Marine Biological Association of the UK

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Darwin and Marine Biology

Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882)

Few people know that Charles Darwin was the original barnacle expert and his work on marine organisms remains a valuable resource for modern marine biologists. The following article introduces Darwin’s interest in marine life, links to short extracts from Darwin’s Journal of Researches and highlights some connections to the Marine Biological Association.

Vignette of rock pool explorer

Shore collecting in the Victorian era

Charles Darwin became interested in natural history as a young boy but his earliest experiences of marine biology were on the shores of the Firth of Forth while he was studying medicine at Edinburgh University.

He then moved to Cambridge University to study classics and theology, but throughout this time his interest in natural history remained strong and despite his father’s opposition (he expected his son to enter the clergy), he accepted an invitation from Captain Fitz-Roy to join the second surveying voyage of H.M.S. ‘Beagle’, as naturalist without pay.

em>The dissecting microscope used by Darwin on H.M.S. Beagle.
(Photo at Down House by A.J. Southward)

He bought a dissecting microscope and plenty of other equipment and, after many delays in Devonport dockyard and two departure attempts foiled by bad weather, HMS ‘Beagle’ set off around the world from Plymouth Sound on 27th December 1831.

The commemorative plaque at Devil’s Point (Stonehouse), Plymouth Sound.
(Photo by A.J. Southward)
HMS Beagle
HMS ‘Beagle’ in the Galapagos, 17 October 1835 2.15 p.m. by John Chancellor.
(by permission of Gordon Chancellor)

Beagle Voyage

Darwin was interested in everything he saw on the five-year voyage, ranging from fossils to human behaviour, so marine biology takes up only a small proportion of his voluminous notes (see Keynes 2000). Nevertheless, it is clear that he was a meticulous and enthusiastic observer of marine life at every opportunity (see below). He used a plankton net when the ‘Beagle’ was at sea, investigated sea shores, estuaries and tropical lagoons. Early in the voyage, at St Jago in the Cape Verde Islands he made detailed notes on the behaviour of the barnacle Pyrgoma anglicum and later, his copious notes on a minute Chilean barnacle were to rearouse his interest in barnacles some eight years later (see Stott 2003).

Voyage of the Beagle

The voyage of the Beagle

Darwin’s enthusiasm for marine topics is illustrated in his Journal of Researches.

Read short extracts from Darwin’s Journal of Researches.

Returning to England in 1836, Darwin distributed the specimens he had collected to specialists for identification, as far as was possible. A general account of his experiences was published in 1839 (see Darwin 1839).  While working up the ‘Beagle’ results, he was pondering the origin of species, developing his ideas in brief sketch and then as a longer manuscript (1844). He set these aside for what he thought would be a short time, while he worked on some of the more remarkable invertebrates he had collected.  The tiny barnacle from Chile, found in holes in mollusc shells, was one of these.  He had numerous preserved specimens of this species and expected to take a few months working out its relationship to other Cirripedia.  In the end, he spent eight years on barnacles and produced four publications on living and fossil Cirripedia.  Only after this very informative exercise in classification did he return to the Origin of Species.  The two volume Monograph on the Sub-Class Cirripedia (1852 & 1854) is still in use today, (see Darwin 1852, ‘54).


Darwin’s illustrations of three barnacle species, 1854. Balanus perforatus, Lepas anatifera and Balanus amphitrite.

Alan Southward (see Southward 1983) wrote “Darwin’s difficulties with the classification of the highly varying barnacles, and his anatomical studies on these peculiar animals, must have had considerable influence on the development of his theories about natural selection, more than is usually acknowledged by writers on evolution. These ‘lost’ years were in fact a period of intense zoological enquiry, and Darwin’s attitude with regard to species and variation in nature underwent a big change, as can be seen from the letters and from the differences between the early drafts written before the barnacle work and the later Natural Selection and the Origin. Whether we regard the difficult groups of Balanus as clusters of species or clusters of varieties, they still draw attention to evolutionary processes as in Darwin’s day.”

William Newman (see Newman 1993 p. 350), in a detailed review of Darwin’s Cirripede work, concludes (p.418) “Charles Darwin’s work on cirripedes was truly remarkable and all encompassing. That he made several errors in the course of this work is more a reflection of the state of technology and scientific knowledge of his times than of any defects in his own mental capacities. The imagination that he exhibited in developing explanations for the problems he encountered truly displays his genius.”

MBA links to Darwin

Dr Nova Mieskowska on the rocky shore.

Alan Southward (see below) drew heavily on Darwin’s barnacle studies, and present-day research at the MBA builds on Alan’s work, especially through MarClim and the ongoing surveying of rocky shore sites to provide the barnacle time-series. See Nova Mieskowska’s website for more information on marine biodiversity and climate change.

Thomas Henry Huxley (1825 – 1895)

The great naturalist Thomas Henry Huxley was an energetic supporter of Darwin in the controversy that followed the publication of ‘The Origin’ (1859), referring to himself as “Darwin’s bulldog”. In 1863 and 1883 he served on Government Commissions on Fisheries and he formed the opinion that, with the existing methods of fishing, it was inconceivable that the great sea fisheries, such as those for cod, herring and mackerel, could ever be exhausted. Ray Lankester and others disagreed with this view and suggested that a new society was needed with a laboratory on the coast, to foster the study of marine life and the life history of food fishes. At the meeting at which the Marine Biological Association was formed in 1884, Huxley took the chair and he became the first President. Though in poor health, he was able to guide the Association through a critical early period, including the choice of Plymouth for the building of the MBA Laboratory, which was completed in 1888 (Lankester, 1895).

Charles Spence Bate (1819 – 1889)

One of Darwin’s correspondents during the ‘barnacle years’ was Charles Spence Bate, a young dentist and naturalist whose first manuscript on barnacle larvae was reviewed by Darwin in a long letter to Edward Forbes (see Darwin 1851).  Spence Bate went on to become an eminent expert on Amphipoda and he named a genus Darwinia in Darwin’s honour (see Bate & Westwood 1863). Spence Bate was one of the founder members of the Marine Biological Association. He took an active part in the establishment and supervision of the building of the MBA Laboratory. He was an early member of the MBA Council.

Richard Darwin Keynes (1919 – 2010)

A great-grandson of Charles Darwin, Richard Keynes was Emeritus Professor of Physiology at the University of Cambridge. He came to the MBA regularly in the 1960’s and 70’s, to study the physiology of squid giant axons. He has transcribed Darwin’s zoological notebooks and diaries about the voyage of the Beagle and edited them for publication (e.g. Keynes, 2000, 2002). He was a member of the MBA Council and later a Governor (between 1962–1995).

Alan James Southward (1928 – 2007)

Alan Southward was a marine biologist at the MBA from 1953 to 2007. Among his many fields of interest were the long-term study of the distribution of intertidal cirripedes and the influence of climate on biogeography, which led more recently to papers on the effects of climate change on marine life. He drew heavily on Darwin’s Monograph on Cirripedia (see Darwin 1852, 1853), which is still a valuable resource. His knowledge informs today’s MBA scientists (Hawkins & Sims, 2008) and his Linnean Society Synopsis on British Barnacles was published in 2008. Read Alan Southward’s obituary written by Professor Steve Hawkins, and published in MBA News No. 39 pp 23-24 (April 2008).

Links and references

For more information please see our related websites and further reading .