During his time as the ship's naturalist aboard the
from 1831- 1836, Charles Darwin had the opportunity to study
the wildlife of the Galapagos Islands. On the islands, he was amazed by the great diversity of life. Most particularly, he
took interest in the island's various finches, whose beaks were all highly adapted to their particular lifestyles. He
hypothesized that there must be some process that lead to such diversity and adaptation, and he spent much of his time
trying to puzzle out just what the process might be. After returning from his voyage (bringing with him numerous dead
finches, killed and stuffed at his behest), and at the urging of friends, Darwin put his thought in writing in a 490-page
"abstract" that he entitled
On the Origin of Species.
He published the book in 1859.
The public reception of
was phenomenal. Within 15 years, it was well accepted that evolution did occur the way
Darwin said, slowly and in small steps. However, the mechanism of natural selection remained difficult to accept at the
time because there were many points Darwin himself
admittedly could not explain.
For example, he knew that traits were
passed down from parents to offspring, but he did not know how this happened. It was not until the early 1900's, when the
field of genetics became the focus of intense study that Darwin's mechanism of natural selection received more intense
scrutiny and deeper scientific support. With the discoveries of genetics, Darwin's theories gained a scientific basis beyond
observation and were consequently accepted as a plausible mechanism for evolutionary change. Even before genetics
arrived on the scene, the idea of "
survival of the fittest" captured the imagination of the public.
The idea was applied to
everything from the business world to the structure of society as a whole.
As we saw in the section on
, the very idea that evolution could occur was much debated. Along with Buffon and
Darwin supported the ability of species to change over time. However, the mechanism by which he believed this
happened was radically different from Lamarck's or anyone else's.
Darwin felt that all of the diversity of life on earth emerged out of the evolution from one or a few common ancestors.
This theory took a step beyond Lamarck's observation that complex creatures probably evolved from simpler ones. The
idea was also socially important: it implied a less important role for humans as merely one of many branches in the animal
world rather than a separate, privileged lineage, as formerly assumed.
While Lamarck felt that species-wide change could take place within the span of a few generations,
Darwin felt evolution
was a much slower process, taking place in innumerable small steps. Based on this, and on the ideas of the Scottish
geologist Sir Charles Lyell, he estimated the world to be much older than contemporary geological theories accounted for.