Greetings Scientopians and Happy Birthday Charles Darwin

Feb 13 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Hello, my name is Paolo Viscardi, I run the blog Zygoma, I'm an administrator at Ask a Biologist and I am a natural history curator at the Horniman Museum in Southeast London. I'm here at Scientopia as a guest blogger for the next couple of weeks, so I hope you enjoy my scribblings about my interests and my work as a scientist in a cultural institution - an incongruous but rewarding experience. This first post is really just a brief introduction and a belated 'Happy two hundred and second Birthday' to Charles Darwin for yesterday (he can't hear me, so being a day late shouldn't hurt).

In 2009 I made a bigger effort to mark Darwin's Birthday, by heading up a £100k project with the Horniman and partners to celebrate his bicentenary and the sesquicentennial (150th) anniversary of the publication of the snappily titled 'On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life' (or 'The Origin of Species' as I tend to call it).

I'm not sure how much enjoyment Darwin derived from the events, stuck in his tomb in Westminster Abbey, but I certainly enjoyed myself and our little project successfully informed, engaged and entertained an audience of a million or so people. One of the most successful outcomes was a photographic competition, which produced some fantastic observations of nature.

Tree Frog - by Simon Roberts

At a National level there was also a huge push to celebrate Darwin - perhaps unsurprisingly given that in 2002 he was voted the 4th greatest Briton of all time (despite the fact that apparently half of Britons don't believe in evolution [pdf of survey results here]).

The Wellcome Trust and NHM worked hard to support the wide variety of events and activities that went on across the country in 2009 and I think it's fair to say that the celebrations largely went down very well. The downside to all this is that many of the individuals and organisations involved felt a bit Darwined out by 2010. I know I did.

That said, it's easy to celebrate Darwin - he was a great scientist and a thoroughly nice chap to boot. For me he represents a perfect example of the value of informal learning. He was a disaster at school, he flunked his first undergraduate course in Medicine and he only began to succeed in his studies when his learning became driven by his eclectic interest in nature rather than by necessities imposed by his course. It was hobbies like insect collecting that spurred him on - getting out into the field and dealing with zoology, botany and geology in their raw state.

A recent discussion at the Grant Museum of Zoology asked 'Would Darwin get a job in science today?' and I personally doubt that he would - at least in a funded academic capacity. Not because he would lack the ability (far from it), but because I doubt that the structure of modern academia would stimulate his interest enough to keep him engaged. I think it more likely that he would become one of the many talented amateur natural historians that form the core of organisations like the Linnean Society, the RSPB and the Mammal Society. People who sometimes 'do science', but would seldom describe themselves as 'scientists'.

I'd be interested to hear your thoughts.

4 responses so far

  • Peggy says:

    From what I've read Darwin was a collector and observer of nature from his youth. While for some people that sort of "natural history" remains their primary fascination with biology. But I know a number of other people whose early fascination with nature eventually shifted into an interest in discovering the molecular biology underneath it all.

    Perhaps Darwin would have become fascinated by genetic engineering and genomics and become a leader in those fields? It's so hard to say, since experimental biology is so far different now than it was in Darwin's day.

    • paolo says:

      Absolutely - people develop interests in their youth which develop throughout their lives and there is no telling quite what path Darwin would follow if he was raised in modern society.

      I'm guessing that he wouldn't have gone down the genomic route myself - the main flaw he identified in his theory of Natural Selection was the failure to identify a mechanism of inheritance. Yet, rather than try to address this flaw in later work, he went off in a very different route - despite Mendel's work being available at the time. I think that Darwin was a great collector and synthesiser of very diverse and often disparate observations and information - I can imagine him dabbling in genetics, but not following it as a career path.

      But that's all conjecture!

  • CM Doran says:

    A previous poet laureate, Kay Ryan said something like "I know great. I do not know where great comes from."....she is a huge advocate for community colleges and has taught at one for many years. Many people have intelligence--it's the ability to work and use that intelligence, communicate it, that makes all the difference. Einstein had trouble with school too.

    Darwin lived in a very different time, but his desire to inspire was there--it would be here today too, if he was around. I can only imagine what his tweets would be. I would follow him. Thanks for guest blogging!

    • paolo says:

      Thanks for commenting!

      I have an ongoing interest in the less formal aspects of learning and the literature backs the idea that school isn't where most science learning actually occurs. I know that for myself school was not the place I learned the scientific method or about science in a wider context. School was very exam driven and anything I learned was very short-lived - there was little opportunity for synthesis of concepts.

      Darwin was such a profligate communicator (see the incredible work of the Darwin Correspondence Project) I can imagine him being very involved in social networking. Although he would probably only publish substantial blogs infrequently...

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