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Evolution of Evolution — Text-only | Flash Special Report
Darwin the Ichthyologist: Lessons for our Future

Early studies of fish exhibit hallmarks of future theory

By Daniel Pauly

The image conjured by the name Charles Darwin is usually that of an old man with a long beard who spent his life developing and refining his world-shaking theoretical insights on evolution. But before he was ‘Darwin,’ this son of a wealthy country doctor was a young man with a passion for field biology, both terrestrial and aquatic.  As an 18-year-old student in Edinburgh, Scotland, he penned an excellent account of the lumpfish, Cyclopterus lumpus.

As a fresh graduate of Cambridge University, this hands-on experience was the ideal preparation for the fieldwork that awaited him.  He became the unofficial naturalist on the H.M.S. Beagle when he accepted an invitation by Captain Robert Fitzroy in late 1831.    Darwin put his observation skills to wonderful use during the nearly 5-year voyage of the Beagle. This is well illustrated by his collection of fish, which interested him far more than his later work would suggest.

Darwin was aware that the best fish collections in the world, particularly those from the tropical Indo-Pacific region, were held by French ichthyologists (scientists who study fish).  His letters indicate he planned to collect fish from areas of southern South America that had not been well characterized. As soon as he began his field sampling on Cape Verde and in Brazil, Darwin began to observe, hypothesize and perform simple manipulations.  Characteristic of his seminal work, these strong fundamentals would later serve him well when questioning far-flung experts and undertaking more sophisticated experiments.

In Brazil he sampled Chilomycterus antennatus, a bridled burrfish which is a ‘globefish’ that can pump itself full of air.  He wisely packed his specimens with others in a barrel full of ”spirit of wine” to be sent back for later description by an expert taxonomist (as most field naturalists of the time did).  He also recorded its live colors according to the paint samples in his field copy of Patrick Syme’s booklet on “Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours,” and reported on its behavior, which he attempted to link with its anatomy.  Darwin noted the mechanism that enables this fish to inflate itself, and suggested that it may function to help blow water toward predators as one of its “several means of defense.”  It turns out this is not the case.  Burrfish, like many other fish, ‘blow’ the worms and other small animals they feed on out of their sandy hiding places.  The idea of relating behavior to anatomy was still new at the time, but Darwin’s famous thought process was already starting to define itself.

Darwin also suggested—erroneously—that parrotfish produced the white cliffs of Dover.  Although incorrect, these hypotheses illustrate that young Darwin had already absorbed the main message of Lyell’s Principle of Geology, which he read on the Beagle: Small causes, acting over large areas and through deep time, can move mountains.  This theme was a key element of natural selection, which Darwin published in 1859.

Darwin’s last book on the subterranean work of earthworms, published in 1871, reconnected with the basic theme underlying his parrotfish work 35 years earlier: Billions of earthworm bites over millions of years created and maintain the soils that much of terrestrial life, including our own, depend on. The greatness of Darwin is that he could see, in all his works, how little things acting over immense expanses of space and time, become Earth-shaping forces. We ignore this simple principle—which is also behind global warming—at our own peril.

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Daniel Pauly is a French-born professor of ichthyology at the Fisheries Centre at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada, where he was the director for five years from November 2003 to October 2008.  He is the author or co-author of more than 500 scientific articles, book chapters and shorter contributions.  He is the author, editor or co-editor of nearly 30 books and reports.  He teaches courses and supervises students in four languages on five continents.  In 2004, he published “Darwin's Fishes: An Encyclopedia of Ichthyology, Ecology and Evolution,” Cambridge University Press..

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Please see the Resources section for the Bibliography/Additional Reading list for this essay.

 

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