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Charles Robert Darwin was an English naturalist, geologist and biologist, best known for his contributions to the science of evolution. His proposition that all species of life have descended over time from common ancestors is now widely accepted, and considered a foundational concept in science. In a joint publication with Alfred Russel Wallace, he introduced his scientific theory that this branching pattern of evolution resulted from a process that he called natural selection, in which the struggle for existence has a similar effect to the artificial selection involved in selective breeding. Darwin has been described as one of the most influential figures in human history, and he was honoured by burial in Westminster Abbey.
Darwin published his theory of evolution with compelling evidence in his 1859 book On the Origin of Species. By the 1870s, the scientific community and a majority of the educated public had accepted evolution as a fact. However, many favoured competing explanations which gave only a minor role to natural selection, and it was not until the emergence of the modern evolutionary synthesis from the 1930s to the 1950s that a broad consensus developed in which natural selection was the basic mechanism of evolution. Darwin’s scientific discovery is the unifying theory of the life sciences, explaining the diversity of life.
Descent of Man, sexual selection, and botany
Despite repeated bouts of illness during the last twenty-two years of his life, Darwin’s work continued. Having published On the Origin of Species as an abstract of his theory, he pressed on with experiments, research, and writing of his “big book”. He covered human descent from earlier animals including evolution of society and of mental abilities, as well as explaining decorative beauty in wildlife and diversifying into innovative plant studies.
Enquiries about insect pollination led in 1861 to novel studies of wild orchids, showing adaptation of their flowers to attract specific moths to each species and ensure cross fertilisation. In 1862 Fertilisation of Orchids gave his first detailed demonstration of the power of natural selection to explain complex ecological relationships, making testable predictions.
Darwin’s book The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication (1868) was the first part of his planned “big book”, and included his unsuccessful hypothesis of pangenesis attempting to explain heredity. It sold briskly at first, despite its size, and was translated into many languages. He wrote most of a second part, on natural selection, but it remained unpublished in his lifetime.
Lyell had already popularised human prehistory, and Huxley had shown that anatomically humans are apes.
15 With The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex published in 1871, Darwin set out evidence from numerous sources that humans are animals, showing continuity of physical and mental attributes, and presented sexual selection to explain impractical animal features such as the peacock’s plumage as well as human evolution of culture, differences between sexes, and physical and cultural racial classification, while emphasising that humans are all one species.