JOHN EDMONSTONE: THE FREED SLAVE WHO INSPIRED CHARLES DARWIN
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Darwin might have never thought of his theory of evolution and natural selection — or become a naturalist, period — without John Edmonstone.
Science geek or not, you might have at least seen coverage of the debate between bow-tied science communicator Bill Nye and creationist Ken Ham pop up on your Facebook feed in February. Ham contended that life on Earth originated from acts of divine creation, while Nye supported the ideas outlined in Charles Darwin’s groundbreaking book, On the Origin of Species, published in 1859. Earlier this month, Nye made headlines again when he explained on the Skeptical Inquirer that he debated Ham to expose creationism as “bad for science education, bad for the U.S., and thereby bad for humankind.”
SETTLED IN A HOUSE A FEW DOORS DOWN FROM DARWIN, HE EARNED HIS LIVING STUFFING BIRDS…
For those who need a biology refresher: During an expedition to the Galapagos, Darwin noticed distinct differences among the finches on each island. Some had broad, deep beaks, some elongated, and others small and stout. Darwin proposed that the finches had adapted to each islands’ dietary offerings, in a process known as natural selection. For example, those on islands with lots of seeds stood a better chance of surviving and passing on their traits if they had broad beaks suited to cracking open their hard coating — thus they would become more common in that island’s finch population.
But Darwin might have never proposed his revolutionary ideas if not for John Edmonstone. A freed Guyanese slave, Edmonstone taught Darwin taxidermy at Edinburgh University. During his voyage around the world on the S.S. Beagle, Darwin collected and preserved the famed finches using the techniques Edmonstone taught him, allowing him to draw his pivotal conclusions. Edmonstone’s vivid accounts of Guyanese rainforests might have also inspired Darwin to study natural history instead of medicine.
Historians believe Edmonstone was probably born in Demerara, Guyana. While still a slave, he learned taxidermy from his master’s son-in-law, British naturalist Charles Waterton. Edmonstone later accompanied him on bird collecting expeditions, entrusted with the crucial task of stuffing captured birds on the spot, before they rotted.
In 1807, Edmonstone’s master brought him to Edinburgh and freed him. Edmonstone settled in a house a few doors down from Darwin and his brother, Erasmus, earning his living stuffing birds at the Natural History Museum and teaching taxidermy to Edinburgh University students.