Archive for Darwinism

A Birthday Salute to Charles Darwin

Posted in Flora & Fauna, Liz Hager, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 12, 2009 by Liz Hager


©2009 ECHager

Perhaps no single person has had a greater impact on our conception of the natural sciences than Charles Darwin. Indeed, his theories regarding the competition for scarce resources, adaptability, and natural selection have been co-opted by disciplines beyond botany.  Amazingly, Darwin was not a professional botanist; rather he read much and taught himself by observing.

Darwin was born 200 years ago today into an illustrious family (his grandfathers were Josiah Wedgwood, as famous a potter as his own father Thomas, and Erasmus Darwin, a physician, poet, inventor and philosopher). He was a modest man, plagued throughout his life by doubts and ill health. His first book, The Voyage of the Beagle, was published in 1839 not long after he returned from a five-year sea journey along the coast of south America.  It was on this trip that the young man observed the phenomenon of bio-diversity (in finch populations) that sparked his later thinking.  Although Darwin entered his first insights regarding natural selection in his notebook on September 28, 1838, he kept his ideas to himself for virtually the next 20 years. In the intervening decades, Darwin’s beloved daughter Annie died (1851), he was awarded the Royal Medal for his study of barnacles (1853), and Alfred Russel Wallace published an article on the relationship between varieties and species. The latter sent Darwin into a fit of consternation. “I cannot tell whether to publish now would not be base and paltry,” he commented. Nevertheless, the article galvanized him to finish his manuscript. He presented his ideas formally at a meeting of the Linnean Society (named for the 18th century Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus) in 1858. His seminal work  On the Origin of Species (by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life) was finally published late the following year. Darwin was 50. 

On the Origin of Species laid out the theory of natural selection through copious observation and minutely-recorded data.  It was a milestone in naturalist thought, but it was not created in an intellectual vacuum. Extremely well-read, Darwin built his ideas upon those of his grandfather Erasmus, botanist John Stevens Henslow, as well as geologists Adam Sedgwick and Charles Lyell, Thomas Robert Malthus‘ influential work  An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798).  His contribution postulated that a species’ struggle for survival (competition for scarce resources) led to “natural design, that is survival of the fittest (a phrase actually first coined in 1864 by Herbert Spencer, philosopher and political theorist) and the “principal of divergence,” which suggested that diversification and adaptation led to greater surviving numbers of the species.  Although Darwin could show that variation in species indisputably occurred, he had no idea how it happened. That would be left for 20th-century geneticists to explain.

Given the puritanical times in which he lived, Darwin stopped short in The Origin of Species of suggesting that humans had evolved through natural selection from some lesser life form. But he eventually took up the cause in his subsequent book The Descent of Man, published in 1871.  One can only wonder what Darwin would think about the ongoing dispute in certain 21st-century quarters regarding his theory of evolution. 

Darwin died in 1882. He is buried in Westminster Abbey very close to Isaac Newton. 

Happy Birthday Charles Darwin!                                                                 12 February 1809—19 April 1882


Wider Connections

The Sand Walk, Darwin’s “Thinking Path.” 

Portraits of Darwin

The Complete Works of Darwin

Alfred Russel Wallace 

The Man Who Wasn’t Darwin (National Geographic)

Strandbeesten: Art Meets Darwin

Posted in Contemporary Art, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Sculpture with tags , , , on November 11, 2008 by Liz Hager

Dutchman Theo Jansen (born 1948) grew up near the beach.  He studied physics at the University of Delft, but left the University in 1975 to become an artist. Fortunately,  he wasn’t quite able to leave physics behind. Jansen created several novel inventions in the 80s, including a flying saucer that emitted sound & light and a light sensitive mechanical spray-gun capable of painting photographic quality images on surfaces.

In 1990 he found his life’s work—creating kinetic sculptures that “walk” by harnessing windpower. Curiously, they resemble giant Jurassic skeletons come to life, which isn’t so strange, once you understand that biology has been Jansen’s inspiration. More specifically, the process of genetic selection suggested to Jansen that constantly-evolving forms could be created from man-made substances rather than proteins. The scientist in him knew a lot about biology; the artist in him tried to forget most of it. 

Jansen lets the computer play evolution by “selecting” the best designs according to algorithms that are genetic in origin and based on previous successes. Naturally, the computer works faster than nature. The past 18 years have witnessed multiple generations, as each gets better at finding more efficient ways to move. Early generations were built with wood; then Jansen lighted on PVC tubing. It’s a ubiquitous material in Holland, having been mandated for electrical work in buildings since 1947. It was a natural for Jansen; even as a kid, he used it effectively to blow paper darts. It’s strong, yet light, and flexible, the perfect skeletal material.

As you might expect, some generations died out like dodos. The more nimble and rapid animals got the chance to reproduce themselves. And they bred with other Beesten species to improve their chances.  The Strandbeesten must also survive the elements, and newer generations have developed special appendages to prevent them from blowing away. They haven’t yet learned to swim, so when they reach the surf, they stop and walk back in the opposite direction.  So as not to be blown over, one might throw down a long trunk and anchor a pin in the sand. Still others scoop up a bit of sand, aerating it in an act of beach maintenance.   

The Strandbeesten are testimony to the power of a great artist to transport us from our usual and unremarkable reality to that special realm of fantasy and imagination. Jansen dreams that one day his beasts will live in herds on the beaches. I too hope to live in a world, in which Strandbeesten roam free. 

More connections:

PopCast on Theo Jansen

Daily Muse—Kinetic Sculpture in Munich

Evolutionary Novelties

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