On the Origin of Evolutionary Biology

English geologist Charles Darwin is often credited with proposing the theory that living things evolved from simpler life forms, but this idea did not originate with him. Scientists and other prominent thinkers were already discussing evolutionary hypotheses decades before Darwin was born. In fact, some key tenets of the modern theory were proposed more than a century before Darwin’s work hit the press. As early as 1751, French mathematician Pierre Louis Maupertuis proposed an evolutionary hypothesis strikingly similar to the theory accepted by mainstream science today:

May we not say that, in the fortuitous combination of the productions of Nature, since only those creatures could survive in whose organization a certain degree of adaptation was present, there is nothing extraordinary in the fact that such adaptation is actually found in all those species which now exist? Chance, one might say, turned out a vast number of individuals; a small proportion of these were organized in such a manner that the animals’ organs could satisfy their needs. A much greater number showed neither adaptation nor order; these last have all perished…. Thus the species which we see today are but a small part of all those that a blind destiny has produced.quoted in Arthur O. Lovejoy, “Some Eighteenth Century Evolutionists. I.” The Popular Science Monthly 65 (1904), 242-243. Available here.

Maupertuis also suggested the possibility of universal common descent, and he was not the only one to broach this idea in the eighteenth century. The idea was considered again by German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who wrote the following in his widely-read Critique of Judgment (1790):

So many genera of animals share a certain common schema on which not only their bone structure but also the arrangement of their other parts seems to be based…. Despite all the variety among these forms, they seem to have been produced according to a common archetype, and this analogy among them reinforces our suspicion that they are actually akin, produced by a common original mother. For the different animal genera approach one another gradually: from … man, all the way to the polyp, and from it even to mosses and lichens…Kant, Critique of Judgment (1790), p. 304

Yet another early proponent of evolutionary hypotheses was Charles Darwin’s own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, who suggested that all warm-blooded animals—and perhaps all biological life—had descended from just one living organism “in the great length of time, since the earth began to exist, perhaps millions of ages before the commencement of the history of mankind.”Erasmus Darwin, Zoonomia, Vol. I, available here

portrait of Lamarck
Jean-Baptiste Lamarck
(1744 - 1829)Charles Thevenin painted this portrait of Lamarck circa 1802-3. File source: Wikimedia commons, public domain.

In 1800, French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck proposed the first general theory of how biological evolution might occur. He suggested that evolution is driven by environmental “forces” that produce biological complexity and adaptation. He even formulated “laws” describing how these forces were supposed to work. Lamarck’s account of evolution was soon dismissed by the scientific community; nevertheless, his ideas helped to popularize the notion that large-scale evolutionary change might be driven by natural laws.

Evolutionary hypotheses became still more popular in 1844, when a book promoting these ideas was published by an anonymous author. The mysterious book, entitled Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, quickly became an international bestseller and went through twelve editions. The twelfth edition finally revealed that the author was Scottish journalist Robert Chambers. (Chambers had dictated the book to his wife while recovering from a psychiatric illness. True story.)

A few years after the tenth edition of Vestiges had gone to press, a new book on evolution rose to even greater prominence. In 1859, Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, a book that would serve as a new foundation for the emerging science of evolutionary biology. Its full title was On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, but it is better known today by the abbreviated title On the Origin of Species. The sixth and final edition dropped the word “on” from the title, so that edition is called simply The Origin of Species. We’ll discuss Darwin’s theory on the next page.