Saturday, February 5, 2011


 Charles Darwin

James Watson and Frances Crick

Every year there are more and more people and events celebrating the birthday of Charles Darwin, I happen to do that myself most years.  The University of Northern Iowa in fact has a week-long celebration, Darwin Week.

This year however, I would like to see the celebration of a broader significance in the history of biological science.  E. O. Wilson was the first I know of to suggest there were two seminal events in history which opened the doors to our understanding of biology, and in fact, life itself:

Charles Darwin - with his publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859, showed us what happened; that the diversity of life is due to evolution.

Frances Crick and James Watson - with their publication of the double helix structure of DNA in 1952 showed us how it happened, with replication errors - mutations in DNA.

Comparison of these two astounding events provides an illustration not only of animals but also the evolution of scientific endeavor itself.

 Darwin's finches

Darwin's observations and drawings of Finches in the Galapagos were probably a key to the development of the theory of evolution, as he observed that there were distinct populations that were "adapted" for specialized forms of feeding.  Darwin had no laboratory and no graduate students doing his research projects and literature searches.  He was seldom in contact with others involved in his line of thought, and primarily worked in isolation.  His tools were limited to what his eyes could observe of his natural world.  Perhaps most conspicuously, Darwin was in no rush to publicize this theory, probably to avoid the social stigma of publishing heresy, and thereby protecting to some extent his relationship with the pious Mrs Darwin.  Only when word arrived that another biologist was on the verge of publishing a similar theory, did he relent and quickly publish his own writings.

By the time Watson and Crick came along, biological science had "evolved" and was inherently a process carried out by a larger community.  Though Watson and Crick are largely credited with the "discovery" of DNA and the process by which cellular information is transmitted from one generation to another, it was a more complicated, if not absolutely messy, process.

Photograph 51

Rosalind Franklin was working in Sir John Randall's group at King's College in London when she took this X-Ray diffraction image of DNA in 1952, famously known as photograph 51.  She shared it with a colleague, who in turn shared it another associate, Wilkins, who ultimately shared it with James Watson.  Watson and Crick then used that information to construct their now famous model of the "double helix" structure of DNA.  Watson, Crick, and Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize (Franklin had by that time died, and so was ineligible for nomination for the prize.)

Rosalind Franklin

So, as Feb 12 approaches and you see some commentary regarding "Darwin Day," you might also remember those that grasped the "what" and showed us the "how" this marvelous diversity of life on earth came to be.