Charles Darwin, Evolution & Tropical Australia


Charles Darwin, Evolution & Tropical Australia

Post date: Body:

Charles Darwin never visited tropical Australia, but thanks to his former HMS Beagle shipmates, he has a legacy there. On the ship’s voyage that followed Darwin’s famous excursion, Port Darwin was named in his honour, and subsequently the namesakes grew to include a river, a capital city, a national park, and, most recently, a university.

Charles Darwin University (CDU) contributed to Darwin’s legacy in the “Top End” of Australia in 2009 by participating in the world-wide celebrations of the 200th anniversary of his birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his most famous work - The Origin of Species. Along with Darwin (the city) and the Northern Territory Government, CDU hosted a variety of events and built lasting memorials in the form of a sculpture representing Darwin’s microscope on the CDU campus, and a bronze bust at the Darwin City Council.

What’s to commemorate now?

This year brings new activities and commemorations that further strengthen the ties between northern Australia, Charles Darwin, and the development of the concept of evolution by means of natural selection. One of these is a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) entitled “Charles Darwin, Evolution & Tropical Australia” offered by CDU.

A second event is a new exhibit by the Museum and Art Galleries of the Northern Territory commemorating Alfred Russel Wallace, Darwin’s co-author on the original scientific paper outlining their independently derived ideas about evolution by natural selection. This exhibit, called Wallace the rEvolutionary Man, marks 100 years since Wallace’s death, and it highlights northern Australia’s position at the southern edge of the region that inspired Wallace’s creation of the discipline of biogeography.

Still from natural selection interactive online activity, part of

Still from natural selection interactive online activity, part of upcoming Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) 'Charles Darwin, Evolution and Tropical Australia'

What sort of MOOC is this?

The MOOC will be launched on November 7, the 100th anniversary of Wallace’s death, and it will run for 4 weeks, beginning the following Monday, November 11. Although participants can work through the material at their own pace, the instructors of the unit will guide the online discussion of the 4 parts of the course one week at a time. There will be a live webinar on the Friday of each week.

Many MOOCs consist of ‘talking heads’ – not unlike the lecture theater of old, except that they are online and can be viewed from home or from a mobile device. These talking heads may well be experts in their field, but, from the point of view of participants trying to learn new (and often difficult) material, they are still just talking heads.

I’m reminded of a story that happened during the early days of CDU (then called the University College of the Northern Territory) when our class sizes were small – very small. At morning tea one day, a lecturer recounted an experience he had earlier that day when he was giving a lecture to 1 (yes, one) student - and the student fell asleep! Think about that – what does a lecturer do? Continue lecturing? Take a nap? Send out for coffee? Lectures – even good lectures – can sometimes be hard to follow and absorb. Things have changed over the years at CDU: we have more students, but fewer lectures. It is possible for students to take most of our units externally – without ever attending a lecture. To offer this kind of unit successfully, you have to take a different approach.

So, not surprisingly, the CDU MOOC takes a different approach. There are still some expert heads that talk, but rather than delivering lectures, these experts deliver short introductions or summaries that are interspersed with other ways of learning: interactive timelines, animations, interactive maps, and graphics that unfold as the participant selects the parts they want to explore. These innovative resources allow participants to interact with the content, not just read it or have it read to them. It is unlikely that anyone will fall asleep in these “lectures”.


What’s in this MOOC?

Part 1 covers the life and times of Charles Darwin, with an emphasis on the steps involved in the development of his ideas. This part includes interactive timelines related to his life in general, the voyage of the Beagle, and the subsequent development of his ideas. This section also includes a very personal account of Darwin’s thinking processes presented by his great great grandson, Chis Darwin, who now lives in Australia. Chris has been very supportive of CDU in recent years, including public lectures and a graduation address, and we are thrilled that he has joined us in the production of this MOOC.  Chris introduces the MOOC in this YouTube video:


Part 2 is called “The Evolution of Evolution”, and it includes a historical account of the development of the concept of evolution by Darwin, those before him, and those who have followed. It also includes a primer in the concepts and processes of evolution by natural selection. This section consists of animations, an interactive timeline, targeted readings, and interactive graphics illustrating two animal groups – Darwin’s finches and Galapagos tortoises – which were important to Darwin’s discovery.

Online interactive activity on Darwin's finches, part of the MOOC course

Online interactive activity on Darwin's finches, part of the MOOC course 'Charles Darwin, Evolution and Tropical Australia'

Part 3 is about Alfred Russel Wallace and his contributions to the fields of evolution and biogeography. Thus, the emphasis is shifted to the Australasian region where many of Wallace’s ideas were formulated. This section includes interactive graphics that explore the biogeographical relationships between northern Australia, southeast Asia, and the transition zone in between, sometimes referred to as Wallacea.

In Part 4 the emphasis shifts to northern Australia in an exploration of “Evolution and Adaptations in the Monsoon Tropics”. This part begins with two introductory videos narrated by Chris Darwin. The first gives a brief overview of Darwin’s legacy in northern Australia, and the second describes the wet-dry tropical environment in northern Australia, including an overview of the major landscapes in the Top End. This is followed by a series of short videos in which staff from CDU’s Research Institute for the Environment & Livelihoods describe specific adaptations that organisms have to the wet-dry tropics. These vignettes describe evolutionary adaptations as diverse as turtles that nest underwater, frogs that behave like a cold beer, ants that nest under the sea, and organisms so specialized that they depend on light that passes through crystals. This section ends with information about the further exploration of these topics by anyone interested in studying in this fascinating environment at the only university in the world named after Charles Darwin.


You can enrol in CDU's MOOC 'Charles Darwin, Evolution and Tropical Australia' here.