ARTICLE: Introducing Students to Darwin via the Voyage of HMS Beagle

From the most recent The American Biology Teacher [ 72, 5 (2010): 281-286]:

Introducing Students to Darwin via the Voyage of HMS Beagle

Janice C. Swab

ABSTRACT I use the diary that Darwin wrote during the voyage of HMS Beagle and recent images of a few of the places he visited to illustrate some comparisons between Darwin’s world and ours. For today’s students, increasingly committed to environmental issues, this may be an especially promising way to introduce Darwin.

A thought for Earth Day

A thought for Earth Day:

When we behold a wide, turf-covered expanse, we should remember that its smoothness, on which so much of its beauty depends, is mainly due to all the inequalities having been slowly levelled by worms. It is a marvellous reflection that the whole of the superficial mould over any such expanse has passed, and will again pass, every few years through the bodies of worms. The plough is one of the most ancient and most valuable of mans inventions; but long before he existed the land was in fact regularly ploughed, and still continues to be thus ploughed by earth-worms.

Charles Darwin, The formation of vegetable mould, through the action of worms, with observations on their habits (1881)

I wrote before about my son:

He will learn about evolution and how humans are not the epitomy of creation but just one (and yes we are unique, but so are all other organisms) animal in the tree of life. This is not indoctrinating a young mind, as some might suggest. Rather, it is teaching a young mind about his place in a world that could get along just fine without him. Earth is not ours for the taking, but ours for the caring.

Patrick in May 2008:


Worms, which to Darwin "have played a more important part in the history of the world than most persons would at first suppose"

BOOK: Darwin (Darwin College Lectures)

Darwin (Darwin College Lectures)

Darwin (Darwin College Lectures)

In 2009, Darwin College at the University of Cambridge held a lecture series on Darwin. The lectures are accessible online (why so many ways to find these lectures?). The eight lectures are now available as a book in Darwin (Darwin College Lectures):

Charles Darwin can easily be considered one of the most influential scholars of his time. His thoughts, ideas, research and writings have had a far reaching impact and influence on modern thought in the arts, on society, and in science. With contributions from leading scholars, this collection of essays explores how Darwin’s work grew out of the ideas of his time, and how its influence spread to contemporary thinking about creationism, the limits of human evolution and the diversification of living species and their conservation. A full account of the legacy of Darwin in contemporary scholarship and thought. With contributions from Janet Browne, Jim Secord, Rebecca Stott, Paul Seabright, Steve Jones, Sean Carroll, Craig Moritz and John Dupré. This book derives from a highly successful series of public lectures, revised and illustrated for publication under the editorship of Professor William Brown and Professor Andrew Fabian of the University of Cambridge.

A multi-disciplinary overview of the influence of the legacy of Charles Darwin, with contributions from the history of science, economics, philosophy and English literature as well as the biological sciences, appealing to a number of interests • Contributors are internationally-famed leading authorities from their fields, providing the most current research findings • The authors write for the general reader from the standpoint of the leading researcher, making it thoroughly accessible to the non-specialist reader


1. Darwin’s intellectual development: biography, history, and commemoration, Janet Browne
2. Global Darwin, James A. Secord
3. Darwin in the literary world, Rebecca Stott
4. Darwin and human society, Paul Seabright
5. The evolution of utopia, Steve Jones
6. The making of the fittest: the DNA record of evolution, Sean B. Carroll
7. Evolutionary biogeography and conservation on a rapidly changing planet: building on Darwin’s vision, Craig Moritz and Ana Carolina Carnaval
8. Postgenomic Darwinism, John Dupré

This will be published in August.

Darwin College, University of Cambridge

Darwin College, University of Cambridge

Merchants of Doubt

In my philosophy of science class, we have been reading articles about values in science, financial conflicts of interest, and the commercialization of science. Next week we read Doubt is Their Product: How Industry’s Assault on Science Threatens Your Health. A forthcoming book by two historians of science looks like it would fit in with this course: Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. Here is the Amazon blurb:

The U.S. scientific community has long led the world in research on such areas as public health, environmental science, and issues affecting quality of life. Our scientists have produced landmark studies on the dangers of DDT, tobacco smoke, acid rain, and global warming. But at the same time, a small yet potent subset of this community leads the world in vehement denial of these dangers.

Merchants of Doubt tells the story of how a loose-knit group of high-level scientists and scientific advisers, with deep connections in politics and industry, ran effective campaigns to mislead the public and deny well-established scientific knowledge over four decades. Remarkably, the same individuals surface repeatedly? Some of the same figures who have claimed that the science of global warming is “not settled” denied the truth of studies linking smoking to lung cancer, coal smoke to acid rain, and CFCs to the ozone hole. “Doubt is our product,” wrote one tobacco executive. These “experts” supplied it.

Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, historians of science, roll back the rug on this dark corner of the American scientific community, showing how ideology and corporate interests, aided by a too-compliant media, have skewed public understanding of some of the most pressing issues of our era.

Darwin’s Dust


Two-toned dust plumes blew northward off the coast of Libya on October 26, 2007Two-toned dust plumes blew northward off the coast of Libya on October 26, 2007

This image comes from the photography blog The Big Picture from The Boston Globe. Each week’s post contains wonderful captures around a particular topic. The week of January 14 was “Earth, observed.” The dust blowing over the Atlantic brings to mind Darwin’s 1845 paper, “An account of the FINE DUST which often falls on Vessels in the ATLANTIC OCEAN,” from the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London (see this paper here on Darwin Online). Darwin writes:

On the 16th of January (1833), when the Beagle was ten miles off the N.W. end of St. Jago, some very fine dust was found adhering to the under side of the horizontal wind-vane at the mast-head; it appeared to have been filtered by the gauze from the air, as the ship lay inclined to the wind. The wind had been for twenty-four hours previously E.N.E., and hence, from the position of the ship, the dust probably came from the coast of Africa. The atmosphere was so hazy that the visible horizon was only one mile distant. During our stay of three weeks at St. Jago (to February 8th) the wind was N.E., as is always the case during this time of the year; the atmosphere was often hazy, and very fine dust was almost constantly falling, so that the astronomical instruments were roughened and a little injured. The dust collected on the Beagle was excessively fine-grained, and of a reddish brown colour; it does not effervesce with acids; it easily fuses under the blowpipe into a black or gray bead.


From the several recorded accounts it appears that the quantity of dust which falls on vessels in the open Atlantic is considerable, and that the atmosphere is often rendered quite hazy; but nearer to the African coast the quantity is still more considerable. Vessels have several times run on shore owing to the haziness of the air: and Horsburgh recommends all vessels, for this reason, to avoid the passage between the Cape Verd Archipelago and the main-land. Roussin also, during his survey, was thus much impeded. Lieut. Arlett found the water so discoloured, that the track left by his ship was visible for a long time; and he attributes this in part to the fine sand blown from the deserts, “with which everything on board soon becomes perfectly caked.”

Professor Ehrenberg has examined the dust collected by Lieut. James and myself; and he finds that it is in considerable part composed of Infusoria, including no less than sixty-seven different forms. These consist of 32 species of siliceous-shielded Polygastrica;3 of 34 forms of Phytolitharia, or the siliceous tissues of plants; and of one Polythalamia. The little packet of dust collected by myself would not have filled a quarter of a tea-spoon, yet it contains seventeen forms.

In 2007, several microbiologists published in Environmental Microbiology an article titled “Life in Darwin’s dust: intercontinental transport and survival of microbes in the nineteenth century.” The abstract

Charles Darwin, like others before him, collected aeolian dust over the Atlantic Ocean and sent it to Christian Gottfried Ehrenberg in Berlin. Ehrenberg’s collection is now housed in the Museum of Natural History and contains specimens that were gathered at the onset of the Industrial Revolution. Geochemical analyses of this resource indicated that dust collected over the Atlantic in 1838 originated from the Western Sahara, while molecular-microbiological methods demonstrated the presence of many viable microbes. Older samples sent to Ehrenberg from Barbados almost two centuries ago also contained numbers of cultivable bacteria and fungi. Many diverse ascomycetes, and eubacteria were found. Scanning electron microscopy and cultivation suggested that Bacillus megaterium, a common soil bacterium, was attached to historic sand grains, and it was inoculated onto dry sand along with a non-spore-forming control, the Gram-negative soil bacterium Rhizobium sp. NGR234. On sand B. megaterium quickly developed spores, which survived for extended periods and even though the numbers of NGR234 steadily declined, they were still considerable after months of incubation. Thus, microbes that adhere to Saharan dust can live for centuries and easily survive transport across the Atlantic.

Darwin relied on finding the means of dispersal of many organisms because, if all life on earth is related through common ancestry, some organisms had to have found ways to travel to new locations (single centers of creations versus the multiple centers of creation that some naturalists, like Louis Agassiz, postulated in order to stay true to scripture). Whether floating as seeds may do, hitchhiking on the feet or in the bowels of birds, or transporting via logs or other flotsam, or even on trains and cars, life finds a way (yes, Malcolm) to new places.