Monday, 12th February 2018 is Darwin Day, so-called in commemoration of the birth of the father of evolutionary biology, Charles Darwin, in 1809. The day is used to highlight Charles Darwin’s contribution to evolutionary and plant science. Darwin’s ground-breaking discoveries have since paved the way for the many scientists who have come after him, with many building on his work. As a testament to his lasting legacy, Darwin’s Origin of Species was voted the most influential academic book in history in 2015, remaining as ground-breaking and relevant as ever, over 159 years since it was first published.
To celebrate and commemorate Darwin Day 2018, we have put together a collection of academic research about Darwin’s theories and works – including several papers written and co-authored by the great man himself…
- A manuscript that requires no introduction: ‘On the tendency of species to form varieties; and on the perpetuation of varieties and species by natural means of selection,’ a paper on natural selection, was co-authored by Darwin alongside Alfred Russel Wallace. The paper was first read in front of the Linnean Society on 1st July 1858 before publication on the 20th August in that same year.
- Darwin’s ground-breaking text, On the Origin of Species, was published on 24th November 1859. As suggested by the title, the concept of ‘species’ was central to this text. However, definitions evolve – is the concept of ‘species’ taxonomically valid, as Darwin believed, or does it better suit a hierarchical structure as part of a biological organisation, rather than taxonomic rank?
- An alternative to Darwin’s theory of evolution, Lamarck’s theory, proposes that the environment of an organism can directly alter traits which are then inherited by offspring, rather than suggesting evolution is a result of random mutations. These two theories may not work in opposition but rather in conjunction through a process known as ‘epigenetics’, which describes how environmental factors can affect gene expression. Epigenetic transgenerational inheritance has now been observed across the many organisms, including insects, fish, birds, rodents, pigs, and plants.
- The Galápagos archipelago is synonymous with Darwin and his research. Since the classification of the genus Geospiza – the so-called ‘finches’ that now bear Darwin’s name – evolutionary research into gene flow of this species has progressed and evolved. Now, there are 16 different species with varying characteristics, such as size and beak structure. Although some mutations have been found in the DNA of the different species, a higher number of epigenetic changes were found between closely-related species of Darwin’s finches.
- Darwin’s finches first evolved from an ancestor of the modern Tiaris grassquit, found in South America and the Caribbean. The group of finches diverged from the Tiaris group on the Caribbean islands before spreading to Central and South America, before the finches departed for the Galápagos Islands over two million years ago.
- Islands played a key role in Darwin’s observation and experiments on plant dispersal, expunging the old idea that a given species could originate at multiple times and in multiple places. He also saw the capabilities for the dispersal of plant seeds, fruits, and branches, developing ideas of how plants reach islands – earning him the title of one of the founders of plant biogeography.
- Darwin focused much of his energy on studying the behaviour of animals, including humans, exploring the role of behaviour in evolution. However, not all of Darwin’s intellectual energy was spent developing his evolutionary ideas. Did you know he devoted a surprising amount of time studying the biology of barnacles?
- Not only fascinated by evolution and the biology of barnacles, Darwin was also a keen botanist, and published several papers within in the discipline, investigating the movement and habits of climbing plants, and writing about the complex relationships that the angraecoid orchid group have with specific pollinators within On the Origin of Species. But what impact has Darwin’s legacy had on the history of orchid pollination biology and why is his idea of reciprocal evolution arguably put forward as one of the great contributions to evolutionary biology?
- Darwin’s fascination with botany and plant life is well documented, and he described the Venus fly trap as ‘one of the most wonderful [plants] in the world’. Research has shown that carnivory has evolved at least six times independently in plants. Despite this, independently-evolved carnivorous plants show similar mechanisms for digesting and assimilating their prey, and their ‘traps’ can range from being a complex mechanism to simply being sticky.
- Darwin was well known for the vast array of scientific papers, studies, and research he published throughout his life. Given the undiagnosed ill-health he suffered with for most of his life, this makes his body of work all the more remarkable. Over 40 medical conditions have been suggested as the reason for his ill-health, but none have received widespread acceptance. Although one 2015 study suggests that Darwin was suffering from lactose intolerance (a condition that has contributed to our own understanding of natural selection).
Featured image credit: Finches by nuzree. CC0 public domain via Pixabay.