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150 years since ‘The Origin of Species’

By Vincent D. Scebbi
On November 19, 2009

On the eve of the 150th anniversary of the first publication of “The Origin of Species,” Tim Berra, professor emeritus of evolution, ecology and organism biology at Ohio State University, spoke about the life of Charles Darwin.

Berra visited UT to give his award-winning presentation, “Charles Darwin: The Story of an Extraordinary Man” on Tuesday.

“The theory of evolution is arguably the greatest idea ever had by the human mind and Charles Darwin is arguably one of the most influential scientists ever. He changed the way humans see themselves in nature,” Berra said.

According to Berra, “The Origin of Species” was first published on Nov. 24, 1859, which marked the beginning of modern biology.

Berra said Darwin linked two observations together to form his theory of evolution.

The first observation was that there are variations in nature. The second was more offspring are produced than those who survive.

“Therefore, there is a struggle for existence, which favorable variations are preserved and unfavorable variations are eliminated. That’s the theory of evolution in a nutshell,” he said.

Berra discussed the journey that led Darwin to discover the theory of evolution.

Darwin started his career training at Edinburgh University to become a doctor, like his grandfather, father and brother.

Though Darwin went to school to become a doctor and follow in the footsteps of his family members, Berra said, he was horrified by the idea of surgery without anesthesia.

“Charles thought the medical lectures were boring and the horror of surgery without anesthesia was just too much for this sensitive young man to take,” Berra said.

Eventually, he transferred out of medical school and into Cambridge University for Seminary where he met John Henslow, a botanist and professor.

According to Berra, Henslow influenced Darwin’s career more than any other person.

Upon returning home after graduation, Darwin received a letter from Henslow offering him an opportunity to travel the world on a ship called the HMS Beagle.

Berra said Darwin had ambitions of writing a book and was inspired by Charles Lyle.

“Charles was filled with delight at the thought that he might write a book on the geology of the places he visited,” he said.

Darwin is most famous for his work from the Galapagos Islands where he noticed differences in finches, tortoises and iguanas.

“Darwin had noticed the differences in the [finches] from island to island. Almost every biology text has some pictorial feature about Darwin’s finches and how important they were to his ideas of natural selection,” Berra added, “The truth is that while in the Galapagos, Darwin didn’t realize the finches differed from island to island. It was only after he’d gotten back from the voyage when the artist began to study and illustrate the finches did it become clear that they too differed from island to island.”

After returning to England, Darwin was back at Cambridge working with Henslow, who had shown Darwin’s work to the scientific community.

Berra said it was almost a year after returning to England when Darwin first wrote his thoughts down about evolution.

“It was in July of 1837 that Darwin secretly entered his thoughts about the transmutation of species,” Berra said. “At this time he had not yet thought about natural selection. In [one of the notebooks] he drew this irregularly branched tree that represented the common ancestry tree of all animals. This famous sketch was the first representation of an evolutionary tree.”

According to Darwin’s autobiography, it was a year after that when he first came to his theory of natural selection. After the publication of The Origin of Species, Darwin continued to write several different books and articles.

According to Berra, Darwin’s grave is a few feet away from those of Isaac Newton and Charles Lyle.

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