Secular Sunday XIX – Charles Darwin Did Not Create the Theory of Evolution

closePlease note: This post was published over a year ago, so please be aware that its content may not be quite so accurate anymore. Also, the format of the site has changed since it was published, so please excuse any formatting issues.

As someone who cares about science, and in particular, as someone who cares about facts and getting things right, there are two main facets of “popular knowledge” regarding the theory of evolution that drive me crazy.

The first is when dissenters call evolution “just a theory.” This shows a stark misunderstanding of how science works. Theories aren’t just ideas with no evidence behind them - even a hypothesis has some basis in observed evidence. A theory is an idea that has been repeatedly tested and has held up to that rigorous scrutiny. In science, theories are as strong as they come. Even the so-called “laws” of physics are technically theories.

The other thing that bugs me, and the topic of today’s Secular Sunday post, is when people say “Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.” People too often mis-attribute the formation of the theory to Charles Darwin, and it’s something that we should set straight. I want to be clear: it’s not just Creationists who make this mistake - I hear a lot of atheists say it too.

Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, but evolutionary ideas such as common descent and the transmutation of species have existed since at least the 6th century B.C.! By the mid-19th century (and before the publication of Species), evolution was generally accepted as fact, although without a method of explaining how it happened. After Species was published, scientists were given a much greater understanding of how natural selection affects evolution.

It wasn’t until the 1930s that modern evolutionary synthesis was formed by combining Darwinian natural selection with Mendelian inheritance. Scientists finally made the connection between the units of evolution (genes) and the mechanism (natural selection).

The idea of natural selection – a term that he coined in On the Origin of Species – was Darwin’s major contribution toward evolutionary biology. The notion of evolution existed well before Darwin was born, and modern evolutionary biology was formulated roughly 50 years after his death. It’s understandable to want to give Darwin credit for his discovery, but let’s make sure we do just that: give Darwin credit for his contribution to the theory of evolution, and not credit him with the theory altogether.

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