The seeds of Darwin’s inspiration

British naturalist Charles Darwin is credited with the theory of evolution, but there is evidence to show that a crucial part of his theory came from his mentor, Cambridge University professor John Stevens Henslow.

A team of researchers recently uncovered the secret, hidden in Henslow’s vast, brittle collection of plants from more than 160 years ago. Using the original collection, researchers transferred the data into a beta version of Microsoft’s SQL Server 2005. Using database analytics, researchers graphed different sets of data and rearranged them until patterns emerged. Eventually, a striking conclusion became evident. The concept of variation — meaning differences within members of a species necessary for survival as a whole — was observed first by Henslow, according to Mark Whitehorn, a database expert who worked on the project.

“What is now very clear to us is that Henslow started studying this variation quite systematically in about the 1820s,” Whitehorn said. “He actually trained Darwin to observe variations between the species.”

Henslow aided Darwin in gaining a berth on the HMS Beagle for his 1831 voyage to the Galapagos Islands, a trip that was influential in his writing of “On the Origin of Species”. And the rest, as they say, is history… er, make that evolution.