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Celebrating Darwin, the experimentalist

A poster for CSHL's
CSHL 74th Symposium and Daniel Smith

LONG ISLAND, NEW YORK—Leave it to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory(CSHL) to put molecules center stage at Darwin’s birthday party. Home to Nobel laureates such as DNA discoverer James Watson and corn geneticist Barbara McClintock, the lab plays host this week to 390 researchers for “Evolution: The Molecular Landscape” (27 May to 1 June). The theme stands in sharp contrast to when the lab last toasted Darwin, in 1959. Then “what was absent was any reference to molecules,” says CSHL meeting organizer Jan Witkowski.

One of dozens of Darwin conferences taking place around the world to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, this event is billed as more of a scientific meeting than a celebratory one, billing 75 talks and 200 posters. The meeting is the lab’s 74th annual symposium—originally a monthlong mix of research and presentation and now an annual 5-day themed meeting. It usually takes a year to plan, says CSHL meeting organizer David Stewart. But this time, he and Witkowski started 6 months early, anticipating that many meetings would be vying to book evolutionary biology’s biggest names. They succeeded: The program reads likes a “Who’s Who” in biology—with luminaries such as Edward O. Wilson and Thomas Cech on the program.

The opening session reflected more than just molecules and gave a flavor of the diversity of topics yet to come. First up was a close look at Darwin himself. Darwin scholar Janet Browne of Harvard University emphasized Darwin as an experimentalist who tapped into a far-reaching network of friends and relatives as collaborators. “He turned his house and garden into a domestic version of a modern research lab … in an age when laboratories were hardly in existence,” Browne said. Darwin relied on simple tools. For example, a chemical balance from his youth and tin plant markers sufficed for his studies of what and how carnivorous plants ate. And he used household chemicals—wine, beer, ammonia, urine, nicotine—in those experiments.

Yet Darwin was also an early scientific celebrity. During his day, fans could buy portraits and paintings of their favorite naturalist. Songs, children’s books, even Wedgwood china and a “gargling oil” had Darwin themes. Cartoonists depicted him as part human, part ape. And his theories overshadowed his research. His book On the Origin of Species “clouded everybody’s view of what he was up to,” says Browne. Darwin nonetheless cultivated collaborations across the globe—some 14,000 letters still exist—and solicited from these colleagues their own thoughts and observations about problems he was pursuing. “Letters were a major vehicle of scientific communication,” said Browne.