Evolutionary biologist Ned Friedman, the new director of Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum, discussed some of the history of evolutionary thought at a recent talk kicking off a new lecture series at the arboretum. In his talk, titled “A Darwinian Look at Darwin’s Evolutionist Ancestors,” Friedman argued that Darwin’s most prominent contribution was in popularizing the idea of evolution by making it more readable—and thereby “revolutionary.”
Darwin himself was forced to acknowledge other progenitors of evolutionary theory in a section of later printings of On the Origin of Species, Friedman explained. By the sixth edition, some thirty-four other individuals were mentioned; according to Friedman, historians now believe that as many as sixty other thinkers preceded Darwin in writing about evolution. This included Darwin’s own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin.
What set Darwin and contemporary Alfred Russel Wallace apart from most was their emphasis on and exposition of natural selection as the mechanism driving evolution. But Darwin was uniquely capable and driven to “convince others of the correctness of the idea,” Friedman said.
For natural selection to drive the sort of progressive, “mollusks to man” evolution that Darwin envisioned, organisms must be capable of generating complex new anatomical features through natural processes, such as through genetic mutations.
In fact, understanding natural selection and biological evolution as separate ideas—closely related in many ways, but ultimately distinct—is crucial for properly understanding modern creationists’ biological models. For natural selection to drive the sort of progressive, “mollusks to man” evolution that Darwin envisioned, organisms must be capable of generating complex new anatomical features through natural processes, such as through genetic mutations. Without this capability, “evolution” can only proceed in a horizontal or downward direction, resulting in new species that are no more complex than their ancestors—and undermining the Darwinian narrative of life’s history.
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