I have such a great line up of courses this semester. After a hiatus of several years, I’m teaching Animal Behavior once again. For the first time I’ve been given a lecture section for our introductory course in Ecology and Evolution. I am also teaching introductory level Cells and Genes, for which I plan to expand the evolutionary context relative to what I’ve done in the past. Last but not least, I’m coordinating our capstone research experience, facilitating independent projects for our junior and senior biology students.
I never tire of telling the story of evolution. Not just of evolution, but of the scientists who first put together the evidence of the tremendous power and complexity of the history of life on earth. When I tell the story to my introductory biology students, it begins something like this:
In 1831, Charles Darwin embarked on a journey around the world in a small English ship called the Beagle. Darwin was already an accomplished naturalist, and this voyage allowed him to apply his skills to the study of different habitats. He compared plants and animals across continents, and observed how similarities and differences between the species were often linked to the places in which those species were found. He also made many surprising observations, such as finding fossils of sea creatures in the high peaks of the Andes Mountains. Throughout his journey, he reflected on the meaning of everything he saw, and what his observations indicated about the history of life.
It’s important to remember that Darwin did not work in isolation. His voyage on the Beagle was in many ways about the right person on the right trip at the right moment in history. Darwin conducted his studies at a time when science as a whole was undergoing a major transformation in our understanding of how Earth has changed over time. Important scientists who laid the groundwork for Darwin’s theories included botanist Carolus Linneaus, paleontologist Georges Cuvier, geologist James Hutton, naturalist Jeanne Baptiste Lamarck, and economist Thomas Robert Malthus. All the pieces of the evolutionary puzzle were on the table; what we needed was someone like Darwin to put it together.
After the 5-year voyage of the Beagle, it took Darwin more than 20 years to reflect on his experience and integrate his observations with the larger body of data available at the time. But it was well worth the wait. In 1859, Darwin published the most important book in the history of biology: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.
Stories of naturalists like Charles Darwin have always inspired me, in part because of the daunting adventures they undertook and in part because of the inspiring legacy they left behind. Alexander von Humboldt and Maria Sybilla Merian are two other examples of personalities that fire up my imagination. Selenia, the main character in my short story “Creatures of Light,” emerged, in part, from these sparks of history. It’s long been my dream to craft a fantasy novel set in an age of exploration, whether it be an expansion of Selenia’s brutal world, or the undertaking of some new idea in another place and time. Here’s a fun title that keeps running through my head: Charles Darwin, Dragon Slayer. Has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?
Yet at the end of the day, these real people of history don’t need a fantasy twist to make their story interesting. They dared once, long ago, to leave everything they knew behind and venture into lands unknown. In so doing, they unveiled some of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring mysteries of nature. Today we enjoy the fruits of their labors and honor their memory, even as we look toward the larger universe in anticipation of more discoveries to come.