10 February 2020

The unknown side of Darwin

Say ‘Charles Darwin’ and the response will invariably be ‘evolution’, or the title of his masterpiece, The Origin of Species. Less well known is that Darwin played a formative role in geology, the discipline focused on the structure of the Earth and the processes that shaped it. In the lead up to Darwin Day on 12 February, the UM professors of Palaeontology José Joordens and Leon Claessens discuss Darwin’s role as a geologist and their own work in the Maastricht Science Programme (MSP).

Geikie lecture

No geology, no symphony

Darwin’s importance to the field is evident, among other things, from a 1909 lecture by Archibald Geikie entitled ‘Charles Darwin as geologist’. Referring to The Origin of Species, Geikie said: “We may compare this volume to a great symphony in which the chords from the various departments of biology are blended into one vast harmony, but where the deep under-toners of geology seldom fail to be audible. (…) The reader is made to realise, as he may never have done before, that each species has had a long geological history, which in many cases throws light on the geographical revolutions that preceded or accompanied the advent of man.”

No geology, no theory of evolution

Darwin cast doubt on the belief, based on the Bible, that the Earth was 6,000 years old. For a bacterium to evolve into a human in such a short period of time is simply impossible. “He really needed geology for his theory of evolution”, says Joordens. “If you acknowledge that billions of years have passed, with countless actions affecting the Earth’s surface and all its organisms, then you can accept that there have been major changes. Then you can understand that life began as the single-celled lump from which we developed.” Darwin was only able to make that conceptual leap because he understood the forces at work on the Earth’s surface and how much time was concealed in its layers.

Studying the remaining questions with UM students …

While the theory of evolution is now widely accepted, many questions remain unanswered. Why do humans walk on two legs? Could mammoths run? Professors Joordens and Claessens deal with these and other questions in their respective courses Human Palaeontology and Evolution of Vertebrates. Claessens’s course has just wrapped up for the year. “One topic we looked at was the evolution of birds. How did they begin to fly? And how can we find out whether a mammoth was able to run?” The highlight of the course was the excursion to the Natural History Museum in Maastricht. “When you’re teaching next to a giant skeleton of a mosasaurus, it really comes to life, so to speak. It’s great.”

... so that they may become the next Darwin

Joordens, too, takes her students on field trips. “We lean heavily on Darwin in the field of palaeontology. It’s a young discipline and we only have a few pieces of the complex puzzle ‘how did we become human?’ We don’t even know how humans came to walk on two legs. There are nice tales about it – people like stories, after all – but I hope to teach students how to distinguish between scientific evidence and speculation.” Later, she says: “You want to give students a broad enough foundation that they can become the next Darwin. Not by stuffing knowledge into their heads, but by training them to do their own research. The broader their development, the better.” As dean of the Maastricht Science Programme, Claessens agrees wholeheartedly. “A broad basic education, like Darwin’s – and like the training we offer in the MSP – makes it easier to draw links between different disciplines and see new perspectives.”

By: Femke Kools