Home: Scrying: For the love of species: Prologue

For the love of species: Prologue

February 12, 2006

Today is Charles Darwin’s birthday—what better day could there be to introduce my series on speciation? Admittedly, I was going to wait a few days before heading into it, but the old naturalist turned philosopher has inspired me to hasten my preparations. This way, I can take a break and post something a bit different for Valentine’s Day.

Carl Buell's fantastic rendition of Darwin and a cactus finch (click for the full picture and his descriptive blog.)Before I begin, I’d like to point out the birthday card that Carl Buell made for Darwin, and shared on his website, Olduvai George, this morning. Drawing Darwin as a young man rather than the older, bearded chap we all know and love, Buell shows him in a new light. Finally, Darwin shows a twinkle of personality, and glimpse of the awe reflected in his writings.

…and here is a great quote from Darwin, with a Socratic edge:

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.”

Finally, on to the question of the day (or in my case, the season): What is a species? There are many ways to answer this question, all modified and clarified over time. Yet, a single definition of a species cannot easily fit both mammals and bacteria, or both a fungus and a virus. I’d once naively thought that I would have a simplified answer from this section of my biology class, before moving on to the next subject. Now, I know better—speciation is at the core of ecology, and we’re not likely to stray from a definition any time soon.

In fact, according to my biology professor, over the next few months, I’ll be answering this question in about five different ways. First, I’ll be looking at speciation and natural selection, or how species come to be on a larger scale. Then, as we study prokaryotes and viruses, I’ll have a more precise definition for the little things. Later on, we’ll study the more familiar world of eukaryotes. Eventually, we’ll look at the ecosystem as a whole. At that point, (some time in May?) I hope to come up with a satisfactory and comprehensive definition of a species, incorporating my own philosophical viewpoint. (Hmm, summer vacation sounds mighty nice about now.)

For now, as I said, I’m looking at speciation from an evolutionary perspective. There are a number of angles on this, and important aspects, so I’ll break it up into a series of posts. The main posts will look at speciation and natural selection as a whole. Then I’ll focus on some of the finer details, the forces that lead to speciation. A shelf in my office, full of books about evolution. Today, in honor of Darwin’s birthday, I’ll examine one of the classic examples, the Galapagos finches.

Evolution is a fascinating topic, and I’ve enjoyed re-learning the basics in this biology course. I have a shelf full of books on the subject, but I’m always finding holes in my knowledge, eagerly waiting to be filled. If you, too, share my interest in the changes in life on Earth over time, stay tuned.