A thought…

Man has grown fond of late of contemplating almost with submerged pride his ancestral descent from what he regards as a savage, carnivorous ape; this his later history would imply a grain, if not several grains, of truth. What is less flattering and less appetizing perhaps is his more genuine resemblance to that group of miniute organisms known as slime molds. They can be seen devouring spoiled bread or moving in unsightly blotches over spoiled oranges – fruit that in distant eye-narrowed perspective might be mistaken for diseased planets – rotten fruit circling in the plague -infected winds of the cosmic orchard.

Loren Eiseley, c. 1970, in The Lost Notebooks of Loren Eiseley, edited by Kenneth Heuer (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1987), p. 200

Darwin & Yellowstone


Historian Paul Schullery‘s talk at a November 2009 science agenda workshop in Yellowstone National Park focused on climate change, land use change, and invasive species. As I scrolled through the PDF of the talk transcript online (in the latest issue of Yellowstone Science, where I published a piece on religious language and YNP in 2008), to my surprise I saw an image of Darwin. Here’s where Schullery relates Darwin to Yellowstone history:

Those of you who saw Ken Burns’ big film on the national parks in September must have noticed the unusual extent to which scientists were even cast as heroes. My own favorite example of such scientific advocacy made it into the film. It was National Park Service biologist George Melendez Wright’s eloquent recommendation, in 1933, “that the rare predators shall be considered special charges of the national parks in proportion that they are persecuted everywhere else.” And only a few years later, Aldo Leopold himself recommended the restoration of wolves to Yellowstone. Anyone who knows much about the history of land management in the American West will agree that science, at least wildlife science, has rarely gotten more socially subversive than these statements by Wright and Leopold.

But rather than quoting a bunch more historic scientists, I think you only need to hear from one—one that you may have never heard of, a geologist named Theodore Comstock. Comstock visited and studied the park at its beginning, in 1873, with the Jones Expedition, and published several foresightful papers that reached far beyond his specialty. We ought to name a mountain or a microbrewery or something for this guy.

Remember that Comstock worked and wrote in the fierce propwash of the Darwinian revolution. We can barely imagine the mood of his times. The publication of both On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man were current events to him, and his awareness of their sudden impact on science and society is reflected in this plea for the preservation of Yellowstone’s authentic wildness—a plea so modern that one of us might say it at this meeting.

Momentous questions are now agitating the scientific world, calling for experiment and observation which are daily becoming less possible, owing in a great measure to the obliterating influence of modern civilization. Thus it would almost seem that the present difficulties in the way of the solution of many questions, bearing upon the process of natural selection, will soon become insurmountable if some means are not employed to render more practicable the study of animals in a state of nature.

Of course Yellowstone provided those means, and Comstock, perhaps more fully than Hayden or any of the other early scientific pioneers of the region, articulated the case for the park as an unparallelled and perpetual opportunity to learn about wild nature.

Too bad I hadn’t come across this connection while I was an intern there. You can read the rest of Schullery’s talk here, and why not peruse more of Yellowstone Science (index), it’s freely accessible!

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.