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concept that embodies the belief that existing animals and plants developed by a process of gradual, continuous change from previously existing forms. This theory, also known as descent with modification, constitutes organic evolution. Inorganic evolution, on the other hand, is concerned with the development of the physical universe from unorganized matter. Organic evolution, as opposed to belief in the special creation of each individual species as an immutable form, conceives of life as having had its beginnings in a simple primordial protoplasmic mass (probably originating in the sea) from which, through the long eras of time, arose all subsequent living forms.

History of Evolutionary Theory

Early Theories

Evolutionary concepts appeared in some early Greek writings, e.g., in the works of Thales, Empedocles, Anaximander, and Aristotle. Under the restraining influence of the Church, no evolutionary theories developed during some 15 centuries of the Christian era to challenge the belief in special creation and the literal interpretation of the first part of Genesis; however, much data was accumulated that was to be utilized by later theorists. With the growth of scientific observation and experimentation, there began to appear from about the middle of the 16th cent. glimpses of the theory of evolution that emerged in the mid 19th cent. The invention of the microscope, making possible the study of reproductive cells and the growth of the science of embryology, was a factor in overthrowing hampering theories founded in false ideas of the reproductive process; studies in classification (taxonomy or systematics) and anatomy, based on dissection, were also influential.

Linnaeus, in his later years, showed an inclination toward belief in the mutability of species as a result of his observations of the many variations among species. Buffon, on the basis of his work in comparative anatomy, suggested the influence of use and disuse in molding the organs of vertebrate animals. Lamarck was the first to present a clearly stated evolutionary theory, but because it included the inheritance of acquired characteristicsacquired characteristics,
modifications produced in an individual plant or animal as a result of mutilation, disease, use and disuse, or any distinctly environmental influence. Some examples are docking of tails, malformation caused by disease, and muscle atrophy.
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 as the operative force of evolution, his whole theory was ridiculed and discredited for many years.


Although special creation of each species was the prevalent belief even among scientists in the first half of the 19th cent., the evidence in favor of evolution had by that time been uncovered. It remained for someone to assemble and interpret the evidence and to formulate a scientifically credible theory. This was accomplished simultaneously by A. R. WallaceWallace, Alfred Russel,
1823–1913, English naturalist. From his study of comparative biology in Brazil and in the East Indies, he evolved a concept of evolution similar to that of Charles Darwin.
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 and Charles Robert DarwinDarwin, Charles Robert,
1809–82, English naturalist, b. Shrewsbury; grandson of Erasmus Darwin and of Josiah Wedgwood. He firmly established the theory of organic evolution known as Darwinism.
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, who set forth the concepts that came to be known as DarwinismDarwinism,
concept of evolution developed in the mid-19th cent. by Charles Robert Darwin. Darwin's meticulously documented observations led him to question the then current belief in special creation of each species.
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. In 1859 appeared the first edition of Darwin's Origin of Species. The influence of this evolutionary theory upon scientific thought and experimentation cannot be overestimated. In the years following the promulgation of Darwin's theory of evolution, many accepted and many denied its validity.

The theory found an opposing force in some religious creeds that declared it incompatible with their basic tenets. For a time evolution, sometimes falsely interpreted as meaning human descent from monkeys rather than descent from an ancient and extinct ancestor, became a target for attack by both church and educational authorities. Feeling ran high even as late as the time of the Scopes trialScopes trial,
Tennessee legal case involving the teaching of evolution in public schools. A statute was passed (Mar., 1925) in Tennessee that prohibited the teaching in public schools of theories contrary to accepted interpretation of the biblical account of human creation.
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. Nevertheless, the theory of evolution became firmly entrenched as a scientific principle, and in most creeds it has been reconciled with religious teachings. Some Christian fundamentalists, however, do not accept the theory and have striven to have biblical creationism taught in the schools as an alternative theory. (For the evolution of human beings, see human evolutionhuman evolution,
theory of the origins of the human species, Homo sapiens. Modern understanding of human origins is derived largely from the findings of paleontology, anthropology, and genetics, and involves the process of natural selection (see Darwinism).
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Modern Evolutionary Theory

Evolutionary theory has undergone modification in the light of later scientific developments. As more and more information has accumulated, the facts from a number of fields of investigation have provided corroboration and mutual support. Evidence that evolution has occurred still rests substantially on the same grounds that Darwin emphasized; comparative anatomy, embryology, geographical distribution, and paleontology. But additional recent evidence has come from biochemistrybiochemistry,
science concerned chiefly with the chemistry of biological processes; it attempts to utilize the tools and concepts of chemistry, particularly organic and physical chemistry, for elucidation of the living system.
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 and molecular biology, which reveals fundamental similarities and relations in metabolism and hereditary mechanisms among disparate types of organisms. In general, both at the visible level and at the biochemical, one can detect the kinds of gradations of relatedness among organisms expected from evolution.

The chief weakness of Darwinian evolution lay in gaps in its explanations of the mechanism of evolution and of the origin of species. The Darwinian concept of natural selectionselection.
In Darwinism, the mechanism of natural selection is considered of major importance in the process of evolution. Popular formulations sometimes envisage a struggle for existence in which direct competition for mates or for various factors in the environment (e.g.
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 is that inheritable variations among the individuals of given types of organisms continually arise in nature and that some variations prove advantageous under prevailing conditions in that they enable the organism to leave relatively more surviving offspring. But how these variations initially arise or are transmitted to offspring, and hence to subsequent generations, was not understood by Darwin. The science of geneticsgenetics,
scientific study of the mechanism of heredity. While Gregor Mendel first presented his findings on the statistical laws governing the transmission of certain traits from generation to generation in 1856, it was not until the discovery and detailed study of the
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, originating at the beginning of the 20th cent. with the recognition of the importance of the earlier work of MendelMendel, Gregor Johann
, 1822–84, Austrian monk noted for his experimental work on heredity. He entered the Augustinian monastery in Brno in 1843, taught at a local secondary school, and carried out independent scientific investigations on garden peas and other plants until
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, provided a satisfactory explanation for the origin and transmission of variation. In 1901, de Vries presented his theory that mutationmutation,
in biology, a sudden, random change in a gene, or unit of hereditary material, that can alter an inheritable characteristic. Most mutations are not beneficial, since any change in the delicate balance of an organism having a high level of adaptation to its environment
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, or suddenly appearing and well-defined inheritable variation (as opposed to the slight, cumulative changes stressed by Darwin), is a force in the origin and evolution of species. Mutation in genes is now accepted by most biologists as a fundamental concept in evolutionary theory. The genegene,
the structural unit of inheritance in living organisms. A gene is, in essence, a segment of DNA that has a particular purpose, i.e., that codes for (contains the chemical information necessary for the creation of) a specific enzyme or other protein.
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 is the carrier of heredity and determines the attributes of the individual; thus changes in the genes can be transmitted to the offspring and produce new or altered attributes in the new individual.

Still prevalent misunderstandings of evolution are the beliefs that an animal or plant changes in order to better adapt to its environment—for example, that it develops an eye for the purpose of seeing—and that actual physical competition among individuals is required. Since mutation is a random process, changes can be either useful, unfavorable, or neutral to the individual's or species' survival. However, a new characteristic that is not detrimental may sometimes better enable the organism to survive or leave offspring in its environment, especially if that environment is changing, or to penetrate a new environment—such as the development of a lunglike structure that enables an aquatic animal to survive on land (see lungfishlungfish,
common name for any of a group of fish belonging to the families Ceratodontidae, Lepidosirenidae, and Protopteridae, found in the rivers of Australia, South America, and Africa, respectively.
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), where there may be more food and fewer predators.


See D. S. Bendall, Evolution from Molecules to Men (1983); P. Calow, Evolutionary Principles (1983); J. H. Birx, Theories of Evolution (1984); V. Grant, The Evolutionary Process (1985); H. Baltscheffsky et al., ed., Molecular Evolution of Life (1987); A. M. Clark, Understanding Science through Evolution (1987); F. E. Poirier, Understanding Human Evolution (1987); G. Richards, Human Evolution (1987); C. J. Avers, Process and Pattern in Evolution (1989); R. J. Berry, Evolution, Ecology, and Environmental Stress (1989); J. Weiner, The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time (1995); R. Fortey, Life (1998); A. Jolly, Lucy's Legacy (1999); S. Jones, Darwin's Ghost: "The Origin of Species" Updated (2000); E. Mayr, What Evolution Is (2001); E. J. Larson, Evolution (2004); E. C. Scott, Evolution vs. Creationism (2004); M. Ruse, The Evolution-Creation Struggle (2005); M. A. Fedonkin et al., The Rise of Animals (2008); D. Palmer, Evolution (2009); R. Stott, Darwin's Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution (2012); H. Gee, The Accidental Species: Misunderstandings of Human Evolution (2013); N. Eldredge, Eternal Ephemera (2015).





in the broad sense, a synonym for development; in the narrower sense, one of the principal types of development —a slow, gradual, quantitative, and qualitative change—in contrast to revolution. In evolution, each new state of the object has, in comparison with the previous state, a higher level of organization and differentiation of functions. The distinction is made between individual evolution (of a certain individual object) and general evolution (of nature or life). In the process of evolution an important role is played both by internal factors and by external conditions of the object’s existence. Changes occurring in the course of evolution are diverse.

Dialectical materialism regards evolution and revolution as interconnected and reciprocally conditioned aspects of development and opposes the absolutization of one or the other.


The processes of biological and organic change in organisms by which descendants come to differ from their ancestors.


1. Biology a gradual change in the characteristics of a population of animals or plants over successive generations: accounts for the origin of existing species from ancestors unlike them
2. the act of throwing off, as heat, gas, vapour, etc.
3. an algebraic operation in which the root of a number, expression, etc., is extracted
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