The Huntington in San Marino, CA has big, bountiful gardens, classic american and european art, and a supremely impressive and world-class library, containing among other things, an original copy of the first scientific journal, ever, from the 1600’s. A wonderful permanent exhibit in the library, Beautiful Science, showcases, chronologically, many important historical documents/texts and instruments that were key to advancements in four fields: Astronomy, Natural History, Medicine, and Electricity. Within the Natural History section lies a most excellent, succinct historical primer on evolution. I snapped some photos, and for educational purposes, I am reprinting highlights below. Of course if you’re in LA, I recommend setting aside half-a-day to see the Huntington in person.
Aristotle (384—322 b.c.)
Aristotle was opposed to evolutionary ideas, believing that animals and plants were eternal and would not change or become extinct because they were created in their ideal form. But he was also the father of the science of classification—which was to be a critical element in the development of evolutionary theory. This section of his work, de anima, is a major treatise by Aristotle on the nature of living things. His discussion centers on the kinds of souls possessed by different kinds of living things, distinguished by their different operations.
Jean Baptiste Lamarck (1744—1829)
Systeme des animaux sans vertebres (System of invertebrates)
Lamarck formulated the first comprehensive and systematic theory of evolution, which presented man as its perfect end product. He theorized that all life-forms changed and progressed to greater complexity and that an animal’s use or disuse of a particular physical trait would make it more or less likely to be passed along to its offspring.
He replaced a static view of the world’s past with a dynamic one in which not only species but also the entire system and balance of nature were constantly in flux.
Georges Cuvier (1769—1832)
Recherches sur les fossiles (Research on fossils)
Cuvier was the founder of comparative anatomy and could identify many different animals from a single tooth or bone. He was soberly empirical in his study of fossils and reached a number of accurate conclusions about the relationships among different kinds of animals. His work identifying similarities among fossils helped evolutionists build a case for the descent of animal life from a common ancestor.
Charles Darwin (1809—1882), John Gould (1804—1881), and Robert Fitzroy (1805—1865)
The zoology of the voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle
During his five years on the HMS Beagle exploring South America and the Galapagos Islands, Darwin’s thinking about evolution changed. He was deeply influenced by the evidence of the specimens he observed and collected on the trip. The voyage turned a rather bookish young man fresh from the halls of Cambridge into a rugged, deeply knowledgeable, and worldly naturalist.
The drawing shown here was made by John Gould, a British artist and naturalist. Gould demonstrated that the finches Darwin collected on various islands in the Galapagos were 12 distinctly different species, all new to science.
Charles Darwin (1809—1882) and Alfred R. Wallace (1823—1913)
“On the tendency of species to form varieties”
Journal of the proceedings of the Linnean Society
This jointly-authored paper was the first description in print of natural selection—a critical aspect of evolution.
Darwin worked on his theory of evolution for decades but was nearly beaten to publication by Wallace, a fellow British naturalist who separately conceived of the idea. Wallace’s insight into evolution’s key properties came to him in a rush while he lay in bed in the grip of malarial fever in Malaysia thinking about Thomas Malthus’ idea of positive checks on human population growth.
Charles Darwin (1809—1882)
On the origin of species
This iconic book changed the very fabric of our understanding of the natural world. Darwin proposed that the world held abundant evidence that species had changed over time and offered up a key mechanism for that change. He called it “natural selection,” a process that led the best adapted individuals of a species to survive and reproduce, and thus to pass along their traits. As renowned 20th-century biologist Ernst Mayr noted, “There is probably no more original, more complex, and bolder concept in the history of ideas.”
The beauty of Darwin’s work lay, ultimately, in both its originality and its persuasiveness to an often-hostile audience.
Gregor Mendel (1882—1884)
Versuche uber Pflanzen-Hybriden (Experiments on plant hybrids)
Brunn (now Brno in the Czech Republic), 1865—66
By crossing strains of peas to produce specific characteristics consistently (such as a wrinkled or smooth exterior), Mendel demonstrated that the inheritance of physical traits follows particular laws.
First published in German in an obscure local natural history journal during Darwin’s lifetime, Mendel’s work was not widely accepted until the dawn of the 20th century.
William Bateson (1861—1926)
Mendel’s principles of heredity
Cambridge, England, 1909
The principles that govern the inheritance of characteristics were not worked out in Darwin’s time. That process did not begin until 1900, when researchers rediscovered, reinterpreted, and extended the botanist Gregor Mendel’s earlier work on genetics.
Biologist William Bateson was one of Mendel’s greatest supporters, and this book is a crackling, impassioned reply to skeptics of Medelian genetics. The peas illustrated here demonstrate Medelian principles of inherited characteristics.
James D. Watson (b. 1928) and Francis Crick (1916—2004)
“Molecular structure of the nucleic acids”
Along with researcher Rosalind Franklin, molecular biologists Watson and Crick jointly discovered the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, in 1953. This paper is the first announcement of their breakthrough.
Identifying the structure of DNA was perhaps the most significant advance in biological research of the 20th century. From tracing the path of human evolution to helping curing diseases, our ability to analyze DNA has led to extraordinary scientific progress.
An article that I wrote, Great Adaptations, has just been published in the September/October issue of Natural History Magazine. It’s about the research of Dianne Newman, Lars Dietrich, and their colleagues. Read it to learn about how bacteria and us are really just two peas in a pod, evolutionarily speaking.
Cell made a paperflick about a new study uncovering mechanisms of silencing of new transposons by piRNAs, from Bill Theurkauf and colleagues.
In a vintage episode of The Simpsons, Homer, after destroying and then over-repairing a toaster, finds it can magically transport him through time by simply pushing down the toast button. He first backtracks to the time of dinosaurs, and recalls a piece of advice given to him on his wedding day by Grampa:
If you ever travel back in time, don’t step on anything, because even the tiniest change can alter the future in waaays you can’t imagine.
Homer breaks the rule at once–cue noisy bug encircling him—
Stupid bug! You go squish now!!
Then, once he pushes down on the toast button in order to thrust himself back to present time, the world is strangely different.
Homer’s predicament invoked a keystone question in biology: how contingent is evolution on life history? Like a kid in a candy store, I pondered these types of questions at the Keystone Evolutionary Developmental Biology meeting in Lake Tahoe, CA, last February.
The meeting had a friendly reunion-like feeling, as it was organized by Sean Carroll and two of his former postdocs who now have their own labs, Trisha Wikktrop and Nicole King. There was a lot of camaraderie on display, and an eagerness to share new results and ideas.
I was so pleased to meet Sean Carroll, the coolest PI on the planet. If you ever see Sean, plant yourself next to him, as he can regale you with wonderful stories on science, from world travels to research his acclaimed books, to why you’ll probably see Tiktaalik in an upcoming episode of Family Guy. He’s also incredibly kind, brilliant, and appears to be as equally comfortable talking to you in the lab as he is at the bar.
My favorite talk of the meeting was by Richard Lenski, who gave an update on his mind-blowing 50,000+ generation/22-year long (and counting), E. coli evolution experiment. If you’re not familiar with this work, you really should go read about it.
The dominant theme of the meeting was cis-regulatory elements, and our developing understanding of how critical a role they play in evolution. This played out in pretty much every kind of trait under the sun, in all kingdoms of life. Enhancer sequences were the most common example discussed, including the importance of having strong ones, weak ones, and those close to and far-away from the genes they regulate. (I think these things also share some similarities to miRNA binding sites.)
I spent some recreation time with a couple grad students from Joe Thorton’s lab, Mike and Dave. We went snowshoeing down a freshly powdered trail to the brilliant blue Tahoe lake. This day turned out to be perfect snowman building weather too.
This was the kind of meeting that any biologist could really love, and I can’t wait for my next one!
[Simpsons reference from Halloween special, Season 6.]
A lovely video from The New York Times about the RNA world, and the state-of-the-art in ribozyme evolution from Gerry Joyce’s lab.
Click the link below.