Darwin Day in Wisconsin

February 7, 2010 • 12:20 pm

by Greg Mayer

The Darwin bicentennial year ends this week, as Friday, February 12th, begins the 201st year. The last event in the University of Wisconsin-Parkside’s Darwin 1809-1859-2009 commemoration is this coming Wednesday, Feb. 10, at 7 PM in Greenquist Hall 103, where I will be speaking on “The Origin of The Origin.

In the talk, I’ll take a look at the surprisingly dramatic circumstances of the publication of The Origin on November 24, 1859.  In the spring of 1858, while at work on his “species book”, Darwin received a manuscript from Alfred Russel Wallace, a correspondent of his working in the Malay Archipelago. In Wallace’s manuscript, Darwin saw his own theory in miniature, and despaired that his originality would be forestalled. Darwins’ friends Charles Lyell and J.D. Hooker arranged for a joint publication by Darwin and Wallace; Darwin, now spurred on, completed an “abstract” of his species book: the Origin, which, at 500 pages, was a rather substantial abstract. (Jerry was an earlier speaker in the series; video here.)

On Saturday, the 201st anniversary year gets off to a bang with the University of Wisconsin, Madison’s annual Darwin Day. There’ll be a full day of activities, headlined by my friend and colleague Jonathan Losos, who’ll speak on “Leaping Lizards!  Studies of Ecology and Evolution in the Caribbean”. Over the lunch break there’s a workshop for teachers on lizards and island biogeography, and I’ll be participating. In the afternoon, there’ll be a panel discussion on communicating science, which might be of some interest to WEIT blog readers.

Both events are intended for general audiences, and are free and open to the public. If you’re in the area, please come. Details of both events, including schedules and directions, are here for Parkside (in Kenosha, just north of Illinois) and here for Madison.

Darwin in Cambridge (and Richard Dawkins too!)

May 14, 2009 • 1:04 pm

by Greg Mayer

John van Wyhe, of Christ’s College, Cambridge, director of the absolutely fabulous website The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online (which I have had occasion to notice previously), has recently published a terrific short book entitled Darwin in Cambridge (Christ’s College, Cambridge).  Darwin in Cambridge, by John van Wyhe It’s not available yet on Amazon UK or Amazon, but you can order it direct from Christ’s. It provides a wealth of detail on Darwin’s life and studies in Cambridge, and is especially useful to someone (like me) less familiar with the organization of English universities. It is also beautifully illustrated, and my one complaint would be that the small octavo size does not do full justice to some of the illustrations.

Included in the book are several photographs of university and college ledgers which record Darwin’s various activities at Cambridge (see John’s analysis of Darwin’s student bills here, which have been widely misinterpreted by the media to say that Darwin spent more on shoes than books!). What struck me immediately was the figure on page 22, showing part of the ‘Books of subscriptions for degrees’ recording Darwin’s formal matriculation on February 20, 1828. It wasn’t just that the name of Adam Sedgwick, Darwin’s geological mentor, appears in the registry as having presided over the ceremony.  It was the name of the student who signed the book just below Darwin: Richard Dawkins!

Five students from Christ’s College have signed the register, Darwin being the last, having signed “Charles Robert Darwin”.  Below the Christ’s students, two students from Catharine Hall (now St. Catharine’s College) have signed the register, and immediately below Darwin’s signature appears the signature of the second Catharine’s student, “Richard Dawkins”.

The 20th and 21st centuries’ Richard Dawkins is, of course, an Oxonian; I don’t know if he’s any relation to the 19th century Cantabrigian who, for at least a little while on the afternoon of 20 February 1828, stood next to Charles Darwin.

The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online

April 7, 2009 • 8:40 pm

by Greg Mayer

I’m slipping in to make a quick plug here for one my favorite websites, The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online, and its founder and director, John van Wyhe of Christ’s College, Cambridge. The website contains text and image copies of at least one edition of all Darwin’s works (and often of many other editions as well), an updated version of Freeman’s bibliographical handlist, and many, many other useful things; check it out yourself. It is undoubtedly the best scholarly website ever.  John is the rising star of the new generation of Darwin scholars.

Dr. John van Wyhe
Dr. John van Wyhe

For those of you in or near southeastern Wisconsin, he will be speaking on Wednesday, April 8 at 7 PM at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, on Darwin: the True Story.  The talk is part of UWP’s Darwin 1809-1859-2009 commemoration of the  Darwin bi- and sesquicentennials, and is free and open to the public. Details here.

BBC program: “Did Darwin Kill God?”

April 4, 2009 • 5:22 am

Unsurprisingly, the answer is “of course not!””  In fact — also unsurprisingly — evolution seems to strengthen the narrator’s belief. This one-hour show was on the BBC last week, and although their website won’t play it in the US, the program has been put on YouTube in six segments.  You can access segment 1 below, and then, if you want to watch the rest of the show, go here and click on the succeeding segments that appear next to it on YouTube.

Those crazy Germans play a Darwin-related April Fool joke

April 1, 2009 • 10:02 am

An alert reader from Basel has sent me a link to an April Fool article in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, published in Munich.  It describes a new movie in which Quentin Tarantino directs Tom Cruise in a movie about the life of Charles Darwin.   Using my rough German (no time to translate the whole piece), the beginning reads:

Set visit: Cruise plays Darwin


“Like Stauffenberg [the anti-Hitler Nazi who Cruise plays in a new movie] with sideburns.”: Tom Cruise and Quentin Tarantino film Darwin’s life on the Galapagos Islands — and even make evolution palatable to creationists.

Accompanying the article is an action scene from the movie:


Frank Egerton on Darwin and the Beagle

March 11, 2009 • 8:24 pm

by Greg Mayer

If you’re going to be in or near southeastern Wisconsin this Friday, March 13, the next presentation in “Darwin 1809-1859-2009”, the University of Wisconsin–Parkside’s series of events commemorating the bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s birth and the sesquicentennial of the publication On the Origin of Species, is being held at noon in Greenquist Hall 101.  My friend and colleague Frank Egerton will speak on “Ecological Aspects of Darwin’s Voyage on the Beagle“. Darwin’s five-year circumnavigation of the globe as a naturalist aboard the Royal Navy surveying vessel HMS Beagle was the formative event of his life, and greatly influenced all his subsequent work and views. Frank is an award winning historian of science, Professor Emeritus of History at UW–Parkside, and author of a biography of Hewett Cottrell Watson, one of Darwin’s key colleagues and correspondents, and of A History of the Ecological Sciences, appearing serially in the Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America.

The event is free and open to the public. Directions to the University are here.

Interview with Jerry in American Scientist

March 5, 2009 • 8:36 am

by Greg Mayer

An interview with Jerry on evolution vs. creationism appears in the online pages of American Scientist. In the interview, Jerry talks mostly about his approach to teaching evolution based on 25 years experience, and how he applied that experience in the writing of WEIT. A couple of highlights:

…when you read Darwin, the thing that’s most fascinating is the evidence he musters in support of it. In talking with professional biologists and evolutionists, they didn’t ever learn why people thought evolution was true, because you’re not taught that in class. But I thought that that should be passed on to the students because of the second reason I wrote the book, which is the pervasiveness of creationism in this country. I wanted to educate the students so they know that evolution really happened, so they don’t really doubt that, but also to arm them against the forces of irrationality that were going to be impinging on them and society….

And so when I teach the stuff I teach it as sort of an object lesson in how to adjudicate between competing theories in science. And that’s the way I wrote the book, too. I’m constantly asking the reader, “How does creationism explain this observation? It can’t.” So it’s more than teaching the evidence; it’s teaching them how to discriminate between good science and bad science, and that’s a good lesson for students too.

Change we can believe in

March 1, 2009 • 11:13 am

by Greg Mayer

The now iconic images of President Obama created by Shepard Fairey last year have been widely imitated. It was perhaps inevitable that Darwin should be included among those so honored.Darwin in Obama-style poster

Created by Mike Rosulek, he is selling t-shirts and posters of this, and several other designs, with proceeds to benefit the National Center for Science Education, a most worthy recipient.  I might quibble with “very gradual”, which might evoke memories of the old punctuated equilibrium debate.  Darwin was certainly a gradualist, but as understood by Darwin, and succunctly characterized in chapter 1 of WEIT, gradualism is not incompatible with highly varying rates of change across time and among lineages.  The best summary of Darwin’s views on the subject is a paper by Frank Rhodes entitled ‘Gradualism, punctuated equilibrium and the Origin of Species published in Nature (305:269-272) in 1983.

(hat tip: Andrew Sullivan)

More good books

February 26, 2009 • 7:57 am

by Greg Mayer

In an earlier post, Jerry called Janet Browne’s two-volume work the best of Darwin biographies, calling it “magisterial and engagingly written.”  I concur, and some of our readers have mentioned it approvingly in the comments.  But, at 1200 + pages, it may be a bit daunting as a starting place.  Let me offer two other starting places for the Darwin enthusiast.  Charles Darwin, by Tim BerraThe first is Charles Darwin: The Concise Story of an Extraordinary Man, by Tim Berra, an ichthyologist from Ohio State.  In this slim (144 pp.), well illustrated, volume Berra covers most of the highlights of Darwin’s life, work, and death, and includes a handy annotated list of Darwin’s books and chronology of his life.  There is a nice section of color plates (many by Berra himself of the Galapagos and Down House, Darwin’s home), including my favorite, a painting of 32 breeds of domestic pigeon, one of Darwin’s favored study animals. An afternoon’s read, it is a good place to start.

For a broader view of the science of evolution, but, like WEIT, aimed firmly at the general reader, I highly recommend The Discovery of Evolution, The Discovery of Evolution, by David Youngby David Young of the University of Melbourne. Richly illustrated with both color and line art from contemporary scientific publications, and covering a broad sweep of history, from John Ray and Francis Willughby in the 17th century through to the Modern Synthesis, with a quick tour of more recent developments, it is one of the finest books I’ve ever read not just on the history of the field, but on evolutionary biology itself.  It achieves this distinction by introducing and explicating, in chronological sequence, not just the ideas and historical figures, but the evidence on which the major discoveries of evolutionary biology are based.  It is refreshing and, indeed, exciting, to have these discoveries and attendant scientific debates addressed through the evidence adduced by the discoverers and debaters.  Thus, for example, the phenomenon of natural extinction,  which we today take for granted, is presented as the lively debate it was at the time, and we see it is resolved not by some textbook fiat (as too much of science education seems to be), but by careful anatomical, biogeographic, and geological research, with the great Georges Cuvier’s work on elephants, mammoths, and mastodons playing a major part in the resolution.  The entire book is replete with such examples, and is itself an edifying model of how science should be taught and learned: by direct consideration of the evidence.