Charles Darwin’s “big idea” is generally thought to be his discovery of the mechanism of natural selection in evolution. That discovery was without question a big idea. But, as Darwin himself often confessed, natural selection cannot work without prior variations in the organisms that will be selected or not for survival. Whence the variations, or at least what did Darwin believe about this? That is the question I examine in what follows. Darwin thought “variations” are in many or most cases “just by chance.” I hope to show what he meant by this expression and what he believed the implications are if one accepts it. “Chance variation” may have been an even bigger idea for Darwin than natural selection, or so I shall attempt to show.
Thus, whatever “Darwinism” is, this is not a book about Darwinism. Nor is it a book about contemporary evolutionary theory or the “new synthesis” or the “extended synthesis.” It is rather a book about “chance” in Darwin’s writing. To that extent it must confront “Darwinism” more broadly, even in its recent and contemporary incarnations, if only to situate the problems it deals with in a proper context. Head over to Salon.com for the rest of this story.
Illustration originally commissioned by Scientific American Magazine. For syndications, commissions or to be added to our monthly mailing list, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org