Darwin's Dilemma

David Sepkoski

in Rereading the Fossil Record

Published by University of Chicago Press

Published in print April 2012 | ISBN: 9780226748559
Published online February 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780226748580 | DOI:
Darwin's Dilemma

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Paleontological and geological evidence played significantly important roles in establishing Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, which combined descent with modification. The historical evidence of the fossil record enabled Darwin to argue for the temporal evolutionary succession of past forms. In the first and successive editions of Origin, Darwin discussed the significance of fossil succession, in this edition it is clearly implied that paleontology formed a major pillar of his argument for evolution. Yet in what appears in retrospect a profound irony, even as Darwin elevated the significance of the evidentiary contribution of fossils, he also had a major hand in condemning paleontology. One of his greatest anxieties was that the “incompleteness” of the fossil record would be used to criticize his theory: that the apparent “gaps” in fossil succession could be cited as negative evidence, at the very least, for his proposal that all organisms have descended by minute and gradual modifications from a common ancestor. Darwin worried that at worst the record's imperfection would be used to argue for the kind of spontaneous, “special” creation of organic forms promoted by theologically-oriented naturalists whose theories he hoped to obviate.

Keywords: Charles Darwin; paleontology; fossil record; evolutionary theory; temporal evolutionary succession; fossil succession

Chapter.  15778 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Palaeontology

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