Charles Darwin

How important was Charles Darwin in Evolutionary Theory?

There is sufficient evidence in the literature to suggest that Charles Darwin was not most original prominent a figure in our understanding of Modern Evolution as he is noted for and celebrated in modern times on the understanding that we would today be ignorant about how Nature works if he did not produce his book on the Origin of Species.
All the basic ideas had been around for some time, notably from Patrick Mayhew, William Charles’ Wells, and Edward Blyth, although these authors did not use the word ‘natural selection’. Alfred Russell Wallace did monumental work on the same subject and many regard him as being more important than Charles Darwin in history of Biological Science. Among these, Patrick Mathews:

In 1831 he published the book, On Naval Timber and Arboriculture.The book focused on how best to grow trees for the construction of the Royal Navy’s warships. He considered the task to be of great importance, as the navy permitted the British race to advance. Matthew noted the long-term deleterious effect that culling only the trees of highest timber quality from forests had on the quality of timber.

In an appendix to the book, he elaborated on how artificial selection — the elimination of trees of poor timber quality from the breeding stock—could be used to improve timber quality, and even create new varieties of trees. He extrapolated from this to what is today recognized as a description of natural selection. Although his book was reviewed in several periodical publications of the time, the significance of Matthew’s insight was apparently lost upon his readers, as it languished in obscurity for nearly three decades.

Edward Blyth also preceded Charles Darwin in producing the germ of the idea, it seems:
Edward Blyth wrote three articles on variation, discussing the effects of artificial selection and describing the process in nature (later called natural selection) as restoring organisms in the wild to their archetype (rather than forming new species). However, he never actually used the term “natural selection”. These articles were published in The Magazine of Natural History between 1835 and 1837.
Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace were not aware of the even earlier work of William Charles Wells in 1913 when they published their theory in 1858, but later Darwin acknowledged:
“In this paper he [Wells] distinctly recognizes the principle of natural selection, and this is the first recognition which has been indicated; but he applies it only to man, and to certain characters alone. After remarking that negroes and mulattoes enjoy an immunity from certain tropical diseases, he observes, firstly, that all animals tend to vary in some degree, and, secondly, that agriculturalists improve their domesticated animals by selection; and then he adds, but what is done in this latter case by art, seems to be done with equal efficacy, though more slowly, in the formation of varieties of mankind, fitted for the country which they inhabit.”
In fact the ideas on which such observations of Nature may date back to even earlier times. The ancient Greeks understood the basic principles. The first Muslim biologist and philosopher to publish detailed speculations about natural history, the Afro-Arab writer al-Jahiz, wrote about it in the 9th century, including the following with respect to the idea of natural selection:
Animals engage in a struggle for existence; for resources, to avoid being eaten and to breed. Environmental factors influence organisms to develop new characteristics to ensure survival, thus transforming into new species. Animals that survive to breed can pass on their successful characteristics to offspring.

Whether what is attributed to Al-Jahiz is right or wrong depends on how one reads the word ‘influence’. Organisms may or may not adapt by evolving through random genetic mutations more appropriate characteristics to meet the resources and constraints of the environment such that they thrive and reproduce better in that environment and are consequently said to be ‘fitter’. That is natural selection. Is that what Al-Jahiz and Darwin were alluding to at different levels of perception? Whatever be the case, what is clear from the evidence is that Charles Darwin strung together existing knowledge into coherence which makes him an excellent compiler of evidence. If he had not been around around in the late 1800’s, it is very likely that someone else would have done the job of bringing together the subject of Evolution by Natural Selection.

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