What is Charles Darwin taking this term?

by Michael R. Canfield on September 30, 2010

I was having lunch with a friend a few days ago and we started talking about Charles Darwin. This guy is a screenwriter, so he sees the world differently than I do. He turned the conversation toward what Darwin would be interested in were he alive today, and what classes would he be taking if he were in college. Interesting thoughts.

I’ve been pondering this, and although Darwin would certainly have a vain interest in where his ideas on natural selection and evolution have gone – in areas like molecular evolution, phylogenetics and systematics, and phylogeography – I think that he would study more widely, and continue to follow his primary interest in cataloguing and understanding the natural world.

From Darwin's Formation of Vegetable Moulds... 1881

Maybe Darwin would take linguistics. Definitely some evolutionary parallels there. Probably some advanced Spanish. That would help on that “150 years later” trip to the Galapagos he has been planning. But I think that his schedule would be dominated by good old biology courses that would help him explore the new frontiers of natural history.

What are these new directions? I have to agree with E. O. Wilson on this one (admittedly, not a surprise for me to agree with him). On multiple occasions, I have heard Wilson describe what he thinks is the unexplored diversity of the natural world: microbes and microscopic organisms. Yes, I think that Darwin would be out digging in the dirt, collecting samples and using these incredible new microscopes that have developed over the past century and a half (have you seen the ones that he used in the 1850s – yikes) to understand and document bacteria, worms, and fungi. There is still plenty of low-hanging fruit available for the picking in the study of the incredible parasitic and mutualistic interactions among these organisms.

As a single example, there are numerous fungi that bore into the exoskeleton of insects and take up residence inside their bodies, eventually killing the host. One such fungal pathogen, Entomophthora muscae, infects house flies and causes them to adopt what is known as a “behavioral fever,” where they seek out hot places that will increase their body temperature — in a manner analogous to our own internally-induced fevers — and create an unfavorable environment for the fungus.  Can’t you just see Darwin collecting house flies, infecting them with E. muscae, and doing experiments on them in his own home using his old pigeon coops as cages?

Although not a biological thriller, Darwin’s 326-page book The Formation of Vegetable Mould, Through the Action of Worms indicates a preexisting interesting in these types of questions. I think that he would now be ready to take on this topic with new vigor, and apply the techniques and knowledge developed since to cataloguing the diversity of the unseen world of fungi, worms, and microbes.

Fall term, 2010. Charles Robert Darwin. ID# 02121809.
OEB 54. Biology of Fungi
OEB 192. Microbial Evolution
OEB 51. Biology and Evolution of Invertebrate Animals
SPAN 90dq. Who is Don Quixote? (taught in Spanish)

Any suggestions for a fifth course???

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Alan Mead October 6, 2010 at 6:47 pm

He might want to take an elective like sailing. That could be helpful in the Galapagos. Or maybe scuba. 🙂



Michael R. Canfield October 7, 2010 at 7:22 pm

Yes, scuba would be an interesting one for sure. I didn’t realize it before, but there were primitive types of scuba in the late 18th century, with an air pump and a barrel. Not sure I would trust those, though.


Grace October 6, 2010 at 10:08 pm

He might also be interested in a broad survey course like OEB 10 that would blow him away with all the diversity that has been revealed since he’s been gone. Or, if we’re going with spring semester courses, I would love to see him and Andrew Berry tete-a-tete in OEB 53. And he would probably be tickled pink by a fascinating seminar on mimicry and crypsis 🙂



Michael R. Canfield October 7, 2010 at 7:25 pm

I like that idea of a matchup: Andrew Berry vs. Charles Darwin. Would be a tough contest, but I would tip the contest to Andrew in the classroom. He’s not nearly as meek as CD. Come to think of it, he’s simply not meek.


Mark Simpson October 7, 2010 at 4:08 am

I think that Darwin would be fascinated by the role technology has played in the discovery of how species relate to and function in their environment, as it relates to evolution. The biodiversity of life in places like the deep oceans and subterranean caves are gold mines to the study he was so passionately involved in. High speed cameras, deep diving subs, and space travel are just a few of the mediums that highlight the extreme adaptability and evolution of species. These are but tools of the trade but they have evolved along with man in his efforts to learn more about the natural world around him. I think Darwin would have been fascinated by some of these technologies.



Michael R. Canfield October 7, 2010 at 7:27 pm

I hadn’t thought of all of the deep sea biology, but that would have flipped his lid. I’m he would have written a whole book or two about that subject. If I were better at Photoshop I would make a picture of Darwin riding around in Alvin.


Sharon Howell October 7, 2010 at 5:47 pm

How about the English 90 seminar on the origins of western Modernity in the 1850s? He is on the reading list alongside Dickens, Whitman, Balzac, Turgenev, and Frederick Douglass. Assuming he had a little vanity that would be flattered by the literary inclusion.

Love this blog, Mike.



Michael R. Canfield October 7, 2010 at 7:32 pm

He would be proud to be included I’m sure. What if they all could come back in the same class? Would be some interesting sparring, can you imagine trying to be the instructor? And I would lobby for an after-class “best beard” contest (sorry Balzac).


Joanna Rifkin October 8, 2010 at 2:52 pm

Surely he’d take some CS classes! A machine that allows us to call up photos and papers about any known species, and perform statistical tests undreamed of in the 1850s – I think he’d probably like that. Perhaps a “computing for the life sciences” class with literature searching, simulation programming, phylogeny reconstructing, and an overview of statistical techniques would suit his tastes.


Mike Julier October 14, 2010 at 8:01 pm

“biochemistry” would seem to be the logical current-day equivalent to “Origin”. He’d probably need a minor in “librarian-ing” to figure out how to organize, classify… such a multi-variate space.


Michael R. Canfield October 14, 2010 at 8:07 pm

Yes, I would imagine the quick access to such massive amounts of information would blow his mind. He would be an internet junkie for sure.


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