Professor Janet Browne of Harvard University returned again this year to discuss her past research on the life of Charles Darwin and how it applies to the theme of origins. Charles Darwin’s research in itself tells an origin story, but Professor Browne furthered this relationship and examined, how she worded it, “The Origin of the Origin.” As with many of the origin stories we’ve learned about this semester, there are many vital pieces that must fall together in order for these origin stories to occur. Professor Browne discussed some of these key pieces in Darwin’s life and research that led him to his discoveries and claims and that, without, could have led to a completely different outcome. From the beginning of his research, Charles Darwin was researching and telling an origin story as he worked to bring together evidence and scientific method. Professor Browne pulled an example from his first notebook on the transmutation of species, where directly in the second sentence he writes, “these facts seemed to me to throw some light on the origin of species.” Darwin knew, to a certain extent, that he was creating an origin story of his own as he reflected on natural history and the evidence he was collecting. But how does one good idea transfer into a theory that is then circulated and discussed for centuries after? The answer is the Darwin’s origin’s origin story.
Professor Browne brought our attention to the many events that played a key role in the creation of this final origin story he presented to society. She began outlining where Darwin was starting from and what exactly he was up against in a society with the unquestioned belief that the world was perfectly created and everything functioned as it was meant to. Then Darwin boarded the HMS Beagle, a British navy frigate, at the end of 1831, and he began the journey that fueled his work. Throughout his voyage on the, rather small, ship lasting into 1836, Darwin’s research began to grow as he observed the natural world around him. Professor Browne noted that his geological studies were some of the most significant due to how important they were in leading Darwin to question and rethink how one might understand the phenomenon of evolution. However, these observations that were key to the development of his theory would not have been the same if Darwin had not had Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology with him on the ship. Lyell’s work provided his reader with a different, and fairly provocative way of thinking about the creation of the earth. He suggested that the processes were so small and gradual that we can’t see them, but these small things accumulate into large effects even though we can’t see him. This was a huge takeaway for Darwin that the best way to understand these geological changes was to use known causes, and therefore he should use known, scientific causes to explain what he was theorizing. Darwin saw multiple natural events throughout his time on the ship from a volcanic eruption to an earthquake in Chile with devastation he personally witnessed, and he now had a geological, rather than religious or philosophical, understanding of what was going on.
Throughout his journey he saw and reflected on many forms of evidence that shocked and surprised him, but he was especially engaged with the clear links he discovered in animal evolution. Only six months after getting back from his journey he began to think about how he could present these ideas and began his careful research for what would become the basis of the Origin of Species. Eight years researching barnacles, followed by a lot of time studying pigeons, combined with writing letters to many others, Darwin reached the point where he had the evidence he needed. The Beagle, barnacles, pigeons, and correspondence were the key pieces that fell into place for Darwin and created an origin for the Origin of Species.