Sunday, 24 September 2000

From "Natural Selection Before _The Origin of the Species_"

By Conway Zirkle.

The history of the concept of natural selection has generally been traced back through the personal development of Charles Darwin to Thomas Malthus, whose Essay on the Principles of Population gave Darwin the clue which led him to formulate the doctrine. Actually the conception of natural selection is very old, although originally it was not used to explain the origin of new species (evolution) but to account for the existence of adaptation. The survival of the fit organism, of course, implies the survival of fitness itself, and thus natural selection can serve as an alternative explanation of those facts which are generally cited as evidences of teleology. Natural selection was used for this purpose by Empedocles (400 B.C.), Lucretius (99-55 B.C), Diderot (1749), Maupertius (1756), and Geoffrey St. Hillaire (1833); but it was specifically rejected in favor of teleology by Aristotle (384-321 B.C.), Lactantius (260-340 A.D.), St. Albertus Magnus (1236), and Whewell (1833). Natural selection was used to explain organic evolution by Wells (1813), Matthews (1831), Darwin (1858), and Wallace (1858). As an explanation of evolution, natural selection involves a number of distinct though subordinate propositions, such as the existence of heritable variations, of popu- lation pressure, of a struggle for existence and the consequent survival of the fit or better adapted. A number of philosophers and naturalists recognized the validity of one or more of these propositions without however, gaining any clear conception of the implications of the whole doctrine. One such component, population pressure, was described by Hale (1677), Buffon (1751), Benjamin Franklin (1751), Bonnet (1764), Monboddo (1773), Herder (1784), Smellie (1790), Malthus (1798), Prichard (1808), Wells (1813), Matthews (1831), De Candolle (1833), Lyell (1833), Geoffrey St. Hillaire (1833), and Spencer (1852). The struggle for existence was described by al-JAhiz (9th cent.), Hobbes (1651), Hale (1677), Buffon (1751), Monboddo (1773), Kant (1775), Herder (1784), Smellie (1790), Erasmus Darwin, (1794) Wells (1813), De Candolle (1832), Lyell (1833), and Spencer (1852). Several eighteenth and nineteenth century scientists almost grasped the full significance of natural selection but just failed to recognize all of its implications. Among these were Rousseau (1749), Prichard (1808, 1826), Lawrence (1819), Geoffrey St. Hillaire (1833), Herbert (1837), Spencer (1852), and Naudin (1852).

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