Page last updated at 08:06 GMT, Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Scotland 'inspired' Darwin's work

While the Galapagos Islands are largely credited with providing the inspiration for Charles Darwin's theories, how far did his time in Scotland help shape his ideas?

As the anniversary of the scientist's birth approaches, Dominic J. McCafferty, Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Glasgow, explores Darwin's Celtic connections.


Charles Darwin (Getty Images)
Darwin did not complete his medical degree at Edinburgh University

This year we celebrate the bicentennial of Charles Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of Origin of Species.

Darwin's life is an inspiration to naturalists and biologists everywhere and his theory of natural selection is the most important unifying theory in biology today.

There can be no doubt that his early student days, his observations of natural history in Scotland and his connections with Scottish scientists influenced him greatly.

At the age of 16 Charles Darwin and his older brother Erasmus entered the University of Edinburgh to study medicine. Unlike his father he never took to medicine, being particularly disturbed by several operations he witnessed.

Neither was he impressed by his lectures in geology, vowing "never to read a book on geology, or in any way to study the science." However, he enjoyed his chemistry lectures and did take to natural history.

During the winter he walked the shores of the Firth of Forth with the zoologist Robert Grant and trawled with the oyster fishermen of Newhaven for specimens. While at Edinburgh, Darwin gave his first scientific presentation to the student Plinian Society on his observations of sea-shore animals.

In Scotland, we should be proud to be associated with the greatest naturalist to have lived and perhaps take a little credit for inspiring some of his remarkable achievements.
Dominic J. McCafferty, Glasgow University
Darwin did not complete his medical degree at Edinburgh but went on to gain a BA at the University of Cambridge and then embarked on his five-year voyage on H.M.S. Beagle.

Some years later, Darwin made his '"Scotch expedition"- a three week geological field trip to Scotland in 1838. He travelled by steam packet from Liverpool to Glasgow, on to Edinburgh to visit Salisbury Crags, via Loch Leven, and then to Glen Roy to study the Parallel Roads.

Of his trip he said: "Here I enjoyed five days of the most beautiful weather, with gorgeous sunsets, and all nature looking as happy, as I felt. I wandered over the mountains in all directions and examined that most extraordinary district. I think without any exception, not even the first volcanic island, the first elevated beach, or the passage of the Cordillera, was so interesting to me, as this week. It is far the most remarkable area I ever examined".

Darwin also later attended the British Association meeting at Glasgow in 1855, although he didn't seem to enjoy this later visit.

Dominic J. McCafferty
Mr McCafferty said Darwin was influenced by his time in Scotland
Darwin was undoubtedly influenced by a number of scientists either born or educated in Scotland. These include his close friend Joseph Hooker, one of the most important 19th century botanists and educated at Glasgow High School and later at the University of Glasgow, where his father was Regius Professor of Botany.

During the Beagle voyage Darwin read Principles of Geology by the Scottish-born geologist Charles Lyell who later became a great friend and supporter of his theory of natural selection. Surprisingly, William Thomson (Lord Kelvin and Professor of Natural Philosophy) was a critic of Darwin's theory of evolution as his calculations incorrectly suggested that the Earth was younger than Darwin proposed.

Scottish legacy

The Darwin Mounds discovered 180km off the north west coast of Scotland in 1998 were named after the research vessel Charles Darwin. These deep sea-sand volcanoes support cold water coral communities that are now internationally protected. Appropriately, Darwin was the first to describe the formation of coral reefs in his book "On the Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs" which was published in 1842.

The University of Edinburgh marked its association with Darwin by naming one of its main biology buildings after him and by marking the site of his student lodgings at 11 Lothian Street. Perhaps the west of Scotland has honoured him too, as there are two streets in Scotland with his namesake - Darwin Place, Clydebank and Darwin Road, East Kilbride.

There are also a number of specimens either named after Darwin or collected by him that are held in several Glasgow museums. These include Darwin's iguana Diplolaemus darwinii from Patagonia, the impressive Darwin's stag beetle Chiasognathus granti and a small ground beetle Lissopterus quadrinotatus, that he collected himself in the Falkland Islands.

In Scotland, we should be proud to be associated with the greatest naturalist to have lived and perhaps take a little credit for inspiring some of his remarkable achievements.

This article is based on an Editorial: Darwin in Scotland by Dominic J. McCafferty in The Glasgow Naturalist (2009), Volume 25, Part 2, 1-3.

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