Botany 940 - Systematics Seminar

"Origin of Species"

Spring 2009

Monday 12:05-12:55

Birge 348

David Baum, Ken Cameron, Eve Emshwiller, Ken Sytsma - instructors

Previous Seminars: Conceptual Issues in Systematics (08Fall), New Advances (08Spring), Polyploidy (07Spring), Crop Evolution (06Fall), Evidence for Evolution (06Spring), Frontiers in Systematics (05Fall), PhyloCode (05Spring), Phylogeography (04Spring), Key Innovations (03Spring)

This seminar will be a reading and discussion of one of the most influential books of all times - Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species published in 1859. We will be emphasizing the 1st edition of The Origin of Species as it was written with a wide audience in mind. Subsequent editions were generated often in response to specific questions, claims, or other issues brought up by scientists and readers. The leader of each session should research substantial changes, if any, that occurred in each chapter over the course of the subsequent editions.

Participants are expected to read the chapter prior to each Monday session. The leader of each session will lead the discussion and is encouraged to consult additional supplementary materials as s/he prepares the presentation. In addition, the leader will prepare a set of thought questions (2-3) that will be distributed by the Thursday prior to the Monday session. All participants should reflect on these questions, prepare their responses to them, and have them available for the class discussion. Class participation by everyone is expected and may be taken into account when determining final grades.


Other information, references, or links below

Date Chapter & discussion questions Leader see Learn@UW for these copyrighted pdf material
Jan 26 Course introduction and general discussion Faculty Bowler (2009) Darwin's originality; Padian (2008) Darwin's enduring legacy
Feb 2 Introduction & 1. Variation Under Domestication Robin Araniva John Herschel - quoted by Darwin in the phrase "to throw some light on the origin of species — that mystery of mysteries, as it has been called by one of our greatest philosophers"

1) What tone does Darwin set in the introduction?
2) What surprised you, in the Introduction or first chapter?

3) What evidence does Darwin give to support his view that species distinctions are abitrary?

Feb 9
2. Variation Under Nature Beth Dumont  
    1. How does Darwin compare and contrast the variation observed among domesticated species to that seen in nature?
2. How does Darwin's understanding of races/varieties/sub-species/species differ from that of other naturalists at his time?
3. An easy one: what is your favorite line or passage from this chapter, and why?

Feb 16

3. Struggle for Existence Paul Ryerson  
    1. What are some of the checks to population which Darwin speaks of?
2. There are many parts of this chapter that are still subjects of ongoing research to this day. Can you find any examples?
3. With regards to the struggle for life, it may be said that the dominant competitor for many species are humans and human activities. Is this a game-changer for species? How will they adapt in the future? Can you think of any scenarios?
4. What do you think Darwin and/or Malthus would say about human population today?
  Thomas Robert Malthus - wikipedia entry
Feb 23 4. Natural Selection Andy Gardner Alfred Wallace's 1858 essay dealing with natural selection that was read with Darwin's essay
    Questions in pdf    
Mar 2 5. Laws of Variation Abigail Mazie  
    1. Darwin discusses the effects of use and disuse, stating that these effects likely contribute to an organism’s structure. Why does he separate this concept from natural selection?
2. Darwin seems to feel that the environment is less important in shaping organismal form than competition. Why? Do you agree with this?
3. Darwin claims that sexual selection is “less rigid in its action than ordinary selection” (p. 157). Is this necessarily true?
4. Does this chapter lend support to Darwin’s theory of natural selection?
Mar 9 6. Difficulties of Theory Erik Hoffman  
    1. Darwin expresses four primary "difficulties" that could pose problems
for his theory. How does he counter these concerns? Have these "difficulties" been resolved in the 150 years since he first published?
2. There are so many good passages in this chapter - some used to teach
evolution, some used out of context to attack evolution. What are some of your favorites, how are they used, and why are they important?
3. Darwin briefly discusses how lack of transitions may result from the
imperfection of the fossil record before adjurning the topic until a later chapter. Have these imperfections been at all resolved? If so, how?
Mar 16 Spring Break    
Mar 23 7. Instinct Luca Clemente  
    1. Early in the chapter, Darwin affirms that “there is no evidence that any animal performs an action for the exclusive good of another species.” How convincing was Darwin’s argument that aphids (‘aphides’) and ants derive mutual benefit from their arrangement?
2. Darwin makes a lot of claims about the loss of instincts in domestic animals to support his case. For example, he asserts that “it is scarcely possible to doubt that the love of man has become instinctive in the dog” and that “civilized dogs” do not need to be taught not to attack livestock and other domestic animals. In these examples (and some others), is Darwin confusing instinct with conditioning?
3. In the chapter summary, Darwin makes the following statement: “I do not pretend that the facts given in this chapter strengthen in any great degree my theory; but none of the cases of difficulty, to the best of my judgment, annihilate it.” Discuss this statement in relation to the example of the sterile/neuter insects. How does the existence of these insects strengthen or weaken Darwin’s theory of natural selection?
4. The ‘blank slate’ model of the human mind, as advocated by John Locke, Jean-Paul Sartre, B. F. Skinner, Steven J. Gould and others, states that the human brain is a ‘general purpose’ cognitive machine. In this view, human behavior is the result of conditioning and human identity (gender, etc.) is exclusively a social construct. Alternatively, sociobiology/evolutionary psychology as advocated by E. O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Steven Pinker and others, alleges that the human brain is not a ‘blank slate’ or ‘general purpose’ and that humans have instincts and are predisposed to certain behaviors just as all other animals are.
Mar 30 8. Hybridism Rafael Arevalo  
    1. Darwin considers hybridism as one of “the most apparent and gravest difficulties on the theory”, and building up his arguments against the preconceptions of hybridism he ends up supporting his views (as noted in the chapter). Given his arguments, do you think he could have done a better job? Take into consideration his thoughts on the “natural conditions of life” that affect fertility and vigor.
2. What’s missing in Darwin’s “systematic affinity” concept? Do you think it was acceptable given the knowledge at that time?
3. Reading The Origin… I’ve been astonished by various ideas/concepts mentioned by Darwin that have been subsequently developed and become important parts of the evolutionary theory (e.g., the evolutionary 'arms race', the refuge theory, tree thinking, evolutionary convergence,…). Can you find an idea/concept in this chapter that has been expanded and is now part of today’s evolutionary theory?
4. What do you think Darwin would have thought about speciation by hybridization?
5. The biological species concept…, derived from a “hostile witness”?
Apr 6 9. On the Imperfection of the Geological Record Steph Jones  
    1. Chapter IX is the first of four chapters devoted to the fossil record. Why would Darwin start by discussing its flaws? (Rather than, as with 'Difficulties of Theory', including it toward the end of his argument.)
2. This chapter is almost solely devoted to a discussion of geology, and stands out in Origin of the Species in that Darwin provides a lot of background information on a discussion he continues in subsequent chapters (On the Geological Succession of Organic Beings, Geographical Distribution, and Geographical Distribution continued). How, again, is geology/geography significant enough for this amount of attention?
3. Darwin notes in "Imperfection of the Geologic Record" that the 'most eminent' paleontologists (Cuvier, Owen, Agassiz, Barrande, Falconer, E. Forbes) and the 'greatest' geologists (Lyell, Murchison, Sedgwick) "have unanimously, often vehemently, maintained the immutability of species". I was shocked by this assertion. Think about why these scientists would take such a seemingly erroneous consensus, especially given how their own work would have shook Christian society's notion of the history of the universe (supposedly only going back 4,000 years or so).
Apr 13 10. On the Geological Succession of Organic Beings Brian Sidoti  
    1. We’ve discussed throughout the semester whether Darwin’s “theory” could be better articulated. In this chapter is Darwin’s “theory” more clear? If so, what support does he provide?
2. Darwin devotes sections of this chapter to extinction; forms of life changing almost simultaneously throughout the world; and affinities of extinct forms to each other, and to living forms. How do these specific arguments add to his theory?
3. In the section On the state of development of ancient forms, Darwin writes: “There has been much discussion whether recent forms are more highly developed than ancient. I will not here enter on this subject, for naturalists have not as yet defined to each other’s satisfaction what is meant by high and low forms.” The next sentence then immediately stated: “But in one particular sense the more recent forms must, on my theory, be higher than the more ancient; for each new species is formed by having had some advantage in the struggle for life over other and preceding forms.” What terms would you use to avoid higher and lower, ancient, etc.?
Apr 20 11 & 12. Geographical Distribution & continued Casey Helgeson  
    Discussion points and questions (pdf)    
Apr 27 13. Mutual Affinities of Organic Being; Morphology; Embryology; Rudimentary Organs Shahrizim Zulkifly  
    1. Darwin stated that ' Thus, the grand fact that in natural history of the subornination of group under group, which from its familiarity, does not always sufficiently strike us, is in my judgement fully explained'. What are the reasons behind this statement?
2. What are examples of the characters that define each group's affinities?
3. Darwin stated that ' The question is not, at what period of life any variation has been caused, but at what period it is fully displayed.' What was Darwin trying to divert the reader from?
4. In this chapter, Darwin wanted the reader to see the similarities of the organisms of his study. In your personal view, do you feel that his explanations are sufficient to convince the scientific community at the time? Why?
May 4 14. Recapitulation and Conclusion Pulikesi Chittu Rajangam  

References and other links that may be useful in the course

The Origin of Species (Variorum Reprint) by Charles Darwin (Author), Morse Peckham (Editor), University of Pennsylvania Press (2006) [ISBN-10: 0812219546] - on reserve in the Biology Library

Darwin's Origin of Species: A Biography (Books That Changed the World) by Janet Browne, Atlantic Monthly Press (2007) [ISBN-10: 0871139537] - on reserve in the Biology Library [Janet Browne's website at Harvard:]

1st edition of "Origin of Species" (1859) online:

Complete works of Darwin online:

Works of Darwin from The Unofficial Steven J. Gould Archive:

"Blogging the Origin" - written by a freelance science writer who is working through the Origin of Species (now has just completed the 14th and final chapter) and posting about each chapter:

Wikipedia discussion of Darwin:

Wikipedia discussion of the "Origin of Species":

Joint paper of Darwin & Wallace read at Linnean Society June 30, 1858:

Darwin on Species and Speciation. Compiled by James Mallet, page numbers from the Ernst Mayr 1964 facsimile of the first edition:

Darwin Correspondence Project:

Nature issue Beyond the Origin (20Nov2008) anticipating the bicentenary of Charles Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of On The Origin of Species

Science issue Origins (9Jan2009) - the first of a year long celebration of the bicentenary of Charles Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of On The Origin of Species

Darwin Day UW website: