The Scientific Method

by Catriona Miller

Darwin, Charles. The Darwin Reader. ed. M. Ridley. New York: Norton, 1996. 315 pp., illus. Paper, ISBN 0-393-96967-3.

Darwin, Charles. Voyage of the Beagle. ed. J. Browne and M. Neve. New York: Penguin, 1989. 432 pp., Paper, $11.95, ISBN 0-14-043268-X.

In most high school and even college science classes, the scientific method is taught by having the students select a simple experiment. Then, the students research the background information, perform the experiment, and then write it up in a scientific format. The problem with this method is that the simple experiments have to be clear cut and doable with the facilities present and the time allowed. Often the students end up with ridiculous experiments that reading any basic science textbook, if not merely common sense, will tell them the outcome. The student is then expected to write up this farce as a five to ten page paper, pretending that they have done real science. The best, but unpractical, method of teaching the scientific mindset and procedure, would be to have all the students intern in research labs. Yet another, illuminating exercise would be to have the students read Charles Darwin. The students could then read first hand accounts of a scientist observing, gathering evidence, and then read the papers and theories that he successfully deduced. Two books which illustrate this well are Charles Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle and The Darwin Reader a collection of Darwin's papers with introductions by Mark Ridley.

Darwin wrote Voyage of the Beagle after returning from a five year expedition around the world. It is written as a travel book, but is filled with fascinating detail of the geographical nature, inhabitants, and wildlife of the lands he visited. The Beagle traveled from England, went down the coast of South America, and up the other side, and then over to new Zealand and Australia before returning to England. At every stop, Darwin collected specimens of as many of the insects, plants, and animals as he could, taking detailed notes of their natural habitat. While Darwin had not yet developed his theories of natural selection and evolution, suggestions of it appear in his narrative. While much of the book is devoted to describing the wild life and geography Darwin encounters, it does also provide insight into the lives of the inhabitants and occasionally has a humorous anecdote, often at Darwin's expense.

The Darwin Reader, edited by Mark Ridley, is a collection of Darwin's scientific writings meant for students. Mark Ridley introduces every section with background, organizational, and thematic information to make the writing easier for students to grasp. The writings included cover Darwin's thoughts about coral reefs, the origin of species, sexual selection, the descent of man, among other things. Ridley presents sections of Darwin that are easy to understand and can hold students' interest.

Voyage of the Beagle, in particular, shows a scientist observing the environment and questioning it. It is filled with minute observations on the ecosystems that Darwin saw. But Darwin doesn't merely observe, he thinks about what he's seeing, and he experiments with the insects and animals he sees. On St. Jago, Cape De Verd Islands, Darwin Aplysia, the sea-slug and describes it, "This sea-slug is about 5 inches long . . . of a dirty yellowish color, veined with purple . . . " (Voyage of the Beagle, 45). He watches it in its natural habitat to see what it feeds on, he irritates it to test its defense mechanisms, and then he dissects it to see what he finds in its stomach. When he encounters the big black bug that is today known to carry Chagas' disease, Darwin allows it to suck blood from his finger for at least 10 minutes, watching the bug's morphology changing. He then keeps the bug around to see when it next is willing to feed and how long it can survive off of one feeding, "This one feast . . . kept it fat during four whole months . . . " (Voyage of the Beagle, 251). In Maldonado, he finds rodent like animals called the Tucutuco (Ctenomys Braziliensis) that borrows under the ground and makes peculiar sounds which resemble its name. Darwin has several captured for him and keeps them in his room, watching them eat and experimenting with how well they see. Quite often, the Tucutuco is rendered blind by inflammation to its eyes, Darwin remarks how the mole has solved this problem by having small and protected eyes, which are more adapted to their environment.

Many years after his adventures on the Beagle, Darwin published his theories on natural selection and evolution. Much of the evidence that he used to support his theory was gathered on the Beagle voyage. On the Galapagos Islands, Darwin witnessed an incredible amount of speciation, which planted the seed for his ideas on evolution. If you compare Darwin's 1839 description of the Galapagos Islands with his 1845 revision (reprinted in Ridley's The Darwin Reader), Darwin's thought processes are obvious. In the 1839 version, Darwin comments on the species present on the islands, but doesn't offer many firm explanations or conclusions. Every so often, he does hint at the possibility of species adapting to their climate, "There is also a rat which Mr. Waterhouse believes is probably distinct from the English kind; but I cannot help suspecting that it is only the same altered by the peculiar conditions of its new country" (Voyage of the Beagle, 275). In his 1845 revision, he comments on the same rat saying, "I can hardly doubt that this rat is merely a variety, produced by the new and peculiar climate, food, and soil, to which it has been subjected" (The Darwin Reader, 60). Darwin is also surprised by the large number of finch species present, "All the species . . . feed in flocks on the ground, and have very similar habits. It is very remarkable that a nearly perfect gradation of structure . . . can be traced in the form of the beak" (Voyage of the Beagle, 276). In his later edition, he elaborates his comments on the finches, "Seeing this gradation and diversity of structure in one small, intimately related group of birds, one might really fancy that from an original paucity of birds in this archipelago, one species had been taken and modified for different ends" (The Darwin Reader, 62). It is clear to the reader how Darwin has taken his original observations and devised a way to explain them.

Darwin not only collected biological specimens and data while on the Beagle, he also paid close attention to the geological formations he sees. When he finds fossilized shells up high on mountains, he wonders how they got there. He tries to apply Lyall's geological principles to what he sees. While passing through the Cordillera, he finds proof "that this part of the continent of South America has been elevated . . . at least from 400 to 500 feet . . . At a remote geological era, it is probable that the Andes consisted of a chain of islands, which were covered by luxuriant forests; and many of the trees, in a silicified state, may now be seen embedded in the upper conglomerates" (Voyage of the Beagle, 254). Darwin finds proof of Lyall's theories of geological change and then goes on to formulate his own theories. In The Darwin Reader, Ridley includes a section of Darwin's 'The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs' (1842). In this passage, Darwin challenges Lyall's theory of formation of coral reefs, and presents his own, which is still accepted today as truth. Where else in literature can students see such clear examples of a scientist collecting data, and then formulating his own opinions on what he sees? Darwin does not blindly accept what he has been taught or what he sees; he questions it and tests it.

While not all students will embrace the task of reading Darwin to heighten their understanding of the scientific process and mindset, I believe it would be a useful endeavor for those who plan to continue with careers in science. As science, biology in particular, becomes more and more abstract, more and more molecular in nature, often students are not taught the basics. They may know how a frog's heart works on an intimate level, the waves of ion depolarizations that occurs when the heart contracts, and how cardiac cells reproduce, but how much do they know about the frog as a complete organism in his environment? Reading Darwin helps people to see the big picture, and provides them with a framework. Darwin's theories of natural selection can be used to explain the behavior of the simplest organisms to the largest. It can also explain the behavior of viruses, which aren't quite organisms. I would hope that those that object to Darwin on religious grounds, would be able to keep an open enough mind to appreciate his meticulousness and science.

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