Charles Darwin developed the theory of evolution by natural and sexual selection, which today unifies the life sciences. He was born in Shrewsbury, England. After graduating from Cambridge, Darwin embarked on the H.M.S. Beagle for a British scientific expedition to map the coastline of southern South America. As the resident naturalist, Darwin collected specimens and recorded observations of plants, animals, fossils, geological features, minerals, native peoples, and other items of interest.
Darwin’s observations led him to speculate on a wide range of biological and other phenomena, including plate tectonics and the origins of coral reefs. The Galapagos Islands provided Darwin with a natural laboratory that was a particular influence in guiding his theory of natural selection, harboring many species of plants and animals that were similar to those on the mainland, but varied in remarkable ways. At the time, species of organisms were considered to be a primeval archetype, divinely created and unchanging. Variation was seen as noise imposed on the platonic ideal. It was also a common belief that one species was created to benefit others, for example, providing food.
Following Malthus, Darwin recognized the struggle among individuals for existence and limited resources. He also believed that the phenotypic variation of individuals, enabling some individuals to survive and reproduce more successfully than others, was partially heritable. He inferred that natural selection would over the course of time encourage the spread of traits that are more adaptive than others. Darwin published On the Origin of the Species in 1859, followed by The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex in 1871, which outlined the principles of sexual selection. Sexual selection resolved phenomena puzzling to Darwin, describing how traits appearing to be detrimental to survival are beneficial in the competition for mates. Darwin went to great lengths to test the central predictions of his theory; he recognized how controversial his ideas might be, and tremendous amounts of evidence have since been amassed in support of his theories.
Darwin has made a tremendous impact in science, including psychological areas as diverse as the function and universality of emotions and the development of intelligence and imagination. In recent decades, increasing numbers of psychologists have been explicitly employing an evolutionary approach to understanding human thought and behavior. The recognition that proximate psychological mechanisms serve ultimate adaptive functions holds the promise of uniting the disparate areas of psychology in a Darwinian framework.
- The descent of man, and selection in relation to se (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.zoo.uib.no/classics/descent.html
- On the origin of the species by means of natural selection. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.zoo.uib.no/classics/ html
- WGBH/NOVA Science Unit and Clear Blue Sky Productions. (n.d.). Darwin. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/darwin/indehtml