Biology and Philosophy

, Volume 1, Issue 2, pp 133–168

Charles Darwin's theory of evolution: A review of our present understanding

  • David R. Oldroyd


The paper characterizes Darwin's theory, providing a synthesis of recent historical investigations in this area. Darwin's reading of Malthus led him to appreciate the importance of population pressures, and subsequently of natural selection, with the help of the “wedge” metaphor. But, in itself, natural selection did not furnish an adequate account of the origin of species, for which a principle of divergence was needed. Initially, Darwin attributed this to geographical isolation, but later, following his work on barnacles which underscored the significance of variation, and arising from his work on “botanical arithmetic,” he supposed that diversity allowed more “places” to be occupied in a given region. So isolation was not regarded as essential. Large regions with intense competition, and with ample variation spread by blending, would facilitate speciation. The notion of “place” was different from “niche,” and it is questioned whether Darwin's views on ecology were as modern as is commonly supposed. Two notions of “struggle” are found in Darwin's theory; and three notions of “variation.” Criticisms of his theory led him to emphasize the importance of “variation” over a range of forms. Hence the theory was “populational” rather than “typological.” The theory required a “Lamarckian” notion of inheritable changes initiated by the environment as a source of variation. Also, Darwin deployed a “use/habit” theory; and the notion of sexual selection. Selection normally acted at the level of the individual, though “kin selection” was possible. “Group selection” was hinted at for man. Darwin's thinking (and also the exposition of his theory) was generally guided by the domestic-organism analogy, which satisfied his methodological requirement of a vera causa principle.

Key words

Darwin divergence evolution origin pangenesis selection species theory transmutation variation 


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Copyright information

© D. Reidel Publishing Company 1986

Authors and Affiliations

  • David R. Oldroyd
    • 1
  1. 1.School of History and Philosophy of ScienceUniversity of New South WalesKensingtonAustralia

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