Charles Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’

Huxley’s illustration showing that humans and apes had the same basic skeletal structure

On November 24, 1859, famous biologist and founder of the science of evolution Charles Darwin published his seminal treaty ‘On the Origin of Species‘, which is considered to be the foundation of evolutionary biology.

Charles Darwin began his studies on natural history in the 1820’s, where he first heard of the transmutation of species by Robert Grant. Further influences of that period were Alexander von Humboldt, John Herschel, John Stevens Henslow, and most important Charles Lyell, the geologist who just published his famous ‘Principles of Geology’. Inspired by Lyell’s ideas on uniformitarianism, Darwin applied these theories to his experiments at the Beagle expedition, trying to find the modern species’ center of creation. Soon he came to the idea that a species changes into another and drew an evolutionary tree, which was contrary to Lamarck’s principles. He developed his theory of natural selection and began a fruitful correspondence with Charles Lyell. It was then also Charles Lyell who helped Darwin to publish his work and the book ‘On the Origin of Species’ faced an instant success.

In summary, Darwin’s theory depicted that every species evolved from another previous species through natural selection and was not independently created by God. In Darwin’s work a detailed definition of natural selection is given, followed by an explanation on how this process ‘produces’ species. In later editions Darwin is also responding to opposing theories. His main ideas were summarized by the evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr as following:

  • Every species is fertile enough that if all offspring survived to reproduce the population would grow
  • Despite periodic fluctuations, populations remain roughly the same size
  • Resources such as food are limited and are relatively stable over time
  • A struggle for survival ensues
  • Individuals in a population vary significantly from one another
  • Much of this variation is inheritable
  • Individuals less suited to the environment are less likely to survive and less likely to reproduce; individuals more suited to the environment are more likely to survive and more likely to reproduce and leave their inheritable traits to future generations, which produces the process of natural selection
  • This slowly effected process results in populations changing to adapt to their environments, and ultimately, these variations accumulate over time to form new species

After the publication of Darwin’s masterpiece, he had to face a wide range of reactions. The book caused Darwin international attention an the term ‘darwinism‘ was created for all ideas concerning evolutionism. His theories were able to dominate over Lamarck‘s in the scientific community.

On yovisto you can learn more about Charles Darwin and his ‘Origin of Species’ in the lecture of Prof. John P. Huelsenbeck from Berkeley about ‘Darwin and the Origin‘.

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