The understanding of the world was shaken up when Darwin proposed his ideas. Before that, scientists were able to classify and observe the differences in the things they saw, but they didn’t have an explanation. Scientists had all kinds of explanations as to why there were small differences, but no other explanation was more famous than Darwin’s theory of evolution. It was so revolutionary in that it had a wider effect than changing our understanding of biology. While Darwin’s ideas were not the most well-received it was one that people could not ignore.
It challenged the beliefs of that era and continues to be considered in modern times.
To understand what the Darwinian Revolution was and its importance, we must first learn about who Charles Darwin was and how he developed his theory of evolution. Charles Darwin’s path was not always one that led to becoming a biologist. First, he was a medical student at the University of Edinburgh, but his interest in nature caused him to leave medicine and move to do his university studies in Cambridge.
It was here where he was given the opportunity as a surveyor on the HM Beagle, a ship set to sail around the world and map the land they see. This opportunity gave Darwin the chance to make discoveries in the natural and geologies. From this, he was able to use his insight and firsthand experience in developing his theories of evolution. He built on the ideas of people like Thomas Malthus, who had conceived the idea that societal struggles made it so only the strongest of the species would survive, but held off on publishing his work until pressured by the similar ideas of Alfred Russel Wallace.
Thus, On the Origin of Species was born, a book that set the stage for a debate in the scientific community.
So then, what were these ideas that caused such an uproar in Victorian society? A couple of major key ideas had to do with the idea that organisms are constantly changing. Darwin proposed that organisms’ goal is to produce the greatest number of offspring and that organisms will change to make this happen. The organisms who struggle to survive and fail to produce offspring would cease to exist and only those who are adapted to the environment would live. According to Darwin, this process of what he called natural selection took place over years and years. His most influential idea was that these differences between organisms were not ones chosen by God ( Week 7 Notes ). Darwin provided the basis for the argument that the forces of the natural world can be explained without bringing up the idea of divine forces. At this point, history has already shown that changes in the fundamental ideas of our place in the world can cause huge societal changes and this was another one of them. The ideas of those in the scientific revolution like Galileo and Copernicus have already changed the views about our place in the universe. They have already established that we were not the center of the universe. With religion influencing the beliefs in the past, it is no wonder that Darwin’s ideas caused such a controversy. Darwin proposes this new idea that humans were not designed by a divine creator, but rather products of natural selection and evolution. Combined with the evidence gathered throughout his travels, he sparked the revolution that would make scientists and even non-scientists question their place in the natural world. It has been part of the human identity that we were the intelligent beings who were capable of feeling things that other organisms were not able to. That we are different because we are created by a divine creator. This belief is one that Darwin’s claims challenged and is why you can consider it the Darwinian revolution. Many forces like electricity and gravity were able to be explained by mechanical forces that can act on all beings in the same way and Darwin was able to theorize an underlying force that also acts the same across all organisms in the natural world. So, similarly, to those before him, Darwin’s ideas brought discussion and change to science and society.
While Darwin’s theory ignited a huge debate, there were others before him that proposed their theories. According to Bowler and Morus, some of the earliest evolution ideas were rooted in enlightenment ideas, where the world was to be understood by reason and not religion ( Bowler and Morus 135). There were many takes on evolution. For example, Bowler and Morus tell us about Denis Diderot’s idea that “the world was a ceaseless round of material transformations that formed and reformed material structures without any pre-designed plan or purpose” ( Bowler and Morus 135). However, like many previous evolutionary theorists before Darwin, he had no explanation for the way organisms change but rather attributed it to spontaneous generation, an idea that “ inorganic nature could produce even complex living things directly” ( Bowler and Morus 135). The belief in spontaneous generation was consistent in many early theories. People have believed that species could from common ancestors, but had no explanation as to where the ancestor came from, an idea by Georges Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (Bowler and Morus 135). Bowler and Morus continue through the history of previous theories by introducing two people whose theories included parts that were more in line with modern evolution ideas. One of them was Charles Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, who believed that life developed little by little ( Bowler and Morus 136). The other big name was Lamarck, who proposed that spontaneous generation is the explanation for the simplest of organisms, but that those organisms evolved to become increasingly more complex than previous generations ( Bowler and Morus 136). Like Darwin’s grandfather, Lamarck proposed that organisms could change over generations and even acknowledged that environmental adaptations were not the work of God (Bowler and Morus 136). Much like Darwin’s theories, the previous theories sought to replace divine creationism with mechanisms that have more evidence and reasoning behind them than just leaving it up to superstitions. Darwin was able to go beyond acknowledging that change is happening from generation. In an excerpt from his essay written in 1844, he gave a scenario where a canine animal would have to adapt to the ever-changing environment to survive ( Bowler and Morus 147). The idea that organisms adapt in ways that allow them to thrive in their environment is what separated Darwin’s theory from the others.
Not all of Darwin’s ideas were accepted immediately. His ideas challenged the very personal beliefs that people had about human existence. Before this, people were content with the idea that humans were a product of God himself. Darwin’s theory of natural selection challenged this idea as he believed that all differences in organisms are a result of small changes that allow the species to survive better and this applied to humans as well. The idea that humans, the most complex species, were not designed to be how we are was something that was not well received. Bowler and Morus write that there were scientists that were eager to replace the ideas of natural theology (Bowler and Morus 150). One example of such a scientist was T. H. Huxley. Huxley was welcoming of parts of Darwin’s theory, but still had his doubts about natural selection as the driving force behind evolutions ( Bowler and Morus 150). This partial acceptance is characteristic of many of those in the Victorian Era. It was easy for people to accept this theory of evolution as long as humans were excluded from those theories. Those who had religious beliefs were slow to accept Darwin’s ideas. Religion was still a big part of people’s lives in the Victorian era and is the reason why they would be hesitant to accept that they are not God’s creation. Those people were fine accepting parts of evolution but wanted to believe that God influences the changes that happen. Overall, Darwin proposed an idea that was necessary to create a discussion on one of the last aspects of natural life that were yet to be explained. His theories were heavily critiqued, but this led to many people continuing the work of Darwin and developing their ideas.
As explained earlier, Darwin’s theory of evolution was not the first, but it is still the most remembered. This is large because of a fundamental difference in his beliefs from others. Natural selection was the driving force that influenced evolution and it was survival of the fittest, a term used later on. Others had similar ideas to Darwin, but none were able to give good explanations as to why it happens. Darwin’s observations were helpful in that they showed some of the changes between species based on the environment. His theory was far more radical, yet had the most evidence as to why it would be plausible. It was not until later on that Darwin’s theories are necessary to explain some of the future discoveries in genetics (Bowler and Morus 158). This goes to show that his work was ahead of his time and paved the way for many discoveries in biology.
All in all, Darwin’s work was truly revolutionary. He, like many scientific revolutionaries, was pushing the status quo. Religion and superstition would be forced to remove themselves from the scientific conversation and it is Darwin that helped this. However, western culture was affected as people tried to apply the idea of survival of the fittest and natural selection to the human population. There was an influx of racism that was based on the ideas of superiority and inferiority of certain races. Different interpretations of Darwin’s ideas resulted in different conversations in all parts of our lives. This is just a testament to how Darwin’s ideas set the stage for larger conversations about different aspects of life.