Beyond Evolution, About Charles Darwin & His ‘Fool’s Experiments’

Darwin published his Theory of Evolution in his book, ‘The Origin of Species’ in 1859. He would’ve been 209 today.

4 min read
Hindi Female

Even if you were a back-bencher in Science class, you’re probably familiar with ‘The Theory of Evolution’ and Charles Darwin, the man credited with the life-changing (literally) explanation on how human beings evolved from apes… although it may seem like some of us are stuck mid-way!

Terrible jokes apart, the truth is that Darwin’s Theory of Evolution is one of the most universally-accepted theories on how humanity came to be – and has remained the most popular since.

This, until recently, when a certain Minister of State for Human Development, Satyapal, suggested that Darwin’s theory was “scientifically wrong” and that, in fact, there was no evidence to prove his theory!


He went a step further and suggested it be removed from school textbooks – luckily, the Education Ministry hasn’t deemed that one fit to implement… yet.

However, the outburst surrounding his statement has certainly brought Darwin back into the spotlight – and just in time for his 209th birthday, which is today!

To honour the man, though, let’s examine Darwin beyond the realm of his ‘Theory of Evolution’.

Here’s taking a look at his lesser-known experiments from a few centuries ago – some of them just downright wacky. He tried everything, from feeding toenails to carnivorous flowers to gauge their diet, throwing iguanas off the coast-line to see if they could swim back and even played the piano to an unsuspecting bunch of earthworms to see how they’d react to the music.

Strangely enough, even Darwin called these his “fool’s experiments” on most occasions.


1. Duck-feet Experiment

James Costa, author of Darwin's Backyard: How Small Experiments Led to a Big Theory has studied some of Darwin’s strangest, earliest experiments in great detail.

In his book, he describes how, in an experiment that soon became popularly known as the ‘duck-feet experiment’, Darwin had strived to prove that fresh-water snails often took lifts from other aquatic animals, like ducks, to travel long distances and reach remote areas.

Darwin published his Theory of Evolution in his book, ‘The Origin of Species’ in 1859. He would’ve been 209 today.

In a nutshell, Darwin was convinced that the fresh-water snails he’d seen on remote islands couldn’t possibly have swam their way there, since they were not known to survive long in salt water.

To confirm his theory, he took a severed foot of a duck and dangled it atop an aquarium full of fresh-water snails – and sure enough, the snails happily climbed on board and even managed to stick it out for the next 12 to 24 hours!


2. Sundews Experiment

In his book, Costa says that one day Darwin was walking by a field, when he noticed a scattering of Sundews, one of the largest genera of carnivorous flowers. Out of sheer boredom, he fed them a few of his toe-nails and a good few strands of his hair to, er, gauge their diet.

Understandably, the Sundews did not like the taste of his toe-nails and spat them out, even while they digested his hair satisfactorily.

Darwin published his Theory of Evolution in his book, ‘The Origin of Species’ in 1859. He would’ve been 209 today.

In a sense, then, Darwin had started examining the diet of these carnivorous flowers long before books about researchers had examined its toxicity levels and the adverse effects of humans – ironically – consuming them.


3. ‘Expression of Emotion’ Experiment

The French neurologist Duchenne, known for his work in Muscular Dystrophy, had put forth a theory that humans were ‘unique’ in emotion, and in fact, experienced 60 different emotions – an idea which was extremely popular during Darwin’s time. But a true rebel by nature, he strongly disagreed and carried out yet another experiment to suggest otherwise.

In a podcast interview conducted by Science Friday, Peter Snider, Neurologist and Professor at Brown University, said that Darwin then invited a group of 24 people to his house and presented them with a subset of Duchenne’s 60 human-muscle function images and asked them – “What do you see in this image? How does it make you feel?”

He noted down the responses and stated that the most common among the emotions – happy, sad, angry – were the ones which were the most un-layered, basic human emotions. These, he said, were uniform to all human beings among ages and races, and also in line with the ones experienced by other animals.


4. Earthworm-Music Experiment

So apparently, Darwin’s wife and kids were musical connoisseurs and he figured he should use those expensive piano lessons to the advantage of his scientific experiments.

He did... with earthworms.

Darwin published his Theory of Evolution in his book, ‘The Origin of Species’ in 1859. He would’ve been 209 today.

According to Costa’s book, Darwin wanted to see if earthworms responded to musical vibrations. So he put them in a pot and placed them on the ground next to the piano, and asked his kids to play a number. But as it turned out, they weren’t very big fans of his family musical, because they didn’t move an inch.

But when he put the same pot containing the earthworms inside another instrument and struck a chord, they frantically dug deeper into their makeshift burrows.

So through this seemingly bizarre experiment, he managed to prove that while earthworms were tone-deaf (didn’t respond to sound), they were highly sensitive to vibrations.

It seems even someone as revered in science as Darwin had his fair share of crazy experimenting!

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