Mendel and Darwin

The study of biological factors in development was founded in the researches of two nineteenth-century pioneers— Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel. Every schoolchild should know that Mendel was the father of genetics and that his studies of inheritance in plants precipitated a line of thought that has advanced to the present—day interest in DNA and the genome. Also well known is the name of Charles Darwin, whose monumental volumes on the Origin of Species in 1859 ushered in a new way of thinking about the sources of differences in species through natural selection and the survival of the fittest. Two cornerstones of Darwin's theory of evolution are that complex forms of life are descendants of simpler forms and that the biological features originally appearing as the result of chance mutations or other factors became relatively permanent features of a species because of their survival value.

Another Darwinian notion is that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, that the development of the individual organism parallels the development of the species of which the organism is a member. This concept was also a guiding principle of much early research on animal and human development. Thus, the development of the fetus in utero was thought to proceed through a series of steps that tracked the ascent of man from organisms lower on the phylogenetic scale. The extension of Darwin's ideas to individual and even social development, unfortunately, got a bit out of hand during the early years of this century. The concept of social Darwinism and its "survival of the fittest" corollary, that the strong were meant to survive and the weak to die out, was found to be more palatable in totalitarian societies than in democracies. This misapplication of the principle of natural selection was, in any case a gross overgeneralization.

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