Presentations from the Symposium:
Wallace and Darwin's Theory of Natural Selection
150 years on - current views

11 July 2008, Robertson Lecture Theatre, The Research School of Biological Sciences, ANU


Paul Davies (2006) wrote: "...What makes life special is not the stuff of which it is made, but the things it does. Defining life is notoriously hard, but three properties stand out. The first is that biological organisms are a product of Darwinian evolution; indeed, some scientists define life by that criterion alone. The evolutionary principle of replication with variation and selection is undeniably fundamental. It should apply to life everywhere in the universe, even forms of life very different from the terrestrial variety. Although Darwinian evolution is not a law of physics as such, it is an organizational principle as deep and significant as the law of gravity...."

Promulgation of that 'organizational principle' began with the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859. This present symposium entitled: Wallace and Darwin's Theory of Natural Selection honours that event, 150 years ago, and canvasses a broad range of issues surrounding that new and revolutionary paradigm for apprehending natural history.

Symposium speakers (L-R): Colin Groves, Liz Truswell, Lindell Bromham, Bill Foley (MC), Jenny Graves, Ian Cowen, John Gibson (Introduction) Dean Price.
Absent: Andrew Cockburn, Adrian Gibbs

The Speakers

  Ian Cowan, in 'A Trumpery Affair' (500kb pdf), resurrects "the drama of the occasion, and the events that surrounded it". The remarkable synchronicity of insights, first announced publicly by Alfred Russel Wallace, but closely echoing Darwin's own private concepts arrived at quite independently, led to an unequal contest for recognition that played out in slow motion. History has served the victor. Goaded to publish substantive tomes by his knowledge that Wallace had happened upon the selfsame underlying principles, Darwin was damned to everlasting fame.

Liz Truswell adds a further conceptual dimension to this historic account of nineteenth century rivalry in her presentation 'Darwin as a Geologist - Biographical Reflections (1MB pdf)'. Because, " as the bicentenary of his birth (2009) approaches, it is salutary to recognize that, as a young scientist, Darwin considered himself as much a geologist as any other category of natural scientist. The early exposure he had had to geological thinking meant that he approached the phenomena he encountered during the Beagle voyage with a keen eye to processes acting on the earth – both in fine detail, and on a much larger scale. The fossil collections he made on that voyage honed the intuitions, which, later in life, matured to underpin his thinking on the transmutation of species. Indeed, in the words of John Wesley Judd, Darwin's ‘geological confidante' in his later years, ‘ It is not too much to say that, had Darwin not been a geologist, the “Origin of Species” could not have been written by him'. "

Specialist papers from leading biologists now follow along lines of enquiry that focus on the opening theme drawn from Paul Davies, and relating to Darwinian evolution: "What makes life special is not the stuff of which it is made, but the things it does."

  Adrian Gibbs 'Viruses: dating without fossils?'(2.6MB PowerPoint file)
  Dean Price 'CO2 acquisition in cyanobacteria: some things do change' (3MB pdf)
  Andrew Cockburn 'Swingin' in the rain:studying selection in the wild' (23MB PowerPoint file)
  Lindell Bromham 'Darwin would have loved DNA '
  Jenny Graves 'Australian animals and genome evolution' (20MB PowerPoint file)
  Colin Groves 'Human evolution: a long way from Darwin and Wallace, or is it? (12MB PowerPoint file)

  Download flyer and program