Friends of Charles Darwin - combined feed (blog posts, articles, newsletters, and reviews). All new blog posts, articles, newsletters, and reviews from the Friends of Charles Darwin. en-gb Richard Carter, FCD A cat among the pigeons Tue, 28 Aug 2018 14:56:55 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( Could Charles Darwin really have been a moggy murderer? Domestic cats
So-called ‘domesticated’ cats.

As an unabashed Darwin fanboy (and very much not ‘a cat person’), for many years, I’ve been meaning to get to the bottom of a story about my hero that I soooo wanted to be true.

I first came across the story in a book whose reliability I had strong reason to doubt. Over the years, I encountered the story in a couple of other places, but they never cited an original source. So I began to suspect the tale was just another of the many myths invented about Charles Darwin. Which seemed like a terrible shame.

The story, in a nutshell, goes like this:

Charles Darwin’s daughter Henrietta (‘Etty’) owned a beloved cat. One day, Etty’s cat broke into her father’s pigeon coop and killed some of the pigeons from his cross-breeding experiments. Darwin’s brilliantly effective solution to prevent the problem reoccurring was to secretly kill his daughter’s cat!

Like I say, I really wanted this story to be true. So, a few months back, I decided it was time to confirm or refute the tale once and for all.

After much online searching, I eventually tracked down a tantalising clue in one of Darwin’s more obscure notebooks (about pigeon hybridisation):

Oct. 23/1857.
Hybrid killed by cat — black all over from
(Runt red ♂ Trumpeter white ♀ X Barb ♂ Almond Tumber ♀)
Barb ♂ black. Fantail white ♀

A SMOKING GUN!! One of his hybrids was definitely killed by a cat! Could Charles Darwin really have been a moggy murderer?

I was on the scent now!

After many fruitless hours rooting through my extensive Darwin library, it finally dawned on me that the small number of books recounting the cat-killing tale did not cite an original source because they had simply paraphrased the story from chapter 21 of Janet Browne’s excellent biography Charles Darwin: Voyaging. And the source of Browne’s account seemed to be a mysterious, unnamed document archived at Cambridge University Library with the reference DAR 246. Some more digging revealed DAR 246 to be the ‘manuscript autobiography’ of Darwin’s daughter Henrietta Litchfield.

After many more fruitless hours trying to locate an online copy of what I now thought of as ‘Etty’s autobiography’, it finally dawned on me to contact my one-time acquaintance John van Wyhe, who runs the excellent Darwin Online website, to ask if I’d somehow missed it there.

Van Wyhe confirmed the document was not available online. But, by a stroke of luck, he happened to be visiting Cambridge University Library at the time. So he immediately went and photographed all 44 pages of the original manuscript.

Which is how I came to volunteer to transcribe Henrietta Emma Litchfield (née Darwin)’s 1926 ‘autobiographical fragment’ for Darwin Online.

Transcribing Etty
Transcribing Etty.

It didn’t take long to track down what I was looking for. Etty takes up the story on p.12:

There was a tragedy connected with a very favourite, but rather fierce tabby cat, named Bullzig. I adored this cat ever since his kitten hood when he lived entirely with me. I was then a sick child often lying on the big dining room sofa and his games were the comfort of my life. When he was grown up, but still my beloved companion, he took to killing the pigeons, which could not of course be submitted to. But I felt the most bitter sense of illusage when one morning I was told he was killed. I thought then, & I think now, I ought to have been told beforehand.


(But it serves you right, Bullzig!)

I was delighted to conclude that Charles Darwin, like me, was very much not ‘a cat person’.

Maureen Brian, FCD (12 June 1942 – 31 July 2018) Tue, 31 Jul 2018 14:08:35 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( I was sad to learn via Facebook that Maureen Brian died earlier today. I was sad to learn via Facebook that Maureen Brian died earlier today. She had been unwell for quite some time.

Maureen lived just down the hill from me, and was single-handedly responsible for arranging PZ Myers’ appearance at the Hebden Bridge Trades Club in 2014.

PZ Myers and Maureen Brian
Maureen Brian with PZ Myers in a Hebden Bridge church(!) in 2014.

After I got to know her, Maureen told me she had met me (sort of) once before: on Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday of all dates! She was the person standing behind me in Hebden Bridge Post Office as I bought an entire sheet of Darwin Bicentennial stamps, which were issued that day. She said she’d been very concerned I might have bought the post office’s entire stock, as she was also after a set!

I’ll miss her occasionally outspoken updates, and frequent ‘likes’ on social media.

See also: PZ Myers - Maureen Brian has died

Book review: ‘Unnatural Selection’ by Katrina van Grouw Wed, 25 Jul 2018 09:35:20 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( Art meets science in this stunningly illustrated book.

Art meets science in this stunningly illustrated book.

Unnatural SelectionA strong contender for my favourite museum is the Natural History branch of the National Museum of Ireland, known locally as The Dead Zoo. It contains none of the child-friendly, interactive gimmickry that seems to blight most museums these days; it’s simply score after score of traditional wood-and-glass cases packed with dead animals, with no hint of a card inviting you to ‘interpret’ the ‘experience’.

In one respect, Katrina van Grouw’s wonderful coffee-table book Unnatural Selection reminded me very much of the Irish Natural History Museum: it has a distinctly old-fashioned feel to it, containing as it does a huge number of fabulous, meticulously detailed, hand-drawn illustrations of selectively bred animals and their skeletons. They’re the sort of illustrations you might expect to find reproduced as etchings in weighty Victorian tomes on animal husbandry. But, thanks to modern image-reproduction technology, the illustrations in this book are far more subtle than any etching. And they really are very wonderful indeed: exquisite drawings of dogs and pigs, pigeons and poultry, sheep, cattle and even budgerigars.

There, the similarity with the Irish Natural History Museum ends. Although the images are undoubtedly the star of the show, they’re accompanied by well-researched text concerning the selective breeding of animals by man.

Unnatural Selection has been published to mark the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s long, lesser-known work The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication. Darwin saw natural selection of organisms in the wild as closely analogous to the selective breeding of domesticated species by humans (the unnatural selection of this book’s title). We might not always think of them in that way, but van Grouw rightly treats domesticated animals as every bit as ‘animal’ as the wild animals from which they’re descended. Whether or not they’re allowed to survive and reproduce by their human breeders is simply another case of selection in action. Perceived usefulness and/or appeal to humans becomes just one more selective pressure on domesticated species: one that can slew their evolution in ways natural selection in the wild might never allow.

I was particularly taken by van Grouw’s excellent example of the British bulldog to illustrate how selective pressures can change for domesticated animals, thereby causing them to evolve new forms. Before the introduction of animal cruelty laws in the UK, bulldogs, as their name implies, were selected for their ability to fight bulls. This selection was carried out primarily (and unwittingly) by the bulls themselves: those dogs that were unsuccessful at fighting bulls, unsurprisingly, tended not to leave many offspring! Once bull-baiting was banned, bulldogs continued to be bred for show purposes. Whether or not individual dogs were allowed to reproduce was now determined by how closely they matched the breeders’ ideal of what a bulldog should look like. The selective pressure had changed from fighting ability to meeting breeders’ aesthetic standards. The resulting change in the shape of bulldogs’ skulls was rapid and remarkable, as illustrated by van Grouw’s startling before and after illustrations. A modern-day pedigree bulldog would stand little chance in a face-off against an angry bovine.

Echoing Darwin, van Grouw divides her book into sections entitled ‘Origin’, ‘Inheritance’, ‘Variation’, and ‘Selection’. She covers a host of subjects, including species classification, plasticity of forms, selection and variation, the genetics of inheritance, mutations, and the various types of selection. Her text explores how the different factors that drive evolution affect domestic and wild species alike. Darwin would have loved this book.

My only (very minor) misgiving about the book was its sheer physical size. Even if I hadn’t been recovering from a hernia operation when he read it, I would have found a smaller book more manageable. But a smaller book would not do service to the marvellous illustrations. Between the competing selective pressures for a more manageable size and doing justice to the illustrations, the illustrations won out—as well they should.

Highly recommended.

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher.

Book review: ‘The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being’ by Alice Roberts Mon, 09 Jul 2018 12:52:54 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( Evolution and the making of us.

Evolution and the making of us.

The Incredible Unlikeliness of BeingA few years back, I went to see my doctor. I’d been experiencing a number of apparently unrelated minor ‘symptoms’. I wanted to make sure the symptoms really were minor and unrelated, and not due to some more serious, underlying, undiagnosed condition. One of my symptoms was a recurring, dull pain in my left shoulder. I could never work out precisely where the pain was coming from, but it was, I explained, “definitely somewhere in the shoulder region”.

My doctor smiled and said she knew exactly what my problem was, as she experienced it too! Like me, she suffered occasional bouts of acid reflux in her stomach. When acid reflux kicks in, excess gases expand the stomach wall, putting pressure on your diaphragm. One of the nerves associated with the diaphragm runs a convoluted route via the left shoulder blade and hooks up with the rest of the nervous system in the neck. So, when my acid reflux kicked in, I experienced pain signals that seemed to be coming from my shoulder, but which were actually coming from my diaphragm.

Thanks to Alice Roberts’s excellent book The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being, I now know the culprit to be one of my two phrenic nerves. It turns out the phrenic nerves’ convoluted paths through my body are a consequence of both our species’ evolutionary history, and the complex way in which the unfolding blob that was to become me developed in the womb.

Alice Roberts is my favourite TV science presenter. She has a rare talent for simplifying scientific ideas without dumbing them down. I don’t know whether she ever has to stand her ground against producers exhibiting the modern preference for simplistic explanations, but I like to think she occasionally has to insist on being allowed to use (and explain) the correct scientific terminology. In other words, to treat her audience like grown-ups.

I’m glad to report Roberts writes in very much the same style as she presents. There is plenty of scientific terminology in this book, and some of the concepts explained are complex, but the writing simplifies without surrendering to the simplistic. It’s the sort of writing that makes you feel cleverer simply for having read it. Being treated like a grown-up can have that effect on people.

The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being takes us on a head-to-toe (then back up to the arms) tour of the human body. It shows how the vestiges of our evolutionary history are written into our bones and organs. Our bodies are compromises, constrained by physics, and by our heritage: Inelegant Design, as I like to think of it, in stark contrast to the Intelligent Design our bodies would presumably exhibit, had they really been put together from scratch by an omnipotent, omniscient, benevolent creator. It’s a subject that interests me very much, sneaking its way several times into my own book, On the Moor: science, history and nature on a country walk.

But The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being is not just about pointing out our design flaws. It celebrates the marvellous, frankly bonkers way in which our bodies are constructed in the womb. It explains what we can tell about our evolutionary predecessors by looking both at their remains, and at our own bodies. It discusses conflicting hypotheses about various bodily structures, and how we now know some of these to be wrong. And it does all this with charm, intelligence, appropriate humour, and excellent line-illustrations courtesy of the author.

Highly recommended.

Newsletter No. 1: Auspicious date Sun, 01 Jul 2018 09:07:28 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( Our very first newsletter went out on 160th anniversary of Charles Darwin finally going public with his Theory of Evolution by Means of Natural Selection. As anniversaries go, that’s a biggie… Darwin newsletter


Dear Friend of Darwin,

Today seems an auspicious date on which to launch the Friends of Charles Darwin newsletter. Not that we science fans think some dates might be luckier than others. But today marks the 160th anniversary of Charles Darwin finally going public with his Theory of Evolution by Means of Natural Selection. As anniversaries go, that’s a biggie. So why not launch our newsletter today?

Darwin was famously startled into going public after receiving a letter from Alfred Russel Wallace. The letter included a paper describing a theory uncannily like the one Darwin had been working on for twenty years. To ensure Darwin didn’t end up being scooped, a couple of his friends arranged for Wallace’s paper to be read alongside some older, unpublished papers of Darwin’s. This took place at the Linnean Society of London on 1st July 1858.

The members of the Linnean Society were completely underwhelmed by the joint paper, but the shock of nearly being scooped startled Darwin into writing a brief ‘abstract’ of his theory. That abstract was published the following year. It was entitled On the Origin of Species.

Full article: 01-Jul–1858: Darwin goes public

Missing Links

Some Darwin- and evolution-related stories that caught my eye recently:

  1. Friend or food? Why Venus flytraps don’t eat their pollinators
    Darwin wrote an entire book about insectivorous plants, and performed all manner of weird experiments on them. But how do Darwin’s beloved Venus flytraps avoid trapping and digesting the insects that pollinate them?

  2. How an extraordinary letter to Darwin spotted industrial melanism in moths
    Interesting article about an apparently unanswered letter to Charles Darwin suggesting Natural Selection might be favouring industrial melanism (evolving a darker colour) in moths. Industrial melanism is often cited as a textbook example of Natural Selection in action.

  3. Did flowering plants evolve on a lost continent, like Darwin imagined?
    Knowing nothing about Continental Drift, Darwin hypothesised that flowering plants might first have evolved on a lost continent or large island. Turns out his idea might not have been quite so fanciful as it might sound.

  4. How evolution turned a possum into a wolf
    A nice new video about convergent evolution, explaining the difference between homologous and analogous features.

For regular links like these, please like and follow the Friends of Charles Darwin Facebook page.

Natural Selections

Some book recommendations for you:

The Ascent of John Tyndall
by Roland Jackson
An excellent, long-overdue biography of scientist, pioneering mountaineer, and friend of Charles Darwin John Tyndall: the man who explained the physics behind the Greenhouse Effect, why the sky is blue, and a whole bunch of other stuff.
Dispelling the Darkness
by John van Wyhe
A fascinating, meticulously researched exploration, debunking numerous misunderstandings, myths, and conspiracy theories surrounding Alfred Russel Wallace and his ‘co-discovery’ of natural selection with Charles Darwin. Wallace and Darwin: what’s not to like?
Darwin’s Backyard
by James T Costa
An enjoyable exploration of Charles Darwin the experimeter. Find out how and why Darwin carried out his long-term experimental research programme into such diverse topics as: barnacles, the dispersal mechanisms of plants, and the intelligence and actions of earthworms.

Journal of Researches

When friends found out I’d finally written a book, they naturally assumed it was about Charles Darwin. Well, yes, to some extent. Darwin makes several guest appearances throughout On the Moor: science, history and nature on a country walk. But, as the title implies, the book is really an eclectic mix of science-, history- and nature-writing.

As you might expect, my next book is likely to be far more Darwin-centric. I recently blogged about the problem writing a book about Charles Darwin. It’s early days yet, but I’m beginning to get a feel for what shape the book might take (and I don’t just mean rectangular).

As a way to spur myself on, I plan to make occasional progress reports about the book via the blog and in this newsletter. Nothing too detailed, but snippets about the stuff I’ve been finding out. Recently, I’ve been reading up on Alfred Russel Wallace and Darwin’s experiments (hence the book recommendations above).

A large part of the fun of writing my Moor book was going off on tangents, following hunches inspired by my research. The book about Darwin’s experiments has now got me thinking I need to start looking (quite literally) into foxgloves. More on this, maybe, in a future update.

Expression of Emotions

That’s all for the inaugural Friends of Charles Darwin newsletter. I hope it met your expectations. I’d like it to be useful and entertaining, so please feel free to send me feedback (positive or negative). And please forward it to any friends you think might enjoy it, suggesting they might like to subscribe for themselves.

Richard Carter, FCD
Book review: ‘Darwin’s Backyard’ by James T Costa Thu, 28 Jun 2018 13:14:51 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( How small experiments led to a big theory.

How small experiments led to a big theory.

Darwin’s BackyardFor many years, one of the many items on my list of books and articles I might one day write has been ‘Book about Charles Darwin’s experiments’. Now I know exactly how Darwin must have felt when he received Alfred Russel Wallace's bombshell letter: SCOOPED, DAMMIT!

The good news is I was right in thinking there was a fascinating book to be written about Darwin’s extensive, often eccentric, experiments. The even better news is that James T Costa has written that very book (and, I must begrudgingly concede, the result is far better than anything I might have come up with).

Darwin’s Backyard is highly readable, meticulously researched exploration of Charles Darwin the experimeter. With typical self-deprecating humour, Darwin famously remarked ‘I love fools’ experiments. I am always making them.’ This book describes Darwin’s long-term experimental research programme into such diverse topics as: barnacles, pigeons, honeycombs, the dispersal mechanisms of plants, the intelligence and actions of earthworms, insectivorous plants, pollination, flower morphology, and plant movement. This is a man who fed cheese to plants, who left dead birds floating in water for weeks on end, and who serenaded earthworms with bassoon and piano.

Costa is particularly good at explaining why Darwin’s often goofy-sounding experiments were anything but foolish. They all explored and supported his great theory of evolution by means of Natural Selection. Costa is also very good at explaining what Darwin got right, where he occasionally went wrong, and what we now know about the subjects under investigation. Each chapter ends with some suggestions for experiments you might like to try yourself.

My only trifling quibble with this book was its title and subtitle. In the UK, a ‘back yard’ is a small enclosed area at the back of a house, usually paved in cobblestones, concrete, or bricks. To refer to Darwin’s magnificent gardens at Down House in this way (and to keep referring to the autumn as ‘the fall’) was jarring for this British reader. The pedant in me would also take issue with the subtitle, ‘how small experiments led to a big theory’. While in some cases this might be true, I would suggest the reverse was true in many cases: it was Darwin's great theory that inspired his experiments—and many thousands of experiments since.

But trifling/pedantic quibbles aside, this is a fantastic book. Highly recommended.

Book review: ‘Dispelling the Darkness’ by John van Wyhe Mon, 18 Jun 2018 11:26:07 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( Voyage in the Malay Archipelago and the discovery of evolution by Wallace and Darwin.

Voyage in the Malay Archipelago and the discovery of evolution by Wallace and Darwin.

Dispelling the DarknessAs an unashamed, self-confessed Darwin groupie, I should perhaps come clean at the start by saying that, although I also have a major soft-spot for Alfred Russel Wallace, the recent tendency to describe him as ‘forgotten’ or ‘overlooked’ or ‘the discoverer of evolution you’ve never heard of’ irks me immensely. Alfred Russel Wallace has always been, and remains, an important figure in the history of the biological (and geographical) sciences. The fact that he is not as famous as Charles Darwin is hardly surprising: few other scientists are. While Alfred Russel Wallace did indeed independently come up with an idea uncannily similar to Darwin’s Natural Selection, he is not as famous as Darwin, quite simply, because he did not write On the Origin of Species. Wallace was a fascinating character who made genuinely important contributions to science. We should celebrate him in his own right; not constantly refer to him as somehow being overshadowed by Darwin.

John van Wyhe takes the main title for his book from a quote by Thomas Henry Huxley, who referred to Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace having ‘dispelled the darkness’ at ‘the heart of the species problem’. But van Wyhe dispels plenty of darkness himself in this enjoyable, meticulously researched work. In particular, he debunks numerous misunderstandings, myths, and conspiracy theories surrounding Alfred Russel Wallace and his ‘co-discovery’ of natural selection with Charles Darwin.

The book concentrates primarily on Wallace’s time collecting specimens in the Malay Archipelago. Interspersed amongst accounts of Wallace’s travels, van Wyhe explores how Wallace developed important theories concerning the succession of species, the distribution of species, and, most famously, what we now think of as natural selection. In the process, van Wyhe debunks such ideas as:

  • Wallace being ‘overlooked’ because he was working class. (He was middle class.)
  • Wallace’s original concept of how natural selection works being identical to Darwin’s. (They were certainly similar, but there were important differences.)
  • Wallace’s theory of evolution being identical to Darwin’s. (Darwin, with a twenty-year head-start on Wallace, unsurprisingly, took numerous factors into account that Wallace never considered, including, as Wallace himself noted after first reading Origin: “the laws of variation, correlation of growth, sexual selection, the origin of instincts & of neuter insects, & the true explanation of Embryological affinities”.)
  • Wallace having written his famous paper about natural selection on the island of Gilolo, not Ternate, as he himself recorded. (A seemingly trivial detail important to some conspiracy theories.)
  • Wallace having written this paper with the original intent of sending it to Darwin;
  • Wallace, like Darwin, having originally been inspired in his evolutionary theorising by the writings of Thomas Malthus;
  • Wallace having been inspired in his evolutionary thinking by the racial affinities of the natives of the Malay Archipelago;
  • Darwin and his friends having conspired to deprive Wallace of due credit for the theory of natural selection;
  • Darwin having stolen the very idea of Natural Selection from Wallace;
  • Wallace having been disappointed at not receiving enough credit;
  • Darwin having deliberately delayed publishing his evolutionary theory out of fear of the scandal it would cause.

On the whole, I think van Wyhe makes an excellent job of debunking these ideas while in no way diminishing Wallace’s contributions to science. As I’m a self-confessed Darwin groupie, you (and no doubt the conspiracy theorists) might expect me to say that. But van Wyhe is careful to show his historian’s reasoning. He demonstrates time and again how Wallace was pretty hopeless at accurately recording dates (so his dates should not always be taken at face value). He demonstrates how timelines concocted by conspiracy theorists are either wrong, or make uncompelling conclusions if you dig deeper (e.g. into the timetables of shipping companies). He demonstrates how conspiracy theorists use inconsistent standards of evidence depending on whether it supports or weakens their arguments. And he demonstrates that there is nothing unusual (and, therefore, necessarily sinister) in there being missing documentation. It is not just fossil records that contain gaps!

I enjoyed this book even more than I expected. It probably won’t convince any conspiracy theorists, but what evidence ever would? But van Wyhe cuts through the bullshit to restore Wallace to his rightful place in the scientific pantheon.

Highly recommended.

Disclosure: I have met John van Wyhe once. In 2009, he gave me and another Darwin groupie a private viewing of Charles Darwin’s old rooms at Christ’s College Cambridge. He also runs the excellent website Darwin Online, without which much of my own (amateur) historical research into matters Darwinian would be far more difficult.

The problem writing a book about Charles Darwin Fri, 25 May 2018 14:15:19 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( …there are so damn many of the things already, how do you make your book different? Darwin ape cartoonWhen friends found out I’d finally written a book, they naturally assumed it was about Charles Darwin. To be a friend of mine is to be accustomed to having Darwin slipped into pretty much every conversation. My friends seemed almost shocked to learn my book is, in fact, about my adventures on the local moor. (They seemed considerably less shocked to learn Darwin has somehow been slipped into many of its chapters.)

But everyone who has expressed an opinion on the matter says just one thing:

‘…but your next book is going to be about Darwin, right?’

Well, that’s certainly the plan.

But there’s a problem writing a book about Charles Darwin. There are so damn many of the things already, how do you make your book different? Which is why I’ve been banging my head against the wall for the last few months.

The way I see it, there’s no need for yet another Darwin biography. And there are people far better qualified than me to write about the latest in evolutionary theory. And the vague idea I had for a book about Darwin’s ‘fools experiments’ has just been done. You name it, the topic’s been covered. I mean, there’s even a book of poems about the dude. So, what should I do? What can I say that hasn’t already been said? What have I got going for me that other writers haven’t already got gone?

It seems to me, my main strength as a writer on matters Darwinian is I’m a unabashed fanboy. A self-confessed Darwin groupie. A Darwin nerd who can string a few sentences together. I’m someone who delights in both the trivia and the essentials of Darwin’s life and works. Someone who, as I say, has something of a reputation for slipping Darwin into pretty much every conversation.

Feedback from my Moor book suggests people enjoyed both its eclectic nature and its humour. They also liked learning new stuff. Eclectic, occasionally humorous stuff about Charles Darwin: I can do that!

So, that’s my plan, such as it is: an assortment of pieces on all things Darwinian. A celebration of the great man’s life and work that doesn’t take itself too seriously. A book non-Darwin groupies might read and remark, ‘Oh, actually, that’s quite interesting!’

I haven’t managed to come up with a decent title for the book yet. All the good ones have been taken. But my working subtitle is a Darwinian Selection (see what I did, there?).

What do you reckon? Has this idea got fully opposable thumbs, or what?

14-May-1856: Darwin starts writing his ‘big species book’ Mon, 14 May 2018 13:31:17 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( On 14 May 1856, Charles Darwin recorded in his journal that, on the advice of his friend Charles Lyell, after almost 20 years exploring the subject, he had finally begun writing a ‘sketch’ of his ideas on species. Stauffer - Natural SelectionOn 14 May 1856, Charles Darwin recorded in his journal that, on the advice of his friend Charles Lyell, after almost 20 years exploring the subject, he had finally begun writing a ‘sketch’ of his ideas on species.

Lyell was anxious for Darwin to get something down on paper quickly to establish his scientific priority. He was worried his friend might be scooped. But Darwin, being Darwin, soon introduced some humongous scope-creep into his project. He stopped referring to the manuscript as a ‘sketch’, and began thinking of it has his ‘big species book’. He worked diligently on the book for the next couple of years, until events overtook him.

On 18th June 1858, Darwin received a bombshell in the form of a letter from Alfred Russel Wallace, who had independently come up with the theory of Natural Selection while collecting specimens in the Malayan Archipelago (modern day Indonesia). A distraught Darwin immediately wrote to Lyell saying, ‘Your words have come true with a vengeance that I shd be forestalled.’ It looked as if Darwin was, indeed, about to be scooped!

Lyell and Joseph Dalton Hooker quickly arranged for a joint paper, comprising an extract of Wallace’s letter and some earlier papers Darwin had previously shared with them, to be read at a meeting of the Linnean Society of London on 1st July 1858. This officially secured joint priority for Darwin and Wallace, although Lyell and Hooker’s own priority was surely to ensure their friend was not unfairly forestalled in the eyes of the scientific establishment.

The scare finally provoked Darwin into pulling his socks up. He put aside his planned big species book, and immediately began writing a shorter version of it that was published the following year. This supposed ‘extract’ of his big species book was entitled: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. As extracts go, it’s an absolute classic.

Sadly, Darwin was never to finish writing his big species book. However, its first two chapters were later used as the basis of Darwin’s 1868 book Variation of Plants and Animals Under Domestication. Some of the rest of his draft was published posthumously in 1975 under the title Charles Darwin’s Natural Selection: Being the Second Part of his Big Species Book Written from 1856 to 1858.

Re. Joyce Mon, 07 May 2018 16:08:10 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( How the Friends of Charles Darwin motto was pre-empted by James Joyce. Twitter user Sandra Tropp (@SandyTropp) last week drew my attention to the fact that, in his notoriously cryptic Finnegans Wake, James Joyce makes use of a pun very similar to the Friends of Charles Darwin tagline. Here’s the quote (my emphasis added):

The thing is he must be put strait 2 on the spot, no mere waterstichystuff in a selfmade world that you can’t believe a word he’s written in, not for pie, but one’s only owned by naturel rejection. Charley, you’re my darwing! So sing they sequent the assent of man. Till they go round if they go roundagain before breakparts and all dismissed. They keep. Step keep. Step. Stop. Who is Fleur? Where is Ange? Or Gardoun?

(No, me neither.)

It was in 1994 that my late friend and Friends of Charles Darwin co-founder, Fitz, came up with our Charlie is our Darwin motto: a pun on Robert Burns’s Charlie, He’s My Darling—a song about Bonnie Prince Charlie.

I’m pretty sure Fitz would have been delighted to hear he’d been pre-empted by 55 years by none other than James Joyce.

Book review: ‘The Ascent of John Tyndall’ by Roland Jackson Tue, 20 Mar 2018 14:38:35 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD ( A long-overdue biography of the Victorian scientist, mountaineer, and public intellectual.

A long-overdue biography of the Victorian scientist, mountaineer, and public intellectual.

The Ascent of John TyndallThe Victorian physicist John Tyndall is one of those figures who tend to appear on the periphery of other people’s biographies. He socialised and worked with many famous individuals, and was himself famous and influential in his day. But his fame rapidly diminished after his tragic death.

Roland Jackson suggests, at the conclusion of this excellent biography, that Tyndall’s relative obscurity these days can be attributed to three factors: (1) his wife’s failure to produce a planned biography meant no biography appeared until 1945 (over 50 years after Tyndall’s death); (2) Tyndall was a great experimentalist, rather than theoretician, and it is the theoreticians who tend to be remembered in physics; (3) Tyndall was one of the last of the great classical physicists, missing out on the revolutionary discoveries that took place in his chosen field within a few years of his death. By the time the first biography appeared, Tyndall’s physics was, in some respects, out of fashion.

Tyndall’s reputation is due a renaissance. As the person who explained the physics behind what is now known as the Greenhouse Effect, he deserves to be better known at a time when human-induced climate change is finally being recognised as one of the most pressing concerns of our age (at least by those who don’t have a vested interest in denying it).

In addition to the Greenhouse Effect, Tyndall is perhaps best known for explaining why the sky is blue. Indeed, he receives honourable mention regarding both these subjects in my book On the Moor: Science, History and Nature on a Country Walk. But, I must confess, my knowledge of Tyndall’s science pretty much ended with these two subjects until I read this extensive biography. True, I did know he was a member of the X-Club: a dining society of scientific friends, who campaigned on behalf of naturalistic science (and, therefore, against the encroachment of theology into scientific matters). I also knew that he was a friend of Charles Darwin, climbed the Matterhorn, and was accidentally killed by his wife (see my book for more details). But I had no idea Tyndall had explained how atmospheric conditions can affect the transmission of sound (another topic touched on in my book). Nor did I know he was a forceful proponent of atomic theory, ether theory, and the germ theory of disease. Nor that his investigations into germ theory and other topics led to his invention of a new sterilisation process, the firefighting respirator, and to an improved design for foghorns. While these topics might sound eclectic, Jackson shows how they all stemmed from related studies into sound and light transmissions through gases.

For a change, my hero Charles Darwin is very much a peripheral figure himself in this biography. Other scientists, rightly, feature more prominently. The cast of characters is daunting: I would have appreciated a brief dramatis personae at the front of the book to remind me occasionally who some of them were. Notable figures include Robert Bunsen, Heinrich Gustav Magnus, Michael Faraday, Charles Wheatstone, Charles Babbage, Rudolf Clausius, James Joule, John Herschel, William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin), Thomas Henry Huxley, Joseph Dalton Hooker, John Lubbock, George Busk, Herbert Spencer, Richard Owen, James Dewar, and Louis Pasteur. But Tyndall’s extensive social and professional circle didn’t stop at scientists. As well as a generous smattering of the nobility, his friends also included Alfred Lord Tennyson and Thomas Carlyle. Last but by no means least, I have to declare a special interest in Tyndall’s closest friend, the mathematician Thomas Archer Hirst, who, Jackson recently suggested to me following an exchange on Twitter, might possibly have been the previous owner of my personal copy of Tyndall’s last book, New Fragments.

From relatively humble beginnings, Tyndall first worked as a surveyor in his native Ireland before moving to England, where he worked for the railway surveyor (and my magnificent namesake) Richard Carter. It was while he was based in Halifax that he became friends with Hirst. Both later went on to study in Marburg, in what is now Germany. An invitation for Tyndall to give a talk at the Royal Institution, which was deemed a great success, led to further invitations and a job offer from Faraday. Tyndall was to spend the rest of his career at the Royal Institution, where he eventually succeeded Faraday. Like his predecessor, he was greatly admired for the quality of his public lectures, which often involved live demonstrations.

It was ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’, Thomas Henry Huxley, who first seems to have interested Tyndall in the study of glaciers. Tyndall’s subsequent trip to the Alps led to a life-long love of mountaineering. It was a golden age for the sport, which Tyndall still occasionally treated as a scientific pursuit. Some of his mountaineering exploits sound reckless to modern ears. I was amused at his thinking a bottle of champagne was suitable refreshment when attempting a new alpine peak. That said, Tyndall was the first person to climb the Weisshorn, and, after a number of earlier attempts on the summit, the first to traverse the Matterhorn (which had been conquered only three years earlier, not so much with a bang as by a Whymper).

The Tyndall that emerges from this biography is a fascinating and likeable character. He doesn’t seem to have had much of a sense of humour, but he comes across as a loyal friend, outspoken champion of science, forceful critic, and a man with a strong appreciation for the charms of the female sex (albeit, not for their intellectual abilities). Jackson seems to find his subject likeable too, although he is not above criticising Tyndall for his sexism, and occasional disingenuities and inconsistencies.

Jackson is one of the editors on the ongoing John Tyndall Correspondence Project. As well as in his copious correspondence, Tyndall’s life is well documented through journals, scientific papers, newspapers, periodicals, and books. The amount of documentation available means Jackson has been able to stick to the facts, without the need for too much conjecture (the bane of many biographies). He has also adopted a mainly chronological approach when telling the story of Tyndall’s life. This always strikes me as the best approach in biographies, although it does make the accounts of Tyndall’s yearly lecturing and mountaineering cycles occasionally repetitive.

The Ascent of John Tyndall is a long-overdue, magnificent tribute to an important, but largely under-appreciated scientist.

Highly recommended.


  • I received a free, advanced review copy of this book from the publisher;
  • as explained in the above review, I have previously had brief contact with Roland Jackson via Twitter and email concerning my copy of Tyndall’s last book.
Book reviews: ‘Charles Darwin: Voyaging’ • ‘Charles Darwin: The Power of Place’ Wed, 07 Mar 2018 14:19:29 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD ( A magnificent two-volume biography.

A magnificent two-volume biography.

Charles Darwin: Voyaging / The Power of Place

Janet Browne’s magnificent two-volume biography of Charles Darwin is the one against which all others must now be judged.

Volume 1, Voyaging, takes us from Darwin’s birth in 1809 to his decision in 1856 finally to start work on the ‘species sketch’ that would become On the Origin of Species. In between, we learn about his school days; his abortive studies in medicine at Edinburgh; his university days at Cambridge; his five-year voyage around the world aboard HMS Beagle; his rise to prominence as a man of science; his early publications; his devising of, and early research into, his theory of evolution by means of natural selection; and his marriage to his cousin Emma Wedgwood, and their settlement in their perma-home at Down House in Kent.

Volume 2, The Power of Place, resumes the story, taking us from the 1858 bombshell letter from Alfred Russel Wallace, indicating Darwin was in danger of being scooped, to Darwin’s death and Westminster Abbey funeral in 1882. In between, we have On the Origin of Species and all Darwin’s subsequent books, from orchids to The Ascent of Man to earthworms.

I’ve often said, and continue to maintain, that the best way to get to know Darwin is to read his copious correspondence. Janet Browne worked for a number of years on the Darwin Correspondence Project, and her work there very much informs this wonderful biography. Browne is particularly good on Darwin the strategist and tactician, showing how, through the medium of the letter, he developed and made highly effective use of a widespread social network.

Browne is also excellent on how Darwin’s more obscure works (on such apparently diverse subjects as coral reefs, orchids, insectivorous plants, sexual selection, movement in plants, variation, expressions of emotions, and earthworms) fitted into a bigger picture. I was particularly interested in her take on Darwin’s barnacle work. Darwin’s eight-year study into barnacles is usually presented (correctly) as a somewhat excessive precautionary attempt to establish his credentials as an acknowledged expert on a particular group of species. He felt he need such credentials before having the temerity to announce a theory claiming to explain the evolution of all species. But Browne shows how Darwin’s barnacle work also helped influence his theory, making him fully appreciate the amount of variation to be found in nature.

It is not possible to do justice to over 1,000 pages of magnificent biography in such a brief review, but, if you want to get to know Charles Darwin (and you’re not prepared to read the 25 volumes and counting of his published Correspondence), you would be well advised to start here.

Book review: ‘Charles Darwin: Vol.2: The Power of Place’ by Janet Browne Wed, 07 Mar 2018 13:00:33 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD ( Part 2 of an entertaining two-part biography of Charles Darwin.

Part 2 of an entertaining two-part biography of Charles Darwin.

Charles DarwinCharles Darwin: The Power of Place is part 2 of Janet Browne’s two-part Darwin biography.

You can read my combined review of both volumes here.

Book review: ‘Charles Darwin: Vol.1: Voyaging’ by Janet Browne Wed, 07 Mar 2018 12:59:40 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD ( Part 1 of an entertaining two-part biography of Charles Darwin.

Part 1 of an entertaining two-part biography of Charles Darwin.

Charles DarwinCharles Darwin: Voyaging is part 1 of Janet Browne’s two-part Darwin biography.

You can read my combined review of both volumes here.

24 not out… So, what next? Fri, 02 Mar 2018 00:00:26 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD ( Today (2nd March 2018) marks the Friends of Charles Darwin's 24th birthday… Time, perhaps for something of a relaunch! 24Today (2nd March 2018) marks the Friends of Charles Darwin’s 24th birthday. Happy birthday to us!

At midnight last night, the Charles Darwin £10 note, for which we originally campaigned, finally became extinct.

Time, perhaps for something of a relaunch.

Although you’d never guess it from appearances, I’ve been working hard behind the scenes over the last few months, making numerous much-needed improvements to the website. I’ll spare you the technical details, but the Reviews and Articles sections will be a lot easier for me to maintain in future. I’ve also converted some of the old, blog posts into proper articles—especially those that celebrate anniversaries of one form or another, which might come in handy again in future years.

I’ll keep making improvements to the website over the next few months. The general idea is to bring the site more up to date, and, in particular, to make it more suitable for sharing stuff on social media—which is where all the cool kids hang out these days, apparently.

I published my first book last year. Although, as you might expect, Darwin, the history of science, and evolution feature in it quite a lot, it was never intended as a Darwin-related book. My next book is likely to be decidedly Darwin-related. So, I’m planning to start blogging here more often about stuff I uncover during my research. Obviously, I’ll also include reviews of any relevant books I (re-)read during the writing process. So, watch this space…

I’m also about to start a Friends of Charles Darwin newsletter. Nothing too spammy, you understand: I’m thinking maybe one newsletter every couple of months or so. So please sign up—even if you already asked to be added to the mailing list when you became a member (after 24 years, our existing mailing list is completely out of date, so it makes sense to start afresh).

Subscribe to the newsletter:

What else? I guess we’ll find out. But my intention is to start posting more stuff with more regularity on the Friends of Charles Darwin website, Twitter feed, and Facebook page.

If you have any suggestions about other things you’d like to see from the Friends of Charles Darwin, please feel free to add a comment below, or to get in touch directly.

The end of the Darwin tenner Thu, 01 Mar 2018 00:00:37 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD ( The Charles Darwin £10 note will cease to be legal tender at 23:59 GMT on 1st March 2018. Time to reflect… and to announce our new newsletter. As extinction events go, the dating of this one is pretty precise: the Bank of England’s Charles Darwin £10 note will cease to be legal tender at 23:59 GMT tonight (1st March 2018).

Darwin £10 notes
Some magnificent Darwin tenners.

The notes had a great run: formally announced on 17 May 2000, and issued on 7 November the same year, the Darwin tenner graced many a purse, wallet, and back pocket for almost 18 years. But Darwin would be the first to point out that everything is bound to go extinct in the end. The Darwin bank note has now been replaced by an austentatious plastic monstrosity. Which just goes to show not all evolutionary change is progress. Still, life goes on…

From a personal point of view, the timing of the demise of the Darwin tenner is spectacularly unfortunate, falling as it does precisely one minute before the Friends of Charles Darwin’s  24th birthday. My friend Fitz and I founded the Friends in the Red Lion pub, Parkgate, Wirral on 2nd March 1994, when we wrote to the Bank of England to point out a certain ‘glaring omission’ from their bank notes. Thus began our campaign to see Darwin depicted on a Bank of England note.

In all honesty, I can’t with any real conviction claim we were instrumental in getting Darwin portrayed on the tenner, but I like to think we helped. And we certainly celebrated like hell when the Bank of England finally saw the light:

The founders celebrating
Fitz (L) and me (R), celebrating the announcement of the Darwin tenner.

Time moves on at an alarming pace. Is it really 18 years since Fitz and I partied like it was 1999? I am considerably thinner on top and more grey-haired than I was back then, and poor old Fitz is considerably less alive. After he died in 2014, I took steps to ensure he was buried with a crisp Darwin tenner, just in case the ferryman demanded a fare. I miss the daft, old bugger.

Considering the Friends of Charles Darwin were created with the sole aim of seeing our hero celebrated on a bank note, and considering we got precisely what we wanted almost 18 years ago, it could be argued we’ve long outlived our purpose. But, what the hell, there are plenty more self-confessed Darwin groupies out there, so I might as well keep this thing going a while longer. So, if Charlie is your Darwin, and you haven't done so already, please feel free to join us.

Oh, and I’m thinking of starting a newsletter, so please sign up—even if you're already a member (after 24 years, our existing mailing list is very old, and completely out of date, so I thought I should start it afresh).

Subscribe to the newsletter:

Here’s to the next 24 years…

Subscribe to the Friends of Charles Darwin newsletter Sat, 24 Feb 2018 09:10:57 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD ( An occasional newsletter about all things Darwin: what’s not to like? Subscribe here…
Subscribe to the newsletter:
The ghost of John Tyndall solves a mystery (probably) Mon, 12 Feb 2018 14:52:15 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD ( How a Twitter conversation with the ghost of John Tyndall (friend of Charles Darwin), helped identify the likely source of a morbid inscription in one of his books. The case of the morbid book inscription

In December 2013, while visiting one of my favourite second-hand book shops with a friend, I came across a first edition of the essay collection New Fragments by one of Charles Darwin's close friends, the physicist John Tyndall.

I was still working on my book On the Moor: Science, History and Nature on a Country Walk at the time. John Tyndall features prominently in two chapters, so I felt compelled to buy the book. (Well, that was my excuse, and I'm sticking to it.) Perhaps more intriguing than the book itself was the dramatic, hand-written inscription on the title page:

Book inscription
Morbid book inscription.

Transcript: Received at [the?] Temple Chambers on Friday 15th January 1892 (on a bed of sickness that has been well nigh unto death)

I concluded the inevitable blog post about my find with the confident prediction, ‘I guess I'll never know the story behind these words—which is one of the appeals of such enigmatic inscriptions.’

But, hang on! Not so fast, Richard…

Mystery solved?

Four years and three days after coming across the enigmatic inscription, I happened to end up in a Twitter exchange with none other than the ghost of John Tyndall. (Twitter is weird like that.) I took the opportunity to draw his attention to my find:

I think I may know the story behind those words...will get back to you later tomorrow.

— John Tyndall (@ProfTyndall) December 5, 2017


True to his word, the ghost of John Tyndall did indeed get back to me the next day, in the guise of his amanuensis and biographer, Roland Jackson, who wrote:

[T]here’s an outside chance that your book is inscribed by [the mathematician] Thomas [Archer] Hirst. 15 January was publication day and he might have risen from his sickbed to get a copy. He died on 16 February. Tyndall at the time was confined to Hindhead, and the writing isn’t his wife’s (who might have gone to get it but I think there’s no mention in the diary) or his I think.

I attach the only really contemporary letter of Hirst’s we have. His writing seems to have changed quite a bit as he got more and more ill. There are resemblances but I’m not sure strong enough to be definitive. See what you think, making allowances for a sick man scrawling it on his bed.

Here is the attached letter from Hirst:

Hirst letter
Letter from Thomas Archer Hirst to John Tyndall, 04-Jan-1892.
Reproduced by courtesy of the Royal Institution of Great Britain.


4 Jany 1892

My dear John

I have just ordered your dozen of Whisky It ought to reach you tomorrow, or next day, I trust you will continue to like it, at your midday repast.

What do you think of Sir W. Thomson’s new Peerage? People here are wondering what title he will select to bear.

As to your possible change from Hind Head; Spencer has just been saying that he found perfect quiet at Bournemouth. This is worth knowing; for he is almost as sensitive as you are, with respect to quietude at night.

Every yours affectionately | Tom

A letter concerning whisky, containing gossip about the future Lord Kelvin, and with word from (presumably) Herbert Spencer: right up my street!

I'm no handwriting expert, but, as Roland Jackson suggested, I compared my book inscription with the Hirst letter and noticed a number of similarities, namely:

  • the year 1892, which appears in both samples, looks very similar (especially, the elongated, lowered numeral 9, and the curly flourish at the top of the numeral 2);
  • the lower-case ‘m’ in the word ‘midday’, and the (presumably) upper-case ‘M’ in ‘My’ in the letter both have very distinctive curly opening finials. These closely resemble the curly opening finial on the letter ‘n’ in the word ‘nigh’ in the book inscription;
  • (less convincingly) the upper-case ‘T’s in ‘Thomson’ and ‘Tom’ in the letter are similar in style to the upper-case ‘T’ in ‘Temple’ in the book inscription.
Thomas Archer Hirst
Thomas Archer Hirst (1830–1892)

Two other factors to consider:

  1. Thomas Archer Hirst kept an extensive scientific-diary-cum-everyday-book for 47 years. Although the diary does not mention receiving Tyndall's New Fragments, its final entry was dated 18th January 1892—just three days after the date of the book inscription. This would tie in very well with Hirst's being ‘well nigh unto death’. (He died as a result of a major influenza epidemic less than a month later, at his home in Marylebone, London, on 16 February 1892.)
  2. Whoever wrote the inscription in my book was sufficiently interested in the writing of John Tyndall to take delivery of his latest book from their sickbed on the very day it was published. Hirst, being a very close friend of Tyndall, and a voracious science-reader would seem to fit that bill very nicely.

Do I think this conclusively proves my morbid book inscription was indeed written by Tyndall's dear friend Thomas Archer Hirst? No I don't. But do I strongly suspect it was? You betcha!

Pleasing co-incidences

I couldn't let the opportunity occasioned by writing about Thomas Archer Hirst and John Tyndall go by without relating a couple of personally interesting co-incidences about their friendship.

While I was researching Tyndall for my book, I learnt that he and Hirst first became friends as young men while surveying a proposed railway line between Halifax and Keighley, West Yorkshire. Those towns both lie just 20 minutes' drive from my home. More pleasing, however, was it to discover that the man they both worked for was my namesake, the land agent and surveyor Richard Carter.

Shameless plug

On the MoorRead more about John Tyndall (and Charles Darwin, Robert FitzRoy, Sir Thomas Browne, Celtic languages, evolution's kludgy compromises, wheatears, triangulation, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, grouse disease, defining species, DNA barcoding, the Laws of Thermodynamics, the Brontës, snipe courtship, skeletons, rooks, the Greenhouse Effect, blue skies, the songs of skylarks, contrails, and much more) in my book On the Moor: Science, History and Nature on a Country Walk.

The Darwin bicentennial oak, 9 years on Mon, 12 Feb 2018 10:08:54 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD ( Nine years ago today, I planted the Darwin Bicentennial Oak in my garden. See how it‘s doing… The Darwin Bicentennial Oak
The Darwin Bicentennial Oak
The Darwin Bicentennial Oak, 2 years on
The Darwin bicentennial oak, 6 years on
The Darwin bicentennial oak, 7 years on
The Darwin bicentennial oak, 8 years on
The Darwin bicentennial oak, 9 years on

Nine years ago today, I planted the Darwin Bicentennial Oak in my garden. I am pleased to report that it is still doing well.

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

Book review: ‘The Flamingo’s Smile’ by Stephen Jay Gould Sun, 28 Jan 2018 15:52:01 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD ( Reflections in natural history.

Reflections in natural history.

Reflections in natural history.

The Flamingo’s Smile

The fourth of Stephen Jay Gould’s long-running series of popular science essay collections that first appeared in his monthly column in Natural History magazine, The Flamingo’s Smile covers topics which include:

  • the unusual structure of flamingoes’ beaks;
  • the mating habits of praying mantises;
  • animals that change sex;
  • conjoined twins;
  • the Portuguese man-of-war;
  • weird attempts to reconcile geological and biblical timescales and events;
  • Lord Kelvin’s calculations of the age of the earth;
  • the Kinsey Reports;
  • baseball statistics;
  • Ediacaran and other fossils;
  • the Great Chain of Being;
  • the Hottentot Venus;
  • eugenics;
  • Darwin’s poor record-keeping in the Galápagos Islands;
  • corn;
  • the search for extraterrestrial intelligence;
  • extinction events.

As with all of Gould’s essay collections, this is a fantastic book, although I wouldn't classify it amongst my particular favourites. But highly recommended, nevertheless.

Book launch: ‘On the Moor: Science, History and Nature on a Country Walk’ Fri, 24 Nov 2017 09:57:58 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD ( 158 years ago today saw the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Darwin was staying on the edge of Ilkley Moor at the time, just 13 miles as the curlew flies from where I type these words. What better excuse could I possibly need for choosing today to launch my own medium… 158 years ago today saw the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Darwin was staying on the edge of Ilkley Moor at the time, just 13 miles as the curlew flies from where I type these words.

What better excuse could I possibly need for choosing today to launch my own medium opus inspired by another Yorkshire moor…

I’m delighted to announce that my book On the Moor: Science, History and Nature on a Country Walk is now available as both a paperback and Kindle ebook on,, and other international Amazon websites.

On the Moor covers (front and back)

On the Moor shows how a routine walk in the countryside is enhanced by an appreciation of science, history, and natural history. It covers an eclectic mix of topics, with each chapter being inspired by something I encountered or was thinking about during one of my regular walks over the last 25 years on the Moor above my home. These topics include:

  • Charles Darwin’s weird experiments and ailments;
  • the 17th-century skeptic Sir Thomas Browne;
  • Celtic languages;
  • Bronze Age burials;
  • evolution’s kludgy compromises;
  • bird migration;
  • DNA barcoding;
  • skull anatomy;
  • where Earth got its water;
  • the mapping of Great Britain;
  • grouse disease;
  • Scott of the Antarctic;
  • how to define a species;
  • Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath;
  • the Brontës;
  • the Laws of Thermodynamics;
  • why the sky is blue (and sunsets red);
  • the Greenhouse Effect;
  • the songs of skylarks;
  • snipe courtship;
  • vapour trails;
  • rooks’ faces;
  • the best way to cook a wheatear.
  • …Oh, and there’s even a plane crash!

I appreciate I’m a bit biased, but I think you’ll like it.

But don’t feel you have to take my word for it. Here’s what nature writer Neil Ansell had to say about On the Moor:

Richard Carter's fascinating exploration of his local grouse-moor in West Yorkshire digs deep into natural history, human history, prehistory, and the history of science. His writing is grounded, insightful, and frequently hilarious, and he shows how falling in love with your own local patch can be a gateway to the whole world.

Well, exactly, Neil! (The cheque’s in the post.)

…Are you still here? What are you waiting for? GO AND BUY MY BOOK, DAMMIT!

Hello, Algeria! Mon, 23 Oct 2017 09:13:40 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( I am delighted to announce that the Friends of Charles Darwin have their first member from Algeria. AlgeriaI am delighted to announce that the Friends of Charles Darwin have their first member from Algeria: Bounab Youssra of Alger Centre.

We now have members in 98 countries.

Book review: ‘The Panda’s Thumb’ by Stephen Jay Gould Sun, 24 Sep 2017 16:00:33 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( More Reflections in Natural History.

More Reflections in Natural History.

The Panda’s ThumbThe second of Stephen Jay Gould’s long-running series of popular science essay collections that first appeared in his monthly column in Natural History magazine, The Panda’s Thumb covers topics including:

  • how imperfections in organisms’ demonstrate their evolutionary history;
  • Charles Darwin and his theories;
  • human evolution;
  • science and politics;
  • the rate at which evolution occurs;
  • early life;
  • how Nature’s ‘rejects’ were anything but;
  • how animals’ life-spans (and other attributes) are affected by their size.

As with all of Gould’s essay collections, this is a fantastic book.

Highly recommended.

If humans evolved from monkeys, how come there are still monkeys? Sat, 11 Feb 2017 11:25:06 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD ( This is a question frequently posed by creationists—and quite often by perfectly rational people… This is a question frequently posed by creationists—and quite often by perfectly rational people. It betrays a common misunderstanding of how evolution occurs. In this particular case, the answer also depends on what the questioner means by ‘monkeys’.

Simple answer

Human beings did not evolve from modern-day monkeys; human beings and modern-day monkeys both evolved from an extinct common ancestor (which was also, colloquially speaking, ‘a monkey’).

In the huge evolutionary family-tree of all the species that have ever lived on earth, humans and modern-day monkeys are close, living cousins.

The following analogy might help:

My father’s father died many years ago, but he left quite a few living descendants, including me, my sister, and my paternal cousins. To ask the question ‘If humans evolved from monkeys, how come there are still monkeys?’ is a bit like asking me ‘If you are descended from your grandfather, how come your cousins are still alive?’ The question doesn’t make any sense: why shouldn’t my cousins still be alive?

How new species evolve

As I said, asking the question ‘If humans evolved from monkeys, how come there are still monkeys?’ betrays a common misunderstanding of how new species evolve. The question seems to assume any new species must always replace its parent species. Presumably, the questioner is under the misapprehension either that: (a) parent species always evolve in their entirety into descendent species; or (b) descendent species always out-compete their parent species, driving them to extinction. Neither of these assumptions is correct. If they were correct, the total number of species on the planet would never increase, and the ‘family tree’ of species would not be a tree at all, but a vast collection of entirely separate lines (or ladders) of descent. In reality, parent species can spawn several child species, thereby initiating an entire ‘family tree’ of descendent species.

New species usually arise when a relatively small sub-population of an existing species becomes isolated from the rest of the species in some way, and diverges genetically from the parent population.

Circumstances will differ from case to case, but the main cause for this genetic divergence will usually be the two populations’ continuing to adapt to their different environments through Darwinian Natural Selection. But even if the selective pressures in the two environments are very similar, the fact that the two populations are isolated from each other means some genetic divergence is bound to occur. Random changes in the genetic make-up of the two different populations mean they will drift further and further apart over the generations.

If the two populations continue to diverge, and remain isolated long enough to prevent inter-breeding, they will eventually become so different from each other that they can no longer be considered to be the same species. Separation leads to divergence leads to speciation.

So did we evolve from monkeys or not?

As I said at the beginning, it depends on what you mean by ‘monkeys’.

Modern-day ‘monkeys’ comprise two distinct groups: the Old World monkeys (living in Africa, Asia and Gibraltar), and the New World monkeys (living in Central and South America). These ‘monkeys’ form part of the simian family tree, which also includes modern-day apes and us humans.

Around 40 million years ago, a new sub-population branched out from the simian family tree. A small sub-population of this new branch—a twig, if you will—eventually crossed the (much narrower in those days) Atlantic and evolved into the modern-day New World monkeys. The rest of their branch remained in the Old World and eventually became extinct.

The main section of the simian family tree, from which the New World monkeys’ section had branched out, branched again around 25 million years ago. One branch eventually evolved into the modern-day Old World monkeys, the other into the apes (and, eventually, us humans).

Perhaps a simple (bordering on simplistic) diagram might help:

Somewhat counter-intuitively, therefore, humans and Old World monkeys have a more recent common ancestor (i.e. they are more closely related to each other) than Old World and New World monkeys. This, perhaps surprising, conclusion is backed up by masses of morphological and genetic evidence. For example, humans and Old World monkeys have the same number of teeth; New World monkeys have an extra set of premolars.

So, how do you define a monkey?

You could quite reasonably argue that, if modern-day Old World Monkeys are ’monkeys’, and modern-day New World monkeys are ‘monkeys’, then it stands to reason any species descended from their most recent common ancestor must also be ‘a monkey’. But, as we have seen, that includes us. In which case, not only did we humans evolve from monkeys, but we still are monkeys!

But you might equally reasonably choose to exclude humans (and apes) from your definition of monkeys. In which case, the colloquial word ‘monkey’ (as used to refer to both modern-day Old World and modern-day New World monkeys, but not humans or apes) becomes scientifically meaningless. In which case, the original question is also meaningless, as, scientifically speaking, there is no such thing as ‘a monkey’!

13-Jan-1833: The day HMS Beagle nearly sank Wed, 13 Jan 2016 16:58:43 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD ( Charles Darwin's closest brush with death during the Beagle voyage came on Sunday 13th January 1833, near that most infamous of nautical perils, Cape Horn. Charles Darwin’s closest brush with death during the Beagle voyage came on Sunday 13th January 1833, near that most infamous of nautical perils, Cape Horn. Darwin recorded the event in his Beagle Diary:

Sunday 13th The gale does not abate: if the Beagle was not an excellent sea-boat & our tackle in good condition, we should be in distress. A less gale has dismasted & foundered many a good ship. The worst part of the business is our not exactly knowing our position: it has an awkward sound to hear the officers repeatedly telling the look out man to look well to leeward. — Our horizon was limited to a small compass by the spray carried by the wind:—the sea looked ominous, there was so much foam that it resembled a dreary plain covered by patches of drifted snow. — Whilst we were heavily labouring, it was curious to see how the Albatross with its widely expanded wings, glided right up the wind. —

Noon. At noon the storm was at its height; & we began to suffer; a great sea struck us & came on board; the after tackle of the quarter boat gave way & an axe being obtained they were instantly obliged to cut away one of the beautiful whale-boats. —the same sea filled our decks so deep, that if another had followed it is not difficult to guess the result. — It is not easy to imagine what a state of confusion the decks were in from the great body of water. — At last the ports were knocked open & she again rose buoyant to the sea. — In the evening it moderated & we made out Cape Spencer (near Wigwam Cove), & running in, anchored behind false Cape Horn.

Captain FitzRoy’s own account of the near-disaster, as we would expect, goes into more nautical detail (I have incorporated his original footnotes into the text inside curly braces):

At three in the morning of the 13th, the vessel lurched so deeply, and the main-mast bent and quivered so much, that I reluctantly took in the main-topsail (small as it was when close-reefed), leaving set only the storm-trysails (close-reefed) and fore-staysail. {I have always succeeded in carrying a close-reefed main-topsail (five reefs) in the Beagle, excepting on this and two other occasions; but were I again under similar circumstances, I think I should try to carry it—even then—for some time longer.} At ten, there was so continued and heavy a rush of wind, that even the diminutive trysails oppressed the vessel too much, and they were still farther reduced. Soon after one, the sea had risen to a great height, and I was anxiously watching the successive waves, when three huge rollers approached, whose size and steepness at once told me that our sea-boat, good as she was, would be sorely tried. Having steerage way, the vessel met and rose over the first unharmed, but, of course, her way was checked; the second deadened her way completely, throwing her off the wind; and the third great sea, taking her right a-beam, turned her so far over, that all the lee bulwark, from the cat-head to the stern davit, was two or three feet under water.

For a moment, our position was critical; but, like a cask, she rolled back again, though with some feet of water over the whole deck. Had another sea then struck her, the little ship might have been numbered among the many of her class which have disappeared: but the crisis was past—she shook the sea off her through the ports, and was none the worse—excepting the loss of a lee-quarter boat, which, although carried three feet higher than in the former voyage (1826–1830), was dipped under water, and torn away. {It was well that all our hatchways were thoroughly secured, and that nothing heavy could break a-drift. But little water found its way to the lower deck, though Mr. Darwin’s collections, in the poop and forecastle cabins on deck, were much injured. Next to keeping a sharp look-out upon the sky, the water, and the barometer, we were always anxious to batten down our hatches in time—especially at night, during a gale, or in very squally weather.}

From that time the wind abated, and the sea became less high. {The roller which hove us almost on our beam ends, was the highest and most hollow that I have seen, excepting one in the Bay of Biscay, and one in the Southern Atlantic; yet so easy was our little vessel that nothing was injured besides the boat, the netting (washed away), and one chronometer.} The main-topsail was again set, though with difficulty, and at four o’clock the fore-topsail and double-reefed foresail were helping us towards False Cape Horn, my intention being to anchor in Nassau Bay. When the quarter-boat was torn away, we were between the Ildefonsos and Diego Ramirez: the wind varying from W.S.W. to S.W.

This gale was severely felt on all parts of the coast, south of 48°, as I afterwards ascertained from sealing-vessels: and at the Falkland Islands, a French whaler, called Le Magellan, was driven from her anchors and totally wrecked in that landlocked and excellent port, Berkeley Sound.

Some persons are disposed to form a very premature opinion of the wind or weather to be met with in particular regions, judging only from what they may themselves have experienced. Happily, extreme cases are not often met with; but one cannot help regretting the haste with which some men (who have sailed round Cape Horn with royals set) incline to cavil at and doubt the description of Anson and other navigators, who were not only far less fortunate as to weather, but had to deal with crazy ships, inefficient crews, and unknown shores; besides hunger, thirst, and disease.

Before midnight we anchored under shelter of the land near False Cape Horn; and next morning (14th) crossed Nassau Bay in search of a convenient harbour near the Beagle Channel. Having found so much difficulty in getting to the westward by the open sea, I decided to employ boats in the interior passages, and leave the Beagle at a secure anchorage.

The maritime artist John Chancellor (1925–1984) made a rather wonderful painting of HMS Beagle being sorely tried. You can see it on the Darwin Online website.

The great Darwin fossil hunt Wed, 17 Jun 2015 16:31:06 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( In which a friend beyond measure arranges a behind-the-scenes visit to the Natural History Museum to see fossils collected by Charles Darwin during the Beagle voyage. 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


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.


  • 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:

Spandrel sight-seeing Mon, 20 Apr 2015 13:16:36 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( In which I visit the spandrels of San Marco in Venice. For my 50th birthday in 2015, 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.

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 Fri, 20 Feb 2015 12:48:06 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD ( 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. 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.

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:

Thomas Wedgwood: the Uncle of Photography Thu, 12 Feb 2015 07:00:31 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD ( 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. 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.

Was Darwin left-handed? Mon, 31 Mar 2014 18:30:46 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( There are a lot of people on the internet who claim Charles Darwin was left-handed… There are a lot of people on the internet who claim Charles Darwin was left-handed.

I first came across the claim on the excellent Brain Pickings blog. My sceptical radar immediately went into overdrive. There’s no reason why Darwin shouldn’t have been left-handed, of course, but the fact I had never heard this interesting snippet of Darwin trivia before made me doubt its veracity.

Lots of minority groups like to claim Darwin as one of their own. Vegetarians are forever saying he was one of theirs (he wasn’t). Homeopaths insist on claiming he was into homeopathy (he definitely wasn’t). Born-again Christians still go on about Darwin’s deathbed conversion to Christianity (total bullshit). As a general rule, if any minority group (excluding me and my fellow beardies) claims Darwin as one of theirs, you should take the claim with a huge pinch of salt.

One reason I doubted Darwin’s left-handedness was that I have seen samples of his handwriting, and, untidy though it is, it certainly doesn’t look like the handwriting of a left-hander. But the bogus science of graphology clearly isn’t conclusive proof, so I carried out some further research.

In 1877, Darwin published A biographical sketch of an infant in Mind, a Quarterly Review of Psychology and Philosophy. The infant in question was one of his own sons. In the paper, Darwin wrote:

[T]his infant afterwards proved to be left-handed, the tendency being no doubt inherited—his grandfather, mother, and a brother having been or being left-handed.

No mention of the infant’s father (Darwin) being left-handed, then.

Sorry, Lefties, I think we can safely say Darwin was right-handed.