Kate: This year is the 150th year since Charles Darwin published his book, On the Origin of the Species and one of the many celebrations of Darwin’s life this year is the book published by UK scientist Steve Jones Darwin’s Island: The Galapagos in the Garden of England (listen to him interviewed here). Charles Darwin was undoubtedly an incredibly creative man who brought together diverse and apparently unrelated strands of evidence from the natural world to create a unifying theory of biology. Jones shows that as many of these strands came from Darwin’s ramblings and experiments in his garden and surrounding countryside as from his voyages in the Beagle. Darwin apparently described himself as a man of enlarged curiosity and what Jones finds most inspiring about him was that he was endlessly interested in things we could all notice if we only took the time to. In a recent interview with Robyn Williams Jones said ‘What Darwin really proves … about Science is that any fool can do it’. Darwin’s last book The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms drew evidence from observations over his life including an experiment where he placed a yardstick in his garden to show how earthworms could raise the surface of the earth. What might seem an insignificant subject to some, the ‘lowly’ earthworm was to Darwin more evidence that gradual changes over long periods of time can lead to large and sometimes surprising consequences.
Darwin’s curiosity of the world was apparently maintained in spite of his schooling. He’s quoted as saying that ‘Nothing could have been worse for the development of my mind than Dr Butler’s school’. He neglected his medical studies at University to concentrate on self directed study of invertebrates, taxidermy and plants, eventually flunking out and switching to theology.
Can science educators draw insights from Darwin’s life to encourage students to pursue scientific inquiry today? I think that Darwin illustrates that creative science comes from simple curiosity, especially when this involves questioning and roaming across subjects, unbounded by ‘scientific fields of inquiry’. Silo thinking is not conducive to creative insight. The ‘creative contaminants’ of art, music, film, theatre, the web and design being integrated into science education as highlighted at the ECSITE 2009 conference (See Jennifer’s blog) seem on the right track. Also perhaps educators can draw inspiration from Darwin’s fascination with the trivial and emphasise the insights from simple observations rather than focus on impressive technological approaches of modern science. We’re not all Darwin (being independently wealthy and able to travel the world for 5 years on a voyage of discovery are obviously beneficial!) but as Steve Jones said ‘Science, Any Fool Can Do it’.