On The Origin of the "Origin of the Species"


Educated thinkers the world over know of Charles Darwin’s seminal 1859 work on evolution but many know little of the historic tome’s rough and rustic origins.

Educated thinkers the world over know of Charles Darwin’s seminal 1859 work on evolution, On the Origin of Species, but many know little of the historic tome’s rough and rustic origins.

On March 30 Dr. Sean Carroll, a professor of genetics and molecular biology at the University of Wisconsin, discussed the work’s origins and more.

Addressing several hundred listeners in the Eynon Ballroom of the Chamberlain Student Center, Carroll said Darwin’s controversial theory – which suggested that man evolved from apes – also suggested that other creatures evolved from earlier, cruder, versions of themselves.

In fact, Carroll said, Darwin’s now-embraced Theory of Evolution evolved of a long and tortuous study capped by a five-year journey from England to the wilds of South America starting in 1831.

Along the way Darwin, then a 24-year-old emerging researcher who abandoned medical studies for his naturalist work, catalogued thousands of ocean and land-bound creatures, sending remains, descriptions and journal entries home to England for study. He recorded modern versions of creatures and compared them with fossilized versions that he assumed were ancient cousins. It was these comparisons that informed Darwin’s conclusions, Carroll said.

But Darwin, whose theory would come to define the study of evolution, was far from the only 19th century naturalist seeking answers on the subject.

“Credit for the Theory of Evolution also belongs to Alfred Wallace and Henry Walter Bates,” Carroll said.

He said Wallace and Bates, contemporaries of Darwin’s and later his good friends, sought the same general answers that Darwin did.

“Were species made by God or did they evolve?” Carroll said they sought to know.

According to Darwin’s Theory, all creatures evolve. Those best suited for reproduction pass their strongest traits down to their offspring. Over generations, weaker traits die off and individuals with stronger traits, those best equipped to survive and thrive, carry on.

Such thinking was considered heresy in the 19th century and for Darwin to publish his findings was tantamount to professional suicide, Carroll said.

“Still, he thought a ‘creator’ would not be concerned with the vast and ongoing series of changes to all species, including tiny beetles and other small creatures,” that Darwin, Bates, Wallace and others were documenting, Carroll said.

“They (independently) came to the conclusion that animals in nature survive when variations – however slight – give them an edge or benefit for survival.”

That conclusion heralded the end of creationism and ushered in the first golden age of evolutionary science, Carroll said.

"I submit that today (with DNA research) we’re in a second golden age of evolutionary science.”

His presentation, given as part of Dr. Donald Farish’s Presidential Lecture Series, celebrated the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of his publication of On the Origin of Species. It was sponsored by Dr. and Mrs. Francis Bonner of Radnor, Penn.

Ismaa Viqar, 20, a sophomore journalism major covering the event for The Whit, said she’s drawn to scientific stories and that the Carroll lecture did not let her down.

“I feel like I understand the background of the theory more now,” she said. “Schools tend to teach what happened but this gave me a foundation for how it all came about.”