Understanding Evolution

Evolution by natural selection describes a mechanism for how species change over time. Scientists, philosophers, researchers, and others had made suggestions and debated this topic well before Darwin began to explore this idea. Classical Greek philosopher Plato emphasized in his writings that species were static and unchanging, yet there were also ancient Greeks who expressed evolutionary ideas. In the eighteenth century, naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc Comte de Buffon reintroduced ideas about the evolution of animals and observed that various geographic regions have different plant and animal populations, even when the environments are similar. Some at this time also accepted that there were extinct species.

Also during the eighteenth century, James Hutton, a Scottish geologist and naturalist, proposed that geological change occurred gradually by accumulating small changes from processes operating like they are today over long periods of time. This contrasted with the predominant view that the planet's geology was a consequence of catastrophic events occurring during a relatively brief past. Nineteenth century geologist Charles Lyell popularized Hutton's view. 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 this change. In the early nineteenth century, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck published a book that detailed a mechanism for evolutionary change. We now refer to this mechanism as an inheritance of acquired characteristics by which the environment causes modifications in an individual, or offspring could use or disuse of a structure during its lifetime, and thus bring about change in a species. While many discredited this mechanism for evolutionary change, Lamarck’s ideas were an important influence on evolutionary thought.