8 People Who Influenced and Inspired Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin. rolbos/E+/Getty Images

Charles Darwin may be known for his originality and genius, but he was influenced heavily by many people throughout his life. Some were personal collaborators, some were influential geologists or economists, and one was even his very own grandfather. Together, their influence helped Darwin develop his theory of evolution and his ideas about natural selection.

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Jean Baptiste Lamarck

Jean Baptiste Lamarck
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Jean Baptiste Lamarck was a botanist and zoologist who was one of the first to propose that humans evolved from a lower species through adaptations over time. His work inspired Darwin's ideas of natural selection.

Lamarck also came up with an explanation for vestigial structures. His evolutionary theory was rooted in the idea that life started out very simple and developed over time into the complex human form. Adaptations occurred as new structures that would spontaneously appear, and if they weren't used they would shrivel up and go away.

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Thomas Malthus

Thomas Robert Malthus

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Thomas Malthus was arguably the person who was most influential to Darwin. Even though Malthus was not a scientist, he was an economist and understood populations and how they grow. Darwin was fascinated by the idea that the human population was growing faster than food production could sustain. This would lead to many deaths from starvation, Malthus believed, and force the population to eventually level out.

Darwin applied these ideas to populations of all species and came up with the idea of "survival of the fittest". Malthus's ideas seemed to support all of the studying Darwin had done on the Galapagos finches and their beak adaptations. Only individuals that had favorable adaptations would survive long enough to pass down those traits to their offspring. This is the cornerstone of natural selection.

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Comte de Buffon

Georges Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon

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Georges Louis Leclerc Comte de Buffon was first and foremost a mathematician who helped invent calculus. While most of his works focused on statistics and probability, he did influence Charles Darwin with his thoughts on how life on Earth originated and changed over time. He was also the first to assert that biogeography was evidence for evolution.

Throughout his travels, Comte de Buffon noticed that even though geographic areas were nearly the same, each place had unique wildlife that was similar to wildlife in other areas. He hypothesized that they were all related in some way and that their environments were what made them change.

Once again, these ideas were used by Darwin to help come up with the idea of natural selection. It was very similar to the evidence he found when traveling on the HMS Beagle collecting his specimens and studying nature. The Comte de Buffon's writings were used as evidence for Darwin while he wrote about his findings and presented them to other scientists and the public.

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Alfred Russel Wallace

Alfred Russel Wallace

London Stereoscopic & Photographic Company (active 1855-1922)/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Alfred Russel Wallace did not exactly influence Charles Darwin, but rather was his contemporary and collaborated with Darwin on the theory of evolution. In fact, Wallace actually came up with the idea of natural selection independently, but at the same time as Darwin. The two pooled their data to present the idea jointly to the Linnaean Society of London.

It wasn't until after this joint venture that Darwin went ahead and published the ideas in his book "The Origin of Species." Even though both men contributed equally, Darwin gets most of the credit today. Wallace has been relegated to a footnote in the history of the theory of evolution.

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Erasmus Darwin

Erasmus Darwin

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Many times, the most influential people in life are found within the bloodline. This is the case for Charles Darwin. His grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, was a very early influence on him. Erasmus had his own thoughts about how species changed over time that he shared with his grandson. Instead of publishing his ideas in a traditional book, Erasmus originally put his thoughts about evolution into poetry form. This kept his contemporaries from attacking his ideas for the most part. Eventually, he did publish a book about how adaptations result in speciation. These ideas, passed down to his grandson, helped shape Charles's views on evolution and natural selection.

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Charles Lyell

Charles Lyell

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Charles Lyell was one of the most influential geologists in history. His theory of uniformitarianism was a great influence on Charles Darwin. Lyell theorized that geologic processes that were around at the beginning of time were the same ones that were happening in the present as well and that they worked the same way.

Lyell believed the Earth developed through a series of slow changes that built up over time. Darwin thought this was the way that life on Earth also changed. He theorized that small adaptations accumulated over long periods of time to change a species and give it more favorable adaptations for natural selection to work on.

Lyell was actually a good friend of Captain Robert FitzRoy who piloted the HMS Beagle when Darwin sailed to the Galapagos Islands and South America. FitzRoy introduced Darwin to Lyell's ideas and Darwin studied the geological theories as they sailed.

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James Hutton

James Hutton

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James Hutton was another very famous geologist who influenced Charles Darwin. In fact, many of Charles Lyell's ideas were actually first put forth by Hutton. Hutton was the first to publish the idea that the same processes that formed the Earth at the very beginning of time were the same that were happening in the present day. These "ancient" processes changed the Earth, but the mechanism never changed.

Even though Darwin saw these ideas for the first time while reading Lyell's book, it was Hutton's ideas that indirectly influenced Charles Darwin as he came up with the idea of natural selection. Darwin said the mechanism for change over time within species was natural selection and it was this mechanism that had been working on species ever since the first species appeared on Earth.

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Georges Cuvier

Georges Cuvier Holding Fish Fossil

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While it is odd to think that a person who rejected the idea of evolution would be an influence on Darwin, that was exactly the case for Georges Cuvier. He was a very religious man during his life and sided with the Church against the idea of evolution. However, he inadvertently laid some of the groundwork for Darwin's idea of natural selection.

Cuvier was the most vocal opponent of Jean Baptiste Lamarck during their time in history. Cuvier realized there was no way to have a linear system of classification that put all species on a spectrum from very simple to the most complex humans. In fact, Cuvier proposed that new species formed after catastrophic floods wiped out other species. While the scientific community did not accept these ideas, they were very well received in religious circles. His idea that there was more than one lineage for species helped shape Darwin's views of natural selection.

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Scoville, Heather. "8 People Who Influenced and Inspired Charles Darwin." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/people-who-influenced-charles-darwin-1224651. Scoville, Heather. (2021, February 16). 8 People Who Influenced and Inspired Charles Darwin. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/people-who-influenced-charles-darwin-1224651 Scoville, Heather. "8 People Who Influenced and Inspired Charles Darwin." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/people-who-influenced-charles-darwin-1224651 (accessed March 28, 2023).