Jessica Barzilay, on studying Darwin at Oxford last summer!

This summer, I was lucky enough to embark on a 6 week study abroad adventure in Oxford, England, through the Harvard Summer School. The program centered on Darwin in two 3 week courses: the first engaged with the history of science preceding and surrounding Charles Darwin’s revolutionary theory of evolution by natural selection; the second leaped from Darwin’s evolutionary theory into the throes of modern genetic studies and evolutionary biology. Punctuating the program were 6 “excursions” into the heart of Darwin’s United Kingdom, which constituted most of our immersion in new cultures.

Traveling all around the UK on these excursions converted many of our lessons from ideas in a classroom to real, tangible experiences. Over the course of the 6 weeks we ventured to the University of Cambridge, the Hunterian Museum and Linnean Society in London, Shrewsbury and Wales, the London Museum of Natural History, Kew Gardens, and Down House. What do you gain from following in the footsteps of the revolutionary biologist Charles Darwin? On the one hand, I could appreciate the influences on Darwin’s thinking from a young age. It was illuminating to understand the actual stimuli and conditions that shaped his worldview, from the diversity of beetles in fields at Cambridge University, where Darwin attended college,  to the grandeur of the Welsh mountains, where Darwin traveled on a geological expedition with one of his mentors, Adam Sedgwick. Physically inhabiting the spaces that Darwin had previously frequented enabled a more thorough understanding of his theory on a dynamic and adaptive natural world. In addition, visiting these major monuments in Darwin’s life also spurred me on to higher cognizance of my surroundings. While some of the sights we saw, like the Snowdonia mountains of Wales and the royal gardens at Kew truly warrant musings on nature’s majesty, other locales, like the back garden at Down House (Darwin’s family home) could be mistaken for unremarkable expanses of land. Darwin’s keen eye and curious mind saw in these fields the truly astounding adaptation and diversity of the natural world. This attention to detail serves as a reminder to remain aware and sensitive to even the minutiae of my surroundings, for through careful observation I might detect and describe patterns in the world around me!

Our last excursion took us to Down House, the home in which Darwin lived for 40 years, as he raised his children and published his groundbreaking oeuvre On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. We were truly lucky to be guided through the house and property by Professor Janet Browne, one of the foremost Darwin scholars in the world. She instructed us to evaluate our tour through Down House on three levels: to appreciate the place as Darwin’s home, full of biographical traces of the great man himself, his close-knit family, his social status, and even vestiges of his daily routine; as Darwin’s lab, where he accumulated and processed inordinate quantities of data, in his greenhouse and even on his sickbed; and as a museum, preserving a specific moment in history and designed to be accessible to tourists and scholars alike, possessing varying degrees of familiarity with Darwin and evolution. It is important to note, as Professor Browne pointed out, “we, as present day people, are always making and remaking the past and how we see it.” We jump seamlessly from the immersion in a reconstructed past-Darwin’s home-to the present-a display case documenting Darwin’s legacy. This multifaceted approach to history encapsulates the very experience of immersive study-so many sensations combine to make the learning come to life.  

By the end of the program, I started to see evidence of Darwin’s thinking everywhere, from his gradualism to his belief in gradations in nature rather than clear demarcations. Throughout, it was amazing to travel the UK and get to know Darwin’s world in a literal sense.

One thought on “Jessica Barzilay, on studying Darwin at Oxford last summer!

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