History of Science

Taxonomy’s rightful place in history

Wednesday, March 11th, 2009 | History of Science, Personalities | 5 Comments

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A talk given last February 13 by paleontologist Niles Eldredge in Lisbon perfectly exemplified the general opinion regarding how little role Taxonomy played in the development of the modern Theory of Evolution. Already in a hurry after spending too much time talking about Darwin’s childhood, he reached a slide showing some barnacles and said “oh, by the way, Darwin spend some time on the taxonomy of barnacles, but this didn’t have any relevance to the development of his theory”, next slide. That was it. Taxonomy is but an unnecessary extra slide in the history of evolutionary biology. To be fair to Eldredge, his talk entitled “Darwin: Discovering the Tree of Life” was not an specialized talk but rather was meant for the general public of all ages wondering what was all the excitement about Darwin this year.

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Richard Owen’s archetype

Caricature of Richard Owen. "Old Bones" <em>Vanity Fair</em>, March 1st, 1873.

Caricature of Richard Owen. "Old Bones" Vanity Fair, March 1st, 1873.

I named this blog after the concept of the archetype as articulated by the Victorian naturalist Richard Owen (1804-1892). For Owen, the archetype was a representation that summed the most basic, most generalized structural arrangement common to all the members of a given group of organisms. Owen’s well-known and most important contribution to modern biological thought is, however, not his archetype concept but the clear distinction he provided between the concepts of analogy and homology. On his words:

Analogue.- A part or organ in one animal which has the same function as another part or organ in a different animal.
Homologue.- The same organ in different animals under every variety of form and function. (Owen, 1843: 374, 379)1

Homology is a concept that expresses the relationship between parts of organisms. It reflects the observation that we can identify a commonality of structure across the diversity of life. Homology thus forms the cornerstone of comparative biology.

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  1. Owen, R. 1843. Lectures on the comparative anatomy and physiology of the invertebrate animals. London: Longman Brown Green and Longmans

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Happy bicentenary Darwin

Thursday, February 12th, 2009 | History of Science, Personalities, Science | Comments Off on Happy bicentenary Darwin

darwin01

Charles Robert Darwin was born 200 years ago today.

As celebrations start around the globe, I just want to recommend a wonderfully written essay on Darwin by Aussie philosopher of science John S. Wilkins:

Not Saint Darwin [pdf]

It is a piece on why do we celebrate Darwin today that provides food for thought for the rest of Darwin’s year.

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Darwin the taxonomist

Friday, February 6th, 2009 | History of Science, Personalities, Taxonomy | Comments Off on Darwin the taxonomist

Barnacles

Everybody likes popular science stories with clear and simple eureka moments. In the case of Charles Darwin’s theory of Evolution his voyage on board the H.M.S. Beagle and exploration of the Galapagos archipelago usually serves for such narrative purpose.

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And as we discussed last semester, the Army Ants will leave nothing but your bones.
- Tom Waits

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