The evolution of natural selection

Photo: HMS Beagle, by Konrad Martins.

Editor’s note: We are pleased to present a series for Neil Thomas, Honorary Reader at Durham University, “Natural Selection: Discovery or Invention?” Find the full series here. Professor Thomas’ latest book is Taking Darwin’s Vacation: A Long-Time Atheist Explores the Design Issue (Discovery Institute Press).

In the context of serene memories of old age, Charles Darwin tended to look back wistfully at his voyage on the ship. beagle and his famous biological research in the South Sea Islands in the 1830s as the pivotal experience of his career. One can see why. During those five years, it really served as a form of secular redemption for him by giving him an escape from his previously unfocused life. No longer a trial of his long-suffering father over his false educational and professional beginnings, he was able to devote himself with single-minded enthusiasm to his one true profession in life, that of being a collector and naturalist. On the other hand, the end result of his exotic travels is exactly less clear.

Understandably related to the aesthetics of building a compelling narrative, Darwin Legend At times he gave the impression that the South American experience was in itself responsible for shaping his evolutionary discoveries. According to that traditional account, a brave explorer who has obtained the secrets of nature in strange worlds returns to share his secrets with his fellow men and women. Such a reading provides an undeniably good fictional fit to the heroic style of a “mythical universal” character like Prometheus who set fire to the earth from the dwelling of the Greek gods in order to share blessings with fellow mortals – but how true is that – she?

Romantic finely honed

While setting up a compelling story, stripped of its fictional accumulations and cryptic mythological associations, unfortunately, myth and reality fail to harmonize. Real life, as is so often the case in human affairs, was not quite as arranged as the rigorous romantic narrative developed Around Darwin. In their study and edition of Darwin’s account of his travels, Janet Brown and Michael Neff emphasize the point that Darwin’s ideas made Not Come to him from his experiences in this field and that “the image received by Darwin as he traveled alone through turbulent seas of thought as he paced fast on deck beagle It’s a fantasy.”1 Remarkably, Darwin’s evolutionary ideas did not derive from his experimental observations in the South Seas or elsewhere. Rather it grows in a series of to this, serendipitous installments, as a result of his ability to weave together ideas drawn from others, not all naturalists. His supposed natural and historical “discoveries” were in fact, as will be noted in this series, a witty collection of various allusions gleaned from his personal reading or even chance encounters in random conversations. One of the most important signals he responded to was the contemporary research being pursued in the field of geology, a subject on which Darwin, rightly or wrongly, saw important parallels with the biological field.

next oneDarwin, John the Baptist.


  1. The Beagle’s Journey: The Charles Darwin Research Journal, edited by Janet Brown and Michael Neff (London, Penguin, 1989), p. 2.

Neil Thomas

Neil Thomas is an Honorary Reader at Durham University in England and a longtime member of the British Association of Rationalists. He studied Classical Studies and European Languages ​​at the Universities of Oxford, Munich and Cardiff before taking up a position at the German Department of the School of European Languages ​​and Letters at Durham University in 1976. There his education covered a wide range of disciplines including Germanic philology, medieval literature, Enlightenment literature and philosophy, and history and modern German literature. He also taught units about the propaganda use of the German language used by the Nazis and the staff of the old German Democratic Republic. He has published over 40 articles in a number of refereed journals and half a dozen individual books, most recently Reading Nibelungenlied (1995), Diu Crone and the Medieval Arthurian Cycle (2002) and Wirnt von Gravenberg’s Wigalois. Intertextuality and Interpretation (2005). He has also edited a number of volumes including The Myth and Its Legacy in European Literature (1996) and German Studies in the Millennium (1999). He was the British Brach President of the Arthur International Society (2002-5) and is still a member of a number of scientific societies.



Biology Charles DarwinEvolutionGreek GodsHistory of HMS BigGanet Brown Michael NevalNatural Selection: Discovery or Invention? (Series) Prometheus South America South Sea Islands Travel Voyage Beagle

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