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Darwin Zoology

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Charles Darwin and the The Zoology of the Voyge of the H.M.S. Beagle

Charles Darwin was born in Shrewsbury, England, in February 1809. Now, 200 years after his birth, it is clear that he has had a profound and probably unequalled influence on how we, as humans, view and understand the biological world in which we live and our place within it. Darwin, during 50 years of scientific work, developed and published his most famous book On the Origin of Species in 1859, in which he provided massive amounts of evidence to support the idea that all life on Earth has evolved from more primitive forms by a process which he called “natural selection”.

Many institutions of learning will celebrate Charles Darwin this year. The University of Cambridge which holds the Darwin Archive (http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/content/section/4/30/) will emphasise its associations with him as will the University of Edinburgh.

The teaching of Natural History at Queen’s College Cork, now University College Cork, was greatly influenced and developed by Darwin’s contemporaries from the University of Edinburgh.

The sciences of Zoology, Botany and Geology all originated under the banner of Natural History.
Charles Darwin was neither the only nor the first person to promote a theory of organic evolution. Best known was Alfred Russell Wallace whose letter to Darwin in 1858 showed that he had arrived at essentially the same conclusion as Darwin, resulting in the joint presentation of their work to the Linnaean Society.

What sets Darwin apart is the extent to which he was able to synthesise a cogent theory of evolution supported by vast numbers of observations and facts derived from natural history, ecology, animal behaviour, geology and palaeontology.

The Zoology of the Voyge of the H.M.S. Beagle:

Darwin’s 5-year epic voyage as naturalist on HMS Beagle took him to South America where most of the observations and facts were gathered on which he based his theory of evolution by natural selection. Yet, while he returned from his epic trip in 1836, the Origin of Species was not published until 1859. Indeed, if A. R. Wallace had not written to him in 1858 enclosing a brief statement of a theory of evolution essentially identical to Darwin’s own, then he might have delayed longer still with its preparation.

The voyage of the Beagle can be placed in the context of many voyages of discovery and scientific investigation which took place from the 17th century onwards. The activities of specimen collecting, illustration, classification and description associated with these voyages produced many foundation collections fro natural History museums. In turn these collections and the knowledge gained from them stimulated the development of scientific learning. Notable voyages which produced collections of importance prior to that of the Beagle were those of Sir Hans Sloane to Jamaica in 1687-89 and that of the Endeavour in the period 1768-71 under Captain James Cook.

Natural History investigation and the gathering of specimens were not usually the primary objective of such voyages. Often it was that of coastal survey as was the case with the Beagle. Subsequent to the Beagle voyage were Alfred Russell Wallace’s journeys to the Amazonia and Malaysia from 1848-1862 , the Voyage of HMS Challenger (1873-1876) to investigate the question of life existing on the seabed and later voyages which explored the Arctic regions.

The teaching of Natural History at Queen’s College Cork had a connection with the Voyage of HMS Challenger in that its second professor of Natural History was Charles Wyville Thomson who subsequently became Chief Scientific Officer on the voyage. The Wyville-Thomson Ridge in the Northern part of the Atlantic is named after him.

The Zoology of the Voyge of the H.M.S. Beagle was published between 1839 and 1843 in five Parts (and nineteen numbers) by various authors, edited and superintended by Charles Darwin, who contributed sections to two of the Parts:
1838: Part 1 No. 1 Fossil Mammalia, by Richard Owen (Preface and Geological introduction by Darwin)
1838: Part 2 No. 1 Mammalia, by George R. Waterhouse (Geographical introduction and A notice of their habits and ranges by Darwin)
Special Collections is privileged to house such an important publication, alongside its rich Natural History collections.

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Last updated: 12 March 2015

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