Instinct and the Evolution of Mind activity

Research assistants with the Darwin Correspondence Project joined the teaching team for a new Freshman Seminar at Harvard College called “Getting to Know Darwin.” The class was composed of first year undergraduates and was taught by Ned Friedman, Director of the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard University and Professor in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology. Here is a link to a feature about the course

Students observing slave-making ants at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology

Charles Darwin wrote about the parasitic behavior of slave-making ants in Chapter VII of On the Origin as an example of how animals evolve instincts through natural selection which aid their chances of survival. As he wrote: 

“to my imagination it is far more satisfactory to look at such instincts as…ants making slaves…not as specially endowed or created instincts, but as small consequences of one general law, leading to the advancement of all organic beings, namely, multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die.”[1]

After reading Chapter VII of On the Origin and Charles Darwin’s letters about slave-making ants, the class visited the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology’s ant collection. The collection is the largest in the world: it boasts a collection of approximately 1 million ant specimens, including over 6,000 distinct species of ants. Through this field trip, the class was able to learn first-hand about slave-making ants. 

One of the Museum of Comparative Zoology’s many drawers of ant specimens

If you do not have access to an ant collection, there are many other ways to bring Darwin’s observations of animal instincts to life. For example, you could visit a beekeeper to learn about how bees cooperate to make hives. Alternatively, you can observe ants in an ant farm – you can order one from a supplier such as this one. Some suppliers can even provide the species Darwin studied! While observing the ants, have your students make detailed observations of the ants’ activities and their social behavior. Can they duplicate any of Darwin’s own observations?


 Instinct and the evolution of mind teaching module main page






On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1859, pp. 244.