Darwin’s Theory and the Sweeping Changes

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Redefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science

By Steven Gimbel, Ph.D., Gettysburg College

Charles Darwin was the first person who created awareness in the minds of people about their place in the process of evolution. Darwin’s theory brought about an ideological revolution of sorts. However, clergymen and theorist Thomas Robert Malthus viewed things differently.

The picture depicts Darwin's theory of evolution.
Darwin’s theory of human evolution helped in shaping our vision of reality in a remarkable way.
(Image: Livinglegend/Shutterstock)

Darwin’s theory provides great insight into the evolution of humans. His theory can be described in four concepts. The first is that the children are similar in looks to their parents. Second is that children do not exactly look like their parents. The third one is that to have children you must be alive. And the fourth and final one is that you must date someone before you can have children. These four simple statements put together describe Darwin’s theory of evolution. We will now have a look at each of them separately and see how when put together they provide what at that time was a sweeping conclusion.

This is a transcript from the video series Redefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science. Watch it now, Wondrium.

Concepts of Darwin’s Theory

Looking at the first concept that children are similar in looks to their parents, we can see it practically all around us. This idea has always been there. There are some features that children inherit from their parents and they are passed on from generation to generation. We have seen people passing remarks about children like, “he has his mother’s nose,” or “she has her father’s eyes.” It means that there are certain features that are shared among family members and can’t be seen outside the family. So this concept of Darwin’s theory means that there are certain traits that come only from being part of the family.

The picture depicts Darwin's finches in his journal of research done during his voyage around the world.
Through his drawings of the finches’ beaks, Darwin was able to reinforce his theory of natural selection. (Image: John Gould (14.Sep.1804 – 3.Feb.1881)/Public domain)

But this part of Darwin’s theory was no great information for the people. They had been seeing this for centuries. In fact, Darwin himself raised pigeons and made their pairs with similar traits if he wanted to breed a pigeon with a particular property. Farmers had already been doing this for a long time. They knew if they wanted a strong horse, they needed to find a big, strong horse and a big mare and pair them. Similarly, if they wanted small horses, they needed to find a small horse and a small mare and pair them. So this was not a great piece of information for the people. They knew that there were characteristics that could be passed on to the next generation.

Coming to the second concept of Darwin’s theory that children do not look exactly like their parents. Although there were certain features that could be inherited from the parents, babies would often show many different traits also for the reasons that can’t be explained. This means that children may look like parents but there will always be certain traits in them that are not present in either of the parents. These random variations crop up for no reason. They just are. They could be good or they could be bad also. Coming back to his pigeons, Darwin’s theory was that if you like a new characteristic in the pigeons, take the pigeon displaying this new characteristic and breed it to see if the chicks also have the same characteristic. And if that happens, keep on breeding them till the time you have a bunch of them with the same characteristic.

If some unique properties are chosen and only those are bred that have those unique properties and they are separated from the rest of the population, the result will be the growth of a new group of organisms that will have very little similarity with others. In places with physical and geographical boundaries that are secluded and separate the people from others so that interbreeding is just not possible, new organisms will be formed that would be most dissimilar to each other. So eventually, this change will be enough to lead to the advent of a totally new kind of species or organism.

Learn more about what makes us distinctly human.

Third Concept and Malthus

The third concept of Darwin’s theory states that in order to have children you must be alive. This principle of natural selection is well-known. It supposes that the world is a dangerous place and not only the resources needed for survival are limited, but you might be the resource some other animal may need to survive. When Darwin set sail on the voyage in HMS Beagle as its naturalist, he took along many books with him. He was told by one of his old professors that the book An Essay On The Principle Of Population by Thomas Robert Malthus would be quite interesting to read but he should not take it too seriously. Malthus was a clergyman and a social theorist.

A picture of Thomas Robert Malthus.
Thomas Robert Malthus’s book, An Essay On The Principle Of Population, greatly influenced Darwin’s thoughts. (Image: John Linnell/Public domain)

Malthus had a different take on helping the poor. His argument was that although the desire to help the poor was good morally, its results could be disastrous. According to Malthus, the real problem was reproduction by humans. If people were provided their basic needs for survival, their minds traveled on a single track of a particular thing. And this resulted in the production of babies. He further said that since the resources were growing only linearly and the population was growing much more aggressively, very soon the population will be more than the available resources and people will compete for the available resources. This would result in deaths in large numbers due to starvation, which would be a very unpleasant scenario. So he said, if people actually cared, they should stop feeding the poor and not let them multiply so that the balance of the resources could be maintained. This was not exactly what Darwin’s theory said.

Learn more about social reality by looking at the concept of progress.

The Last Concept

Darwin was liberal politically. Although he did not subscribe to the views of Malthus, he still saw a reflection of the world that he was observing. Surviving in this world is a serious function and no one can take it for granted. It may be essential for procreation but it is not an end in itself. This brings us to the fourth concept of Darwin’s theory which says that you have to date someone before you can have children. It takes two people both literally as well as biologically. Here choosing the right mate becomes important to be able to spread certain characteristics among society for generations.

When we put these four straightforward concepts together, we get the basis of Darwin’s theory. It brought a sweeping change in how we look at the world. Darwin’s theory helped in shaping our vision of reality in a remarkable way. But in the 20th century, biology progressed to such a level that Darwin could not have even imagined.

Learn more about the rediscovery of the mind.

Common Questions about Darwin’s Theory of Evolution

Q: How was Darwin’s theory of evolution beneficial to the society?

Darwin’s theory gave us a better understanding of the world. This changed the way we think. By challenging the Church, Darwin gave freedom to people to explore the truths of nature.

Q: Which two big contributions did Darwin make to modern evolutionary theory?

Darwin developed a set of ideas during his voyage and later explaining the patterns he had noticed during his voyage, thus outlining his main theories of natural selection and evolution.

Q: How is the life of humans impacted by evolution?

When species move to new places in the world, it initiates evolution in these species which in turn increases the rate at which they affect and spread in the native species.

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