Evolution by natural selection is among the most important topics in the science curriculum. It helps us not only to understand the development of life on the planet, but also throws light on pressing challenges, such as how viruses mutate and bacteria develop antibiotic resistance.
Darwin Day, on 12 February to mark Charles Darwin’s birthday, is a great chance to talk with kids about natural history. It marks the anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birthday
Charles Darwin set out one of the most important ideas in human history when he published his greatest book On The Origin of Species in 1859. Evolution by natural selection is both a really obvious (in hindsight) idea, but also very nuanced and fascinating in its mechanisms. Every child should be encouraged to read Darwin’s masterpiece, which is still very readable and easy to understand. To warm you up, though, here are 12 fascinating pieces of trivia about the man and his work.
1. Charles Darwin was born on the very same day as Abraham Lincoln, 12 February 1809. Two of history’s greatest thinkers (and beard-wearers) shared the same birthday.
2. Darwin’s most famous book is known as On The Origin of Species (or simply ‘The Origin’ to its friends). However, its full and more verbose title is (deep breath) On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.
3. Two of the terms we most associate with Darwin, ‘evolution’ and ‘survival of the fittest’, were not actually used by the man in his first edition of On The Origin of Species. They were incorporated in later editions, however. ‘Survival of the fittest’ was first coined by the philosopher Herbert Spencer, not by Darwin.
4. Both of Darwin’s grandfathers were very famous. Erasmus Darwin was a noted physician and natural philosopher who himself dabbled in ideas of evolution. His grandfather on his mother’s side was Josiah Wedgwood, who remains one of the most famous names in pottery.
5. On screen, Doctor Who has yet to meet this most famous of Earth scientists. However, the tenth Doctor David Tennant has played the part of Charles Darwin, in the film Pirates! An Adventure With Scientists. They also dress very similarly.
6. Charles Darwin sailed around the world on the science vessel HMS Beagle. He was almost left behind by the eccentric captain Robert FitzRoy, who didn’t like the look of the young naturalist’s nose.
7. While on his voyages, the naturalist did not only study animals, he also ate them. His notebooks reveal that he dined on ostriches, armadillos and pumas. While still a student, he’d been in something called the Glutton Club, which revelled in eating unusual animals. His least favourite repast was a brown owl, which tasted awful.
8. Darwin waited almost 20 years to publish his ground-breaking ideas, for fear he’d be ridiculed by other scientists. It was only when he heard that a young scientist called Alfred Russel Wallace had arrived at a very similar theory for evolution by natural selection that he went ahead and published.
9. Darwin appeared on the British £10 note between 2000 and 2016. He is joined in this very select club by Florence Nightingale, Charles Dickens and Jane Austen (the current star), as well as Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, of course. There is no evidence to suggest the two most famous Charles Ds (Dickens and Darwin) ever met each other, despite being of similar age and both living in the London area for much of their lives.
10. Human evolution is a fascinating subject. It’s often said that we evolved from chimps, but this is not true. Chimps, gorillas, humans and the other great apes all evolved from the same common ancestor, but not from each other.
11. Today, there is only one species of human, Homo sapiens. But you only have to go back a few thousand years and we shared the planet with others. Just as today, there are numerous species of cat (lion, tiger, cheetah, leopard, etc.), so, 50,000 years ago, there were numerous species of human.
We’ve all heard of Neanderthals, but several other types of human, such as the Denisovans of Asia and the Flores Man or ‘Hobbits’ or Indonesia, lived at the same time as our ancestors. Most if not all of these species could interbreed with ours. Around 1-2% of your own genome probably comes from the Neanderthals, for example.
12. Evolution is often thought of as a slow process, taking millions of years to significantly alter an organism. That’s not always true, however. In small organisms, evolution can be very rapid. It explains how microbes develop resistance to antibiotics and the way new virus mutations inevitably arise and spread.
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