Tag Archives: Origin of Species

The Origin of Species

Today is a very big day in the history of science: it’s the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s monumental work, The Origin of Species. Its beautifully simple hypothesis–that life evolves through the natural selection of adaptive traits–was supported with multitudinous data that Darwin collected on his world travels and in his studies at home.

Though today’s evolutionary theory has altered some of Darwin’s original hypotheses–for example, we now understand the role genes play in natural selection, something that had not yet emerged in Darwin’s time–Origin’s central thesis remains highly relevant to our lives, even if we don’t always realize it. Our understanding of mutating viruses and how to combat them, for instance, would not be possible without Darwin’s insight.

Our reference department has done a great job of pulling together a list of resources related to Darwin’s life and his most influential work, and I encourage you to check it out. Beyond those resources, I recommend reading Jonathan Weiner’s The Beak of the Finch, a remarkable book about two scientists’ observations of evolution-in-action amongst the finches of the Galapagos Islands.

And if you thought you could avoid talk of brain-eating in a blog post about evolution, think again. Very interesting research about ritualistic brain-eating and what it tells us about recent human evolution was published recently, and it’s quite an addition to the ever-expanding story of our species.

Thanks again, Mr. Darwin, for providing the framework to that story.

–Wes

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Darwin 2009, Part II

Today is Charles Robert Darwin’s 200th birthday.  As part of the ongoing Pittsburgh celebration of Darwin’s big bicentennial, distinguished Darwin scholar Janet Browne recently spoke at the Drue Heinz Lectures, and I was able to attend.

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A popular Victorian interpretation of Darwin.

Browne gave a thought-provoking talk that focused on the reception of Darwin’s theory of evolution in Victorian England.  She provided ample examples of satirical artwork (most of it from Darwin’s personal collection; indeed, Darwin apparently reveled in it) that demonstrated the way the general public viewed Darwin and his theory.  Interestingly, Browne described this popular response as “Darwinism beyond the book.”  In other words, Darwin’s ideas were popularized and evolved, if you will, into something beyond the natural processes of evolution described in his book On the Origin of Species.  Still, it was this popular response, Browne claimed, that helped spread Darwin’s theory and made it “sink in.”

This November 150 years will have passed since the publication of Origin, and Darwin still has a powerful presence in popular culture.  In fact, as Browne noted in her lecture, Darwin is now “more famous and more notorious than ever before.”  This is especially true in the U.S.,  where acceptance of Darwin’s theory of evolution is still a minority view, and battles rage on over the use of Darwin’s ideas.  In most cases, disdain for Darwin and his theory continue to come from popular interpretations of his work.  For instance, it’s not uncommon for people to assume that belief in evolution is synonymous with atheism when in fact Darwin’s work makes no pronouncements about religion, and Darwin himself was agnostic.  

charles_darwin_1880If we separate the real man from the popular myths, it becomes obvious why Darwin is worthy of celebration as one of the greatest and most influential thinkers who has ever lived.  He had uncanny observational abilities; he was utterly thorough; he was fantasically objective; he was incredibly dedicated; and he was humble.  This last trait is perhaps his most famous, and Janet Browne noted that Darwin’s humility helped him write Origin with “a sense of propriety for the views his readers would hold.”  This is most obvious in the poetic closing paragraph of Origin, which seems to reach out to readers and say that life is special no matter how we explain it:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” 

–Wes

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Darwin 2009, Part I

charles_darwin_1880February 12th, 2009 marks the 200th birthday of Charles Robert Darwin, the humble naturalist famous for describing the theory of evolution by natural selection in meticulous detail in his groundbreaking book On the Origin of Species.  Origin, as it is often referred to, celebrates its 150th publication anniversary this year on November 24th.

These two propitiously timed anniversaries have made 2009 the year for celebrating Darwin, and many of Pittsburgh’s esteemed educational institutions will be joining in the festivities.  Duquesne University will be the host of Darwin 2009: A Pittsburgh Partnership, and they will offer an impressive array of Darwin-related lectures and more.  Here at the library, we will be discussing Darwin and the implications of his theory during three meetings of the Black Holes, Beakers, and Books popular science book club, which I’ve mentioned here before.  The first meeting of the book club will correspond with Janet Browne’s Charles Darwin 200th Birthday Lecture at the Drue Heinz Lecture series on February 9th.  Finally, our friendly neighbors at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History will be celebrating Darwin with an excellent series of lectures from January till the end of April.

If you don’t live in Pittsburgh but you’d still like to be involved, check out the Darwin Days website.  It lists numerous Darwin-related events happening internationally.

Finally, a few sources about Darwin to get you reading about a guy who truly changed the way we think about the world:

The Complete Works of Charles Darwin Online — A hugely impressive collection of Darwin’s published works available to be read online, including beautiful digital scans of original 1st editions of his most important books.

Darwin Correspondence Project — Another interesting online collection that gathers Darwin’s personal letters.

Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives by David Sloan Wilson — An excellent overview of the importance of Darwin’s theory of evolution, written by one of today’s  foremost evolutionists.

–Wes

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