The Next Page: A Digital Conversation with Darwin

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Given an opportunity to ask one question, what would you ask Charles Darwin?

My colleague Dave Lampe, also of Duquesne University, and I were particularly interested to find out. So in 2008, my team, with funding from a Science Education Partnership Award granted by National Center for Research Resources (NIH), polled more than 1,000 Pittsburghers from every age group.

Ultimately, we chose 199 of the most popular questions, from "did humans evolve?" to "did you have a pet?" and everything in between -- touching on Darwin's life, work, and the principles of science he discovered.

Charles Darwin was born 200 years ago this week.

The life and intellectual impact of Charles Darwin (Feb. 12, 1809 - April 19, 1882) will be celebrated in Pittsburgh with a citywide series of events for children, teachers, students and the general public. Darwin's accomplishments will be highlighted at institutions throughout the city, including Phipps Conservatory, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Carnegie Science Center, Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium, Children's Museum, National Aviary and "Read More About It" lists provided by the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

A full schedule of events and activities is available at

Then, Darwin answered.

That is to say, the answers to these questions were assembled by Dave Lampe from Darwin's texts, notes, personal correspondence, and the like, essentially providing first-hand responses from one of the most controversial, yet influential, scientists in history.

In partnership with the Carnegie Mellon University Entertainment Technology Center, we employed ETC's existing Synthetic Interview technologies to have the answers delivered by Darwin himself (or at least a digital representation).

Thus "Synthetic Darwin" was born. An interactive program, it lets people select a question from a menu and a digital Darwin responds. Also, given that Darwin died 126 years ago, we asked modern experts to comment, so you can hear from scientists, paleontologists, priests, a rabbi, a lawyer and more.

Here are a sample of some of the questions and Darwin's own answers. All 199 questions of "Synthetic Darwin" will be unveiled at the Carnegie Science Center in an interactive display called "Ask Darwin," part of a permanent exhibit starting this month.

What is evolution?

Evolution is descent with modification. By that I mean that species change gradually over time and adapt to their environments by the process of natural selection.

What are you famous for?

I am most famous for establishing without a doubt that species change over time, that they do this mostly by a process I discovered that I call natural selection, and that species are related to each other by a long history of common descent.

Did you go to college?

I attended Edinburgh University for two years where I studied medicine, but I didn't like it very much. I moved later to Cambridge University where I studied to become an Anglican clergyman. I received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Cambridge in 1831.

Did you have any hobbies?

No pursuit at Cambridge was followed with nearly so much eagerness or gave me so much pleasure as collecting beetles. It was the mere passion for collecting, for I did not dissect them, and rarely compared their external characters with published descriptions, but got them named anyhow. I will give a proof of my zeal: one day, on tearing off some old bark, I saw two rare beetles, and seized one in each hand; then I saw a third and new kind, which I could not bear to lose, so that I popped the one which I held in my right hand into my mouth.

Alas! it ejected some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, as was the third one.

How long did it take to develop your theories?

I began working on what I called the species transmutation problem in July of 1837 and kept it up for over twenty years. My basic idea was substantially complete by 1838, but I spent the subsequent years gathering more data to support my ideas. By the time I eventually published "The Origin of Species" in 1859, I could make a very strong case for evolution by natural selection and the idea of common descent.

Can you believe in God and evolution?

I do not see why not. It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent Theist and an evolutionist at the same time. Although I myself am an agnostic, there are many prominent advocates of evolution who are religious believers. My dear friend Asa Gray, the noted Harvard botanist, was a very committed religious believer and also the chief proponent of evolution in America.

In addition, many clergyman wrote to me expressing similar feelings. For example, the Rev. Francis Abbot of Toledo, Ohio, once wrote to me saying that my "theory contained nothing inconsistent with the most deep and tender religious feeling."

What did you do for fun?

When I was a young man, I enjoyed beetle collecting, socializing with friends, and hunting. Traveling around the world on the Beagle was tremendous fun. As an older man, I enjoyed the company of my family, as well as a good pinch of snuff, an occasional cigarette, a friendly game of billiards, and two games of backgammon every evening with my wife, Emma. She threatened me sometimes if I triumphed too much.

Do you know I kept track of our games for years and even reported the score once to Asa Gray? I told him "the tally with my wife in backgammon stands thus: She, poor creature, has won only 2490 games, whilst I have won, hurrah, hurrah, 2795 games!" I hated to lose almost as much as I loved to record details!

Did you have a favorite book?

My tastes in books have varied throughout my life. At one point, Milton's "Paradise Lost" had been my chief favorite, and in my excursions during the voyage of the Beagle, when I could take only a single small volume, I always chose Milton. Before the voyage, I was greatly influenced by two scientific books, Sir John Herschel's "Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy" and Alexander von Humbolt's "Personal Narrative." They stirred up in me a burning zeal to add even the most humble contribution to the noble structure of Natural Science.

Did humans evolve?

Yes, I think there is no reason to believe humans are an exception to the general process of common descent. Humans vary from one another, and pass these variations onto their offspring, as do other animals. The human skeleton is based on the same plan as are other mammals. Humans reproduce like other mammals, and their embryology is similar. Humans have rudimentary structures, for example, our reduced sense of smell, noticeable lack of hair, wisdom teeth, and the presence of a rudimentary tail called the coccyx. Humans, in fact, appear to be modified great apes.

What was your "eureka" moment?

While working on my theory, I continually got stuck on one point. I understood that organisms descended from a common ancestor tend to diverge in character as they become modified, but I did not understand why or how. I can remember the very spot in the road, whilst in my carriage, when to my joy the solution occurred to me. The solution is that the modified offspring tend to become adapted to many and highly diversified places in the economy of nature.

What do you think of the earth's condition?

Well, my wife and I moved out of London to the countryside in 1842, in part because the smoky air there seemed to be affecting my health. And the Thames is a notoriously dirty river. I believe these kinds of man-made conditions might even affect the evolution of species.

In fact, Mr. Albert Farn, the entomologist, wrote to me to tell me that dark forms of the geometer moth, Gnophos obscurata, were being selected for because the chalk slopes on which they lived were turning black from coal smoke! I would bet this is not the only example of this kind of phenomenon. Humans can cause evolution to happen, I have no doubt.

"Mr. Albert Farn, the entomologist, wrote to me to tell me that dark forms of the geometer moth, Gnophos obscurata, were being selected for because the chalk slopes on which they lived were turning black from coal smoke!"

John A. Pollock is an associate professor of biological sciences at Duquesne University ( ). The Next Page is different every week: John Allison, , 412-263-1915 First Published February 8, 2009 5:00 AM


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