National Geographic

Creating Young Darwins

Darwin's experimental greenhouse. Ian Capper, via Creative Commons:

Charles Darwin was a DIY biologist. He was not a professor at a university; he was not a researcher at a government lab. As a young gentleman, he had the right connections to tag along on the voyage of HMS Beagle as an unofficial, unpaid naturalist. Once he came home, he spent most of his time at his country estate, where he ran decades of experiments on orchids and rabbits. He played a bassoon to earthworms to see if they sense low noises. He made painstaking observations on other species. He spent years peering through his personal microscope at barnacles. He spent afternoon following ants around his lawn. To add to his personal discoveries, he wrote to a global network of friends and acquaintances for every scrap of information he could find that seemed relevant to his theory. While Darwin took advantage of every tool a Victorian naturalist of means could get his hands on, they were quite simple compared to the equipment evolutionary biologists use today. No DNA sequencers or satellite databases for him.

The simplicity of his tool kit and the grandeur of his work makes Darwin exceptional enough in the history of science. What makes him even more so is our ability, some 150 years later, to get to know his DIY biology in deep detail. Darwin described many of his projects in his books, and the University of Cambridge still has hordes of his letters on file. In recent years, this Himalaya of information has become available in searchable form online at places like The Darwin Correspondence Project and Darwin Online.

Ned Friedman, a botanist at Harvard, has come up with an intriguing way to use Darwin’s life to teach the basics of evolution. He and a team of graduate students have created a freshman seminar called “Getting to Know Darwin,” in which the students recreate ten of Darwin’s experiments and observations, spanning his life from his college days to the work on earthworms, which he carried on during his final years. To get an intimate feel for Darwin’s ideas and work, the students read his letters in which he discusses each topic. They then run experiments very similar–or in same cases, identical–to the ones Darwin ran himself.

Duck's foot with seed attached. From "Getting to Know Darwin"

Friedman has now gone the extra mile and put all the details of the class online at the Darwin Correspondence Project site. You can read about each lesson, such as the one on biogeography–the science of why species are where they are. Friedman’s students do experiments with seeds in fresh water and salt water to see how plants could get to remote islands. Some ducks’ feet obtained from a butcher shop allow students to see how Darwin figured out that birds could transport plants to new homes.

From my inspection of the site, I think it would  be great not only for college courses, but for high school and even for curious families. Maybe it’s time for me to dump some seeds in some salt water…

Friedman explains the project in this video:

Darwin Resources from Darwin Correspondence Project on Vimeo.

[Portrait of Darwin: Wikipedia]

There are 4 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Michael Barton
    January 29, 2013

    Hi Carl. Thanks for sharing about this! I had not seen notice anywhere else. Three things:

    1. In your second paragraph, it says “took kit.”

    2. Do you know about the recently launched websites for Alfred Russel Wallace (2013 is the centenary of his death). Wallace Online:; Wallace Correspondence Project:

    3. John van Wyhe, the historian behind Darwin Online, is working on a paper where he counters the claim that Darwin was an “unofficial” naturalist aboard the Beagle (‘”my appointment received the sanction of the Admiralty”: Why Charles Darwin really was the naturalist of HMS Beagle’)

    Also, I wrote a history paper about Darwin’s seed experiments, and that was what got me to be able to attend a Darwin conference in Cambridge, UK in 2009. Love the idea (though not new) of recreating those experiments.

  2. Liz Heinecke
    February 4, 2013

    I’m currently reading “The Invention of Air” about Joseph Priestly, who was credited with being the first person to isolate oxygen. Had he not played with spiders in jars as a child and done science experiments in his kitchen sink when he got older, he might not have stumbled upon his discovery. To create young Darwins, we must encourage kids to do more science at home, and in their own back yards where they can explore and experiment free of direction and judgement.

  3. Laura Grace Weldon
    February 12, 2013

    The major scientific advancements of humankind have come about because people have been free to question, explore, wonder, and find out for themselves. They may seek advice, even if they don’t take it. They often resist accepted dogma of their times.

    That’s why I was so thrilled to see this piece. Until I got to the second half. Tracking Darwin’s exact approach certainly has historic value, but it doesn’t free students to pursue their own DIY scientific passions. They’d be better off taking Darwin’s approach (or that of any curious person) by doing some DIY science. This means pursuing one’s own passions, getting involved hands-on, and really immersing oneself in the search for answers.

    Laura Weldon
    author Free Range learning

  4. David Winter
    February 12, 2013

    Ha – I’ll take ending a piece on Darwin Day in almost exactly the way as Carl ZImmer chose to as a win (

    I actually didn’t know about the Ned Friedman’s course – looks like a create resource so thanks.

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