Darwin, Charles Robert (1809-82), British scientist, who laid the foundation of modern evolutionary theory with his concept of the development of all forms of life through the slow-working process of natural selection. His work was a major influence on the life and earth sciences and on modern thought in general.
Darwin's job as naturalist aboard the Beagle gave him the opportunity to observe the various geological formations found on different continents and islands along the way, as well as a huge variety of fossils and living organisms. In his geological observations, Darwin was most impressed with the effect that natural forces had on shaping the earth's surface.
At the time, most geologists adhered to the so-called catastrophist theory that the earth had experienced a succession of creations of animal and plant life, and that each creation had been destroyed by a sudden catastrophe, such as an upheaval or convulsion of the earth's surface. According to this theory, the most recent catastrophe, Noah's flood, wiped away all life except those forms taken into the ark. The rest were visible only in the form of fossils. In the view of the catastrophists, species were individually created and immutable, that is, unchangeable for all time.
Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection is essentially that, because of the food-supply problem described by Malthus, the young born to any species intensely compete for survival. Those young that survive to produce the next generation tend to embody favorable natural variations (however slight the advantage may be) the process of natural selection and these variations are passed on by heredity. Therefore, each generation will improve adaptively over the preceding generations, and this gradual and continuous process is the source of the evolution of species.
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