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Evolution - The Theory

This is the story of how two naturalists pioneered one of the most important theories in science.

Darwin-Wallace theory of evolution by natural selection  

Evolution is the process of a change in inherited traits in a population over time, leading to a species that is better suited to survive and thrive in its environment. This revolutionary theory was pioneered by the valuable contributions of two 19th century naturalists, Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace. 

The botanical library at the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney

The Daniel Solander library started in 1852 at the Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney. This library collects books and journals on botany and related subjects and also archaeological artefacts, original paintings and illustrations, historic photographs, manuscripts, furniture, tools, maps, plans and charts and other treasures.

One important item conserved at the library is an original 1st edition, 1st printing of the On the Origin of Species (1859) by Charles Darwin. The book was given to the Director of the Garden at the time, Charles Moore, who corresponded with Darwin and answered multiple questions about the adaptation of British plants to Australia. The book has an inscription and is the only presentation copy in Australia.
Ist edition copy of On the Origin of Species

Explore more about the history and importance of the botanical library here

On January 12th 1836, Charles Darwin sailed into Sydney Harbour on the HMS Beagle. His time spent in Australia was pivotal in forming his ideas around evolution by natural selection. He observed both a platypus and a rat kangaroo and noticed they occupied the same niche as the rabbit and water rat in the Northern Hemisphere, leading him to write “Surely two different creators must have been [at] work” and ponder why one creator would create such similar animals.    

Meanwhile, Alfred Wallace spent eight years on an expedition to the Dutch East Indies (modern day Indonesia) collecting and observing the flora and fauna. Faced with the enormous diversity of species in this region, Wallace theorised that living things evolve by adapting to their environment. Wallace wrote his ideas in a paper which he sent to Darwin (whom Wallace looked up to) for review before publishing. In 1858 the two men published a controversial joint paper outlining their theory of evolution by natural selection.  

Watch the following video to learn more about Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace’s contributions to natural history and to the theory of evolution. 

Activities - Evolution - the Theory

1. Reporter for a day!

Imagine you are a reporter in 1858, just after the publication of Darwin and Wallace’s paper on evolution, sent to interview the two men on this paper. Write a transcript of the interview including your questions and Darwin and Wallace’s responses OR make a video of the interview of the two men.   Make sure you have watched the video above.


  • Description of the theory of evolution by natural selection  
  • Outline of Darwin’s voyage of the Beagle and how he formed his ideas around evolution  
  • Outline of Wallace’s expedition and how he formed his ideas  
  • How Darwin felt on receiving Wallace’s letter and paper   
  • Any challenges they encountered writing and publishing their joint paper  

2. Read and word puzzle

Read this summary of the Theory of Evolution, or do your own research, then attempt the word puzzle below that summarizes the main ideas underpinning the theory. 

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