Letters to Darwin from the future.
Abstract: Students, using information gained since 1859, write letters to Charles Darwin critiquing passages from the first edition of On the Origin of Species.

Key Words: Letters to Darwin; origin of species; correspondence; nature of science; secondary education.
Article Type: Report
Subject: Sciences education (Methods)
Communication in science (Educational aspects)
Author: Walsh, Joseph A.
Pub Date: 02/01/2012
Publication: Name: The American Biology Teacher Publisher: National Association of Biology Teachers Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Biological sciences; Education Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2012 National Association of Biology Teachers ISSN: 0002-7685
Issue: Date: Feb, 2012 Source Volume: 74 Source Issue: 2
Topic: NamedWork: On the Origin of the Species (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Named Person: Darwin, Charles
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 278881936
Full Text: If your biology students could write a letter to Charles Darwin, how would they critique the 1859 edition of On the Origin of Species? Darwin had extensive correspondence throughout his lifetime, seeking specimens, testing ideas, and maintaining his morale. In fact, newly discovered Darwin personal correspondence turns up every year, adding to the 18 volumes already published (Burkhardt & Secord, 2010). An interesting class exercise is to have students imaginatively add to this correspondence. They can select passages from the 1859 first edition of On the Origin of Species and act as a correspondent with Darwin to clarify some of the ideas in the passages. Table 1 lists passages in which Darwin was observing facets of nature without the information that was discovered since 1859. The left-hand column identifies the pages containing the passages that deserve comment, and the right-hand column identifies some of the people responsible for discovering or popularizing the new information. In 1859, Darwin was operating without knowledge of continental drift, transitional fossils, chromosomes, genes, DNA, mutations, and molecular biology. Darwin had some famous misunderstandings due to the gaps in scientific knowledge in his time, for example his mechanism of inheritance via gemmules (Darwin, 1871), but Table 1 lists only content in the first edition of On the Origin of Species (Costa, 2009). Students can adopt the personage and time frame of the scientists in the right-hand column and draft a letter to Darwin, from the future, explaining the new discoveries to him. The student correspondents can compare knowledge at the time of their writing to Darwin's 1859 text and suggest modifications to the text. This exercise shows the tentative and self-correcting nature of science, and the benefit of collaboration and communication in advancing ideas.

DOI: 10.1525/abt.2012.74.2.9


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JOSEPH A. WALSH is Assistant Clinical Professor at the University of Connecticut Health Center, 27 Maple Ridge Dr., Farmington, CT 06032; e-mail: jwalsh@ up.uchc.edu.
Table 1. What Darwin didn't know.

On the Origin of Species
(1st edition, 1859)                  Discoveries since 1859

Pages 17 and 254: all dogs not       All dogs from gray wolf by genetic
descended from any one wild          analysis (Vila, 1997)

Page 86: "natural selection will     Antagonistic pleiotropy model
ensure that modifications            states that a trait that is
consequent on other modifications    detrimental late in life may still
at a different period of life        be selected for if it enhances
shall not be in the least degree     reproductive fitness early in life
injurious."                          (Williams, 1957)

Page 87: short-face tumbler pigeon   Bull dogs are bred with phenotypic
bred so that fanciers must assist    features that require cesarean
in the act of hatching               section for birth, and lack of
                                     selection against a small human
                                     pelvis or a large newborn head may
                                     have similar effects in humans
                                     (Walsh, 2008)

Page 144: "What can be more          Phenotypic traits can be linked
singular than the relation between   due to proximity on same
blue eyes and deafness in cats,      chromosome (Morgan, 1911); and X
and the tortoise shell color with    inactivation and mosaic phenotypic
the female sex ..."                  effects for X-linked genes (Lyon,

Page 134: inheritance of acquired    Separation of soma from germ line
characteristics (but admits on       cells prevents inheritance of
page 135 that mutilations are not    acquired somatic characteristics;
inherited)                           experiment on cutting off mouse
                                     tails (Weismann, 1889)

Page 184: From observations of       Whales most related to
explorer Samuel Hearne in Canada,    artiodactyls (Thewissen et al.,
Darwin could see how a bear          2001)
ancestor could have evolved into a

Pages 190 and 452: swim bladder,     Dorsal swim bladder and ventral
an organ of flotation, was then      lungs not strictly homologous,
adapted for respiration as lung      with complicated evolutionary ties
                                     (Perry et al., 2001)

Page 210: the mutualism of ants      Aphids provide honeydew, ants
and aphids due to ants offering      supply protection (Way, 1963)
cleaning service by removing
honeydew from the aphids

Page 237: selection for sterile      Haplodiploidy and kin selection
workers in bees due to family        are the sources of apparent
level selection                      altruism and selection for sterile
                                     castes (Dawkins, 1989)

Page 273: First cross causes         Particulate nature of inheritance
decreased variation in offspring,    with F1 heterozygosity and
and then increased variation with    dominance causing decreased
succeeding generations               phenotypic variability in F1,
                                     which then increases in second and
                                     succeeding generations (Mendel,

Page 275: The offspring of a male    Parent sex specific phenotypic
horse and a female donkey (a         effects can be due to differential
hinny) looks different than the      X chromosome inactivation or
offspring of a male donkey and a     genomic imprinting (Monk & Grant,
female horse (a mule) due to         1990)

Page 287: reasoning from             Historical explanations for age of
denudation of the Weald gives 300    Earth explored, includ- ing
million years time from latter       Kelvin's 1862 estimate of 93
Secondary                            million years based on heat
                                     dissipation from Earth, and
                                     current ideas (Burchfield, 1974)

Pages 287 and 309: Darwin accepts    Isostatic postglacial rebound can
Lyell's proposal that land masses    cause land to oscillate
oscillate vertically, causing        vertically, mechanism plausible
cycles of flooding and water         when plate tectonics theory
retreat                              accepted in mid-20th century.
                                     Darwin accepted Agassiz's theory
                                     from 1839 of ice age glaciations
                                     (Herdendorf, 1990)

Page 321: "... apparently sudden     Impact extinctions mean there are
extermination of whole families or   examples of catastrophism instead
orders, as of Trilobites at the      of absolute gradualism (Alvarez et
close of the palaeozoic and of       al., 1980)
Ammonites at the close of the
secondary period ..."

Page 357: dispersion over water      The Theory of Continents and
was the key in distribution of       Oceans, first published in German
flora and fauna throughout the       in 1915, outlined continental
continents, as continents were not   drift, which in essence created
united "within the recent period."   the land bridges to which Darwin
                                     was opposed (Wegener, 1968), and
                                     plate tectonics provides the
                                     complete modern theory (Dawkins,

Page 310: "The several               Fossil evidence for transitional
difficulties here discussed,         forms for fish-amphibians
namely our not finding in the        (including Tiktalik 2004),
successive formations infinitely     reptile-bird (including
numerous transitional links ..."     Archaeopteryx 1860, and recent
                                     Chinese fossils),
                                     artiodactyls-cetaceans, and
                                     hominins (Coyne, 2009)

Page 480: "Nature may be said to     Even today there is resistance to
have taken pains to reveal ... her   accepting the fact of adaptive
scheme of modification, which it     evolution by natural selection,
seems that we willfully will not     such that only 40% of people in
understand."                         the United States believe that
                                     evolution is a fact (Newport,

Page 484: "... probably all the      The base of Darwin's tree of life
organic beings which have ever       probably looks more like a web
lived on this earth have descended   than a linear branching stem
from some one primordial form ..."   because of horizontal gene
                                     transfer (Lawton, 2009), but given
                                     the near universality of the
                                     genetic code there probably was
                                     just one instance of the origin of
                                     life (Dawkins, 2009)
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