Posted in Francis Hutcheson

The Evolution of Evolution: Darwin’s philosophical forebears

Mosaic portrait of Charles Darwin (c) Charis Tsevis/Flickr  (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Mosaic portrait of Charles Darwin
(c) Charis Tsevis/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Charles Darwin (born on 12th February, 1809) famously developed the idea of evolution by natural selection outlined in Origin of the Species (1859). Though still controversial, to some today it seems such an obvious idea it is surprising it took so long to emerge.

Evolutionary ideas had had a long pedigree, appearing as early as the Greek philosopher Anaximander. The problem with them all was there seemed to be only two possible mechanisms available to make creatures – deliberate design or blind chance. This was the great innovation of Darwin: not evolution but the theory of natural selection which gave a plausible account of how radical changes could appear by chance, yet appear designed.

That theory did not arise in a vacuum. Stephen J. Gould (1985) has written about the important insights Darwin obtained from Richard Owen (a vertebrate palaeontologist) and John Gould (an ornithologist) after they examined his Galapagos specimens.

Darwin also had intellectual forebears, most famously Lamarck, de Buffon, Lyell and Hutton. Even Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus, had written on evolutionary theory. In addition he was influenced by more conceptual work outside biology and geology. This post (indebted to Gould, 1993) will concentrate on two streams which both happen to cross over in the work of an Irish philosopher.
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