Darwin Day celebrations

On 12 February, the University of Exeter marked Darwin’s birthday by looking at the work of Darwin’s contemporary, and fellow evolutionist, Alfred Russel Wallace.

This blog was written by PhD student Sarah Lane.

On the 12 February, evolutionary biologists around the globe celebrate Darwin Day, the anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birthday. It has become an annual tradition in the College of Life and Environmental Sciences (CLES) Cornwall to use Darwin Day to stop, think and celebrate on the work of Darwin and its influence on modern day biology. However, this year, on Darwin’s 206th birthday, the focus of these celebrations was given to evolution’s other discoverer, Alfred Russel Wallace.

Wallace and Darwin proposed the idea of evolution by natural selection at the same time and in fact published the very first paper on the subject together. But despite this shared origin, the works and influence of Wallace have become overshadowed by the popularity of Darwin, leaving Wallace as a mere footnote in the story. In an effort to develop our understanding and appreciation of Wallace, we invited evolutionary biologist and Wallace historian Dr. Andrew Berry, from Harvard University, to give us not one, but two fantastic talks on the life and works of Alfred Russel Wallace. Dr. Berry led us ardently through Wallace’s epic journeys to unchartered lands and new ideas.

First, the Amazon River – the four years of ground-breaking research that tragically went up in flames on his voyage home – then onto his love affair with the beauty and richness of the Malay Archipelago. Dr. Berry reminded us not only of the incredible feat of Wallace’s journeys and the influence of his work, but also of the fascination and fervour with which it was undertaken, captured in the beautiful language of Wallace’s book ‘The Malay Archipelago’.

Phylum feast

Alongside Dr. Berry’s talks, we challenged some of CLES’ own academics to explain their research in a way that Alfred Russel Wallace himself would understand. With our very own Dr. Andrew Russell posing as Wallace, Professor Richard-Ffrench Constant explained his work on insecticide resistance with the use of some brilliant props, followed by Dr. Lena Wilfert. who described her work on the global spread of insect diseases.

Dr. Chris Lowe introduced Wallace to the idea of merging lineages and the incredible world of Kleptokaryochloroplastidy(!) – the theft of chloroplasts and nuclei by one planktonic species on another. Finally, Professor Dave Hosken enlightened Wallace on the wonders of sexual selection after copulation and his formative work on sperm competition in dung flies.

As is tradition in CLES Cornwall, the talks were followed by a phylum feast, at which people are encouraged to bring delicacies of every phyla imaginable. This year brought many intriguing offerings including lemon drizzle grasshopper cake, sushi with sea urchin gonads, lichen, seaweed and Hákarl – a rather potent Icelandic delicacy of rotten fish.

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