Darwin, Malthus, Süssmilch, and Euler: The ultimate origin of the motivation for the theory of natural selection

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It is fairly well known that Darwin was inspired to formulate his theory of natural selection by reading Thomas Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population. In fact, by reading Darwin’s notebooks, we can even locate one particular sentence which started Darwin thinking about population and selection. What has not been done before is to explain exactly where this sentence – essentially Malthus’s ideas about geometric population growth – came from. In this essay we show that eighteenth century mathematician Leonhard Euler is responsible for this sentence, and in fact forms the beginning of the logical chain which leads to the creation of the theory of natural selection. We shall examine the fascinating path taken by a mathematical calculation, the many different lenses through which it was viewed, and the path through which it eventually influenced Darwin.


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Journal of the History of Biology


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