Darwin and Wallace: Books Reviewed (in part)

A few years ago one of my more accomplished students was kind enough to give me a parting gift of David Quammen’s The Song of the Dodo, and even though the book is more generally about the scientific development of Island Biogeography (as the subtitle states), the authors historical accounts of the concept inspired an interest in Alfred Wallace. More recently, I have read David Quammen’s The Reluctant Mr. Darwin and Peter Raby’s biography Alfred Russel Wallace: A Life both of which contain information relevant to understanding the relationship between the icons of evolutionary biology, Darwin and Wallace.

In the first of Quammen’s books mentioned, he suggests a conspiracy, of sorts, that Darwin used to maintain his priority over the concept of natural selection.

“Then one day Darwin received a manuscript in the mail from a young, obscure naturalist named Wallace – and the Wallace manuscript, to Darwin’s horror, contained his own precious concept. Wallace had found his way to it independently. For a brief heartsick period, Darwin believed that the younger man had eclipsed him and preempted his life’s work by staking a just claim to priority. As things developed, however, with Joseph Hooker’s collusion, Wallace and Darwin announced the concept simultaneously. For a variety of reasons, some good and some shabby, Darwin received most of the recognition; and Wallace, in consequence, is famous for being obscured.” p 20-21 of Song of the Dodo

Quammen more fully develops this potential conspiracy in a detailed discussion of the correspondence that occurred between Darwin, Lyell, Hooker, and Wallace that informed the later of the now famous arrangement presenting an excerpt of Darwin’s 1844 essay along with Wallace’s paper to the Linnean Society of London on July 1, 1858.

“Darwin was understandably abashed and tried to portray himself as a passive party swept along by events… a claim that is weaselly at best and arguably untrue, given his strong hints and lamentations to both men (Hooker and Lyell).” p 168 of The Reluctant Mr. Darwin

Quammen does reference the known correspondence to build his case, and does concede that the actual letters to Wallace have been lost and that Darwin was dealing with the loss of one of his children during this period (which I imagine was quite important in his leaving things to Lyell and Hooker).

Obviously, Quammen’s words and evidence made me contemplate and question the motives, honor, etc… of this great man, a human all the same. But, I was happy to read Raby’s biography of Wallace where he presents another perspective on the relationship between these two great men. In contrast, some of his accounts rescued Darwin’s qualities from Quammen argument.

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Speciation Related Activities

On the classroom side of things, I have developed/modified the following assignments and activities in recent years in the hopes of highlighting the importance of Wallace and biogeography to evolutionary theory, and giving my students real world examples that they can work through to infer the process of speciation that Darwin and Wallace first uncovered.  Suggestions for improvement are welcome, as are posts of the assignments that you use to teach these concepts.


1) Wallace’s Line accompanying article Mr Wallace’s Line by Jared Diamond in Discover, August, 1997.


Although these activities don’t relate directly to Wallace’s travels in South America or the Malay Archipelago they are some of the activities that I have used to introduce plate tectonics and speciation.  The two activities on the Hawaiian Islands were adapted from activities and information from Evolution in Hawaii: A Supplement to Teaching about Evolution and the Nature of Science from the National Academies Press.  The Salamander Speciation activity was adapted from an adaptation of Investigation 9.4 in Biological Science: An Ecological Approach (BSCS Green Version), 1987, Kendall/Hunt Publishing Co.


Pat W. has added the last three newsletters to the site–you’ll find them under “Newsletter archives” in the left hand column. Also, when a comment is made to a post you’ll often not see it if the post is far down the page. You can subscribe to comments (not be email but by RSS feeds). I mention this because Steve C. has added another lengthy comment to Scott S.’s “Piles of Stone” post.

Scott, you’ve got folks talking.  Good job.


Outdoor Experiences are Lasting Experiences

After reading the postings lately, I also have thought back retrospectively in my teaching experiences. I have to say that most of my students that come back to talk ALWAYS refer to some outdoor experience we had – whether it was a simple trip to seine a local pond, or if it was developing a nature trail by the school. I am always asking how they are doing in college and they seem to doing fine, but they want to recall the funny experiences and the eye-opening experiences that they had when we were outside during class. I also remember my most memorable science experiences and they all revolve around outdoor learning experiences – field trips, birding trips, etc… I do think there are some “basic” concepts that build up the questioning ability of students. I try quite a few “inquiry” labs but I believe they are more guided inquiry than actual inquiry. Learning and loving science should go hand in hand, in my opinion(it doesn’nt always work that way). Anyway, I too, was at the KABT board meeting and I would also have to repeat how enriching it is to visit, question, and discuss biology with great teachers that love what they are doing. The more blogging interaction we can continue the better for all of the biology teachers that visit this site.

KABT at NABT: Winogradsky Columns

Investigating microbial ecosystems using a Winogradsky Column


Winogradsky Columns are named after Sergei Winogradsky, a Russian microbiologist who used the columns throughout his career to study microbial ecology. In the classroom, Winogradsky Columns are incredibly simple tools with which students can explore a variety of topics. Topics such as succession, nutrient cycling, and microbiology are a few of the topics that could be covered….(Follow this lind to the written Winogradsky Columns lab instructions.)


Board site

Just a reminder to KABT Board members:  I’ve updated the board web site to include email notification and Todd contributed a nice note about the recent meeting on the board site…


Monarch Watch has Joined the Blogosphere

At the beginning of the new year, the Monarch Watch added a blog to their online communication.  Their blog will take the place of the monthly email updates.  You can see that they’ve done a good job of the design and the information is easily referenced.

Monarch Watch Blog

For those KABT folks that participate in Monarch Watch check it out and those of you that don’t consider this exploring this resource.  If your classes are like mine you’ll find that your students will experience the excitement of doing biology.


No more piles of stones…

The essay mentioned in Brad’s previous post did a very nice job of conveying some of the beauty and the mystery which, I would imagine for most of us, are what draw us to the immensely vast and wonderful study of life.  It is this beauty that I know we strive to convey to our students, but I am afraid that many of us often miss the mark when we take away student exploration time and fill it with a rapid-fire barrage of facts (piles of stones, Robin Wright might call it) in hopes of “covering the material”.  In our attempts to convey all that we think is important, I think students very often miss out on time to explore and fall in love with the subject we hold so dearly.  I would venture to guess that most of us fell in love with biology by spending time outdoors and falling under the spell of the natural world, and not by conquering massive stacks of biological vocabulary notecards.  So for many of us, why does our teaching more closely resemble the latter?

There is a method of teaching that embraces the idea of letting students experience the beauty and mystery of biology, and it can be called many things, but a common one is “inquiry teaching”.  If one gas-guzzling SUV was removed from the road for each time I’ve been told that this approach is the best, I’m sure that global warming would screech to a halt.  But for all of the times that I’ve been told this, not once have I ever seen a detailed curriculum that is deeply rooted in this form of pedagogy.  If I’ve tried one way, I’ve tried a dozen, but I cannot seem to get anyone to sit down and discuss what a school year of employing this approach would really look like. 

I would like to charge KABT with convening a group of colleagues to create a curriculum that would show any biology teacher in Kansas what a quality, inquiry-based approach would look like.  I am not looking for the end-all, be-all one-size-fits-all curriculum, but rather one that would show teachers what a solid year of inquiry teaching would look like. Once teachers see a well put-together, collaboratively formed example curriculum, I think that teachers would run with it and the results would be tremendously rewarding, for teachers and their students alike.  I would like to see us create a curriculum that is focused on “essential” concepts and vocabulary, and one that maximizes student engagement with ideas and organisms that can allow them to think creatively, to challenge them, and to expose them to the beauty and the mystery that we see when we look at our world.   I have been told that this cannot be done, that teachers cannot agree on what’s essential, etc.  To that, like Barack Obama, I say, “Yes we can”!

We need to stop talking about how great an inquiry approach is and start showing what it would really look like.  To me, with feelings of anxiety to “cover material”, our current form of professional development (“cool” favorite lab-sharing) often feels like more on my plate.  Instead, if I could teach from a curriculum focused on minimal, essential concepts/vocabulary, then I can open up more time for “cool” labs which would improve the classroom for students and myself.  I would like for any teacher in Kansas to be able to access this curriculum (key vocabulary, activities, labs, and extensions), perhaps on the KABT web site, so that we stop trying to get teachers to reinvent the wheel.  If teachers know how to teach in this manner, lets pull together what we know and create a year-long curriculum that any teacher in the state can use as they see fit.   

I would be more than happy to facilitate such a meeting(s), and I think that there’s not one teacher in the state who could not benefit from looking over the end result of such a collaboration.  If you have ideas, comments, or would like to share/participate, please email me at ssharp@usd232.org