British naturalist’s contributions resonate today

Posted Feb. 11, 2009, at 10:42 p.m.

Bangor resident Irv Kornfield recently helped the Maine Warden Service determine a bear that had attacked a farm animal in Sullivan last fall was the same bear that had been killed later in neighboring Franklin.

Kornfield, a biology and molecular forensics professor at the University of Maine, made that determination through a DNA test.

At its heart, however, Kornfield’s finding was based on the theories of Charles Darwin.

“The principles of population genetics, which are essential to understanding the evolutionary process, are precisely the same principles that are applied to forensic analysis in cases involving DNA,” Kornfield said recently.

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Indeed, where would biology and much of science be without Darwin, whose 200th birthday falls Feb. 12?

The British naturalist whose theories of evolution and natural selection revolutionized the field, shares his birthday with President Abraham Lincoln, who guided the country through the Civil War.

Darwin and Lincoln share a birthday but not much else, it would seem. Lincoln’s work was of a political nature, done inside the United States. Darwin made his contributions in the scientific arena and traveled the world for his research.

Yet University of Maine-Presque Isle geology professor Kevin McCartney maintains Lincoln and Darwin are linked in that they are, to him, the two most influential men of the 19th century. Without Lincoln, McCartney said, we might not have the united, centralized government that proved to be a world power in the next cen-tury.

As for Darwin?

“Darwin, basically, is the father of all of modern biology,” said McCartney, an amateur Lincoln historian who usually makes a little birthday party for both men in the UMPI geology lab. “All we understand about biology, medicine, and the biological aspects of geology, the fossil record, all of that is a development of Darwin’s ideas.”

Kornfield, who teaches a class in evolution, tries to impress that upon his students.

“One of the things I ask my students to do is try to think of an example where you could not invoke natural selection as an explanation for an observation,” Kornfield said. “If you look out the window, almost anything that you see, the shape of a tree leaf or tree bark or behavior of squirrels or insects, plant pollination, or flower color. … It’s a double-edged sword in some ways. Of course, it’s so explanatory that you have to be exceptionally careful applying it, because it’s just too easy to apply to any situation.”

Kornfield has done other forensic work for the warden service, doing tests in poaching cases. He was also called in to help a 2006 investigation into the origins of a creature found dead in Turner. Kornfield’s tests determined the creature had canine DNA.

“The techniques that we use in the lab to characterize the genetic variation, to look at DNA in different species, are the same techniques we use when we do forensic cases, when we’re trying to match deer that have been poached to evidence in the field,” he said.

Darwin began to develop his theories during his trips to the Galapagos Islands and South America in the mid-1830s. At the same time, Lincoln was beginning his political career in Illinois.

Although he hasn’t found a written record of Lincoln and Darwin meeting, McCartney feels certain the two men knew of each other. Darwin was fiercely anti-slavery, he added, and Lincoln was interested in science and technology.

Some of their chronology matches. Both men had formative experiences in their chosen professions from 1831 to 1836. It was in 1859 that “On the Origin of Species,” Darwin’s seminal work, was published — one year after Lincoln’s debates with Stephen Douglas thrust him into the national political spotlight.

They were both men of their time, McCartney believes, men who had little to no formal education in their respective fields, but managed to pull themselves up and succeed.

“I think both men developed from a change in which people could self-educate,” McCartney said, “and by the demonstration of their ideas, they were accepted irregardless of their education in that field. It’s just a coincidence that they were born on the same day, and history has a number of those.”

jbloch@bangordailynews.net

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