Darwinism's meaning should be limited to scientific content, others call for its abolition altogether. The authors propose a unified account of these varieties of Darwinism.

"We show how the theories introduced by Darwin have grounded a 'logic' or style of reasoning about phenomena, as well as various ethically and politically charged 'worldviews,'" write the authors. They posit that the full meaning of Darwinism and how this meaning has changed over time can only be understood through the interaction between these dimensions.

The authors point out that while it is not novel to ask the question "What is Darwinism?" novel sources of confusion warrant revisiting the question. They provide a framework to make sense of how the different significant uses of the term interrelate and what, if any, such ethical and political uses of the term Darwinism have to do with the underlying scientific dimension of Darwinism.

The authors argue against the view that "they have nothing to do with each other." They advance a "thick" conception of Darwinism, where the scientific, ethical, and political dimensions are understood to be intertwined and constitute Darwinism's full meaning. In their account of the thick conception of Darwinism, the authors rely on Darwinism as an explanatory scheme, Darwinism as logic or methodology, and Darwinism as a worldview or ideology.

The authors conclude that restricting Darwinism to a purely scientific context is not ideal, noting that theoretical elements play a methodological role in structuring scientific inquiry into natural phenomena. They concede that while the thick conception complicates the analysis of Darwinism, it is necessary to do justice to the richness of Darwinism and its influence in the past century and a half.

Journal information: Quarterly Review of Biology

Provided by University of Chicago

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In Darwin's Footsteps: Scientists Recreate Historic 1830s Expedition

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The Oosterschelde set out from Plymouth, England, in August 2023

AFP is republishing this story which has been selected by the agency's chief editors as one of the best of the week. Photos and Video by Carlos Espinosa

Like the naturalist Charles Darwin did in 1831, a group of scientists and environmentalists last year set sail from the English port of Plymouth, headed for the Galapagos islands off the coast of Ecuador.

But what they found on their arrival last month differed vastly from what Darwin saw while visiting the archipelago in 1835, in a trip key to developing his world-changing theory on natural selection.

The Galapagos today is under protection, part of a marine reserve and classified a World Heritage Site. Yet the area faces more threats than ever, from pollution and illegal fishing to climate change.

There to observe the challenges, with a well-thumbed copy of her great-great-grandfather's "On the Origin of Species" in hand, was botanist Sarah Darwin.

The Oosterschelde is a refurbished, three-mast schooner built a century ago

"I think probably the main difference is that, you know, there are people working now to protect the islands," the 60-year-old told AFP onboard the "Oosterschelde," a refurbished, three-mast schooner built more than 100 years ago.

The ship has been on a scientific and awareness-raising expedition since last August, stopping so far in the Canary Islands, Cape Verde, Brazil and Chile among other locales.

In colonial times, the islands -- located in one of the world's most biodiverse regions -- served as a pit stop for pirates who caught and ate the giant turtles that call it home.

The Galapagos are part of a marine reserve and classified a World Heritage Site

During World War II, the archipelago hosted a US military base.

"I think if (Darwin) were able to come back now and see the efforts that everybody is making, both locally and globally, to protect these extraordinary islands and that biodiversity -- I think he'd be really, really excited and impressed," the naturalist's descendant told AFP.

Sarah Darwin first visited the Galapagos in 1995, where she illustrated a guide to endemic plants. She then devoted herself to studying native tomatoes.

She also mentors young people as part of a project to create a group of 200 Darwin "heirs" to raise the alarm about environmental and climate threats to the planet.

Calling at several ports on the journey from Plymouth to the Galapagos, the Oosterschelde took on new groups of young scientists and activists at every stop, and dropped off others.

Sarah Darwin travels with a copy of her famous ancestor's 'On the Origin of Species'

One of them, Indian-born Laya Pothunuri, who joined the mission from Singapore, told AFP the Galapagos "has a very important place in scientific terms".

She was there, she said, to improve the irrigation systems in the islands' coffee-growing regions.

"I plan to do it using recycled plastic, which also, again, is a big problem over here," she said, noting that plastic waste ends up being consumed by wildlife.

In the Galapagos, the expedition members worked with researchers from the private Universidad San Francisco de Quito (USFQ), the Charles Darwin Foundation and the NGO Conservation International on both confronting invasive species and protecting endemic ones.

Sarah Darwin, the great-great-granddaughter of Charles Darwin, on board the Oosterschelde with other members of a scientific expedition

Last year, a study by the Charles Darwin Foundation found that giant turtles in the area were ingesting harmful materials due to human pollution.

Samples revealed that nearly 90 percent of the waste consumed was plastic, eight percent was fabric and the rest metal, paper, cardboard, construction materials and glass.

From Galapagos, the Oosterschelde then set sail to continue its world tour, with stops expected in Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa.


In Darwin's Footsteps: Scientists Recreate Historic 1830s Expedition

<em>AFP is republishing this story which has been selected by the agency's chief editors as one of the best of the week.

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research on charles darwin

Scientists take on climate threats in recreation of Charles Darwin's historic 1830s expedition

G alapagos Islands, Ecuador - Like Charles Darwin did in 1831, a group of scientists and environmentalists last year set sail from the English port of Plymouth, headed for the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador.

But what they found on their arrival last month differed vastly from what naturalist Darwin saw while visiting the archipelago in 1835, in a trip key to developing his world-changing theory on natural selection.

The Galapagos today is under protection, part of a marine reserve and classified a World Heritage Site. Yet the area faces more threats than ever, from pollution and illegal fishing to climate change .

There to observe the challenges, with a well-thumbed copy of her great-great-grandfather's On the Origin of Species in hand, was botanist Sarah Darwin.

"I think probably the main difference is that, you know, there are people working now to protect the islands," the 60-year-old told AFP, onboard the Oosterschelde, a refurbished, three-mast schooner built more than 100 years ago.

The ship has been on a scientific and awareness-raising expedition since last August, stopping so far in the Canary Islands, Cape Verde, Brazil, and Chile among other locales.

Darwin's "heirs" tackle climate threats

In colonial times, the islands – located in one of the world's most biodiverse regions – served as a pit stop for pirates who caught and ate the giant turtles that call it home.

During World War II, the archipelago hosted a US military base.

"I think if (Darwin) were able to come back now and see the efforts that everybody is making, both locally and globally, to protect these extraordinary islands and that biodiversity – I think he'd be really, really excited and impressed," the naturalist's descendant told AFP.

Sarah Darwin first visited the Galapagos in 1995, where she illustrated a guide to endemic plants. She then devoted herself to studying native tomatoes.

She also mentors young people as part of a project to create a group of 200 Darwin "heirs" to raise the alarm about environmental and climate threats to the planet.

Calling at several ports on the journey from Plymouth to the Galapagos, the Oosterschelde took on new groups of young scientists and activists at every stop, and dropped off others.

One of them, Indian-born Laya Pothunuri, who joined the mission from Singapore, told AFP the Galapagos "has a very important place in scientific terms."

She was there, she said, to improve the irrigation systems in the islands' coffee-growing regions.

"I plan to do it using recycled plastic, which also, again, is a big problem over here," she said, noting that plastic waste ends up being consumed by wildlife.

Galapagos Islands face plastic peril

In the Galapagos, the expedition members worked with researchers from the private Universidad San Francisco de Quito (USFQ), the Charles Darwin Foundation, and the NGO Conservation International on both confronting invasive species and protecting endemic ones .

Last year, a study by the Charles Darwin Foundation found that giant turtles in the area were ingesting harmful materials due to human pollution.

Samples revealed that nearly 90% of the waste consumed was plastic, 8% was fabric, and the rest metal, paper, cardboard, construction materials, and glass.

From Galapagos, the Oosterschelde set sail again on Sunday to continue its world tour, with stops expected in Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa.

Scientists take on climate threats in recreation of Charles Darwin's historic 1830s expedition


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