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Influences on Darwin

Darwin derived his ideas from a combination of sources:

i) an extensive study of nature, especially on his famous voyage on HMS Beagle in 1831-36. His observations on the Galapagos Islands were a key ingredient in his later reflections. Each island had a different environment, and its own combination of wildlife. Darwin collected a range of birds which seemed to resemble finches. Each had different characteristics appropriate to the different island habitat in which they lived. At first Darwin gave them little attention. But his thought was greatly spurred on when John Gould, who dissected the Galapagos finches back in London, told him that the different finch-samples belonged to different species. The most likely explanation was that they derived from a small number of finches of one species blown across the ocean from South America, and that they had developed differently in their different island habitats.The story of the Galapagos finches is given a compelling update in Weiner, J, The Beak of the Finch (London: Cape, 1994)

ii) a study of artificial breeding techniques, for example the selection of different attributes in pigeons, dogs and horses, each of which are mentioned in the Origin. Darwin wrote ‘here, then, we see in man’s productions the actions of what may be called the principle of divergence, causing differences, at first barely appreciable, steadily to increase, and the breeds to diverge in character both from each other and from their common parent.’Darwin, C, The Origin of Species, p156Having established a model for the origin of species Darwin applied his theory to the interpretation of both the fossil record and the geographical distribution of organisms.

iii) his wide reading. Originally Darwin had been intended to take orders in the Church of England. At Cambridge he read William Paley’s Natural Theology, and noted the amazing properties of adaptedness that living things seemed often to possess. (However, his proposal of natural selection was utterly to supersede Paley’s argument from design.See Desmond, A, and Moore, J, Darwin (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1992) p90 and Dawkins, R, The Blind Watchmaker (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1991, reprint with appendix) Ch.1) On the Beagle voyage Darwin took the first volume of Lyell’s Principles of Geology, with its insistence that the Earth’s rocks were formed by processes of gradual change over very long periods. And at a crucial juncture in his thinking on species he read MalthusEssay on the Principle of Population, which claimed that in the struggle for resources weak and improvident humans would be eliminated.

Email link | Feedback | Contributed by: Dr. Christopher Southgate and Dr. Michael Robert Negus
Source: God, Humanity and the Cosmos  (T&T Clark, 1999)

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