Origin’s Chapter IX and X: From Old Objections to Novel Explanations: Darwin on the Fossil Record

In Maria Elice Brzezinski Prestes (ed.), Understanding Evolution in Darwin's “Origin”: The Emerging Context of Evolutionary Thinking. Springer. pp. 321-331 (2023)
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The ninth and tenth chapters of the Origin mark a profound, if perhaps difficult to detect, shift in the book’s argumentative structure. In the previous few chapters and in the ninth, Darwin has been exploring a variety of objections to natural selection, some more obvious (where are all the fossils of transitional forms?) and some showing careful attention to challenging consequences of evolution (could selection really produce instincts?). Starting in the tenth, however, Darwin turns to showing us what kinds of new and unexpected results evolutionary theory might be able to offer us, again in domains both predictable (extinction) and unexpected (biogeography, embryology). It is notable that it is the fossil record that serves as this pivot point, being both a source of potentially powerful objections to evolutionary theory and home to some of its most compelling new explanations. In this chapter, I present both sets of arguments and consider what role Darwin gave to fossil evidence, in the process attempting to discover why it might have played this unique role in two different parts of Darwin’s “long argument” for evolution by natural selection. Geology’s special place, I argue, derives at least in part from its particular importance in Darwin’s social and intellectual context.

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Charles H. Pence
Université Catholique de Louvain

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