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How Prestonpans Put Darwin on Track to Greatness!

Credit where it's due please ...

This excellent abstract of an article comes from The Times but its sub-editor misleadingly gives Edinburgh the credit for the earliest insights Darwin had that led to his seminal work on ... Species.

We hear a great deal about Sir Walter Scott's visits to The Pans and of local Panner Thomas Alexander's great contribution to Army Medicine on battlefields, but not until now of Darwin and his mentor Grant, at work on our beautiful beaches. They probably enjoyed the Pandores oysters and mussels too!

Mike Wade wrote February 6th 2009 inter alia as follows:

"...coming to Edinburgh as a student aged 16 .... he discovered a medical faculty whose lustre was dimming, though the subject still accounted for almost half the students of the university roll. The department was held to be corrupt (posts were often inherited) and lessons were regarded, certainly by Darwin, as boring. In 1828, the university was rocked by the scandal of Burke and Hare whose murderous exploits were found to have been supplied corpses for anatomy classes.

"Darwin soon gave up his medical studies. He disliked his lecturers and was squeamish about blood and bodily fluids. Instead, he turned to the city's astonishing array of clubs and societies for intellectual sustenance. Most importantly, Darwin fell in with Robert Edmond Grant, 16 years his senior, an eminent naturalist and freethinker who was to have a profound influence on his life."

Grant as Darwin's Mentor

"Darwin's new mentor, taking his cue from French revolutionary scientists, believed that the origin and evolution of life were the result of chemical and physical forces, obeying natural laws. Grant was fascinated by sponges and other marine life, and took Darwin as his companion to Leith and Newhaven. The two befriended fishermen: they sailed out into the Firth of Forth to collect specimens, explored the Isle of May, even sheltered from a storm under Inchkeith Lighthouse.

"Back on dry land, Grant rented a house close to the rocky shore at Prestonpans where, with Darwin, he collected and studied sea-pens, sea-mats and sponges, primitive creatures he believed held clues to the origins of all life. All this research prompted the young Darwin to make original observations, and he gave his first paper to the Plinian Society on the subject of sea-mat larvae and oyster shells.

"Andrew Fraser, senior lecturer in medical microbiology at Edinburgh University, says it is almost impossible to overestimate the impact of these experiences on Darwin: 'Robert Grant was one of the great experts of his day, and through him Darwin must have learnt the basics of taxonomy at a very early age. That gave him a flying start, and probably taught him more than he would ever have learnt at university lectures,' Dr Fraser said.

Then it was Edinburgh's turn ...

"Darwin spent much of his free time in the College Museum of Natural History, which was run by Robert Jamieson, an eminent natural historian. It was here that Darwin learnt taxidermy, taught by a freed slave, John Edmonstone. The relationship between a man of Darwin's class and a former slave was unconventional, yet Darwin's theories on natural selection owe much to this friendship. His consideration of all races being equal was a starting point for his theories on evolution.

"Jamieson's keen interest in geology encouraged Darwin to explore around the city. Along Salisbury Crags, the extraordinary outcrop which dominates the skyline to the east of the city centre, he studied the formations which had fascinated James Hutton, the 18th-century geologist. These volcanic extrusions through sedimentary rocks undermined the prevailing “Neptunist” view that the Earth's rocks had been deposited in a great flood, and the world created in 4004 BC.

"These challenging views stayed with Darwin after he set off to Cambridge, where he would study to become an Anglican clergyman. When he came to question his faith in the 1830s it was his speculations on geology which in part would undermine his belief.

"There is a sum to all of these experiences the Head of Collections at Edinburgh University, Dr Scally, says. 'It took just two years of Edinburgh, but effectively what happened to Darwin was an opening up of his mind. Meeting people such as Grant, working with Jamieson, thinking about Hutton and the Scottish Enlightenment, evidence-based research and new hypotheses, all opened his mind to new ways of thinking. The door was ajar, but it was pushed open in Edinburgh'."

Published Date: February 7th 2009

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