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UMBC Darwin Expert Speaks at Library of Congress

When UMBC history professor Sandra Herbert first saw the Charles Darwin Archives at Christ’s College, Cambridge as a graduate student, “It was like finding out Shakespeare had left unpublished plays behind,” she said.

To celebrate the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth on February 12, Herbert, one of the world’s leading authorities on Darwin, gave a lecture at the Library of Congress on February 18. She discussed her book “Charles Darwin, Geologist,” which explores how geology changed Darwin and how Darwin changed science.

As a distinguished visiting scholar for 2006-07 at Christ’s College in Cambridge, Herbert assisted the university with its plans to celebrate Darwin’s bicentennial and the 150th anniversary of his seminal work “On the Origin of Species.”

Like most students, Herbert, an expert on the history of science, first studied Darwin in high school. “Back then his work was buried in our textbooks,” she said. “I became interested in how evolution affects all things, especially human nature.”

While writing a graduate school paper, she came across one of Darwin’s notebooks. Her curiosity grew, leading to a Ph.D. dissertation and finally a trip to Cambridge to see other Darwin manuscripts.

Along the way she was surprised to find that the naturalist often most associated with biology was actually more of a geologist as a young man. This discovery led to Herbert’s recent book “Charles Darwin, Geologist,” which won the Geological Society of America’s Mary C. Rabbitt Award, the American Historical Association's George L. Mosse Prize and the History of Science Society’s Levinson Prize for Historical Work in the Life Sciences as well as the Albion Book Prize given by the North American Conference on British Studies.

“Sandra is simply one of the world’s leading authorities on Darwin and one of UMBC’s preeminent scholars,” said John Jeffries, Dean of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at UMBC.

When asked her thoughts on Darwin’s lasting legacy and the ongoing challenges to his theories across the globe, Herbert referred to one of her favorite Darwin writings from his 1838 “Notebook B.” In it, Darwin refers to animals as “our fellow brethren” and muses that “we may be all netted together.”

“Darwin is seen as a hero and a villain,” she said. “The reason we react so strongly is because of the profound implications of his work on our understanding of human nature. I agree with his sentiment that we are all netted together. We are closer to animals than we sometimes think.”

Herbert recently retired as director of the program “the Human Context of Science and Technology” and professor of history at UMBC. She is also editor of the “Red Notebook of Charles Darwin” (1979) and “Charles Darwin’s Notebooks, 1836-1844: Geology, Transmutation of Species, Metaphysical Enquiries” (1987).

Posted: February 20, 2009, 12:00 PM