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Charles Darwin: A heretic and a hero Add to ...

The life of Charles Darwin

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BISHOPS MILLS, Ont. - The cattails will be served warm, drizzled with lemon juice. Mealworms, burdock root and sea cucumbers are also on the menu.

At the Bishops Mills Natural History Centre, an hour south of Ottawa, naturalist Fred Schueler and his wife, Aleta Karstad, are planning a tribute to Charles Darwin - a "phylum feast" featuring plants, animals and micro-organisms from as many taxonomic divisions as possible.

It's potluck, and everyone is welcome to come - as long as they label the species contained in the appetizers, mains or desserts they bring. Past contributions have included prickly pear, goat, herring, oysters, fiddleheads and moose.

The couple try to hold their feast every year, but this one is doubly special. A week from next Thursday marks the 200th anniversary of the day Darwin was born, the son of a well-off doctor in Shrewsbury, England, and the daughter of famous potter Josiah Wedgwood. And it was 150 years ago, in 1859, that Darwin published the book that revolutionized science and ushered in the modern era, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Pres- ervation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. That unwieldy title was later shortened to The Origin of Species.

Why a phylum feast? Dr. Schueler says that eating as diverse a meal as possible is a fitting tribute to the scientist who first showed the world how all living things are connected. It also may be the most flavourful of the many celebrations planned for the two anniversaries, and has been a Feb. 12 tradition since Dr. Schueler, 60, came to the University of Toronto as young man from Connecticut to do his doctorate on leopard frogs. Like his hero, he has dedicated his life to studying nature and answering the questions his observations raised.

In Darwin's case, those answers shocked Victorian England and drove a permanent wedge between science and faith. He forced people to consider the possibility that their ancestors had looked like apes, and ignited a debate over God's role in creation that has yet to end. Darwin remains a polarizing figure, a genius and a villain, his name revered by some and detested by others. More than 40 per cent of Canadians who responded to a 2007 poll said they don't believe in evolution or aren't sure about it - far more, experts say, than those who question other well-founded scientific theories.

South of the border, the battle is even more heated. In 1926, almost 50 years after Darwin's death, the right to teach his theories in U.S. schools led to the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial. And just this month, more than 80 years later, a born-again Christian who supported teaching modern creationism - intelligent design - in schools vacated the White House in favour of a president who is vocal in his support of science.

THE EARLY DARWIN: 'A DISGRACE TO YOURSELF AND ALL YOUR FAMILY'

As a child, Charles Darwin loved the outdoors, but he also lied about spotting rare birds and made little progress with his lessons in Latin or Greek. Other than his being an avid collector of beetles, his many biographers haven't turned up much about him that foreshadowed greatness. "You care for nothing but shooting, dogs and rat-catching," his father once told him, "and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family."

His family was wealthy, so Darwin didn't have to earn a living. He tried medicine, but found corpses revolting, and was studying to be a clergyman in 1831 when he jumped at the chance to sail around the world aboard HMS Beagle. The ship was on a mission to survey distant Tierra del Fuego for the British government, and the captain, Robert FitzRoy, was looking for a companion, ideally a gentleman with an interest in plants and animals.

As the famous voyage stretched to five years, Darwin proved himself a rising naturalist by shipping home specimens by the crateful. But the real voyage of discovery didn't begin until he returned to England in late 1836.

Only after experts identified and analyzed his finds did Darwin begin to piece together what they meant. Why did three islands in the Galapagos each have a distinct species of mockingbird? Why did the 13 species of Galapagos finches have such different beaks from each other. Why was the fossilized extinct giant sloth he found in South America so similar to the modern versions that still lived there?

In July, 1837, he began to record in a series of small notebooks the observations that would become the raw material for The Origin of Species.

Today, his name is synonymous with evolution, but Darwin didn't come up with the idea. It had been floating around for years, and his own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, a doctor and poet, had speculated that "all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament."

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