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???