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Darwin and biology

Updated Thursday, 19th March 2009

The Open University's David Robinson considers Darwin's continuing influence on Biology as an academic discipline, including the "Out of Africa" hypothesis with regard to human evolution.

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If Darwin went to the Galapagos today he’d notice a lot of changes. Now some of them I think he would be really quite upset about, but what he would see is the effect, principally, of introduced animals, so he would see natural selection in action and he would see the results of natural selection with a gap of 150 years or so. And we can see the effects because we have his excellent descriptions and we know what the islands are like now.

And one of the things that is very telling is that, when he landed on the island that he knew as James Island (we now know it as Santiago) he wanted to camp there for a few days, he found it very difficult to pitch his tent because of all the burrows from the land iguanas that were there. And the land iguana’s quite a large animal so they build big burrows.

Go to Santiago today, as I did, and I walked in Darwin’s footsteps up the path he took - there’s no iguanas at all, they’ve completely died out on that island as a result of introduced goats and rats and other animals. So that’s one of the big things that he would see, but it would be an example of natural selection in action.

So Darwin obviously influenced me in my interest in evolution and natural selection, but his work sort of pervades a lot of what we do as biologists. For example, his famous book on The Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection, there’s only one reference right at the back to the origin of humans, where he speculates that they probably evolved for the first time in Africa.

Now I’ve become very interested in evolution from teaching the subject, and it goes right back to that statement of Darwin that possibly they evolved in Africa. Now that’s very clear, and the fundamental explanation of human evolution is that it occurred in Africa and then humans moved out of Africa and colonised Asia and Europe, and it even gets the name of the Out of Africa hypothesis.

So there’s an influence of Darwin on the whole of human evolution studies, but also he was a great experimentalist. He set up lots of experiments in his home and his garden at Down House, and I remember going back there when we were making a TV programme about Darwin, and going into Darwin’s greenhouse and it was fascinating because the cupboards there had not been touched since Darwin’s day and in a cupboard there were little packets of seed which he’d received from people all over the world and he’d written on them what they were, who sent them to him, and they were still there in his greenhouse.

And he conducted lots of experiments and so it’s not just that he’s an evolutionary scientist, if you like, but he’s an experimental scientist par excellence, and that, I think, has influenced biologists immensely over the years.

Darwin's influence

Darwin's influence was felt widely. Open University experts share how he helped shaped their disciplines.




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