Harvard University The Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University
Betula ermanii (Erman's Birch)Friedman-Lab-Slider-Banner-no-bg-new-subtitle-20-percent-smaller


Harvard University

FRSEMR52C – Tree 

Syllabus (pdf)
Last offered: Fall 2020

To wander about among a vegetation which is new to one is pleasant and instructive. It is the same with familiar plants as with other familiar objects: in the end we cease to think about them at all. But what is seeing without thinking? (Goethe, Italian Journey)

In an age of environmental destruction and outright murder of our biological brethren, there is something deeply troubling about humanity’s relationship with nature. Technology has left us with mere facsimiles of nature—pixilated abstractions of biodiversity through satellite imagery, decoded strings of DNA—and we, as a species, have become fundamentally disconnected from actual nature and the magnificent organisms with which we share the earth. In this seminar, we will work to understand and give agency to trees as individual organisms, literally rooted in the ground, and evolutionarily rooted in deep time.

Topics to be covered include the evolutionary origin of arborescence, the search for the urpflanze (true plant), human relationships with non-sentient organisms, the case for legal rights for natural objects, reading a twig, the unseen world of roots, and the meaning of longevity in trees. Each student will also work with an individual tree in the living collections of the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University and observe (see) this organism throughout the entire semester through the creation of images (photography, drawing), journaling, and other forms of representation. The goal of this freshman seminar will be to initiate a personal and lifelong connection with the “other,” the vast and variant organisms with which we share the planet.


Thin trees backlit with golden sunset

OEB 204R – Pre-Darwinian Evolutionary Thought

Course site
Syllabus (pdf)
Last offered: Spring 2019

The publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859 marked a major turning point in the understanding and broad acceptance of a non-miraculous evolutionary explanation of biodiversity. Yet, Origin was by no means the first publication on the topic of descent with modification. For more than a century before Charles Darwin published Origin, evolutionary ideas were being advanced, discussed, and keenly debated. This seminar will explore the birth and early development of evolutionary thought between 1748 (Telliamed, Benoit de Maillet) and 1859 (Origin).

Among the roughly 50 pre-Darwinian evolutionists are a number of now largely forgotten natural historians, physicians, clergymen, atheists, philosophers, and poets. Central to the readings and discussions will be an analysis of how the worlds of botany, agricultural domestication history, comparative animal anatomy, and paleontology – as well as materialist views of the workings of the universe – all played important roles in preparing the world for Charles Darwin?s magnum opus (Origin), the most important book written in human history.


DES 3356 – Field Methods and Living Collections

Course site
Syllabus (pdf)
Last offered: Fall 2018
Taught with Dr. Rosetta Elkin

Confronting the reality of environmental degradation requires more than remote sensing, statistical analysis or institutional restructuring. As images of the changing planet become emblematic of our time, designers are responding with a scrutiny towards amplified scales and extreme events. This has given rise to a growing interest in the materials or elements of this transformation, and in the particular category of evidence that can only be collected through first hand engagement.

All research, from the molecular to the continental requires a scale of study and these scales are most often refined in the field. With respect to analysis, the course examines historical cartography, plant evolution, visualization and aims to bridge the discrepancy between geographic data and local fieldwork.This course offers an opportunity for students to learn the basic theoretical and practical parameters of site description in order to account for how the living formation acts and reacts in response to complex factors. Moving between investigation and recording, coursework will promote a better understanding of the tension between the materialization of the landscape and its political or social development. Using the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University as an analogue or proxy to these spatial conflicts, students will study a transect between the surrounding urban fabric and the living collection, addressing the specific issues that emerge from observational analysis including historical, biological and societal layers. As a record of heterogeneity, the transect will help students decipher the kinds of information that are most important to collect while iterating skills for taking measure, reading ground conditions and fostering imaginative inquiry. Lectures and discussions will be split between classroom presentations, laboratory demonstrations and outdoor investigations. The course is required for MDes Risk and Resilience students, while encouraged for MLA 1 students with particular interest in building professional skills.


Getting to Know Darwin

Syllabus (pdf)
Last Offered: Fall 2017

This half-term, fall-term offering, freshman seminar incorporates reading selections from Darwin’s publications, as well as his private correspondence, and focuses close attention on the man behind the science as revealed by his writings. The goal is to introduce Darwin as an avid breeder of pigeons, lover of barnacles, devoted father and husband, gifted correspondent and tactician, and remarkable backyard scientist. Together, the class reproduces ten of Darwin’s classic Down House experiments and observations that were central to his case for natural selection and evolution. Learn more about Darwin’s experiments here.

*Note: Open to Freshmen only. Required field trips to the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University, the Museum of Comparative Zoology, and a local pigeon fancier will be included.

University of Colorado, Boulder

EBIO 4500: Plant Biodiversity and Evolution

Course Information & Syllabus (2010)

The goal of this course is to understand plant diversity from an historical and phylogenetic perspective. Both neobotanical and paleobotanical data are brought to bear on the analysis of significant evolutionary events/processes in the history of photosynthetic life. Information from cell biology, morphology, life history theory, and development are all incorporated into the discussion of these most significant evolutionary events.

Topics covered include the origin of photosynthetic life, the origin and diversification of eukaryotes, the colonization of land by plants, the evolution of roots, leaves and arborescence as a cause of the great Paleozoic CO2 drawdown (90%), the origin of the seed habit, and Darwin’s “abominable mystery,” the origin of flowering plants.

Concepts and information from lectures are applied to a hands-on set of laboratory sessions on plant diversity. Labs range from an examination of the diversity of cyanobacteria to the preparation and study of fossils from Carboniferous coal balls. The goal of every lab is to insure that students experience and interact with the actual data that are the basis for the interpretation of evolutionary history and diversification. Through a substantial and sustained investment of student lab fees, each student works with a state-of-the-art digital imaging station throughout the semester to record plant structure through the microscope.

Images created by EBIO 4500 students.

EBIO 4800/5800: Darwinian Revolution

Course information & Syllabus (2010)

For over a century before the publication of the On the Origin of Species, naturalists, theologians, atheists, horticulturalists, medical practitioners, poets, and philosophers advanced evolutionary concepts for the diversification of life through descent with modification. The early intellectual history of evolutionism will be examined by reading and discussing the primary literature itself, as well as Darwin’s seminal work, On the Origin of Species.


EBIO 6000: Pre-Darwinian Evolutionism, a Graduate Seminar

In 2001, I initiated an annual reading group / graduate seminar on the topic of pre-Darwinian evolutionism. The first year, Erasmus Darwin, the grandfather of Charles Darwin (and an early advocate of descent of all life from a common ancestor) was the focus of the group. In 2002, we met to discuss the life of Alfred Russel Wallace. In 2003, the evolutionary writings of Robert Chambers were carefully examined.

In 2004, a fascinating set of minor pre-Darwinian evolutionists that Charles Darwin wrote of in his prefatory Historical Sketch in On the Origin of Species were the center of our attention. In 2005, we made our way through the private notebooks of Charles Darwin, which were begun shortly after his return from the voyage of the Beagle. In 2006, we investigated the open question of whether Charles Lyell was a convert to evolutionist views prior to the publication of the On the Origin of Species. In 2008, we examined the geological and evolutionary writings of Lamarck. In 2009, we read the first book ever published on evolution, Telliamed (1748), by Benoit de Maillet. Participants in this reading group come from diverse backgrounds and include biology, geology, environmental studies, museum studies, and anthropology graduate students. We meet once a month over dinner and discuss the readings chosen for that semester. This series of graduate seminars represents my effort to cull the early evolutionist literature and historiography of this important period in the development of evolutionary thought.