Charles Darwin (1809 - 1882)
Darwin's theory of natural selection shocked people that they are not made exclusively by God but are animals evolved from animals. If humans are animals and have rights, then other animals might also have rights.
Charles Darwin, British naturalist and scientist, closed a perceived chasm between humans and animals. His theory of natural selection changed people's perception of themselves from specially hand made by God to being just another animal evolved from animals. Thus, in a major way he prepared the ground for the development of animal rights. Given that humans are animals and humans have rights, then other animals might also have rights and we should consider what these rights are.
Darwin started developing his theory, to explain how species evolve, while sailing round the world (1831 - 1836) on board HMS Beagle. He began his theory while a young man but was so anxious about the Victorian public's reaction to his theory that he delayed publishing it until his late middle age, in his book Origin of Species
. Printed in 1859 the book obliquely challenged the creation of species described in the Bible, that God made each species perfectly formed, permanent and unchanging, and that God made man in his own image.
Darwin called the process of species evolution natural selection
, as opposed to artificial selection
whereby people selectively breed plants and animals, such as for agricultural stock. Natural selection and its implications - popularly called Darwinism - were resisted by the Victorian public (and still are today by many people) because if humanity descended from animals then people are not special and rationally cannot be held above other forms of life.
Darwin's ideas about natural selection - and that humans are derived from apes - caused outrage. Here Darwin is lampooned as a monkey, on the cover of La Petite Lune, a French magazine of the 1880's.
Darwin amassed convincing evidence to show that species evolve because environmental conditions change over time, that creatures better adapted to changed conditions tend to leave more descendants, and that these descendants gradually replace less well adapted types which eventually die out. Sometimes people call this process the 'survival of the fittest'
What happened to the Peppered Moth (Biston betularia
) is an example of natural selection at work in our backyards. The moth rests by day on tree trunks and used to have a common light coloured version and a rare dark version. But pollution since the Industrial Revolution has killed off the plants (epiphytes) that used to cover the bark of trees. Nowadays the bark is exposed and black. The agent of natural selection is moth-eating birds; they easily notice the lighter moths resting on the darkened trees and eat more of them than the darker version. In these conditions darker moths are better camouflaged (better 'adapted' or 'fitter') than the lighter ones and flourish. (Ironically, industrial pollution is so prevalent that people assume trees with bare bark are natural and trees with plants growing on them are sickly.)
Alfred Wallace (1823 - 1913), British naturalist, independently discovered the process of natural selection and with Darwin made their work known in a joint scientific paper. However, their theory of natural selection did not specify how traits pass from one organism to another. Belatedly, well into the 20th century, scientists learned of the discovery of the theory of inheritance by Gregor Mendel (1822 - 1884), an Austrian monk and part-time experimental biologist. The ideas of Darwin and Mendel were coupled together to make the modern theory of natural selection. This 'Neo-Darwinism' - natural selection acting on inherited genes - forms the basis of genetics and evolutionary theory.
Darwin is buried near Isaac Newton in Westminster Abbey, London.
For more about how our changing attitudes to animals started, see the entry Copernicus.
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