Letters to Darwin from the Future
Walsh, Joseph A., The American Biology Teacher
If your biology students could write a letter to Charles Darwin, how would they critique the 1859 edition of On the Origin of Species? Darwin had extensive correspondence throughout his lifetime, seeking specimens, testing ideas, and maintaining his morale. In fact, newly discovered Darwin personal correspondence turns up every year, adding to the 18 volumes already published (Burkhardt & Secord, 2010). An interesting class exercise is to have students imaginatively add to this correspondence. They can select passages from the 1859 first edition of On the Origin of Species and act as a correspondent with Darwin to clarify some of the ideas in the passages. Table 1 lists passages in which Darwin was observing facets of nature without the information that was discovered since 1859. The left-hand column identifies the pages containing the passages that deserve comment, and the right-hand column identifies some of the people responsible for discovering or popularizing the new information. In 1859, Darwin was operating without knowledge of continental drift, transitional fossils, chromosomes, genes, DNA, mutations, and molecular biology. Darwin had some famous misunderstandings due to the gaps in scientific knowledge in his time, for example his mechanism of inheritance via gemmules (Darwin, 1871), but Table 1 lists only content in the first edition of On the Origin of Species (Costa, 2009). Students can adopt the personage and time frame of the scientists in the right-hand column and draft a letter to Darwin, from the future, explaining the new discoveries to him. The student correspondents can compare knowledge at the time of their writing to Darwin's 1859 text and suggest modifications to the text. This exercise shows the tentative and self-correcting nature of science, and the benefit of collaboration and communication in advancing ideas.
Alvarez, L.W., Alvarez, W., Asaro, F. & Michel, H.V. (1980). Extraterrestrial cause for the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction. Science, 208, 1095-1108.
Burchfield, J. (1974). Darwin and the dilemmas of geological time. Isis, 65, 300-321.
Burkhardt, F. & Secord, J.A., Eds. (2010). The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 18: 1870. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
Costa, J.T. (2009). The Annotated Origin: A Facsimile of the First Edition of On the Origin of Species. Cambridge, MA: Belknap/Harvard.
Coyne, J.A. (2009). Why Evolution Is True. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.
Darwin, C.R. (1871). Pangenesis. Nature,3, 502-503. Facsimile online at http://darwin-online.org.uk/pdf/1871_pangenesis_F1751.pdf.
Dawkins, R. (1989). The Selfish Gene, 2r,n Ed. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.
Dawkins, R. (2009). The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. New York, NY: Free Press.
Herdendorf, C.E. (1990). Great Lakes estuaries. Estuaries, 13, 493-503.
Jameson, R., Ed. (1839). The Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal, vol. 27, pp. 383-390. Edinburgh: Adam & Charles Black. Facsimile online at http://books.google.com/books?id=zRgXAAAAYAAJ&printsec=front cover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false.
Lawton, G. (2009). Axing Darwin's tree. New Scientist, 201, 34-39.
Lyon, M.F. (1961). Gene action in the X-chromosome of the mouse (Mus musculus L.). Nature, 190, 372-373.
Mendel, G. (1865). Experiments in Plant Hybridization. Read at the February 8th, and March 8th, 1865, meetings of the Brunn Natural History Society. 1901 Bateson translation online at http://www.esp.org/foundations/ genetics/classical/gm-65.pdf.
Monk, M. & Grant, M. (1990). Preferential X-chromosome inactivation, DNA methylation and imprinting. Development (Supplement), 55-62.
Morgan, T. (1911). Random segregation versus coupling in Mendelian inheritance. Science, 34, 384. …