The 200th Anniversary of The Father of Evolution

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.  

Alfred Russell Wallace, the co-discoverer of the theory of evolution by natural selection
Alfred Russell Wallace, the co-discoverer of the theory of evolution by natural selection (Source: darwiniana.org/religion.htm)

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. (Michon Scott)

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.

Darwin's route of passage aboard the Beagle. (Source: Aboutdarwin.com)
Darwin's route of passage aboard the Beagle. (Source: Aboutdarwin.com)

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.

Resources:

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 Darwin’s 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.

The Father of Evolution

Today I received a voicemail from one of our grandsons (Evan) wondering if I might come and speak to his science class. After leaving a message saying I would be happy to do this, he called back and explained.

His middle school science teacher is working with the students in a study of evolution, and fossils.  When they were talking in class, especially about fossils, it reminded him of the crinoid stem fossils

A small collection of crinoid fossil collected in Paleozoic rocks in North Georgia. Crinoids became extinct at the end of the Paleozoic (Permo-Triassic extinction)
A small collection of crinoid fossil collected in Paleozoic rocks in North Georgia. Crinoids became extinct at the end of the Paleozoic (Permo-Triassic extinction)

that I had given him, and after class he talked with his teacher about this, and she asked him if I might be interested in coming to his class. On the phone he asked me if I had actually “dug up” the fossils, or did I buy them.  He asked, did you go on an archeological dig?  I replied that, yes, I did dig them up, and in fact had collected them from Paleozoic rocks in North Georgia near Lookout Mountain.  It was an area where I took many of my students for years on fossil collecting and hunting trips.

He further explained that in class they were talking about Charles Darwin—you know—he said, “the Father of Evolution.”  I hadn’t heard that phrase used in connection with Darwin, and of course I replied, yes, of course.  And in the same breathe he mentioned Mendel, the “father of genetics!”

Geological map of the Northern half of Georgia. Crinoid stems were collected in Paleozoic rocks located in the northwest part of this map.
Geological map of the Northern half of Georgia. Crinoid stems were collected in Paleozoic rocks located in the northwest part of this map.

I’ve been reading about Darwin recently, especially given that this is the 200th anniversary of his Birth, and the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s book, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.  Serendipity.  I wanted to write a bit about Darwin, and now I had the reason to do so!  More tomorrow.  Right now, we’re dealing with squirrels in the attic!

Track II Diplomacy and Science Teaching

In yesterday’s post, I used the phrase “track II diplomacy” when I was reporting an interview with Dr. Peter Agre, the new president of the AAAS. It turns out that Dr. Agre agrees with a group of American scientists who wish to talk with North Korean scientists, in a sort of “informal diplomacy,” discussion, and perhaps future collaboration.

In this form of communication, “non-officials” (educators, teachers, musicians, scientists) enter into discussion and talks, or simply a sharing of expertise. A good example track II diplomacy is the New York Philharmonic Orchestra playing in Seoul in February, 2008.

In 1983, I was part of a group of educators and psychologists that traveled “unofficially” to the Soviet Union as members of the AHP Soviet Exchange Project. It was my introduction to “track II diplomacy,” and the leader of this group, who became one of my inspirational teachers, was Fran Macy, at the time the Director of the Association for Humanistic Psychology. Fran Macy, who passed away on January 20, 2009, was a Russian scholar, and environmental activist working on energy and nuclear issues.

Fran Macy, shown here in front of the Tolstoi, a Russian train that traveled from Helsinki to Moscow. Fran led a group of 30 psychologists and educators to the Soviet Union, which would be the beginning of nearly 20 years of collaboration for not only Fran, but myself and many others that were on this first trip.
Fran Macy, shown here in front of the Tolstoi, a Russian train that traveled from Helsinki to Moscow. Fran led a group of 30 psychologists and educators to the Soviet Union, which would be the beginning of nearly 20 years of collaboration for not only Fran, but myself and many others that were on this first trip.

Without official invitation, Macy’s team sought ways to establish ties to prestigious institutes, universities, and schools in the Soviet Union. With each new encounter was the hope that this might lead to more lasting, satisfying, and in-depth relationships. The early visits set the stage for more organized and official relationships with Soviet colleagues and institutions. Strong ties were developed with colleagues in Moscow, Leningrad, and Tbilisi, and more recently in Tallinn, Vilnius, and Kiev. Two areas of collaboration with Soviets have emerged over the years: psychotherapy and humanistic education. AHP psychotherapists have worked with groups in six cities, demonstrating practice and discussing recent trends in humanistic psychology. The humanistic education focus has progressed through two offlcial agreements. In the most recent one, the AHP, Georgia State University, and the Academy of Pedagogical Sciences signed a three-year agreement in which American and Soviet scholars and teachers would work together through a series of exchanges, writing conferences, and field testing to develop teaching materials focusing on global thinking. From this emerged the Global Thinking Project, a direct result of this track II diplomacy project.

One of the key instruments used in our work in this track II diplomacy project was simply listening to our Soviet and Russian colleagues. We did not try and force our thinking and ways on our colleagues, but sought ways to collaborate, discuss, demonstrate for each other, areas of mutual interest. For those of us in the realm of education, we brought together science teachers, researchers, and students in a series of visits to each other, and in so doing built trust amongst ourselves, which led to many interesting events, and projects.

Track II diplomacy and science teaching were linked together by means of a form of collaboration that was manifested in the Global Thinking Project which helped students learn to think globally. (see the journal publication, or the online version of our research).

In today’s world, track II diplomacy is needed throughout the world’s hotspots (North Korea and the Middle East), but the elements of track II diplomacy can be a virtue for the science teacher. Helping students learn to communicate not only with each other, but students in different cultures can be exhilarating, and meaningful.

Science Teaching: In search of the answers of questions unknown

There were two articles in the New York Times today that relate to this post about the nature of science teaching. One was an essay entitled by Dennis Overbye, Elevating Science, Elevating Democracy, and the other was an interview with Peter Agre (President of the AAAS & Nobel Winner in Biology, and major contributor to ScienceDebate2008) by Claudia Dreifus entitled Using a Leadership Role to Put a Human Face on Science.

Overbye’s essay marks the inauguation of Presdient Obama as a new beginning for the scientific community in the USA. Overbey argues that science is one of the most successful human activities of all time in that science have evolved over time to become one of the key ways to search for truth (about the natural world). He also links democracy with science, and visaversa in that each thrives on debate and respect for one another. No subject should off limits to inquiry and discussion in science, and especially in science teaching, topics such as global warming, birth control,stem cell research, abortion, or evolution; topics that science teachers have been either discouraged from teaching or told not to teach by school boards.

The other piece, the interview with Peter Agre, is instructive in the sense that here we have a Nobel winning scientist talking about his consideration of a run for the US Senate race in Minnesota, and his belief in track II diplomacy among scientists in the USA and North Korea.

Science teaching should embody elements of each of these pieces by creating an environment in the classroom that is friendly to open communication and discussion, and helps students understand the nature of science, and how scientific theories and discoveries can serendipodous as in the case of Ogre’s of the discovery of the “plumbing system for cells” (aquaporins).

Many years ago John Denver wrote a song entitled Calypso, which was tribute to Jacques-Yves Cousteau and his oceanographic ship, the Calypso. In the song is a wonderful line “In search of the answers of questions unknown,” which is might be considered as a metaphor for the nature of science. For many years I used this song as a way to discuss with teachers the nature of science and science teaching, and what implications the song might have for their own classrooms. You might click on the song linked above, and read the lyrics, and then ask yourself how this song relates to your own view of science, and science teaching.

Share your thoughts, please.

Why Do Politicians & Other Elected Ones Spend So Much Time Worrying About Evolution?

In June 2008, the Governor of Louisiana signed the Louisiana Science Education Act into law which supports the Trojan Horse of using critical thinking as a way to creak open the door for the teaching of Creationism and Intelligent Design as part of science teaching.

And now the State of Texas is having at it.

A New York Times article reports the story.  Although the forces in favor of teaching creationism gave up their long battle to insist that science teachers explore the “strengths and weaknesses” of all theories, they were able to stick various amendments on the state’s science curriculum including:

one that would compel science teachers to instruct students about aspects of the fossil record that do not neatly fit with the idea of species’ gradually changing over time, like the relatively sudden appearance of some species and the fact that others seem to remain unchanged for millions of years.

If these politicians would only read Charles Darwin’s book, On the Origin of the Species.  Darwin addressed the problem of “missing” fossils long ago, yet these elected officials talk as if they understand Darwin’s work, and indeed the nature of science.  And of course what they do is make a travesty of science teaching.

Fossils have been an important source of evidence that Darwin used to support his thinking about the origin and extinction of species.
Fossils have been an important source of evidence that Darwin used to support his thinking about the origin and extinction of species.

As reported by Glen Branch & Eugenie C. Scott in their Scientific American article, The Latest Face of Creationism, “without evolution, modern biology, including medicine and biotechnology, wouldn’t make sense (quote from Arthur Landy, Professor of Biology, Brown University).

But the face of creationism as developed by Branch & Scott should be a red marker that its only certain topics that should be examined “critically,” and they include  biological evolution, chemical origins of life, global warming and human cloning.  In fact, these topics are explicitly mentioned in the Louisiana Law.

So why are elected officials in many states, including Alabama, Florida, Michigan, Missouri, South Carolina, Texas and others spending so much time worrying about evolution.  In many of these cases, if you look beneath the surface, there will be lurking a institute, yes, The Discovery Institute.  This organization promotes the notion of intelligent design, and has worked with certain elected officials and irate parents to try and undermine science teaching by using its wedge theory to enact legislation that casts doubt on scientific thinking, and indeed uses the very nature of science to try and insert religious dogma into the teaching of science.  You can read some of my earlier comments and posts about this institute here.

One suggestion for homework that I have for the board members in Texas and other states is to read two books:

The Voyage of Beagle—This is a link to the text of this amazing book written in 1839 (twenty years before his next book).  You can read it here online, or send the link to one of your elected officials.

On the Origins of Species—A link to the book online, published in 1859, 150 years ago.

Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin