Charles Darwin was a British scientist who during his many travels in the 1800s, observed a wide variety of animals, from which he proposed theories regarding the concept of evolution such as natural selection. One such observation arose from his visiting the Galapagos Islands.  Here, Darwin observed that there were many different types of finches, all occupying different territories on the island. He came up with the theory that these finches had once all descended from a common ancestor from a certain habitat, and that over many years due to a number of  different factors, such as climate and food availability, 13 different types of finches had evolved.  He proposed that each of these finch types would gradually increase in number over many years causing them to disperse thus explaining the differences observed between the individual species of finches.

This proposed theory of evolution by Darwin is what is referred to as Darwinism: the evolution of species through natural selection, giving the new variety of species different traits and characteristics to survive, as with the finches.  The ‘survival of the fittest’ was also a term used to describe Darwin’s theories by Herbert Spencer, in his book The Principles of Biology. This term explains how genetic traits passed onto offspring may be advantageous when it comes to survival and thus producing more offspring that would have a good chance of survival.

Although Darwinism does explain evolution to some extent, it does not explain it in its entirety. There are many other factors that better define or can be used to explain the true meaning of evolution, such as the subject of molecular genetics and DNA mutations.

DNA mutations serve as a better explanation as to why species have evolved over time to display different characteristics and traits.  Experiments were later conducted by George Mendel using pea plants and later honeybees which served to explain variations and the introduction of different phenotypes in the offspring of species. His work was published in a paper ‘Experiments on Plant Hybridization’ in 1865. Mendel scientifically proved that phenotypic changes were brought about by DNA mutations thus resulting in the eventual evolutionary changes in a species.

Darwin on the other hand was only able to propose theories without actually proving that his concepts were an explanation of evolution. Although he collected many species of animals and plants on his travels, it would have taken Darwin hundreds of years to have definitively proven his theory of natural selection, which of course would not have been possible for just one individual to achieve. However Darwinism was the blueprint, from which further research and concepts were formed as to what and how evolution actually is.

In recent times scientists have been better able to understand evolution by looking at fossil records of different species. From looking at these records and relating them to crucial events in history, scientists have been able to come to a better understanding as to why species have developed new traits. These records meant that scientists were able to add to Darwinism.

Research about Darwinism has been brought with increased frequency to the public domain. Articles such as ‘Why Everything You’ve Been Told About Evolution is Wrong’ (Burkeman, O, 2010) in the Guardian newspaper have questioned the validity of Darwinism. The Guardian is a widely read and respected newspaper with a large readership. If it poses doubt on Darwinism, which the general public equates with evolution, then it is inevitable that the public understanding of evolution may be tainted.

It is likely that due to a lack of knowledge by the general public, Darwinism is generally taken as the only explanation as to why different species have evolved to display different traits and characteristics.  However ‘there was no reason to assume that natural selection was the only imaginable mechanism of evolution. Darwin, writing before the discovery of DNA, knew very well that his work heralded the beginning of a journey to understand the origins and development of life’ (Burkeman, O, 2010). Darwin’s concepts regarding evolution have been widely publicised in the past and serve as a much simpler explanation as to the evolution of species. However Darwinism alone cannot give a complete explanation for the biodiversity seen in habitats around the world, and the theory has been developed by many other scientists post Darwin which has served as plausible proof that evolution is viable as a fact.

Some people refuse to believe in Darwinism and evolution because of strongly held religious views preferring to believe that new species with new characteristics are or were created by a divine force (creationism). Historically Darwinism has come into disrepute amongst many religious groups who chose to dismiss his theories and the concept of evolution. ‘Darwin’s theory did not just provide an alternative explanation to the biblical account of creation, it effectively led to doubts on everything in the Bible, including the moral laws.’(Rhodes, M, circa 2012). For these individuals Darwinism is not holding back their understanding of evolution because they choose to consider creationism as a viable concept instead.

Another reason as to why the public may have different understandings of the term evolution may be found at the grass roots level due to the way it is taught in schools. The way in which Darwinism was taught in the past (with less emphasis of it being only a theory) may have contributed to the public mistakenly believing that Darwinism in itself was evidence of evolution. This naturally explains much of the doubt . Although Darwinism is a theory, it is taught in science lessons, a very factual and evidence-based area which gives it credibility. However it has become clearer in more recent years that Darwinism must be emphasised as a theory only, thereby adding to the public’s understanding of evolution.

It is the writer’s view that Darwinism is not holding back the public’s understanding of evolution, rather it has been misinterpreted over the years as the only viable explanation as to how species have developed and evolved traits and characteristics through the generations.

 

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