After working as a naturalist on a five-year voyage around the world, from 1831 to 1836, Charles Darwin developed some theories around evolution, a hot topic of discussion at the time. His theories were incredibly controversial, as they not only stood against society’s general belief in the Creation but also contradicted Darwin’s own Christian views. It was this, together with the memory of his grandfather’s ostracisation after he had published theories on transmutation, that caused Darwin to fear making his theories public. So it wasn’t until November of 1859 that he finally published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. Here, Darwin set out some key theories; that 1) individual organisms within a particular species show a wide range of variation of characteristics; 2) that individuals with characteristics most suited to the environment are more likely to survive and breed successfully; and that 3) these characteristics, that have enabled these individuals to survive and breed more successfully, are passed on to their offspring.
Darwin named his theory “natural selection”, wherein the process of selecting better characteristics occurs naturally, in contrast to the “artificial selection” that animal breeders might employ to encourage particular traits within dogs, horses, cattle etc. Darwin’s work was ground-breaking and became incredibly important to Victorian scientists. But science is continuously developing, so is Darwin’s theory still relevant and correct?
The short answer is yes. Whilst his research was limited by a lack of technology, Darwin’s fundamental theories remain correct. Darwin understood that character traits were passed down from parents to their offspring, though he couldn’t understand the mechanism for how this occurred. But in the mid-20th century, with the emergence of the study of genetics, scientists were able to fill in this gap in knowledge. We now know that our genes code different biological traits and it is this that allows for those characteristics which have been “naturally selected” (because they ensure the better survival of a species) to be passed down to subsequent generations. Darwin also wouldn’t have understood the principal of genetic mutation, whereby the natural variations which he noted amongst individuals occur. When Darwin put forth his theory of evolution it was just that – a theory. Whilst he had plenty of evidence to support his ideas, he knew they couldn’t be proved definitively.
Far from dispelling his theories, our modern understanding of genetics provides the proof that Charles Darwin was correct, making his theories of evolution amongst the most robust theories in scientific history.
For more information about Charles Darwin and this theory of evolution visit Darwin’s Theory of Evolution: Definition & Evidence.