Natural Selection Turns 150 Years Old Today

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Image: Gary Larson.

This morning, I was pleased to hear National Public Radio was celebrating the 150th birthday of Natural Selection, the mechanism whereby evolution occurs.


One hundred and fifty years ago today, two papers were read in front of the Linnean Society of London. One of those papers was written by Alfred Russel Wallace and the other consisted of two excerpts from Charles Darwin’s unpublished writings about the origin of species. It turns out that while Wallace was on the island of Ternate, he wrote a thoughtful and detailed letter to Darwin that beautifully laid out his vision of the mechanism of evolution, natural selection. That letter alarmed Darwin and provided him with a strong impetus to stop dawdling around and publish his book that focused on the matter. (Darwin had already been working on “Origin of Species”, for 20 years at that point. The book was finally published in November, 1859).
A formal paper on the subject was published one month later in the society’s journal entitled “On the Tendency of Species to Form Varieties; And On the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection” [free PDF] which immortalized both men as the co-founders of the theory of evolution by means of natural selection. Since Wallace had written out his hypothesis of how evolution occurs in clear and easy to understand prose (while Darwin had not), some people think that this joint authorship actually served to dramatically reduce Wallace’s significant intellectual contribution in the minds of the public. However, others argue that the publication of Darwin’s On The Origin of Species [Kindle edition] — which triggered a firestorm of public controversy was the real reason that Wallace’s contribution to the hypothesis of natural selection was nearly forgotten.
The Linnean Society published an article in 1995, “The Joint Essay of Darwin and Wallace”, that discusses the history surrounding the writing of this momentous article that you might find interesting [free PDF].
Incidentally, I am so very lucky because I will be visiting London during “Darwin and Wallace Year.” I can hardly wait!

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About GrrlScientist

grrlscientist is the pseudonym of an evolutionary biologist and ornithologist who writes about evolution, ethology, and ecology, especially in birds. After earning a degree in microbiology (thesis focus: virology) and working at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, she earned her PhD in zoology from the University of Washington in Seattle, where she studied the molecular correlates of testosterone and behaviour in white-crowned sparrows. She then worked a Chapman Postdoctoral Fellow at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where she studied the speciation and distribution of lories and other parrots throughout the South Pacific Islands. A discarded scientist, she returned to her roots: writing. Formerly hosted by The Guardian (UK), she now writes about science for Forbes and for the non-profit think tank, the Evolution Institute and she writes podcasts for BirdNote Radio. An avid lifelong birder and aviculturist, she lives with a flock of songbirds and parrots somewhere in Germany.
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0 Responses to Natural Selection Turns 150 Years Old Today

  1. Rhea says:

    I think you’re saying that the THEORY of natural selection is 150 years old. Natural selection is a lot older.

  2. JohnB says:

    One of the most elegant and beautiful of ideas in the history of science, 150 years old and still able to make some types of people cringe in denial that they share any kinship with the other forms of life with which they share the earth.
    The Wainwrights in Gary Larson’s cartoon must have been those kind of people.

  3. Bob O'H says:

    Happy Birthday to you,
    Happy Birthday to you,
    Happy Birthday Natural Selection,
    Happy Birthday to you!

  4. Joe V. says:

    Only 150 years? The young-earthers were right!

  5. Ronald Cote says:

    Happy birthday. After knowing full well that there is a common knowledge and agreement among reputable scientists that there is lunacy in the belief that life can come from non life, we celebrate 150 years of an impossibility! And such teaching is foisted on the youth of our nation. Could anything be more imbecilic?

  6. Blaberus says:

    Yes, you clearly are Ronald!

  7. linkthewindow says:

    I can just see it: “150 years of annoyed young-earthers!”
    On another note, is anyone else having trouble with the formatting on the page, or is it just me?