History of evolutionary thought  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Evolutionary thought, the conception that species change over time, has roots in antiquity, in the ideas of the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Chinese as well as in medieval Islamic science. However, with the beginnings of biological taxonomy in the late 17th century, Western biological thinking was influenced by essentialism, the belief that every species has essential characteristics that are unalterable, a concept from medieval Aristotelian metaphysics that fit well with natural theology. On the other hand as the Enlightenment progressed evolutionary cosmology and the mechanical philosophy spread from the physical sciences to natural history. Naturalists began to focus on the variability of species; the emergence of paleontology with the concept of extinction further undermined the static view of nature. In the early 19th century, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck proposed his theory of the transmutation of species, the first fully formed theory of evolution.

In 1858, Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace published a new evolutionary theory that was explained in detail in Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859). Unlike Lamarck, Darwin proposed common descent and a branching tree of life. The theory was based on the idea of natural selection, and it synthesized a broad range of evidence from animal husbandry, biogeography, geology, morphology, and embryology.

The debate over Darwin's work led to the rapid acceptance of the general concept of evolution, but the specific mechanism he proposed, natural selection, was not widely accepted until it was revived by developments in biology that occurred during 1920s through the 1940s. Before that time most biologists argued that other factors were responsible for evolution. Alternatives to natural selection suggested during "the eclipse of Darwinism" (circa 1880 to 1920) included inheritance of acquired characteristics (neo-Lamarckism), an innate drive for change (orthogenesis), and sudden large mutations (saltationism). The synthesis of natural selection with Mendelian genetics during the 1920s and 1930s founded the new discipline of population genetics. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, population genetics became integrated with other biological fields, resulting in a widely applicable theory of evolution that encompassed much of biology—the modern evolutionary synthesis.

Following the establishment of evolutionary biology, studies of mutation and variation in natural populations, combined with biogeography and systematics, led to sophisticated mathematical and causal models of evolution. Paleontology and comparative anatomy allowed more detailed reconstructions of the history of life. After the rise of molecular genetics in the 1950s, the field of molecular evolution developed, based on protein sequences and immunological tests, and later incorporating RNA and DNA studies. The gene-centered view of evolution rose to prominence in the 1960s, followed by the neutral theory of molecular evolution, sparking debates over adaptationism, the units of selection, and the relative importance of genetic drift versus natural selection. In the late 20th century, DNA sequencing led to molecular phylogenetics and the reorganization of the tree of life into the three-domain system. In addition, the newly recognized factors of symbiogenesis and horizontal gene transfer introduced yet more complexity into evolutionary theory. Discoveries in evolutionary biology have made a significant impact not just within the traditional branches of biology, but also in other academic disciplines (e.g., anthropology and psychology) and on society at large.

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