Today would have been Charles Darwin‘s 204th birthday. For the occasion, I’m wearing my new t-shirt, which bears a most excellent and appropriate cartoon by Adam Korford. Here’s a snippet from The Origin of Species for your contemplation. It’s the opening salvo in Chapter IV, “Natural Selection”:
How will the struggle for existence, discussed too briefly in the last chapter, act in regard to variation? Can the principle of selection, which we have seen is so potent in the hands of man, apply in nature? I think we shall see that it can act most effectually. Let it be borne in mind in what an endless number of strange peculiarities our domestic productions, and, in a lesser degree, those under nature, vary; and how strong the hereditary tendency is. Under domestication, it may be truly said that the whole organisation becomes in some degree plastic. Let it be borne in mind how infinitely complex and close-fitting are the mutual relations of all organic beings to each other and to their physical conditions of life. Can it, then, be thought improbable, seeing that variations useful to man have undoubtedly occurred, that other variations useful in some way to each being in the great and complex battle of life, should sometimes occur in the course of thousands of generations? If such do occur, can we doubt (remembering that many more individuals are born than can possibly survive) that individuals having any advantage, however slight, over others, would have the best chance of surviving and of procreating their kind? On the other hand, we may feel sure that any variation in the least degree injurious would be rigidly destroyed. This preservation of favourable variations and the rejection of injurious variations, I call Natural Selection. Variations neither useful nor injurious would not be affected by natural selection, and would be left a fluctuating element, as perhaps we see in the species called polymorphic.
There’s so much packed into that verbose Victorian paragraph! From so simple a beginning, all of modern biology is descended.◼
Charles Darwin. Image included under Fair Use rationale.
Charles Darwin, who first proposed that natural selection could be responsible for “descent with modification,” the observation (which predates Darwin) that living species change over time and give rise to new species, was born on this day in 1809.
By all accounts, Darwin was a geek’s geek—uncomfortable in high-pressure social situations and devoted to the fiddly details of his scientific work. But he also seems to have been a quietly friendly chap, keeping up a tremendous volume of correspondence with other scientists all over the world, and, most charmingly, bringing his children into the fun of puzzle-solving that lies at the heart of science.
I don’t know of better proof of this than this account of Darwin’s familial experimentation, produced for NPR by Robert Krulwich with writer David Quamman, a couple years back around the Darwin Bicentary. (Thanks to Madhusudan Katti for reminding me about it!)
To assist in your festivities, allow me to suggest my postings for Darwin’s 200th (I’m not so down with the Christianity these days, but I still stand by the points made) and the New York Times‘s great annotated copy of the Origin. You could also check out this interview with evolutionary biologist David Rezick, who has written his own annotated version of The Origin.
Charles Darwin, born 12 February, 1809. Image via Pharyngula.
Today is, of course, the 201st anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin. This not being a big, round number, there are somewhat fewer festivities planned than last year. Over at Ecographica, Johnny’s taken the effort to assemble some new celebratory links. Meanwhile, online science writers continue to explore the “endless forms most beautiful” of the natural world:
Big-beaked hornbills have short little tongues, so they feed by scooping up food in their beaks, and then tossing it back with a shake of their heads in a “ballistic” feeding maneuver. (NeroDojo)
Species at low levels of the food chain seem to be shifting their seasonal habits to compensate for climate change more rapidly than species at higher levels. (Conservation Magazine)
A new survey estimates that, in one upstate New York county, 45,000 mammals are road-killed every year. (Conservation Magazine, again)
Conservation plans focused on carbon-sequestering regions would probably also preserve a lot of biodiversity – but they’d also miss some critical diversity hotspots. (Conservation Maven)
Two variants of a gene involved in muscle development are correlated with the performance of thoroughbred racehorses. (Living the Scientific Life)
Two genes have been identified that seem to be associated with stuttering. Curiously, they both code for proteins involved in a cellular process that doesn’t have any obvious connection to speech. (Imagining Geek)
Charles Darwin’s groundbreaking work, The Origin of Species, was published 24 November, 1859, 150 years ago today. This makes a rather neat bookend to the Darwin Bicentenary, the year of events commemorating the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth on 12 February, 1809. I’m going to be lazy and simply link to everything I wrote back concerning that earlier anniversary.
Oh, and serendipitously, today is also the anniversary of the discovery of Lucy in 1974. I saw her in person (behind glass) on a trip to Seattle during last year’s fall break, which was pretty cool.
Creation, the first feature-length biographic film about Charles Darwin, is playing now at the Toronto Film Festival. NCSE’s Eugenie Scott got to attend a preview, and she likes it.
I believe it to be a thoughtful, well-made film that will change many views of Darwin held by the public—for the good. The acting is strong, the visuals are wonderful, and it treats with loving care the Victorian details of the furnishings at Down house and other sites (such as Malvern), and the local church.
The film focuses not directly on the writing of The Origin, but instead on Darwin’s relationship with his devout wife Emma, which by every account I’ve read was uncommonly tender. Roger Ebert makes some remarks, too, though he’s waiting on a full review until the film is released. Which, unfortunately, hasn’t been arranged yet in the States. I think it looks really good, and it’ll be a crying shame if it doesn’t arrive stateside during the year of the Darwin Bicentenary.
I’ll be joining a long list of science blogs in commemorating Charles Darwin’s two hundredth birthday – only 23 more shopping days left! – as part of the Blog for Darwin blogswarm. (Not sure how I feel about the word “blogswarm,” but I like the concept!) Now: what to write about. There’s a nice list of suggested topics provided, and they only scratch the surface …