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Charles Darwin symposium

Portrait of Charles Darwin
Darwin Portrait. One of the last photographs taken of Charles Darwin, circa 1878. © From the Richard Milner Archive.

Thursday 26 February 2009

As part of the Darwin exhibition, ABC Science Show presenter Robyn Williams hosted this symposium examining the life, work and legacy of naturalist Charles Darwin.

Missed the symposium?

pdf Download abstracts and biographical notes on the presenters (PDF 81kb)

audio_w15 Audio and transcripts of the symposium are now available in our audio on demand section


The Darwin symposium consisted of three interlocking themes across three sessions. Each session included three presenters ending with a panel discussion inviting audience participation.

Theme One | Session One | Darwin: a concise story

Charles Darwin, the Shropshire lad and son of a wealthy society doctor, was originally intended to join the clergy but was more interested in collecting beetles. His fascination with the natural world was encouraged by a number of Anglican clergy one of whom recommended him as a suitable (if unfinished) naturalist for the unpaid position of gentleman's companion to Robert FitzRoy, the captain of HMS Beagle.

This session will explore Darwin the man and his voracious interest in the science of nature, the prevailing scientific and religious views of the era and Darwin's experiences on HMS Beagle, with particular emphasis on his time in Australia and subsequent return to England.

Chair: Nicholas Drayson

Presenters: Professor Iain McCalman, Professor Tom Frame, Emeritus Professor Frank Nicholas

Theme Two | Session Two | Darwin: On the Origin of Species

In 1859 Darwin's ideas were published in his seminal work On the Origin of Species. What are the 'big themes' that Darwin expressed in this publication and how did they contribute to scientific understanding of the natural world in Victorian England? What were the social, political, scientific, philosophical and theological reactions to this work?

This session will also explore the many misinterpretations of Darwin's ideas and how they have been used to support a number of racist and imperialist ideologies.

Chair: Dr Libby Robin

Presenters: Professor Paul Turnbull, Dr Barry Butcher, Tony Barta, Honorary Research Associate, La Trobe University

Theme Three | Session Three | Darwin: the legacy

Darwin's ideas remain the foundation of biological science, establishing the basis for our scientific understanding of the natural world. In recent years new technologies have given us the power to map and manipulate the natural world in ways that would have been inconceivable during Darwin's time.

How have Darwin's ideas led to current scientific research? Where is all this taking us and will science deliver a better future? And let's not ignore the ongoing debate between evolution and creationism in the public sphere!

Chair: Dr Bernadette Hince

Presenters: Professor Colin Groves, Professor Neil Ormerod, Dr Jeremy Burdon

Missed the symposium?

Darwin is based on an exhibition organised by the American Museum of Natural History, New York ( in collaboration with the Museum of Science, Boston; The Field Museum, Chicago; Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto; and the Natural History Museum, London.

Presented in conjunction with Art Exhibitions Australia.