East Lothian’s Evolutionary Links

Darwin Day is a global celebration of science and reason held on or around Feb. 12, the birthday anniversary of evolutionary biologist Charles Darwin.

In 1826, the young Charles Darwin, squeamish at the sight of cadavers, abandoned medicine and spent much of his time on the shores of Newhaven and Leith collecting marine invertebrates for experiments.

(courtesy of Morguefile.com)
(courtesy of Morguefile.com)

It was here that he met Dr Robert Grant, and so began a relationship which would transform the way Darwin thought about the natural world. The chance encounter was incredibly lucky for Darwin, as Dr Grant was an expert on sea sponges and a radical Lamarckian, i.e. a believer in a theory of organic evolution asserting that environmental changes cause structural changes in animals and plants that are transmitted to offspring. The meeting was also remarkable as Dr Grant’s work had been greatly influenced by the theories of the young Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin.

For the next eighteen months, Darwin was a regular visitor to Walford House, 228 High Street, Prestonpans, where the pair, together with Grant’s assistant, John Coldstream, collected tiny creatures from the rock pools as well as from fishing boats at Prestonpans.

Grant took Darwin under his wing and had enrolled him in The Plinian Society, a club at the University of Edinburgh for students interested in natural history – and where Darwin was later to announce his first scientific discoveries (that black spores found in oyster shells were the eggs of a skate leech).

Unfortunately, Grant and Darwin had a falling out when they each considered the other to be encroaching on their respective research. Although Darwin visited Grant in 1831 to get advice on storing specimens immediately before setting out on the Voyage of the Beagle, the pair were not to have further contact.

Further Reading: Darwin’s Ghosts: In Search of the First Evolutionists By Rebecca Stott

Further Info: International Darwin Day Foundation

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