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Charles Darwin was an English naturalist most famous for having developed the theory of evolution by natural selection. After finishing his degree at Cambridge in 1831, Darwin signed on as a naturalist aboard the HMS Beagle, a ship that would sail along both coasts of South America with the purpose of measuring the coastline. His five years aboard the Beagle played a tremendous role in the development of his theory. Darwin became an evolutionist shortly after the completion of this voyage, when he began to reflect on the significance of the data he had collected in South America and the Galapagos Islands. Darwin apparently discovered his principle of natural selection in 1838 while reflecting on the significance of Malthus’s ”struggle for existence,” but he did not publish his great book, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, until 1859.
Darwin’s central question was that of adaptation, or how species come to be adjusted to their environments. He outlined his explanatory mechanism, natural selection, in chapter 4, which is remarkable for its elegant simplicity: nature always produces more organisms than have resources available for survival; there arises a struggle for existence, and those organisms that have the most ”fit” characteristics, i.e., that best allow them to survive in a given environment, are favored in this struggle; the differential survival of the fitter organisms is followed by their differential reproduction, i.e., the more fit leave more offspring, including their fitter traits, and as a result those traits over time spread throughout a population and come to characterize it.
Many scientists readily accepted Darwin’s claim for the fact of evolution, but most balked at the causal mechanism proposed to explain it. It was not until the 1930s, with the emergence of the new field of population genetics, that an empirical basis was established for accepting it. The new population genetics showed how natural selection could work, and final resistance was thus overcome. Population genetics and Darwinian natural selection were combined into what came to be called ”the modern synthesis.”
- Watson, J. D. (ed.) (2005) Darwin: The Indelible Stamp. Running Press, Philadelphia.