Letters to Darwin from the Future

By Walsh, Joseph A. | The American Biology Teacher, February 2012 | Go to article overview

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.

DOI: 10.1525/abt.2012.74.2.9

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