Collins Memorial Library

Scholars Declare 2009 "Darwin Year"

Charles Darwin (by artist Julia Cameron)Keep your eyes open for the intriguing "2009 Darwin Year" display in the Collins Library. What makes this such a prominent year? February 12, 2009 is the bicentennial of Charles Darwin's birth, and exactly 150 years ago Darwin also published The Origin of Species (1859). Whether we accept or reject The Origin's arguments, the book has deeply affected European and American culture, especially our understanding of biology, and our notions of humanity's place in the natural word. Thus with both a book and a birthday to celebrate, scholars around the world have declared this year Darwin year. Some highlights of the display include:

Before Darwin: Evolutionary Thought in Britain
Erasmus Darwin, Charles's grandfather, wrote serious natural philosophy in allegorical poetry with factual footnotes. He expresses the idea of organisms changing over time, but doesn't discuss natural selection in detail, in The Temple of Nature (1803). By the 19th century, Erasmus Darwin's natural philosophy had declined in favor of emerging professional communication styles .
Richard Chambers's Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844) was another popular expression of the idea of evolution, but not one that took as deep a hold as Darwin's work would.

Voyage of the Beagle
From 1831 to 1836, Charles Darwin sailed as the Captain's companion and a naturalist on the HMS Beagle on its mission to produce a hydrographic survey of southern South America. Darwin was able to collect specimens (and ideas...) and made his reputation as a careful, observant man of science on his return. He published some observations, and began privately to consider transmutation of species.

The Origin of the Origin
As early as 1837, Darwin was thinking of the transmutation of species. In 1842, he began writing a formal essay on natural selection and transmutation, but lingered over publishing until 1858, when he was shocked to receive a paper from Alfred Russell Wallace, who had independently originated and described the idea of natural selection. Eventually, a joint presentation of papers at the Linnean Society was arranged. Neither Wallace nor Darwin attended; Wallace was still on the other side of the world, and Darwin was distracted by the recent death of his child. Despite grief and ill health, Darwin developed the paper into On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, published by John Murray in 1859.

Reading the Origin of Species
The Origin of Species was oversubscribed from the first edition of 1250 copies. Agree or disagree, it quickly became required reading. We can read its continued importance as a book in its 20th century inclusion in both aspirational series like Dr. Eliot's 5-foot Shelf of Knowledge-a Great Books collection intended to encapsulate all the material necessary of a college education-and in its ubiquity as a 65¢ pocket book. In the 21st century, its importance is still signaled by inclusion in modern ‘Great Science' collections. Indeed, the book has figured enough in our discourse to get its own biography!

Echoes and Popularizations
Nearly a hundred years later, Dobzhansky echoed the title of The Origin of Species in his classic study of genetics and evolution. Studies of evolution both classical and popular are now integrally tied to genetics-see, for example, Richard Dawkins's The Ancestor's Tale, a story of genetics and evolution modeled on the Canterbury Tales.

(almost) Infinite Variety
From splashy, costly science television productions with accompanying photo-rich books, to hyperliterate essays, to gritty zines, Darwin's Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection has provided fodder for varied thinkers and creators.