Getting Ready for a Birthday Bash for Darwin

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Darwin Archives at Christ's College, Cambridge as a graduate student, "It was like finding out Shakespeare had left unpublished plays behind," she said.

This fall, Christ College will welcoming Herbert as a Distinguished Visiting Scholar for the 2006-2007 academic year, an international honor recognizing her expertise on the University's most famous and controversial alumnus, Charles Darwin.

Herbert travels to Cambridge in September, where she will help with plans for the 2009 celebration of Darwin's 200th birthday and 150th anniversary of his seminal work "On the Origin of Species" while continuing her studies of Darwin's geological specimens from the 1831-1836 voyage of the H.M.S. "Beagle."

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 was well reviewed by the Times Literary Supplement and many other publications. In November, the Geological Society of America will give Herbert the 2006 Mary C. Rabbitt Award, bestowed annually for outstanding contributions in geological sciences history.

"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.

Herbert is excited at her upcoming stay at Cambridge, where she will give one of the Lady Margaret Beaufort lectures. "It's an honor to be invited, especially since I'm an American," she said. "Darwin is a source of national pride for the British, so it's a wonderful feeling to be welcomed to a place where he did so much remarkable work."

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."