Charles Darwin, 1869

What Darwin’s theory of evolution got wrong

Charles Darwin, 1869
Alicia M Prater PhD's image for:
"What Darwin's theory of evolution got wrong"
Caption: Charles Darwin, 1869
Image by: J. Cameron
© Public Domain http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Charles_Darwin_01.jpg

Though the theory of evolution is most often associated with the work of naturalist Charles Darwin, he is only one of the many scientists who have contributed to compiling what is now known about this most basic biological fact – that populations change over time. As such, some of the points made by Darwin about evolution were wrong. Arguments against Darwin’s theory of evolution include these points as well as misconceptions about the theory.

What Darwin had wrong about variation

Though Darwin, as well as another scientist by the name of Wallace, explained evolution by natural selection based on differences in individuals contributing to the variation in a population, they limited this by not including or realizing the input of new variation. Genetic theory was not yet a part of the scientific field in the 1800s when Darwin worked on his theory of evolution, though Mendel performed his experiments on pea plants around the same time. In order for evolution to contribute to the formation of new species, variation must continue to be introduced – genetic mutation introduces new variation into an individual that allows selection within a population. Thus, the effect of environmental adaptation on reproduction is not the only driving force behind evolution.

The tree of life

In recent years, Darwin’s concept of the phylogenic tree has been updated. Darwin originally presented a branching tree to show the relationships between species, how simple organisms become more complex organisms in family groupings. Research in archeology, anthropology, genetics and other biological fields has found that the relationships among species are actually much more complex. Simple life forms still exist and evolution is not about creating complexity, but about survival.

Descent of man

Many who argue against evolution in general point to Darwin’s “Descent of Man”, insisting that man could not have come from monkeys. However, this is not a part of the theory of evolution. The concept of common descent states that Homo sapiens (i.e. humans) and other organisms share a common ancestor. Darwin observed that animals on the isolated Galapagos Islands had different characteristics than their counterparts on the mainland. His theory was that when they separated from the main population, the new island population adapted over time to their new environment to survive. This has been extended as the concept of natural selection. However, some of the driving forces behind natural selection, such as genetic variation, were unknown to Darwin.

Survival of the fittest

Another misconception is “survival of the fittest”. Many take this phrase to imply that stronger, bigger organisms survive, but the definition of “strong” and “big” are relative depending on what is being measured, with the importance of characteristics being subjective. Also, Darwin didn't coin this phrase - another scientist did to describe reproductive fitness in the context of natural selection. The idea is that organisms that express characteristics that make them better able to reproduce or characteristics that allow them to survive to reproduce allow the population a better chance to survive due to their offspring.

What Darwin got wrong

Arguments against Darwin’s theory of evolution based on new scientific discoveries since his time, particularly regarding genetics, have increased understanding of the processes underlying evolution. Though Darwin was wrong about some of the finer points of these mechanisms, he added a great deal to the knowledge base regarding variation in species and populations.

More about this author: Alicia M Prater PhD

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