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The Darwin Trail (part one): Happy Birthday Darwin!

February 13, 2012

Yesterday was Charles Darwins birthday! A day that, I feel, is a cause for great celebration. Any scientist can tell you the immense contribution he made to biology and in fact to our understanding of the Earth system as a whole. His theory of evolution alone is enough of a reason to admire him, but for me it’s more than just this astoundingly simple theory that makes me list Darwin as among my personal heroes and inspirations.

If you read my post about my tattoo you’ll know that it is in part dedicated to Darwin (in addition to Alfred Russel Wallace and Sir David Attenborough). Darwins amicable work with Wallace, who proposed the theory of evolution at a similar time, is admirable. So often scientists become defensive of their work, which is understandable knowing how hard they work, but can be counter to the greater cause of seeking scientific “truth”. Darwin proposed a theory which at the time and even still now is considered heretical by many, despite being a christian himself. I’m impressed with the way he dealt with what must have been, personally, an incredibly difficult result to report. The conflict between science and personal beliefs (religious or not) can be difficult for us as humans and often inherently non-empirically minded beings to deal with. Even those of us who consider ourselves athiest can struggle to separate our scientific findings from deeply held moral beliefs and opinions about how the world, its people and environment, should be treated. The ability for empathy and self awareness is part of what makes us such a fascinating species but due consideration for both and for the distinction between feelings/beliefs and evidenced ideas is, I think, key for generation, communication and application of knowledge. These are major considerations for any scientist communicating their findings to the public. Beyond his work on evolution, Darwin had a great many things to say about human society as well. I’ve enjoyed reading how he reflected on social views of the time, using his ever critical and logical thinking. He found slavery utterly abhorrent, calling it a “great sin”. Whether his work, which suggests no living species can really be considered superior to another (at least in terms of survival ability) was inspired by or merely supported his anti-slavery beliefs is uncertain but it certainly adds another level of interest to the story of this famous scientist. Darwins theory and its interpretations have blurred the lines between simple, scientific observations and moral and religious implications. Anyway this is all a bit philosophical for a monday morning and before we head down that rabbit hole, back to the point of this post!

I learnt some cool things about Darwin by reading his journal from the voyage of the Beagle. He left from Plymouth, my home town and I’ve visited the plaque which commemorates the start of this historic voyage.

What you may not know, (because most of the The Voyage of The Beagle concerns South America) is that Darwin also stopped off in my new home of Cape Town, South Africa. Within his writings he dismissed the Cape Peninsula, saying “there is very little of interest”. Using my new found knowledge of the area and it’s amazing floral diversity I’d certainly like to contest this with Darwin were he still here and I’m sure given more time to assess the region he’d have taken this comment back 😉

Sorry Darwin but I think there's much of interest in the Cape! (Proteas - part of the unique Cape floral kingdom)

Regardless, there were many important things that happened to Darwin during his visit to South Africa, including meeting another interesting scientist – John Herschel who had written a book advising scientists on the use of evidence to determine a theory and attribute causation. How much this, among other parts of his visit, influenced Darwin we cannot know for sure, however this part of his story has inspired myself, Ben and our good friends Emily and Lauren to retrace Darwins route around the Cape.

Luckily for us The Africa Genome project in collaboration with other partners, released a “Darwin Trail” guide in 2009 to mark his Bicentennial. We’ll be following this guide over the next few weeks to try and see for ourselves what Darwin might have learnt from his visit to the Cape, and perhaps more importantly, see what we can learn from it today! Sign up for blog updates or follow me on Twitter to see what we uncover!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Irwin Singer permalink
    June 20, 2012 10:28 am

    Darwin has to be considered the “rock star” of scientists. As I, a retired scientist, travel the world (today in Cape Town, day-after tomorrow on safari in Zambia, then Malawi), I hunger to learn more, to understand the great mysteries of life. To wit Darwin’s insights – into biological and geological processes – stand with those of da Vinci:They both led humans to higher observation platforms to look more clearly (i.e., with testable hypotheses) for answers. What will I learn climbing Lion’s head tommorrow?


  1. The Darwin Trail (part two): Seapoint and the City Bowl. « Science, sightseeing and sustenance

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