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  • Friedman at Geo Lecture

Darwin's Disciples

Darwin's Disciples

Darwin was not the sole contributor to early evolutionary theory, find out who else was.

I sat down with William ‘Ned’ Friedman, Director of the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University, about an hour before his talk at the Geo Lecture hall. The subject of his lecture: who discovered evolution? Textbooks from elementary schools to the graduate level will credit Charles Darwin with this scientific contribution. Although, as Friedman would point out in his lecture and in conversation with me, the reality of the subject is far more complex and interesting.

However, the interest in this story starts with William Friedman, whom everyone calls Ned.

“There’s an interesting story behind that actually. See, my mother was not a geneticist,” Friedman said.

Assuming that she would have a girl, and after realizing that her assumption was incorrect, Friedman’s mother left the hospital that day without giving her son a name. It was Friedman’s grandmother who gave him the nickname Ned, and it stuck. In a similar fashion to the way names stick, names develop certain associations with ideas. For instance, Darwin and Evolution.

“What does it mean to really discover evolution?” Friedman said when discussing the subject of his impending lecture.

For Friedman, his interest around the question began when he was a young professor several decades ago. Curious as to where and from whom his discipline descended, Friedman began to read books on the origins of evolutionary biology. Though it soon became clear to Friedman that the literature was incomplete and the answer to his question uncertain.

“I became obsessed in some ways and I’ve now been reading on the subject for over thirty years,” Friedman said.

In his quest for an answer to where did the study of evolution come from, Friedman read late 18th and early 19th century natural history in order to get a primary source account of the discipline's origins. He would compile his knowledge and create a website which details many of the pioneers of evolutionary biology, some of whom were key characters in the professor’s lecture.

“There’s a complexity that goes beyond just one person,” Friedman said.

As Friedman would note his lecture, it was Charles Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus Darwin, who was the first Briton to write down his ideas on the concept of evolution in 1789. Perhaps the most interesting coincidence in the story of discovering evolution, are the contributions made by Alfred Russell Wallace. During the same decades in which Darwin was constructing his ideas, Wallace was also on tropical expeditions to South America and the Malay Archipelago, conducting field research as well as writing his own ideas on evolution. Wallace would publish a series of works relating to the evolutionary process during the 1850’s preceding Darwin’s major work.

However the early study of evolution culminates in 1859 with the book On the Origin of Species, in which Darwin created ideas that would be used over the course of decades, and subsequently is credited for formulating the concept of evolution.

“It’s human nature and Darwin is ultimately very much a human like the rest of us,” Friedman said on the topic of attribution and assigning credit in the scientific community.
Credit should be given for Darwin's contributions, who spent 20 years putting together the immensely complicated puzzle of evolution. No one could do it but him, says Friedman.

Friedman his made some of his own contributions to the field of evolutionary biology.

“Where was the ancestor of all flowering plants? It could not be found due to a gap in the 19th century fossil records. When Darwin died he referred to this as the ‘abominable mystery’. I work on a lot evolutionary questions associated with what was this gap in the fossil records,” Friedman said.

Friedman says there were several reasons as to how he and his colleagues were able to dig into this ‘abominable mystery’. Improvements in technology and broader information about the world played a role in uncovering the mystery, but Friedman says perhaps the best developments came from digging in the right places.

“Almost everything is about digging in the right place. I mean that not only literally but also metaphorically,” Friedman said about scientific inquiry, “Data is just stuff. Digging in the right place, I think is a magical part of insight.”

Friedman says answering interesting questions is about first asking interesting questions and then having insight into what data will lead you in the right direction.

On the subject of insight, inquiry, and asking questions, Friedman sees Cambridge as the perfect setting for a discussion on the development of evolutionary biology within the scientific community. This not only for the major role Cambridge plays as a city within the scientific community, but also for being a pivotal piece in the story of evolutionary theory.

“Right in Cambridge you had these two giants of science, Asa Gray who was Darwin’s first supporter in America and Louis Agassiz who discovered evidence of the great glacial coverages that once blanketed the Northern hemisphere, but he did not believe in evolution,” said Friedman.

Public debates were held between Asa Gray and Agassiz in Cambridge. Darwin even became a great correspondent with Asa Gray’s, using Gray’s information on plants to help him with his development of evolutionary theory.

“A lot of the very beginning of how people began to see the world as evolved, took place right here in Cambridge,” said Friedman.
Friedman’s lecture was held on Mar. 2 and a recording of this program will be available by the end of the month.