Journal of the History of Biology

, Volume 47, Issue 2, pp 189–212 | Cite as

Darwin, Malthus, Süssmilch, and Euler: The Ultimate Origin of the Motivation for the Theory of Natural Selection

  • Dominic KlyveEmail author


It is fairly well known that Darwin was inspired to formulate his theory of natural selection by reading Thomas Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population. In fact, by reading Darwin’s notebooks, we can even locate one particular sentence which started Darwin thinking about population and selection. What has not been done before is to explain exactly where this sentence – essentially Malthus’s ideas about geometric population growth – came from. In this essay we show that eighteenth century mathematician Leonhard Euler is responsible for this sentence, and in fact forms the beginning of the logical chain which leads to the creation of the theory of natural selection. We shall examine the fascinating path taken by a mathematical calculation, the many different lenses through which it was viewed, and the path through which it eventually influenced Darwin.


Charles Darwin Thomas Malthus Natural selection History of natural selection Formation of theories Geometric growth Population dynamics Mathematical biology 


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Central Washington UniversityEllensburgUSA

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