This is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, who was born February 12, 1809, which is the same day that Abraham Lincoln was born. Darwin, according to one of our grandsons, is the “father of evolution,” (see yesterday’s post).
Two recent publications devote considerable space to Charles Darwin and Evolution. The January issue of Scientific American, is a special issue “on the most powerful idea in science.” It includes 10 articles ranging from natural selection at the level of DNA to an article on creationism, intelligent design and the teaching of evolution in school (I’ll discuss this tomorrow).
You can listen to a podcast of The Evolution of Evolution in which the editor-in-chief of SA discusses the special issue that not only marks Darwin’s birthday, but also marks the 150th year since the publication of his book, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. The podcast is interesting in setting the stage for reading the other articles in the issue. Darwin had received a letter from Alfred Russell Wallace, in which Wallace was seeking Darwin’s feedback on his ideas about evolution, more specifically natural selection. Darwin, according to some, was shocked and realized that Wallace had come to the same conclusion as he had, the species evolved by means of natural selection.
Wallace’s paper and Darwin’s various notes and correspondence on the subject were read at the same Linnaean Society meeting, in London on July 1, 1858. In 1859, Darwin completed the manuscript he had started 20 years earlier, and published his now famous book on evolution. One writer put their relationship this way:
Although Wallace independently reached the same conclusion, it has usually been Darwin’s name alone associated with the theory of natural selection. Wallace expressed no resentment at receiving less credit. He remained a gracious man to the last, commenting late in life that his greatest achievement had been to prompt Darwin to publish his own theory. Darwin, in turn, proved to be a good friend to Wallace recalling “how generous and noble was his disposition” in his autobiography, and campaigning vigorously to secure Wallace a government pension he desperately needed. Wallace, it turned out, had no more skill in managing money than his father. (
Two articles about Darwin are featured in the February 2009 issue of National Geographic: Darwin’s First Clues and Modern Darwins. In Darwin’s First Clues, David Quammen writes a wonderful and exacting story of Darwin’s beginnings aboard the Beagle during the period 1831 – 1836. It was on this voyage, in which Darwin, who was invited on the ship to be a dining companion for the ship’s captain, and as time went on during the voyage, Darwin began to think of himself as the ship’s naturalist. The purpose of the voyage of the Beagle was to map the coastlines of South America. Darwin was able to spend most of his time on land exploring the geology and animals and plant life for five years.
Quammen discusses how Darwin collaborated with experts in England (on fossil mammals, reptiles, and birds), and used his observations and his scientific writing (in his notebooks) to put together his idea on how species transformed, one from another. Quammen comments:
About a year and a half later, after adding one crucial piece to his thinking (the idea of excess reproduction and struggle for existence, adopted from an essay on human population by Thomas Malthus), Darwin hit upon his theory: natural selection, whereby the best adapted individuals of each population survive to leave offspring and other’s don’t. Then he nurtured, refined, developed, and concealed that theory for 20 years, until a younger man named Alfred Russell Wallace struck upon the same idea, forcing Darwin to rush to get his own ready for print.
Darwin’s First Clues: He was inspired by fossils of armadillos and sloths. Link to the article and discover more about Darwin’s ideas and how they were constructed and developed.
Darwin’s Secret Notebooks: National Geographic Channel, TUE FEB 10 9P
Morphed: National Geographic Channel, Begins SUN FEB 8 8P. Dig 230 million years back into the fossil record to witness the first dinosaur and other dinosaur species as they respond to changes in the earths environment. This led to an amazing, transitional fossil of a creature that was both bird and dinosaur.
The Evolution of Evolution Theory: NPR Talk of the Nation, May 21, 2004 · How did Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution evolve? A look at the state of science leading up to Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle. What scientists influenced his thinking, and what did he see that others before him had not? How has Darwin’s theory of descent with modification itself been modified? Discussion with historian and Pulitzer Prize winner Edward Larson, author of Evolution: the Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory.
Darwin200: Darwin200 is a national programme of events celebrating Charles Darwins scientific ideas and their impact around his two hundredth birthday on 12 February 2009, National History Museum, London. This is a great website.
Darwin’s Voyage on the Beagle: Interactive website on the National History Museum site.