Understanding Evolution

Evolution by natural selection describes a mechanism for how species change over time. That species change had been suggested and debated well before Darwin began to explore this idea. The view that species were static and unchanging was grounded in the writings of Plato, yet there were also ancient Greeks who expressed evolutionary ideas. In the eighteenth century, ideas about the evolution of animals were reintroduced by the naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc Comte de Buffon who observed that various geographic regions have different plant and animal populations, even when the environments are similar. It was also accepted that there were extinct species.

During this time, James Hutton, a Scottish naturalist, proposed that geological change occurred gradually by the accumulation of small changes from processes operating like they are today over long periods of time. This contrasted with the predominant view that the geology of the planet was a consequence of catastrophic events occurring during a relatively brief past. Hutton’s view was popularized in the nineteenth century by the geologist Charles Lyell who became a friend to Darwin. Lyell’s ideas were influential on Darwin’s thinking: Lyell’s notion of the greater age of Earth gave more time for gradual change in species, and the process of change provided an analogy for gradual change in species. In the early nineteenth century, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck published a book that detailed a mechanism for evolutionary change. This mechanism is now referred to as an inheritance of acquired characteristics by which modifications in an individual are caused by its environment, or the use or disuse of a structure during its lifetime, could be inherited by its offspring and thus bring about change in a species. While this mechanism for evolutionary change was discredited, Lamarck’s ideas were an important influence on evolutionary thought.