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Darwin Gets His Day at Cal's Insect Museum

Charles Darwin's birthday on Feb. 12 is usually overlooked in the shadow of Abe Lincoln's birthday, except at UC Berkeley's Essig Museum of Entomology, which opened its usually closed doors Tuesday for "Darwin Day" public tours.

We're not likely to soon forget Charles Darwin, the scientist credited with opening our eyes to evolution. The same's not true for his birthday.

Darwin's brithday seems to have been eclipsed, at least in the United States, by Abraham Lincoln's. Both men were born 104 years ago on Feb. 12, 1809.

But Darwin's birth has its celebrants, particularly at UC Berkeley's insect museum, the Essig Museum of Entomology.

The museum, not usually open to the public, opened its doors Tuesday for Darwin Day, providing guided public tours with special displays set up about Darwin and his findings.

Most people associate the British scientist – author of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection – with his research trips to the Galápagos Islands (home of the world's longest living vertebrate, the Galápagos tortoise), where Darwin got big ideas on evolution from the beak variations on finches with a common ancestor. 

But he was also an avid collector of insects, especially beetles, which makes him a hero to those who study insects, also known as entomologists. In his autobiography, he recalled his time as a student at Cambridge University: "No pursuit at Cambridge was followed with nearly so much eagerness or gave me so much pleasure as collecting beetles."

The Darwin Day tours at Cal were sponsored by the museum and by the Entomology Student Organization, according to graduate student Traci Grzymala, one of the tour leaders.

Pete Oboyski, museum manager, said the Essig Museum's collection is so large that no one knows for sure how many specimens it contains.

"We think it's somewhere around 5-6 million," he said. The museum is in the process of adding them all to a database, with about million added so far, he said.

In the accompanying brief Patch video, Oboyski talks about Darwin's interests, including carnivorous plants, and about his collecting finches in the Galápagos.

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Do you think Darwin's birthday deserves more public recognition? You can tell us in the comments. 

sandy schaffell February 13, 2013 at 05:51 PM
Rebecca Stott's "Darwin's Ghosts" (2012) is a fine choice if you want to know about the large number of people who worked on what Charles Darwin gets the credit for -- from Aristotle, Erasmus Darwin, Benoit de Maillet, and of course his contemporary Alfred Wallace. The book is available at the Alameda County Library.

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