Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Following Darwin's Footsteps: An Essay by Brett Davisson

As part of our year-long celebration, we sponsored an essay contest for high school students to learn how modern-day researchers with the global Census of Marine Life are following in the tradition of Charles Darwin. We are pleased to post the winning essay by Brett Davisson of Wells, Maine, who will also be receiving a copy of the new volume World Ocean Census. Thank you, David, and congratulations.  

Tagging of Pacific Predators;
Following Darwin’s Footsteps

Since the dawn of humanity, predators of the vast, mysterious Pacific have fascinated people around the world. Understanding these unique creatures and their ways of life has proven nearly impossible to the human race. However, in the year 2000, a team of researchers called Tagging of Pacific Predators, or TOPP, as they are commonly known to the world, set out to tag and track by satellite twenty-two species of marine animals. Traveling into vast, remote islands and the rugged coastline of the Pacific Ocean, these researchers risked it all in order to better understand the ways of these mystical predators of the sea.

Members of TOPP have been following in the footsteps of Sir Charles Darwin, thought to be the most influential naturalist in history. This team of marine biologists has spent the last nine years observing the rich and elaborate diversity of life that the Pacific Ocean contains. Discovering the secrets of migration patterns and daily activity of sea mammals such as leatherback turtles, black-footed albatross, and blue whales may hold the key to protecting these endangered species.

TOPP was instituted along with seventeen other collaborative projects nine years ago when the Census of Marine Life began. Since its founding, Tagging of Pacific Predators has personally tagged over 2,000 marine mammals in the Pacific Ocean. Ranging from elephant seals to sooty shearwaters, the team of marine biologists has opened up an entirely new world of information about marine life in the vast, blue waters of the Pacific.

This team of marine biologists and oceanographers has followed in the footsteps of Charles Darwin, observing and recording groundbreaking data about nearly two dozen species in the Pacific Ocean. Using archival, pop-up archival, smart position, and temperature transmitting tags, the marine biologists and engineers at TOPP have received invaluable information about these predators of the deep. These animals of the Pacific use annual migration routes just as college students flock to Florida on Spring break, according to researchers of the TOPP program.

As the deadline of the Census of Marine Life projects is rapidly approaching, Tagging of Pacific Predators is still discovering incredible information everyday. Hard work, dedication, and revolutionary equipment are creating a new way of thinking about marine life in the Pacific Ocean, just as Darwin himself had done all of those years ago. Using satellite technology, the team of marine biologists, researchers, engineers, journalists, and oceanographers at TOPP continue to make breakthrough discoveries that are changing the world as we know it.

Brett Davisson
Wells High School, Grade 9
Wells, Maine, USA

http://www.topp.org/about_ topp

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A Rare Glimpse into the Past: The Foundations of the Origin of Species

Long before Darwin published his famous book in 1859, he sketched out his thoughts and theory in a brief manuscript that was not discovered until decades later. The original manuscript was later edited and published as The Foundations of the Origin of Species. In this guest essay, Dr. Sara Ellis shares a personal story of a family heirloom - a rare book edited by Darwin's son and inscribed to her great-grandfather in 1909, on the centennial celebration of Darwin.

Some twenty years ago, my Aunt Elizabeth gave me a cherished family book. I remember her saying that, as the biologist in the family, I was the one who ought to have it. It was small and fragile looking, and the words “by Charles Darwin” were printed on the plain cover. I was duly reverent and thankful, then I promptly stored it on my library shelf. Over the ensuing years, I’ve moved about ten times, and each time I carefully packed that book up along with my textbooks and field guides, and re-shelved it at my next abode.

Inspired by this year’s Darwin celebrations, I decided to take a closer look at my aunt’s gift. The book is entitled The Foundations of the Origin of Species: A Sketch Written in 1842 by Charles Darwin. The first thing I noticed was that it is inscribed to my great-grandfather, Professor W. Hodgson Ellis. It was published in 1909 and presented to him “on the occasion of the celebration at Cambridge of the centenary of the birth of Charles Darwin and the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species.” Another Darwin celebration a century ago—this piqued my interest and launched me on my own small voyage of discovery.

Darwin’s son Francis had written the introduction, in which he explained that after the death of Darwin’s wife Emma in 1896, a manuscript had been found “hidden in a cupboard under the stairs which was not used for papers of any value, but rather as an overflow for matter which he did not wish to destroy.” Francis was a Darwin scholar, having published The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin in 1887, and he recognized the significance of this find. It turned out that in 1842—seventeen years before the Origin was published—Darwin had written this 35-page sketch of his emerging theory. Two years later he expanded this outline to more than 200 pages. These two essays became the template for the Origin.

The 1842 sketch was written “on bad paper with a soft pencil.” Much of it was “extremely difficult to read, many of the words ending in mere scrawls and being illegible without context.” Francis deemed the essay to be “more like hasty memoranda of what was clear to himself, than material for the convincing of others.” Despite these difficulties, it was clearly worthy of publication. Francis poured painstakingly through the manuscript, which was filled with insertions, erasures, and notes scrawled on the backsides of pages. His edited version of the book was published by the University Press at Cambridge especially for the 1909 celebration.

The book was presented to the 400 or so scientists and dignitaries who came from 167 countries. There had never been such an event that honored an individual scientist rather than an institution or a nation. The three-day festivities were reported in newspapers worldwide, and this celebration has been called “one of the most magnificent spectacles ever recorded in the annals of science” (Richmond 2006). One reporter noted that the “men’s costumes and ladies’ toilettes made the museum a gathering of beauty and charm. But the suggested mental picture was still more impressive, for here were men and women, known in all lands for their scientific work. It was in a sense a presentation of the scientific world” (Richmond 2006). Today, the lectures, publications, garden parties, banquets, and exhibits of Darwiniana are all documented online at 1909: The First Darwin Centenary. Indeed, it was a grand affair.

This led me to wonder how my great-grandfather had landed an invitation to this prestigious event. William Hodgson Ellis was a man of science. Born in Derbyshire England in 1845, he eventually made his way to Canada and graduated from the University of Toronto in arts and medicine in 1878. He was appointed professor of Chemistry and later, Dean of Applied Science and Engineering until he retired in 1919. Professor Ellis never practiced engineering or medicine, but was an esteemed member of both professions and became one of the few honorary members of the Engineering Institute of Canada. I may never know his exact connection to the 1909 celebration, but it was likely through a colleague at Cambridge.

One hundred years ago, I imagine this was just one of a few Darwin centenary events, attended by a relatively small number of carefully selected people. Things have changed considerably since that time. In at least one case, the celebration is still a family affair: in 1909 three of Darwin’s sons and other family members attended the celebration, and in 2009 his great-great-granddaughter Sarah started sailing around the world in a re-creation of the voyage of the Beagle for a documentary. But this year there have been hundreds, if not thousands, of celebratory events and products worldwide, including lecture series, scholarly articles, documentaries, art exhibits, concerts, blogs, Web sites, and even birthday song videos by respected scientists who seem to hope Darwin is out there in the ether, listening!

Today, we have nearly instantaneous connections to all things Darwin. His letters and publications are available at Darwin Online. Almost anyone can read electronic copies of his writings, including the 1842 Foundations essay in both hand-written and published forms. Rather than having to be an exclusive member of “the scientific world,” everyone is invited to honor Darwin as revolutionary scientist and cultural hero. And that is another reason to celebrate.

Dr. Ellis lives in coastal Maine and is the Program Manager of the Gulf of Maine Census of Marine Life.


1909: The First Darwin Centenary

Darwin, F. (editor) 1887. The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, including an Autobiographical Chapter. (Vol. 1, Vol. 2, Vol. 3).

Richmond, M.L. 2006. The 1909 Darwin celebration: reexamining evolution in the light of Mendel, mutation, and meiosis. Isis 97:447–484

Celebrating Darwin (scroll to bottom of page to view videos of Darwin birthday songs and the Beagle documentary)

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Endless forms most beautiful...

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers,
having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one;
and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

- Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species, 1859

Image: Joseph Scheer, Hyalophora cecropia

Finding beauty in all of nature, even the most humble of earth's creatures, is the the theme of a new exhibit at the Atrium Art Gallery at University of Southern Maine's Lewiston-Auburn College. The opening reception for Spineless Wonders: Invertebrates as Inspiration is Friday, September 11, 6 pm - 8 pm. The exhibit, which runs through December 18th, is open to the public and free of charge. See below for more information:

Spineless Wonders: Invertebrates as Inspiration...celebrates the diversity of species for the 2009 bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of On the Origin of Species. Paintings, prints, sculpture, poetry, video, and work in clay, metal, fiber, glass, wood, and stone are all part of the multi-dimensional exhibition. 56 artists from across the country are taking part. A poetry chapbook entitled The Lowly, Exalted and Other Poems accompanies the exhibit, featuring work by poets who express a passion and curiosity about the invertebrate world.

For the exhibition, the Atrium Art Gallery is partnering with The Stanton Bird Club, offering programs with a focus on invertebrate ecology, the Auburn Public Library, and the Lewiston Public Library, who will be offering programs for adults and children on the fascinating world of invertebrates.

Spineless Wonders continues a curatorial approach to exhibits that combines art and science in keeping with the interdisciplinary focus of the curriculum at USM’s Lewiston-Auburn College. Previous exhibits on birds, forests, threatened and endangered plants and animals, - and upcoming in 2010, vernal pools, - highlight the bond between the two disciplines and the powerful ability visual artists, poets, and audio artists have to make these connections.

The Atrium Art Gallery is located at USM’s Lewiston-Auburn College, 51 Westminster Street, in Lewiston. For more information you may call 753-6500, or visit www.usm.maine.edu/lac/art. School and group tours of the exhibit are available free of charge. For more information contact Robyn Holman, 753-6554, holman@usm.maine.edu. Gallery hours are Monday-Thursday, 8-8; Friday, 8-4:30; Saturday, 9-3; closed holidays.

Source (image and excerpts): www.usm.maine.edu/lac/art

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Music and Darwin

In a recent interview, Darwin enthusiast Dr. Michael Sinclair of the International Scientific Steering Committee of the Census of Marine Life shared his insights on the man, the scientist and his work. In this blog entry, Dr. Sinclair reflects on the connection between Darwin and music.

From his letters and books, it's clear that Darwin was influenced by the classical music of his period. His wife, Emma, was an accomplished pianist and it is said that her daily practice influenced his theories (Derry, 2009). From the Descent of Man:

...it appears probable that the progenitors of man, either the males or females or both sexes, before acquiring the power of expressing their mutual love in articulate language, endeavored to charm each other with musical notes and rhythm."

By exploring these connections, we hope to give greater insight to the man, whose passion for science - and music - helped change our understanding of the world.

[Dr. Sinclair] In May, we hosted a tribute to Darwin by Symphony Nova Scotia at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography. This fall, a chamber music concert is being planned to compliment the October lectures to be held at Dalhousie University. One might ask why we have included music as a key part of our celebrations. Darwin was tone deaf, but he loved music and has referenced classical music and composers in much of his writing, including The Origin of Species. In his letters, we learn that he missed listening to music during the several years of the Beagle expedition. In his autobiography Darwin states that the several weeks hiking in the mountains of Chile in the summer of 1834 were, as a continuous time period, the most memorable of his life. He refers to one experience in the mountains as comparable to listening to Handel’s Messiah: “I felt glad that I was alone: It was like hearing in full orchestra a chorus of the Messiah.” He uses Mozart’s precocious musical aptitude as an analogy to illustrate the difference between “instinct” and “habit” (Chapter 7, Origin). Music was a significant part of his life.

Also Darwin’s ideas, and associated controversies, have had a surprisingly long lasting influence on music. The book, Rough Guide to Evolution provides a great summary of the influence of the concept of evolution on contempory music, including a playlist with Bruce Springsteen’s piece on the Scopes trial as number one on the list (for contemporary music influenced by Darwin, see links to Springsteen and Smithsonian below).

Music is a regular part of out “all staff” meetings at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography, with local talent of the staff featured at each meeting. The symphony Nova Scotia performed in our auditorium for our 40th anniversary. The performance was a great success. Darwin would enjoy our meetings, at least this aspect, in 2002 in spite of his tone deafness. Music will enhance the spirit of celebration this year in Halifax. A descendent of Darwin is collaborating in an opera focussed on the indigenous people of Tierra del Fuego, and a symphony has been written in honour of Darwin; “Age of Wonders” by Michael Stimpson. So music and Darwin seem to be tightly coupled over the past two centuries. Our celebrations here in Halifax will reflect this linkage between the arts and science.

Charles Darwin would be pleased, as he wrote: "occasionally a little music & a little reading & then bed-time makes a charming close to the day" (Letter 542, 27 Oct 1839)


Article by University of Edinburgh scholar, J.F. Derry: "Bravo Emma! Music in the life and work of Charles Darwin" doi:10.1016/j.endeavour.2009.01.005

Bruce Springsteen's account of the Scopes trial: Part Man, Part Monkey (Acoustic)

Smithsonian's blog "Surprising Science" on Darwin as the muse for other songwriters: Darwin Rocks, includes a great live version of "Man on the Moon" by REM and Springsteen

Letters: Darwin Correspondence Project

Monday, April 6, 2009

Reflections on Darwin: Dr. Michael Sinclair, Census of Marine Life

What can the Census of Marine Life's synthesis activities learn from Darwin's work?

In a recent interview, Darwin enthusiast Dr. Michael Sinclair of the International Scientific Steering Committee of the Census of Marine Life shared his insights on the man, the scientist and his work.

Here are excerpts from the discussion on how census activities can lead to new scientific theories that have larger implications on our understanding of the world:

We do not generally tend to think that census activities generate breakthroughs in our conceptual framework on ecological and evolutionary processes. During the 2008 session on synthesis activities of CoML, in Auckland, (New Zealand), I gave a short talk on the nature of synthesis within ecology and the key role that descriptive work from census activities has played. The examples were the Beagle Expedition “census” by Charles Darwin, the Challenger Expedition under the leadership of John Murray, and the census of a few Arctic islands by Charles Elton. Each of these descriptive biodiversity and biogeographical studies, through synthesis during several years (or decades in the case of Darwin), led to rich new ideas on ecological and evolutionary processes [see endnote].

The Census of Marine Life, a decade long “expedition” by many vessels and scientists, is presently leading to exciting concepts on processes. In contrast to [to scientific exploration in the time of] Darwin, Murray and Elton, the collection process has accelerated, and the number of observations has increased by orders of magnitude. Thus synthesis involves different methodologies, yet time for thinking is still essential. Darwin’s twice daily walks on his “thinking path” are a good model for us to aspire to, as the many census observations are being made available (on Ocean Biogeographic Information System, for example).

The 2009 celebrations of Charles Darwin’s birthday, and of his great book, are very timely for the digestion and interpretation of the results of the census findings. In a final quote from his diary reflecting on the positive aspect of his “Beagle census” (several years away from the comforts of home, taking a global perspective), Darwin states:

as in music the person who understands every note, will, if he also has true taste, more thoroughly enjoy the whole, so he who examines each part of a fine view, may also thoroughly comprehend the full and combined effect.

[Darwin] is encouraging us to take a multi-disciplinary perspective during our search for understanding, and noting that attention to the details is essential for a full understanding of nature.

Source: Interview notes, 3 April 2009

Endnote on Census activities referenced above:

Voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle, (1831-36), Charles Darwin, zoologist/naturalist, led to Origins of Species

Challenger Expedition, (1873-76), John Murray, oceanographer, led to modern oceanography

Arctic Explorations, (1921-1930), Charles Elton, botanist/ecologist, led to Ecology

Census of Marine Life (2000-2010), marine science/interdisciplinary, will lead to the first complete global Census of Marine Life in 2010

Editor's note:

In upcoming blogs, Dr. Sinclair will reflect on Darwin's influence on music, and lessons we can learn from the ethical dilemmas posed to Darwin as a scientist.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Darwin Celebrations Around the World

File:Voyage of the Beagle-en.svgThis year marks Charles Darwin's 200th birthday and celebrations are planned all over the world. The website, Darwinday.org, boasts 730 events scheduled in 45 countries this year and describe the event as "an international celebration of science and humanity" to honor the man and his work.

Here is a glimpse of what's happening in some of the places Darwin visited during his famous voyage of discovery on the HMS Beagle.

Galapagos Islands
The famed islands from Darwin's studies aren't letting his birthday pass unnoticed. You can take a trip aboard one of the many cruise ships that are taking guests back in time to the days of Darwin. There will be presentations on the life, studies, and theories of Darwin. Guests will also be able to witness the same animals and islands that Darwin himself studied over two centuries ago.

In Australia you can celebrate Darwin's birthday by attending a dinner at the Melbourne Museum. Even the menu is a nod at Darwin's contributions:
"Graze your way through the evolutionary tree starting with primeval soup; sampling the origins of marine crustacean life; savouring the delicacies represented by the rise of tetrapods and the dawn of the first plants on the land; relish the devilish delights of the dinosaur period, and finishing with a devastatingly delicious meteorite impact surprise."
In addition to dinner there will be Darwin exhibits, IMAX film features, and the National Institute of Circus arts will perform their Whale Evolution show.

South Africa
In South Africa Darwin's birthday is being commemorated with the opening of an exhibition at the Origins Centre at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and the ‘Darwin 200’ program on Human Evolution will be held October 10-12, 2009 in Cape Town.

The Natural History Museum in London is celebrating with special talks, films and events. They even have a Darwin character you can meet, and offer a special menu so you can "eat like Darwin." This is just one of over 300 activities taking place in the UK throughout the next year. You can read more about their celebrations at Darwin200.org.

Gulf of Maine
Although the Beagle never traveled to the coast of Maine, there are events in the region celebrating Darwin's life and work. Visit the Gulf of Maine Area Census of Marine Life for information on lectures and more.

No matter where you are in the world this year, there are bound to be activities in honor of Charles Darwin.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

On the Origin of this Blog

February 12th marks the birthday one of the world’s most famous and controversial scientists, Charles Darwin, whose theory of “natural selection” continues to leave its mark on science, politics and religion today. The year 2009 offers two reasons to celebrate the naturalist: two hundred years since Darwin's birth (12 February 2009) and one hundred and fifty years since the publication of his seminal book, On the Origin of Species (24 November 1859).

To honor the occasion, the University of Southern Maine and the Census of Marine Life - Gulf of Maine Area Program will host a variety of activities to promote the work of Darwin, including classroom visits; a lecture series, Life in the Gulf of Maine: Past, Present and Future; a webpage for resources and events; and this collaborative blog, Celebrating Darwin.

As part of the year-long celebration, leading scientists from around the region and the world will contribute essays to a weblog reflecting on Darwin’s contribution to their own work, to the scientific community and to the world. Among the contibutors will be:

Reflecting on the past, Dr. Michael Sinclair of the International Scientific Steering Committee for the Census of Marine Life and Darwin enthusiast, will share his insight on a man whose writings and letters show the depth and breadth of Darwin's abilities. Dr. Sinclair regards Darwin as the quintessential scientist and gentleman, whose collaborative spirit is an inspiration to scientists to this day.

Considering the present, Dr. Lewis Incze of the Gulf of Maine Area program of the Census, will discuss how Darwin's contribution to our knowledge of biodiversity is essential to our current understanding of ecosystem processes in the Gulf of Maine.

Looking toward the future, Dr. Boris Worm of Dalhousie U. and lead scientist for the Future of Marine Animal Populations project for the Census, is still inspired by Darwin's ability to draw on detailed observations to form "big picture" theories:

"What Darwin understood like no one before him was that all organisms - including ourselves - are deeply connected, both through their interactions in the "struggle for existence" and over time through the grand forces of evolution. What is most amazing to me, is how he was able to sketch out the Big Story of Life on Earth simply from detailed, open-minded observation. We need to encourage this passion for nature, and skill of observation again in students today."

Well said, Boris, we hope this blog will do just that.

[Note: The inspitation for this celebration came from Erik Pietrowicz, USM graduate student in Biology, who was recently awarded a small grant from the Society for the Study of Evolution. Congratulations, Erik!]