Darwin Memorial Lecture

Charles Darwin, photographed by Julia Margaret...

This annual event was established in 1998 by the Shrewsbury and Atcham Borough Council Museum Service to recognise Charles Darwin’s link with Shrewsbury. The lecture is given each February on the Sunday nearest to the anniversary of Darwin’s birth (12 February). In 2009, following the reorganisation of local government, the management of the lecture was taken over by the Friends of Shrewsbury Museum and Art Gallery. Over the years the lecture has become a significant event and has attracted a succession of highly qualified lecturers.

Archive of recent Darwin Memorial Lectures

Feb 12, 2017:  Dr Andrew Berry (Harvard University) ‘Coincidence? Charles Darwin, Alfred Russell Wallace and the Co-discovery of Natural Selection

Review of the 2017 Lecture
There was a very high demand for this year’s lecture and one has to feel sorry for those members who were unable to get tickets; the lecturer, Dr Andrew Berry, spoke with out-standing eloquence and supported his talk with original and appealing visual and literary aids.

He is a specialist in the man sometimes called “Darwin’s moon”, Alfred Russel Wallace, and his theme was a treatment of the often observed coincidence in the development of scientific thinking, looking at the various factors which can bring it about, using the example of the two men.

Culturally, the two were born into an era when there were movements of thought beyond the prevalent theological world-view. Paley’s Evidences, while fixing a date for the creation of the universe, had set it back some centuries behind previous received orthodoxy, and his work is known to have influenced Darwin. Wallace, who started life as a surveyor, had a friend, Bates, whose studies of the number and variety of beetles also pointed to a different view of the evolution of the natural world. Both Darwin and Wallace had “a naturalist’s mind-set”.

Economically, it was a time when scientists were influenced by the thinking of Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus, both of whom studied the drives behind human behaviour and the nature of competition in society. It was the era of the Industrial Revolution – of major changes in technology and mechanisation. This produced a new literature, including Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein , published in 1815, and Robert Chambers’s 1844 work Natural History of Creation. Darwin was hesitant in his view of the latter, while Wallace was strongly attracted.

Politically, the 19th century was an age of explorers, often with a trading or imperialist motive. Both Darwin and Wallace were inspired by the travels of the great German explorer, Alexander von Humboldt, and Wallace directly modelled himself on him. In reality, however, there was a great difference in the two men’s experience of travelling for scientific purposes. Darwin spent 18 months on the Beagle over a period of 5 years – and Dr Berry noted that in his famous trip to the Galapagos, Darwin never noticed the mutation of species from island to island. Wallace spent 4 years travelling in South America and then 8 years in South East Asia, discovering many new previously unknown creatures and concluded that “every species emerges in time and space from a previous species”.

The confluence of ideas produced by the two men led to the publication of a famous joint paper, published by Lyell and Hooker. The work of the two, both in the study of species and in conclusions they drew, was a major example of scientific coincidence, though there were some differences in their conclusions. The main divergence was: Wallace was not happy with the concept of natural selection, preferring the concept of the survival of the fittest.
Lalage Bown

2016  Andrea Wulf, ‘The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt and his Influence on Charles Darwin’.

Humboldt had a clear impact on thinkers and scientists in the nineteenth century and most importantly on the young Charles Darwin. Undoubtedly, Alexander von Humboldt was the father of ecology and the Gaea concept, over one hundred years before its recognition by modern scientists.  Humboldt spelled out clearly the damage that man was doing and continues to do to his home, the Earth. There is no doubt that the greatest threat to man is man. Humboldt showed that, even in the beginning of the nineteenth century, through colonisation, exploitation, monoculture and the growth in the number of people, man was placing in jeopardy the future environment on which future humans would have to rely in order to survive. Darwin always reminds us that as new species develop, existing species disappear.

2015   Professor Gregory Radick, University of Leeds, ‘A brilliant blunder’? Darwin and Mendel revisited’.

2014   Professor Joe Cain, University College, London, ‘The Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925 – reality or fiction?’

2013   Professor James Moore, Open University, ‘Making Livings: the Economic Worlds of Wallace and Darwin’.

2012   Dr Jim Endersby, University of Sussex, ‘Sympathetic Science: Charles Darwin, Joseph Hooker and the Passions of Victorian Naturalists’

2011   Dr Alison Pearn, Cambridge University, ‘The Work of the Darwin Correspondence Project’.

2010   Dr Robert Anderson, former Director of the British Museum, ‘Joseph Black and the Scottish Enlightenment’.

2009   Professor Lord May, Oxford University,  Bicentennial Lecture

Previous lecturers

Professor David Bellamy, Naturalist; David Shepherd, Wildlife Artist; Michael Leach, Wildlife Photographer; Professor Steve Jones, Geneticist; Dr Janet Browne, Biographer of Charles Darwin; Professor Chris Stringer, Human Palaeontologist; Randal Keynes, Author and Charles Darwin’s great-great grandson; Professor Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel Prize for Medicine; Professor Paul Pearson, Geologist; Professor Colin Pillinger, Lead Scientist, Beagle Mars Project; Professor Richard Dawkins.


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