Was Darwin Influenced by Experiment in English Garden?

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
February 5, 2002
While tracing the intellectual influences on Charles Darwin, two
biologists have identified a garden planted at the beginning of the 19th
century in southeast England that they say is "arguably the world's
first ecological experiment."

Darwin wrote in his seminal work of
1859, On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection, it appeared
that a plot of ground sown with several different types of grass was
more productive than a similar plot with just one species of grass.

Origin of Species was not footnoted, and scientists have long wondered what experiment Darwin was referring to.

Andy Hector, a biologist at Imperial College in London, and Rowan Hooper of the National Institute for Environmental Studies in Japan, sifted through Darwin's writings. They discovered the answer to the mysterious passage in a manuscript titled Natural Selection, which they found in the British Museum's Rare Manuscripts collection.

Writing in the January 25 issue of the journal Science, the authors say a garden at Woburn Abbey in southeast England, which was planted in the early 1800s, provides the intellectual link between biodiversity and ecosystem biology first made by Darwin.

"The study of ecosystems ecology has a long history, but the explicit link between biodiversity and ecosystem functioning is only about 10 years old," said Hector. "It's amazing how many of the questions in ecology and evolution can be traced back to Darwin's writings."

Searching History

George Sinclair, under the aegis of the Duke of Bedford, planted the garden at Woburn Abbey in the early 1800s. The garden was laid out in 242 plots, each two feet by two feet, and fenced in by boards set in cast-iron frames. Leaded tanks were used for aquatic plant species. Each plot was planted with different combinations of grass species and herbs in different types of soil.

Sinclair compared the performance of the different plots in terms of their numbers, sizes, and reproduction. The study, while clearly not up to snuff in terms of modern methods of experimental design and statistical analysis, nevertheless is impressive even by today's standards, say the authors.

Sinclair first published a description of the Woburn Abbey garden in 1816. The results of his experiments were published in 1826 in the third edition of a book titled Hortus Gramineus Woburnensis, or Account of the Results of Experiments on the Produce and Nutritive Qualities of Different Grasses and Other Plants.

The experiment convinced both Sinclair and Darwin that species-rich communities are more productive than ecosystems dominated by fewer species.

"This is a view that today's ecologists have recently confirmed," said Hooper. "Sinclair's work was largely forgotten. Biodiversity scientists have independently arrived at a similar conclusion."

Science of Ecology

Darwin was clearly ahead of his time. Although he was writing about the role of biodiversity and its function in ecosystems in 1859, the term "ecology" wasn't coined until 1866. German biologist Ernst Haeckel used the word to describe the study of plants and animals in their natural environment.

Today, the Institute of Ecosystem Studies defines ecology as the scientific study of the processes influencing the distribution and abundance of organisms, the interactions among organisms, and the interactions between organisms and the transformation and flux of energy and matter.

The role and importance of biodiversity in ecosystem functioning has become one of the central issues in ecology.

"We don't know how much we can deplete biodiversity in an ecosystem before the ecosystem collapses, but we are continuing to reduce species numbers at incredible rates—about the same as those when the dinosaurs went extinct," said Hooper. "We might survive or we might not—like the dinosaurs. It would therefore be sensible to find out as much as we can about the interactions between diversity and ecosystem function."

In their report in Science, the authors noted: "We tend to view this research [on biodiversity and ecosystem function], which is currently one of the most active areas in ecology, as relatively new.

"But," they added, "as with many things in biology, Darwin got there first."

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