Darwin Charles(1809-82) English naturalist whose theory of NATURAL SELECTION gave a revolutionary account of the origins of biological diversity. Darwin's ideas were presented in his On the Origin of Species (1859). The scientific approach which he defended, involving the gradual evolution of species over a massive time scale, has been as influential as its initial reception, especially by the church, was hostile. Darwin's theories were interpreted (quite wrongly, in fact) as a direct attack on the foundations of ecclesiastical life, God, the Bible and the Christian clergy.
Though Darwin is usually given the credit for the evolutionary hypothesis, similar ideas had been advanced by others, such as Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) – Charles's grandfather – and Jean-Baptiste LAMARCK (1744-1829). With this historical foundation, and crucial theoretical contributions from Thomas MALTHUS (1766-1834) in demography, which suggested competition and conflict as crucial elements of population expansion, and from Sir Charles Lyell (1797-1875) in geology (the hypothesis that geological time, and hence the age of the earth, was infinitely greater than had previously been thought), Darwin's theory of evolution was, in reality, begging to be formulated. It is no surprise, then, that Darwin was not alone: Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) independently and almost concurrently had come to exactly the same evolutionary conclusions.
Compared with earlier theories of biological change, the decisive contribution of Darwinian theory lay in its specification of the principal mechanism which governed development – natural selection. Darwin argued that in each generation of any species’ offspring there would be some degree of random mutation, and natural variation. Any variation which enhanced the chances of survival would, over many generations, undergo a process of positive selection. Quite simply, those offspring lacking the feature would be less likely to survive, and less likely to reproduce.
Darwin could give no account of how reproduction ensured, on the one hand, identity, and on the other, variation. This had to await the development of a science of GENETICS.Nevertheless, his idea that variation, by allowing, for example, some members of a population to compete more successfully in a new or changed environment, could, over millennia, produce new species, was both simple and compelling. In sum, Darwin's ideas gave a coherent account of how a small number of simple forms could have given rise to a diversity of complex, differentiated and specialized species.
The importance of Darwin's ideas for sociology lie in two principal areas: firstly, the study of SOCIAL CHANGE, with particular reference to the EVOLUTIONARY THEORY of many 19th-century social philosophers, and their intellectual descendants, 20th-century NEOEVOLUTIONISM and theories of ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL DEVELOPMENT and MODERNIZATION; and, secondly, the social/ racial engineering philosophy embraced by the school of SOCIAL DARWINISM.