Year 1831. 27th December. H.M.S. Beagle set on an epic expedition to survey Patagonia and other parts of the Neotropical coast. The captain of the ship, Fitzroy, would have never even dreamt that the journey is going to rewrite the history of life on Earth. Nor would he have realized that a young guy, who shared a cabin with him, will be the reason behind this. No marks for guessing who it was: Mr. Charles Darwin, my second hero (had given the first place to Mr. Wallace a long while ago!). The idea that of the origin of species, has its origin traced back to his five-year long journey (Are you listening?! Bloody five years, braving the odds of sea and uncharted landscapes. Imagine five long years of field work for your PhD. I wouldn’t have seen the end). That spark generated in him, generated a fire that burnt in him for almost twenty long years before culminating in a book, “the book” that shook the world. That’s 24 years after that expedition. In Darwin’s view an abstract. Hmm…what took him so long? More than that, what is that he wrote demands an understanding among students like us, separated in time by almost 150 years. Thanks to our ESS secretaries for deciding to explore this. The first meeting happened last Thursday. Target: The Introduction and Chapter 1.
I can summarise Darwin’s introduction based on three aspects.
- Darwin’s emphasis on the role of biogeography towards his insights,
- The controversy behind Wallace and Darwin and
- Influence of “vestiges of creation” on him.
As a student of biogeography, the first statement from Darwin’s Origin that remained etched in my mindscape is this one by him in the opening paragraph:
“When on board H.M.S. ‘Beagle,’ as naturalist, I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the inhabitants of South America, and in the geological relations of the present to the past inhabitants of that continent. These facts seemed to me to throw some light on the origin of species—that mystery of mysteries.” Darwin, 1859.
It was astronomer Sir John Herschel, in a letter to Charles Lyell in 1836, who had referred to the origin of species as the “mystery of mysteries” (Costa, 2009).
The controversy behind Wallace’s influence on Darwin seems to have been resolved (watch the appended video). In the introduction, Darwin explicitly acknowledges that he was “induced” to write by Wallace’s research paper send to him from Malay archipelago.
The third thing that Darwin mentions is this work by Robert Chamber “vestiges of creation”. Costa (2009) explains Chambers view as saltational vs. gradualism as espoused by Darwin. Chapter one was his attempt to prove this point and provide an exhaustive evidence for variation under domestication.
We, a bunch of nine, discussed for an hour on this chapter. Borrowing from Darwin, I would like to call this chapter the “Origin of domestic races”.
Darwin goes to stunning details on variation under domestication borrowing examples from plants to pigeons. Why take so much pain? It was his attempt to get across the message that domestic races share a genealogical relationship, an end product of human mediated accumulative selection that is artificial selection (Costa 2009). To cite Reznick (2010) “This opening chapter presents the raw material that Darwin needs for his subsequent arguments about natural selection to work. The changeability of organisms under artificial selection proves that the availability of heritable variation and amount of change that is possible are easily sufficient to account for the diversity of living things that are present in the world today, given the age of the earth and the vast amount of time that has been available for natural selection to act.”
One last point, keep at the back of your mind the distinction between natural selection and speciation. Researchers including Ernst Mayr and recently, Jerry Coyne have argued that Darwin’s origin of species doesn’t quite address the issue of speciation. Let’s deduce it for ourself first hand if that’s the case!
Meet you all next
Wednesday 5:30 pm Friday 5.45 pm in either the Lotka Volterra lab or the Class room. I will post all the soft copies of references to ESS. Pick it up from them.
- Charles Darwin, 1859, On the origin of species by means of natural selection or the preservation of the favoured races in the struggle for life. John Murray.
- James T. Costa, 2009, The Annotated Origin. Facsimile of the first edition on the origin of species.
- David N. Reznick, 2010, “The “Origin” Then and Now: An Interpretive Guide to the “Origin of Species”, Princeton University.