The great Darwin fossil hunt

It's a question which has troubled some of the finest minds of our age: what do you get for the only self-confessed Darwin groupie in your life when they hit the Big Five-O?

Shortly after my partner, Jen, and I returned home from a week-long holiday in Venice celebrating my 50th birthday, I received a phone call from my friend beyond compare, Stense. It turned out that she had been organising a special birthday treat for me. Stense is good at that sort of thing. A few weeks later, having travelled down from Yorkshire and Scotland in the early hours, the two of us met outside the Natural History Museum in London. After a quick exchange of hugs and good to see yous, we hurried through the visitors' entrance to meet Dr Martin Munt, Head of Palaeobiology Collections at the Department of Earth Sciences. Stense had arranged for Martin to show us some fossils collected by none other than Charles Darwin—many of them on the Beagle voyage. Have I got the best friends in the world, or what?

After viewing a few non-Darwinian fossils described by one of the legendary-in-fossil-describing-circles Sowerbys, we headed off towards the barnacles section. As Martin led us through the maze of filing cabinets, I explained to Stense how a throwaway remark by Darwin's own friend beyond compare, Joseph Dalton Hooker, had inadvertently touched a raw nerve. In a letter to Darwin in 1845, Hooker had described a certain French scientist, who had made some howler in a recent paper, as ‘no Botanist’; a man who ‘[did]not know what it is to be a specific Naturalist himself’. Darwin had long worried that, as he had not established his biological credentials by studying any group of species in depth, his as-yet-unpublished species theory would not be taken seriously. Hooker's throwaway comment was to launch Darwin on an eight-year study of living and extinct barnacles. The books he wrote are still the definitive books on the subject.

We arrived at a cabinet identical, as far as I could tell, to all the other cabinets. Martin took out his keys and unlocked it, sliding open the door to reveal a set of drawers labelled CIRRIPEDIA: Balanomorpha. Inside each drawer were dozens of small cardboard boxes containing all manner of fossilised barnacles, many on them on the fossilised shells of other species.

Fossil barnacles

Darwin's (and others people's) fossil barnacles. Natural History Museum.

Martin explained that the museum's specimens tend to be stored according to biological taxonomy, rather than by who collected them, so Darwin's stuff is scattered throughout the building, often being stored amongst related samples from other collectors. We were then joined by Claire Mellish, Curator of Fossil Arthropods, who explained that many of Darwin's fossils had been given new labels over the years, although some still bore his original handwriting. One thing to look out for, she said, is Darwin's characteristic long, high crossbar on his lower-case letter ‘t’s. Claire located a fossil labelled Balanus crenatus in Darwin's handwriting, and arranged it in the drawer for me to photograph. When I Googled Balanus crenatus afterwards, I was delighted to learn that it is still a common species of acorn barnacle—most likely one of the very species I used to graze my knees on when rockpooling in Anglesey as a child.

Balanus crenatus

Fossil Balanus crenatus barnacles (labelled by Darwin). Natural History Museum.

While looking over the barnacles, I took the opportunity to share a favourite Darwin story. So obsessed did Darwin become with his barnacle studies during the years 1846 to 1854 that, according to family legend, one of Darwin's young children, on visiting a neighbour's house, is supposed to have asked where the gentleman of the house did his barnacles.

In his autobiography, written towards the end of his life, Darwin described how he first came to take an interest in Cirripedia (barnacles), voicing a suspicion that his obsession had earned him a place in literary parody:

In October, 1846, I began to work on 'Cirripedia.' When on the coast of Chile, I found a most curious form, which burrowed into the shells of Concholepas, and which differed so much from all other Cirripedes that I had to form a new sub-order for its sole reception. […] To understand the structure of my new Cirripede I had to examine and dissect many of the common forms; and this gradually led me on to take up the whole group. I worked steadily on this subject for the next eight years, and ultimately published two thick volumes (Published by the Ray Society.), describing all the known living species, and two thin quartos on the extinct species. I do not doubt that Sir E. Lytton Bulwer had me in his mind when he introduced in one of his novels a Professor Long, who had written two huge volumes on limpets.

After I had taken a few more photographs, Martin led Stense and me further into the maze of cabinets, into one of his own areas of expertise, the fossil molluscs. He slid open another cabinet door to reveal the coolest labels I have ever seen on a set of drawers:

South America
Charles Darwin Coll.
Voyage of the Beagle figd specimens

The individual drawers were further labelled Oysters, Bivalvia, and Gastropoda.

Martin explained that some of Darwin's specimens were seen as scientifically important (for example, when they were the original ‘type’ specimens defining new species); whereas other specimens, while not being especially important scientifically were still seen as historically important, on account of who collected them. The specimens in these drawers were both scientifically and historically important. Some of them were also rather beautiful.

Martin drew our attention to what he said was probably his favourite fossil collected by Darwin: that of a slipper limpet, collected in S. Cruz, Patagonia in 1834. It really was an odd-looking creature—or, as I later found out, stack of creatures layered one on top of another—resembling, to my inexpert eyes, something more akin to a modern art sculpture than a cluster of fossilised organisms.

Crepidula gregaria

Fossil slipper limpet (Crepidula gregaria) collected by Darwin during the Beagle voyage. Natural History Museum.

There were dozens of other fossils from the Beagle voyage in the drawers, including some still labelled in Darwin's handwriting, such as that of the type specimen of the bivalve Nucula ornata, which he collected at Port Desire in Patagonia.

Nucula ornata

Nucula ornata fossil molluscs collected by Darwin during the Beagle voyage. Natural History Museum.

Thoughtfully, some previous visitor—a curator, I suppose—had left photocopies of the engraved plates from Darwin's 1846 book Geological Observations on South America, which depicted many of the actual fossils stored in the drawers. The illustrations of the fossils, and their descriptions, came courtesy of G.B. Sowerby (one of the aforementioned, legendary-in-fossil-describing-circles Sowerbys). The photocopies had evidently been used in some sort of fossil stock-taking exercise, as there were lightly pencilled ticks against many of the images. There, on plate 2, figure 19, was the Nucula ornata fossil I had just photographed, and there on plate 3, figure 34, was Martin's slipper limpet, Crepidula gregaria.

Stense examining diagram

Stense examining Plate 3 of Darwin's Geological Observations on South America (1846). Natural History Museum. (Note the Crepidula gregaria slipper limpet, second from left, middle row.)

Sowerby described Crepidula gregaria as follows:

This species is remarkable for its lengthened form: it is found, grouped together in an argillaceous sandstone of a grayish colour. It bears a strong general resemblance to Crepidula fornicata, which is found, similarly grouped, on the coasts of New York, New England, and generally on the Atlantic coasts of N. America.

Martin explained that slipper limpets have now established themselves in certain areas on the south coast of England, having been transported from their natural habitats in ships' ballast.

For our final set of Darwin fossils, Martin led us yet further into the maze, to the Brachiopods section. Brachiopods are an ancient lineage of sea-dwelling bivalves which superficially resemble clams—although they're not actually molluscs. I have a strange soft-spot for brachiopods, having once imagined seeing the image of Charles Darwin in a fossilised cluster of them. Yes, I know, I really should get out more. The brachiopods Martin had brought us to see were collected by Darwin just south of Port Louis in the Falkland Islands on 22nd March, 1833.

Port Louis

Settlement at Port Louis.
From: Robert FitzRoy's Narrative of the Surveying Voyages of His Majesty's Ships Adventure and Beagle between the years 1826 and 1836.

Fossil brachiopods

Fossil brachiopods collected by Darwin during the Beagle voyage. Natural History Museum.

Darwin recorded collecting these very fossils in his Beagle diary, stating:

This is one of the quietest places we have ever been to. — […] I walked one day to the town, which consists in half a dozen houses pitched at random in different places. […] The whole aspect of the Falkland Islands, were however changed to my eyes from that walk; for I found a rock abounding with shells; & these of the most interesting geological aera.

He explained the significance of his finds in a letter home to his sister Caroline, written aboard HMS Beagle a few days later:

I have been very successful in geology; as I have found a number of fossil shells, in the very oldest rocks, which ever have organic remains.— This has long been a great desideratum in geology, viz the comparison of animals of equally remote epocks at different stations in the globe.

As Chancellor and van Wyhe explain in their book Charles Darwin's Notebooks from the Voyage of the Beagle:

It is difficult to overstate the importance of these fossils. At the time of their discovery fossils like these were little known beyond Europe and were regarded as almost the oldest known life on Earth.

Martin picked up one of the rocks containing a couple of particularly pretty Spirifer hawkinsii brachiopods and handed it to Stense. He explained that this particular rock was the one traditionally handed to visitors. Previous handlers of this rock, in addition to Charles Darwin, were said to include King George V and Princess Diana. To which illustrious list can now be added Stense, followed shortly afterwards by Yours Truly.

Spirifer hawkinsii

Spirifer hawkinsii brachiopods collected by Darwin during the Beagle voyage. Natural History Museum.

Darwin's Falkland Island fossils were eventually described by Morris and Sharpe in an 1846 paper in the Proceedings of the Geological Society. Their paper immediately followed one by Darwin on the Geology of the Falkland Islands, and included an engraving of the very fossil in Stense's hands.

Spirifer hawkinsii. Taken from Plate X of Morris, J., Sharpe, D. 1846. Description of eight species of brachyopodous shells from the Palaeozoic rocks of the Falkland Islands. Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society 2: (25 March) 274-278, pls. X - XI.

The same Spirifer hawkinsii fossils, depicted in The Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society 2 (25 March, 1846).

At the end of their paper, Morris and Sharpe concluded:

The number of species collected by Mr. Darwin from the Falkland Islands is too limited to justify any close comparison with the palæozoic fauna of other portions of the globe, still however their allocation is rather interesting: of the eight species above described, all belong to the family of Brachiopoda, which appear to have constituted the chief portion of the fauna of that locality, and there is also a species of Orbicula (Pl. X. fig. 5), too imperfect to be described […]

The general occurrence and extensive distribution of many species of Brachiopoda, either identical in character or analogous in form, in the palæozoic strata, has always been a subject deeply interesting to the palæontologist, and has given rise to the opinion, that a more equable temperature, a greater uniformity of physical character and surface arrangements may have been instrumental in producing this extension in the northern regions during the palæozoic period; and the valuable researches of Mr. Darwin have also revealed to us that the existing conditions of some portions of the southern hemisphere at the same æra were favourable to the development of other species of the family Brachiopoda nearly related to those which in Northern Europe characterise the rocks of the palæozoic æra.

Morris and Sharpe were writing in a time before the theory of plate tectonics, so did not appreciate that the land masses which would become Northern Europe and South America were considerably closer to each other in those days. They and Darwin believed these Falkland Island fossils to date from either the Silurian or Devonian geological period within the Palaeozoic era. We now know that they date from the Devonian, being approximately 386 million years old—from a time when the world's continents were arranged very differently to today, with the submerged section of the South American tectonic plate that would eventually become the Falkland Islands lying close to what would become southern Africa.

386 million years! And I thought turning 50 was pretty ancient!

As a final treat, on our way out of the building, Martin took the opportunity to show us some scientifically unremarkable, but historically important fossils collected by the geologist William Smith, creator of the first geological map of Great Britain. It was a timely reminder to this incorrigible Darwin groupie that there have been—and there still are—plenty of other hard-working, less-hallowed scientists finding out how the world works, in addition to our Charlie. According to its website, the Natural History Museum houses 80 million scientific specimens. Every single one of those specimens had to be collected by somebody, examined and curated, named, and perhaps written about. Many of them will be of considerably less historical interest than Darwin's famous specimens, but they will all have their own fascinating stories to tell.

📷 Full set of photos from the great Darwin fossil hunt

Acknowledgements:

Thanks to Dr Martin Munt of the Natural History Museum for finding time to show us around, and to his colleague Claire Mellish for helping me finally to get an inkling of what Darwin saw in barnacles. And extra-special thanks to Stense for being a friend beyond compare for exactly half of my 50 years, and for having such wonderful ideas for birthday presents.

References:

  • Burkhardt, F.H. & Smith, S., eds. (1985). The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 1, 1821–1836. Cambridge University Press.
  • Burkhardt, F.H. & Smith, S., eds. (1988). The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 3, 1844–1846. Cambridge University Press.
  • Chancellor, G. & van Wyhe, J., eds. (2009). Charles Darwin's Notebooks from the Voyage of the Beagle. Cambridge University Press.
  • Darwin, C.R. (1846). Geological Observations on South America. Being the third part of the geology of the voyage of the Beagle, under the command of Capt. Fitzroy, R.N. during the years 1832 to 1836. London: Smith Elder and Co. (Available at Darwin Online.)
  • Darwin, F., ed. (1887). The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, including an autobiographical chapter. London: John Murray. (Available at Darwin Online.)
  • FitzRoy, R. (1839). Narrative of the surveying voyages of His Majesty's Ships Adventure and Beagle between the years 1826 and 1836, describing their examination of the southern shores of South America, and the Beagle's circumnavigation of the globe. Proceedings of the second expedition, 1831-36, under the command of Captain Robert Fitz-Roy, R.N. London: Henry Colburn. (Available at Darwin Online.)
  • Keynes, R. D., ed. (2001). Charles Darwin's Beagle Diary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (Available at Darwin Online.)
  • Morris, J., & Sharpe, D. (1846). Description of eight species of brachyopodous shells from the Palaeozoic rocks of the Falkland Islands. Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society 2: (25 March) 274-278. (Available at Darwin Online.)

Further reading:

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SenegalI am delighted to announce that the Friends of Charles Darwin have their first member from Senegal: Jane of Dakar. Welcome!

We now have members in 95 countries.

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Monkey facepalmBy far and away the most popular page on the Friends of Charles Darwin website for attracting inane creationist comments is the frequently asked question page, If humans evolved from monkeys, how come there are still monkeys around?

I never approve these comments, as it's my policy not to give creationists publicity on this website. They can go and spout their bullshit on their own websites, as far as I'm concerned. But the latest creationist comment amused me so much that I thought I would give it a blog post all of its own.

Warning: The following quote contains occasional ‘rude’ words, betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of evolutionary theory, and uses AN AWFUL LOT OF CAPITAL LETTERS:

JUST SHOW MWE A MONKEY NEW OR OLD THAT CAN STILL EVOLVE (CHANGE) INTO A HUMAN. TODAY THAT STILL CANT EVEN BE GENETICALLY DONE. SO ITS A BUNCH OF BULLSHIT, JUST ANOTHER REASON NOT TO BELIEVE IN GOD. STOP LETTING THESE PPL FLOOD UR MIND WITH THSESE LUDICROUS ACCUSATIONS. NOT ONE OF THESE MONKEYS CAN HELP ME WITH ANYTHING TODAY, NOT ONE. DO ANY OF U PRAY 2 MONKEYS, LIKE AS UR GOD? ALOT OF MONKEYS DONT EVEN EAT MEAT, IF THEY DO ITS LIKE MONTHS WITHOUT IT. PPL THAT DONT EAT MEAT IS ONLY BECAUSE THE THOUGHT OF IT. KILLING AN ANIMAL GROSS OR ETC. I SHOULD HAVE SOME OF THE SAME GENES AS MONKEYS WE ALL SHOULD. I CANT CLIMB A FUCCIN TREE AND SWING ON BRANCHES AND SHIT, NOT TOO MANY PPL CAN. I MEAN THERE MUST HAVE BEEN DIFFERENT RACES OF MONKEYS. LIKE THE MEXICAN MONKEY, CAUCASIAN. BLACK, ETC. FUCCIN MONKEYS SPEAKING SPANISH AND SHIT, MAN PLEASE. SHOW ME ONE MONKEY BESIDES CEASAR THAT CAN SPEAK, AND HE WAS IN A FUCCIN MOVIE. OR THE MOVIE BEFORE THAT WHRE BU HAD ALL THESE MONKEYS TALKING AND SHIT. PLEEEEAAAASE STOP FEEDING IN TO THAT BULLSHIT.

So, there you have it. I'm not entirely sure whether the person who submitted the comment was trying to be serious, or whether they were just having a laugh, but they certainly made me chuckle. Thanks.

(Before you say anything, I am fully aware that the phrase ‘inane creationist comments’ is tautological.)

Three old maps

Over on his Renaissance Mathematicus blog, Thony Christie has written a typically entertaining and informative post about the sixteenth-century cartographer Abraham Ortelius. (If you don't follow Thony's blog, then you jolly well ought to.)

I can't add anything of any value to Thony's post, but it did remind me that, earlier this month, I photographed three wonderful seventeenth-century maps in the Doge's Palace museum in Venice. So I thought I'd post them here (even though the lighting was dreadful). The first one looks as if it belongs in Indiana Jones's dad's notebook.

Giuseppe Rosaccio, Europa

Italian caption accompanying this exhibit:
1674, Trevisto
Giuseppe Rosaccio, Europa, in Giuseppe Rosaccio, ‘Teatro del cielo e della terra’, Trevigi 1674
Carta geografica a stampa, inserta in volume
Venezia, Biblioteca del Museo Correr

Philip (Philips) Galle, ‘Europa’

Italian caption accompanying exhibit:
1593 Anversa
Philip (Philips) Galle, ‘Europa’, in Philip Galle, ‘Theatro d'Abrahamo Ortelio ridotto in forma piccolo’, Anversa 1593
Carta geografica a stampa, inserta in volume
Venezia, Biblioteca del Museo Correr

Unknown map

(I stupidly neglected to make a note of the caption accompanying this exhibit.)

Metaphorical sight-seeing

On my 50th birthday earlier this month, my partner, Jen, and I flew to Venice for a week's holiday in one of our favourite countries. We have visited Italy many times before, but this was our first trip to Venice. Believe the hype: it's a beautiful city. Feel free to check out my photos.

No visit to Venice would be complete without a trip to St Mark's Square and its famous cathedral. “We have to go and see the spandrels,” I explained to Jen before we left. She rightly guessed that this must, in some convoluted way, have something to do with Darwin.

The spandrels of San Marco in Venice were the inspiration for an important evolutionary metaphor coined by Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin in their famous 1979 paper The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: a Critique of the Adaptationist Programme. A spandrel is a three-sided architectural feature that fills in the spaces above the curve of an arch. In the case of arches that support domes, such as at San Marco, the three-dimensional spandrels that fill the gaps between the arches and the dome are more correctly known as pendentives—although Gould and Lewontin stuck with the more general (and, in my opinion, more aesthetically pleasing) term spandrel.

San Marco Cathedral, Venice

The domes and arches of San Marco Cathedral, Venice (with the pendentives/spandrels in between).

Gould and Lewontin's point was that the impressively decorated spandrels of San Marco cathedral ‘are necessary architectural by-products of mounting a dome on rounded arches’, rather than ‘the cause in some sense of the surrounding architecture’. In other words, the impressive decorations are not the reason why the spandrels are there; the fact that the spandrels are there of necessity means that they happen to provide a surface which can be used for decorative purposes.

Spandrel

A spandrel, San Marco Cathedral, Venice.

By analogy, Gould and Lewontin went on to point out that many features found in living organisms, rather than having a strictly adaptive purpose, might be the biological equivalents of architectural spandrels: features which arose as necessary by-products of other features. In other words, not every feature in an organism needs to have a primarily adaptive explanation.

Many people, especially those of a strictly adaptationist persuasion, have raised numerous, sometimes valid, objections of Gould and Lewontin's paper. But I for one find the concept of a biological spandrel a useful, short-hand metaphor for suggesting that a particular organic feature need not necessarily require an adaptive explanation.

20-Feb-1835: Darwin witnesses an earthquake

On 20th February, 1835, Charles Darwin was lying down in a wood having a rest in Valvidia, Southern Chile, when he experienced a major earthquake. A few weeks later, he described what happened in a letter home to his sister Caroline:

[Off Valparaiso]

March 10th.
1835

My dear Caroline,

[…] We are now on our road from Concepciòn.— The papers will have told you about the great Earthquake of the 20th of February.— I suppose it certainly is the worst ever experienced in Chili.— It is no use attempting to describe the ruins—it is the most awful spectacle I ever beheld.— The town of Concepcion is now nothing more than piles & lines of bricks, tiles & timbers—it is absolutely true there is not one house left habitable; some little hovels built of sticks & reeds in the outskirts of the town have not been shaken down & these now are hired by the richest people. The force of the shock must have been immense, the ground is traversed by rents, the solid rocks are shivered, solid buttresses 6–10 feet thick are broken into fragments like so much biscuit.— How fortunate it happened at the time of day when many are out of their houses & all active: if the town had been over thrown in the night, very few would have escaped to tell the tale. We were at Valdivia at the time the shock there was considered very violent, but did no damage owing to the houses being built of wood.— I am very glad we happened to call at Concepcion so shortly afterwards: it is one of the three most interesting spectacles I have beheld since leaving England—A Fuegian savage.—Tropical Vegetation—& the ruins of Concepcion— It is indeed most wonderful to witness such desolation produced in three minutes of time.

Remains of the Cathedral in Concepción

The remains of the Cathedral in Concepción by John Clements Wickham (1798–1864); Engraving: S. Bull (fl. 1838–1846). Source: Wikipedia

Darwin also recorded a detailed account of the event in his Beagle diary, which was later adapted into a passage in ‘The Voyage of the Beagle’:

February 20th. - This day has been memorable in the annals of Valdivia, for the most severe earthquake experienced by the oldest inhabitant. I happened to be on shore, and was lying down in the wood to rest myself. It came on suddenly, and lasted two minutes, but the time appeared much longer. The rocking of the ground was very sensible. The undulations appeared to my companion and myself to come from due east, whilst others thought they proceeded from south-west: this shows how difficult it sometimes is to perceive the directions of the vibrations. There was no difficulty in standing upright, but the motion made me almost giddy: it was something like the movement of a vessel in a little cross-ripple, or still more like that felt by a person skating over thin ice, which bends under the weight of his body. A bad earthquake at once destroys our oldest associations: the earth, the very emblem of solidity, has moved beneath our feet like a thin crust over a fluid; - one second of time has created in the mind a strange idea of insecurity, which hours of reflection would not have produced. In the forest, as a breeze moved the trees, I felt only the earth tremble, but saw no other effect. Captain Fitz Roy and some officers were at the town during the shock, and there the scene was more striking; for although the houses, from being built of wood, did not fall, they were violently shaken, and the boards creaked and rattled together. The people rushed out of doors in the greatest alarm. It is these accompaniments that create that perfect horror of earthquakes, experienced by all who have thus seen, as well as felt, their effects. Within the forest it was a deeply interesting, but by no means an awe- exciting phenomenon. The tides were very curiously affected. The great shock took place at the time of low water; and an old woman who was on the beach told me that the water flowed very quickly, but not in great waves, to high- water mark, and then as quickly returned to its proper level; this was also evident by the line of wet sand. The same kind of quick but quiet movement in the tide happened a few years since at Chiloe, during a slight earthquake, and created much causeless alarm. In the course of the evening there were many weaker shocks, which seemed to produce in the harbour the most complicated currents, and some of great strength.

Witnessing such a powerful earthquake and its aftermath at first-hand, along with numerous subsequent observations, convinced Darwin that the whole western coast of South America was gradually rising. In this, he went further than Charles Lyell, who, in volume 1 of Principles of Geology—a book which Darwin devoured during the Beagle voyage—had claimed that a section of Chile's coast had undergone recent elevation. On his return to England, Darwin published his findings in The Proceedings of the Geological Society of London, in an 1837 paper entitled Observations of proofs of recent elevation on the coast of Chili, made during the survey of His Majesty's Ship Beagle commanded by Capt. FitzRoy R.N. This paper provided Lyell with considerable ammunition in an ongoing geological dispute he was having with George Bellas Greenough concerning evidence of elevation of the Chilean coast.

Lyell and Darwin were to become fast and close friends. The two men are buried next to each other in Westminster Abbey.

Further reading:

The Uncle of Photography

From Charles Darwin's son Francis's Reminiscences about his father:

In all matters of art he was inclined to laugh at professed critics, and say that their opinions were formed by fashion. Thus in painting, he would say how in his day every one admired masters who are now neglected. His love of pictures as a young man is almost a proof that he must have had an appreciation of a portrait as a work of art, not as a likeness. Yet he often talked laughingly of the small worth of portraits, and said that a photograph was worth any number of pictures, as if he were blind to the artistic quality in a painted portrait. But this was generally said in his attempts to persuade us to give up the idea of having his portrait painted, an operation very irksome to him.

The keen photographer in me rejoices at my hero's preference for photographic portraits over more traditional daubs—even if it seems this was at least partly an excuse to avoid having his own portrait painted.

As with so many other things, I'm with Darwin on this one: there is something undeniably special about a photographic portrait that any number of paintings and drawings simply cannot capture. Echoing Darwin's sentiments, George Bernard Shaw reportedly said that he would exchange every painting of Christ for one snapshot. When you look at a photographic portrait, it feels as if you are looking at the real person; not some artist's impression of them. Photographs seem to give you the genuine article. The camera famously (but not always correctly) does not lie.

I have a hunch that one contributing factor to Darwin's phenomenal popularity as a scientist—apart from his being a total dude, who came up with one of the most important ideas in science—is the fact that the new-fangled photography started coming into its own at around the same time that Darwin returned home from his five-year voyage around the world aboard HMS Beagle.

The ‘birth’ of photography in 1839—just three years after the end of the Beagle voyage—came at just the right time for Darwin to be photographed in his scientific prime. The oldest photograph we have of him is an 1842 portrait with his son William. I would contend that one, albeit minor, reason why we find Darwin so interesting is that we know what he actually looked like:

Daguerrotype of Charles Darwin and his son William

Daguerrotype of Charles Darwin and his son William, 23rd August, 1842.

As historians of science are forever reminding us (although nobody listens to those killjoys), we enter dangerous territory when we start to discuss the ‘first’ person to do X, the ‘lone genius’ who invented Y, or the ‘Father of’ Great Idea Z. The history of science, they insist on pointing out, is a history of collaboration—albeit sometimes highly rivalrous collaboration, in which jealous individuals failed to acknowledge their peers' and predecessors' work. Scientific advance is an iterative process, improving on what went before, sometimes steadily, sometimes in fits and starts. Very much like evolution, in fact.

The history of photography illustrates this point rather nicely, as the following two paragraphs lifted directly from the Wikipedia entry on the subject show:

The history of photography has roots in remote antiquity with the discovery of the principle of the camera obscura and the observation that some substances are visibly altered by exposure to light. As far as is known, nobody thought of bringing these two phenomena together to capture camera images in permanent form until around 1800, when Thomas Wedgwood made the first reliably documented although unsuccessful attempt. In the mid-1820s, Nicéphore Niépce succeeded, but several days of exposure in the camera were required and the earliest results were very crude. Niépce's associate Louis Daguerre went on to develop the daguerreotype process, the first publicly announced photographic process, which required only minutes of exposure in the camera and produced clear, finely detailed results. It was commercially introduced in 1839, a date generally accepted as the birth year of practical photography.

The metal-based daguerreotype process soon had some competition from the paper-based calotype negative and salt print processes invented by Henry Fox Talbot. Subsequent innovations reduced the required camera exposure time from minutes to seconds and eventually to a small fraction of a second; introduced new photographic media which were more economical, sensitive or convenient, including roll films for casual use by amateurs; and made it possible to take pictures in natural color as well as in black-and-white.

Frenchman Daguerre's stunningly beautiful, self-promotingly eponymous daguerreotypes proved to be something of a technological dead end. Amongst other drawbacks, they could not be reproduced. Which is why, if the historians of science will allow me, my totally unbiased vote goes to Englishman Fox Talbot, with his invention of the photographic negative, as the true Father of Photography.

As a sop to the historians, I should point out that Fox Talbot received more than a little help from the astronomer John Herschel, who had previously found that hyposulfite of soda dissolved silver salts. This discovery made it possible for Fox Talbot to ‘fix’ his exposed negatives, thereby preventing them from fading in daylight—an idea subsequently copied, without acknowledgement, by Daguerre. Kudos also goes to Herschel, incidentally, for inventing the word ‘photography’, and re-purposing the mathematical concept of a ‘negative’ into a photographic context.

Thomas Wedgwood (1771–1805)

Thomas Wedgwood (1771–1805)

Ah! But what about poor Thomas Wedgwood? The chap who, as far as we know, first had the frankly brilliant idea of trying to get a camera obscura to produce images automatically on materials coated in light-sensitive chemicals. He even succeeded, to a limited extent. Doesn't he deserve some credit? He might not have been the Father of Photography, but does he not at least deserve to be dubbed its Uncle?

Quite possibly.

He was also, entirely coincidentally, the uncle of none other than Charles Darwin.

The Darwin bicentennial oak, 6 years on

The Darwin Bicentennial Oak

Planted 12-Feb-2009

The Darwin bicentennial oak, 6 years on

12-Feb-2015

 

Six years ago today, I planted the Darwin Bicentennial Oak in my garden. I am pleased to report that it is doing well, and is now taller than me—not that that's saying much.

This tree-growing malarkey is a long-term commitment.

I have now spent six years gathering material for the longest time-lapse movie ever. Or should that be shortest?

Charles Darwin on the family tree of languages

Today's Guardian has a lovely diagram illustrating the Indo-European and Uralic family trees:

Language family trees

Charles Darwin loved to hypothesise. In chapter 13 of ‘On the Origin of Species’, using the classification of languages as an analogy to the classification of species, he hypothesises that the family tree of languages must closely reflect the family tree of the different races of mankind that speak them:

If we possessed a perfect pedigree of mankind, a genealogical arrangement of the races of man would afford the best classification of the various languages now spoken throughout the world; and if all extinct languages, and all intermediate and slowly changing dialects, had to be included, such an arrangement would, I think, be the only possible one. Yet it might be that some very ancient language had altered little, and had given rise to few new languages, whilst others (owing to the spreading and subsequent isolation and states of civilisation of the several races, descended from a common race) had altered much, and had given rise to many new languages and dialects. The various degrees of difference in the languages from the same stock, would have to be expressed by groups subordinate to groups; but the proper or even only possible arrangement would still be genealogical; and this would be strictly natural, as it would connect together all languages, extinct and modern, by the closest affinities, and would give the filiation and origin of each tongue.

As usual, Darwin is pretty much on the ball. The family tree of languages does indeed closely reflect human history, albeit with one or two anomalies. For example, nobody seems to have a blind clue where the Basque language fits in.