Darwin's Theory of Evolution


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  • Individual Galápagos islands differ from one another, some are rocky and dry. Others have better soil and more rainfall... the plants and animals on the different islands also differed. The giant tortoises on one island had saddle-shaped shells, while those on another island had dome-shaped shells.
  • Oh no! If I don't publish my work soon, people will think Alfred Wallace came up with this theory before me. All my originality, whatever it may amount to, will be smashed.
  • 1831: Darwin sails around the world: Darwin’s tutor at Cambridge recommended him as a ‘gentleman naturalist’ on a voyage around the world on HMS Beagle. Over the following five years, Darwin visited four continents, spending much of his time on land collecting specimens and investigating the local geology. He also had long periods with nothing to do but read and reflect. Books such as Charles Lyell's recently published Principles of Geology made him think about slow processes which occur over vast periods of time.
  • 1838: First account of evolution: Home again, a powerful, elegant idea began to emerge in his mind. Animals more suited to their environment survive longer and have more young. Evolution occurred by a process he called 'Natural Selection'. Darwin struggled with the idea; it contradicted his Christian world view. His grandfather had been ostracised for writing about transmutation and he feared the same fate. He decided to gather more evidence before going public. In the meantime, he made his name by publishing an account of his travels.
  • On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection 
  • 1858: Wallace's letter: Darwin had written a quarter of a million words on evolution – and published none. Then a letter compelled him to go public. Alfred Russel Wallace was an admirer of Darwin's. Inspired by the Beagle voyage, Wallace set off travelling. He independently arrived at a theory of natural selection and wanted Darwin's advice on how to publish. Darwin realised that if he didn't go public quickly then Wallace would take credit for the new ideas. As well as agonising over whether to speak out, he had to decide how to treat Wallace fairly.
  • 1858: Darwin and Wallace rewrite evolution: Darwin finally went public with his groundbreaking theory of evolution by natural selection, while making sure that Wallace received some credit. Darwin's ideas were presented to Britain's leading Natural History body, the Linnean Society. After consulting with colleagues, Darwin agreed that extracts from his and Wallace's papers should be presented at the same meeting. Wallace, on his return, accepted that Darwin had treated him fairly.
  • 1859: Darwin publishes "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection": Darwin finally published his new theory of evolution. He dreaded losing his reputation, as his grandfather Erasmus had. Charles did draw fierce criticism from the Church, and from some parts of the press. Many people were shaken by the book's key implication: that human beings were descended from apes. However, some were now willing to listen to evidence for evolution – especially from a leading figure like Darwin.
  • 1860: Oxford debate on evolution: Darwin was reluctant to defend his ideas in public. It was left to others – notably a young biologist named Thomas Huxley – to take up the fight. Huxley's most famous clash came at meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. In what many saw as a key battle between science and God, Huxley went head to head with Bishop Samuel Wilberforce and his Biblical account of creation. The debate has become part of the Darwin legend and shows how his ideas shook Victorian society.
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