History of Evolutionary Theory

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In this lesson, you will engage in a more detailed study of evolution by focusing on the historical origins of Darwin's theory and the ideas that came before it. To do this, you will examine the arguments and theories set forth by three historically important scientists: Jean Baptiste Lamarck, Alfred Russel Wallace, and Charles Darwin.


Charles Darwin is the name most frequently associated with the theory of evolution. However, the idea of evolution did not originate with Darwin. The general idea of evolution dates back to the ancient Greeks. Read Pre-Darwinian Theories for an explanation of the development of modern evolutionary thinking. Read the first page on Pre-Darwinian Theories and then move on to Darwin and Natural Selection by clicking on "Next Topic" at the bottom of the page. Think about answers to these questions as you are reading. You will discuss these questions in class:

  • What is this reading about?
  • How do you think society influences a scientist's view?
  • How do you think religion influences a scientist's view?
  • How can scientific explanations change over time?
  • What is evolution?
  • How do scientists explain how evolution occurs?
  • Do you think that the way people have explained evolution has changed over time? Why or why not?
  • Who was Charles Darwin?
  • How did Charles Darwin explain how evolution occurs?
  • When did Charles Darwin propose his theory about evolution?
  • Did evolutionary theory exist before Darwin?
  • How do you think Darwin developed his theory?
  • Do you know of any other individuals who proposed theories on evolution?

Now that you know more about the development of evolutionary thought, you will examine writings from three influential scientists who proposed explanations for biological evolution—Jean Lamarck, Alfred Russel Wallace, and Charles Darwin.

Use the printed excerpts that your teacher has given you, or use the links below to access the readings as assigned by your teacher.

After you have read each section, complete the accompanying portion of the History of Evolutionary Theory student sheet your teacher has given you.

Knowledge Check

Your assignment is to present the historical development of evolutionary thought from the ancient Greek perception to Darwin. The goal of this activity is for you to show that the idea of biological evolution was not novel to Darwin; rather, many scientists before Darwin pondered about evolution and contributed their theories to explain this observed phenomenon. Your presentation should trace evolutionary thought as it has developed over time, highlighting the contributions of scientists and thinkers including Aristotle, Lamarck, Wallace, Darwin, and others.

You can demonstrate your knowledge and understanding of this topic in any presentable format such as, but not limited to:

  • Essay/Paper
  • Video presentation
  • Illustrations
  • Poster
  • Diorama

You can be as creative as you like! However, your presentation must be able to show the development of evolutionary thought by including these elements:

  • Names, descriptions, and detailed contributions of various scientists such as Aristotle, Lamarck, Wallace, Darwin, and others
  • References to dates/timeline
  • How the scientists and their theories were influenced by society/culture and the knowledge available at their time
  • New information that has become available to evolutionary biologists since Darwin
  • How evolutionary thought has changed/developed since Darwin proposed his theory of natural selection

Use the library and your textbook to conduct research. In addition, you may find A History of Evolutionary Thought to be useful.

This esheet is a part of the The History of Evolutionary Theory lesson.

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