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 Book Review: ‘One Midsummer’s Day’ by Mark Cocker Tue, 29 Aug 2023 13:43:31 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( Swifts and the story of life on earth.
‘One Midsummer’s Day’ by Mark Cocker

The title of this book sets the scene: it takes place on a single midsummer’s day. A day which Mark Cocker spends mostly in his Derbyshire garden, gazing upwards, observing one of his favourite birds: the swift. But the subtitle reveals the book’s true scope: Cocker also explores the story of life on earth, in which his beloved swifts, like the rest of us, play a small but significant part.

I’m very much a fan of writing that explores global themes in a parochial context. That shows how the things you encounter on your local patch are part of a much bigger story. Indeed, it’s the same approach I adopted in my own book, On the Moor. So there was never any danger I wouldn’t thoroughly enjoy this book.

In addition to celebrating one of the world’s most remarkable families of birds, Cocker heads off on all sorts of tangents, exploring such diverting topics as migration, convergent evolution, photosynthesis, the evolutionary history of plants, avian anatomy, pollination, animal communication, symbiosis, taxonomy, etymology, folklore, and environmentalism. It’s a truly entertaining read.

One of Cocker’s key messages—and one I heartily endorse—is that, rather than destroying our sense of wonder at the natural world, scientific knowledge enhances our appreciation of it. Or, as Cocker puts it:

Mystery and knowledge and wonder and love are necessary to one another. [… K]nowledge is not a barrier to the depths of our encounters, but actually necessary to the fullness of our relations.

Couldn’t agree more!

Highly recommended.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.

Disclosure: Mark Cocker provided some lovely blurb for my book On the Moor. I have since met him, and consider him a personal friend.

Book review: ‘The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 15 • 1867’ Wed, 19 Jul 2023 15:06:36 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( Correcting proofs and researching human evolution, sexual selection, and expressions.
The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 15 • 1867

The fifteenth volume of Charles Darwin’s correspondence comprises all the surviving letters both from and to Darwin from the year 1867.

Darwin’s return to relatively good health the previous year continued through 1867. He spent a considerable time during the year correcting proofs of his two-volume The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication. In parallel, he also began detailed research into human evolution, sexual selection, and the expression of emotions, which would ultimately result in two more books: The Descent of Man and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.

Other highlights featuring in Darwin’s 1867 correspondence include:

  • Darwin complaining in the pages of ‘Athenaeum’ magazine about British publishers’ practice of leaving books’ pages uncut;
  • Darwin’s best friend, Joseph Dalton Hooker announcing mid-sentence the breaking news of his wife having just given birth, and Darwin subsequently rejoicing ‘& this not in a parenthesis , that Mrs Hooker is safe through her affair’;
  • Darwin, having been provided with a list of potential human vestigial organs, suggesting a few more, and later reporting incredulously a recent religious explanation of such organs;
  • Darwin’s difficulty explaining gaudy coloration in caterpillars, and Alfred Russel Wallace’s ingenious response;
  • Darwin and Wallace politely disagreeing over the role (or otherwise) of sexual selection in human evolution—and in the different colouring of male and female birds in many species;
  • Darwin’s views on education reform regarding (over-)emphasis on the classics;
  • Darwin claiming “I do not believe any man in England naturally writes so vile a style as I do”, and opining that “A naturalist’s life wd. be a happy one, if he had only to observe & never to write.”
  • Darwin (correctly) predicting his hypothesis concerning heredity, Pangenesis, “will appear bosh to all you sceptics.”
  • Darwin being asked by a German correspondent to rein in his enthusiastic, outspoken disciple Ernst Haeckel, and Darwin doing so (very diplomatically);
  • Darwin’s thoughts on a recent book and an article critical of his theory of evolution by means of natural selection;
  • Darwin receiving an unexpected consignment of locust dung, from which he subsequently manages to germinate some grass-seeds;
  • Darwin receiving (but apparently not replying to) several long, rambling letters from a well-meaning religious fundamentalist (here’s the first);
  • Darwin confidently predicting “I feel no doubt that views closely akin to those which I have advocated will ultimately be universally admitted.”

As with all the volumes in this series, this book is really aimed at people with a serious interest in Charles Darwin. As with all the other volumes, every letter is annotated with meticulously researched footnotes explaining its context and references. The series as a whole is a masterpiece of scholarship.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book review: ‘The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 14 • 1866’ Tue, 13 Jun 2023 09:33:28 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( Getting back to work after prolonged illness.
The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 14 • 1866

The fourteenth volume of Charles Darwin’s correspondence comprises all the surviving letters both from and to Darwin from the year 1866.

Thanks, perhaps, to a change of diet and getting more exercise, Darwin, although still far from well, was less ill in 1866 than in the three previous years. He was sufficiently well to revise On the Origin of Species for its fourth edition, and, by the end of the year, finally managed to submit to his publisher the manuscript of The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication (minus a final chapter he later dropped). This two-volume work was intended to be the first part of Darwin’s long-planned ‘big book’ on species—although (spoiler alert) he never got round to the other planned volumes.

1866 also saw the deaths of two of Darwin’s sisters, Catherine and Suzanne, after which his childhood home, The Mount in Shrewsbury, was put on the market.

Other highlights featuring in Darwin’s 1866 correspondence include:

  • Darwin commending Alfred Russel Wallace for his recent paper on the biogeography of Malaysian butterflies, saying, “Such papers will make many more converts among naturalists than long-winded books such as I shall write if I have strength.”;
  • Darwin rejecting recent new calculations for the age of the earth which indicated our planet was insufficiently old for evolution to have produced its vast current biodiversity. Darwin wrote, “I am bigotted to the last inch, & will not yield. I cannot think how you can attach so much weight to the physicists”;
  • Darwin joking that his (we now know, very wrong) hypothesis of pangenesis is so ‘abominably wildly, horridly speculative’ that it is worthy of the philosopher Herbert Spencer;
  • Darwin explaining that he has always followed his friend the geologist Charles Lyell’s advice and avoided controversy;
  • Darwin providing a potted autobiography to inform a memoir of him in the latest volume of Portraits of Men of Eminence;
  • Darwin co-signing a letter to William Gladstone , Chancellor of the Exchequer, urging for the establishment of a natural history collection independent of the British Museum;
  • Darwin seemingly amused at the audacity of Richard Owen for now effectively claiming natural selection as his own idea—even though he had previously pooh-poohed it;
  • Thomas Henry Huxley subsequently delighting in the ‘unmerciful basting’ Darwin has given ‘Our Mutual friend’ (Owen) is his revised Historical Sketch on the Origin of Species;
  • Alfred Russel Wallace urging Darwin to drop the term natural selection and adopt the term coined by Herbert Spencer, survival of the fittest;
  • Darwin trying to persuade his publisher, John Murray, to have the folded page-edges of the latest edition of On the Origin of Species pre-cut, rather than leaving the cutting to the readers. (See also Murray‘s explanation for why publishers didn’t cut the pages);
  • Joseph Dalton Hooker informing Darwin of a new ‘discovery’ that sunspots are determined by the current position of the planets;
  • Mary Boole asking Darwin about the compatibility of his theory of evolution by means of natural selection with her religious views (and Darwin’s response);
  • Darwin, who struggles reading German, ‘groaning & swearing at each sentence’ in a book by Ernst Haeckel;
  • Darwin’s old shipmate Bartholomew James Sulivan reporting having met Fuegians in Bristol, one of whom was the son of one of the Fuegians who had travelled on HMS Beagle;
  • Darwin subsequently asking for someone to make observations of how Fuegians express emotions.

As with all the volumes in this series, this book is really aimed at people with a serious interest in Charles Darwin. As with all the other volumes, every letter is annotated with meticulously researched footnotes explaining its context and references. The series as a whole is a masterpiece of scholarship.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book Review: ‘Radical By Nature’ by James T. Costa Sun, 14 May 2023 17:08:06 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( The revolutionary life of Alfred Russel Wallace.
‘Radical By Nature’ by James T. Costa

Marking the 200th anniversary of the birth of its subject, James T. Costa has written an entertaining biography of the man who famously arrived at the idea of natural selection independently of Charles Darwin: Alfred Russel Wallace.

Were I ever tempted to cheat on Darwin and direct my fanboy fascination elsewhere, Wallace would definitely be in with a chance. He led a long and fascinating life, fully deserving his place in the scientific pantheon in his own right, rather than being portrayed, as he sometimes is, as some under-appreciated unfortunate who was totally eclipsed by Darwin.

Following on from his excellent book on Darwin’s experiments, Costa does a great job telling the story of Wallace’s life, from his upbringing on the English-Welsh border, to his burgeoning interest in science, his early work as a surveyor with his brother, his befriending of fellow science-enthusiast Henry Walter Bates, and their decision to travel to South America to pursue their interests in exploration and science. It was in South America that Wallace, who eventually parted ways with Bates, first developed an interest in the geographical distribution of species—what we nowadays refer to as biogeography—a subject that was to become synonymous with Wallace’s name. Costa goes on to describe Wallace’s disastrous journey back to England, in which the ship he was travelling caught fire and sank with the loss of Wallace’s notebooks and large collection of valuable specimens.

Surprisingly undaunted, a few years later, Wallace was off naturalising and collecting again, this time in the Malay Archipelago (a problematic term these days, then used to describe the extensive group of islands between the South East Asian mainland and Australia). Here, over several years, assisted by a number of locals, Wallace travelled from island to island, collecting specimens, contracting diseases, and hypothesising in his down-time. It was here that Wallace earned his fame as a biogeographer, when he identified a hypothetical line running between the islands of the archipelago, on one side of which were found species with Asiatic characteristics, and, on the other side, species with a mix of Asiatic and Australian characteristics. This line was soon to become known as the Wallace Line.

Wallace had been convinced of the fact of organic evolution even before he set sail for South America, having read the controversial, anonymously written bestseller Vestiges of Creation (a book Darwin found to be utter rubbish). Costa describes how Wallace planned to theorise about evolution and, in particular, to address the arguments made against evolution in Charles Lyell’s influential book Principles of Geology. The same book had inspired Darwin–with its geology, rather than its arguments against evolution–during the Beagle voyage. Darwin and Lyell had since become close friends.

During his time on the Malay Archipelago, Wallace dispatched occasional scientific papers back to Britain. One of these, what is now known as his Sarawak Law paper (1855), concluded that ‘Every species has come into existence coincident both in space and time with a pre-existing closely allied species.’ Back in Britain, Darwin was largely unimpressed—as far as he was concerned, the paper contained no new ideas he hadn’t already thought of himself—although he did send Wallace some words of encouragement. But the paper Wallace sent Darwin three years later came as a total bombshell, outlining a theory of evolution pretty much identical to Darwin’s as-yet unpublished theory of evolution by means of natural selection. This led to a rather undignified rush to establish Darwin’s priority by publishing some old papers of Darwin’s alongside Wallace’s. It also caused Darwin to put to one side his long-planned, partially written, never-to-be-completed ‘big book’ on species, and to begin writing an ‘abstract’ that was to become On the Origin of Species. To his credit, Wallace expressed complete satisfaction at how his paper had been published alongside Darwin’s, and always maintained natural selection was Darwin’s theory, not his. Upon Wallace’s return to Britain a few years later, the two men were to become respectful, albeit not particularly close, friends.

I particularly enjoyed Costa’s account of Wallace’s life following his return from the Malay Archipelago. The tales of Wallace’s two great expeditions having been covered in detail, the pace necessarily picks up as there is a lot of ground still to cover over the remaining five decades of Wallace’s long life. Costa describes Wallace’s ongoing friendship with, and influence on, Darwin; his many books and papers; his financial difficulties; his marriage; his many relocations; his awards and honours; his debunking of flat-earthers; his embrace of spiritualism; his advocacy of women’s rights; his anti-vaxism; his campaigning for land-reform; his environmentalism; and his successful late lecture tour of the United States.

I did have a small number of quibbles with this book. In particular, when discussing Wallace’s Sarawak Law paper, Costa adopts the standard narrative that was (in my opinion, compellingly) debunked a few years back by science historian John van Wyhe. I assume Costa must be aware of this paper, but as far as I could see, he makes no attempt to address any of the points it raises. This could be seen as fair enough in what is supposed to be a popular biography, but Costa does, on the other hand, find space to mention—albeit adopting a neutral position—the supposed controversy over the arrival date of Wallace’s bombshell letter at Darwin’s house—a favourite non-topic of conspiracy theorists.

This and a few other irritations aside, I very much enjoyed Radical by Nature, and recommend it to anyone wanting to know more about a justifiably celebrated, fascinating figure from the history of science.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.

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

Book review: ‘The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 13 • 1865 plus supplement (1822–1864)’ Sun, 14 May 2023 17:06:40 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( Yet more ill-heath, with slow progress on Darwin’s ‘big book’.
The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 13 • 1865 (plus supplement)

The thirteenth volume of Charles Darwin’s correspondence comprises all the surviving letters both from and to Darwin from the year 1865, plus a supplement of letters from earlier years that came to light after publication of the previous twelve volumes.

As in the two previous years, Darwin suffered much ill-heath during 1865, so progress on the first volume of his planned ‘big book’ on species was delayed for much of the year.

Highlights from Darwin’s 1865 correspondence include:

As with all the volumes in this series, this book is really aimed at people with a serious interest in Charles Darwin. As with all the other volumes, every letter is annotated with meticulously researched footnotes explaining its context and references. The series as a whole is a masterpiece of scholarship.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book review: ‘The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 12 • 1864’ Wed, 26 Apr 2023 10:49:40 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( More sickness, more botany.
The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 11 • 1863

The twelfth volume of Charles Darwin’s correspondence comprises all the surviving letters both from and to Darwin from the year 1864.

As in the previous year, Darwin suffered much ill-heath during 1864, so progress on the first volume of his planned ‘big book’ on species was delayed for several more months. Instead, Darwin once again dedicated what energy he could muster to less strenuous botanical studies, all of which sought to support arguments he had presented to the world five years earlier in On the Origin of Species. He continued his investigations into heterostyly and plant hybridisation, but focused in particular on climbing plants. All of these studies investigated how existing plant organs had become modified, producing adaptations that encouraged cross-pollination, or that enabled plants to climb.

Also of note in 1864 was Darwin’s developing friendship with the man who had independently arrived at the idea of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace. Darwin was particularly impressed with Wallace’s paper The Origin of Human Races and the Antiquity of Man Deduced from the Theory of “Natural Selection”, which was the first to apply the idea of natural selection to human evolution. Although Darwin had ideas of his own on the subject, and did not agree with everything Wallace had to say, Wallace’s emphasis on the evolution of human morality and intellect provided an interesting new slant that was later to inform Darwin’s The Descent of Man. Indeed, so impressed was Darwin with the paper that he offered to give Wallace his own notes on human evolution, should Wallace decide to write further on the topic. Darwin was also impressed with Wallace’s modesty at not taking any credit for the theory of natural selection: ‘it is just as much yours as mine’, he admonished Wallace. ‘I shall always maintain it to be actually yours & your’s only’, replied Wallace by return of post.

1864 was also the year in which Darwin was finally awarded the Royal Society’s most prestigious honour, the Copley Medal, having pointedly been passed over for the same award the previous year. But the honour sparked controversy with Darwin’s supporters when it emerged that his evolutionary work had not been taken into consideration in his selection for the award.

Other highlights featuring in Darwin’s 1864 correspondence include:

  • a moving death-bed tribute to Darwin from botanist Francis Boott, conveyed to Darwin by Boot’s widow, Mary;
  • Darwin receiving an apology from Daniel Oliver, Assistant in the herbarium of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, for having addressed Darwin as if he were one of his students; and Darwin’s typically modest response that he prefers ‘being treated as what I am[:] quite ignorant of the rudiments of botany’;
  • Darwin trying to find a new placement for gardener/botanist John Scott, who had resigned from his post at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, frustrated at lack of support from his superiors. Darwin ends up paying for Scott’s passage to India;
  • Darwin’s former shipmate aboard HMS Beagle Bartholomew Sulivan informing Darwin of the recent deaths of two other shipmates;
  • the poorly Darwin reporting having being read an astounding number of ‘trashy novels’;
  • Darwin’s and his correspondents’ reactions to the first photograph of him sporting a beard. ‘Do I not look venerable?’ he jokes. His best friend, Joseph Dalton Hooker, compares the bearded Darwin to a painting of Moses in the House of Lords;
  • Darwin explaining the origin and development of his theory of evolution by means of natural selection to a new German disciple, Ernst Haeckel;
  • Darwin receiving (and apparently wisely ignoring) a ridiculously long, rambling letter from a religious fundamentalist who, while admitting he has not actually read On the Origin of Species, feels duty bound to point out the error of Darwin’s ways by quoting biblical chapter and verse, and by using different-coloured inks and occasional capital letters. (I share your pain, Mr D: believe me, I’ve been there!)

As with all the volumes in this series, this book is really aimed at people with a serious interest in Charles Darwin. As with all the other volumes, every letter is annotated with meticulously researched footnotes explaining its context and references. The series as a whole is a masterpiece of scholarship.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book review: ‘The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 11 • 1863’ Mon, 10 Apr 2023 17:02:45 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( Six months of illness, and lots of botany.
The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 11 • 1863

The eleventh volume of Charles Darwin’s correspondence comprises all the surviving letters both from and to Darwin from the year 1863.

During the second half of 1863, Darwin suffered from prolonged ill-health, which affected the work he was supposed to be doing on the first part of his long-planned, never-to-be-completed three-volume magnum opus on evolution. Instead, he continued to pursue his recent botanical studies, sometimes from his sick-bed. Featuring prominently in the year’s correspondence are Darwin’s thoughts, observations, and queries concerning plant cross-pollination, including his interest in dichogamy (the ripening of the stamens and pistils of a flower at different times), heterostyly (in which different individuals of the same species of flower exhibit different relative lengths of stamens and styles), and orchids’ reproductive adaptations. Darwin’s botanical interests expanded further as he became fascinated with certain plants’ abilities to move and climb, and in phyllotaxy (the arrangement of leaves on a plant stem)—a topic that ultimately left him flummoxed.

Other highlights featuring in Darwin’s 1863 correspondence include:

  • excitement and controversy over the recently discovered fossil Archaeopteryx, an early bird bearing decidedly reptilian features and, as Darwin had once predicted, bifurcated wings;
  • Darwin’s growing indignation with his former friend, now enemy, Richard Owen;
  • Darwin’s deep disappointment at the ‘excessive caution’ exercised by his close friend and ally Charles Lyell in his long-anticipated book The Antiquity of Man;
  • the ensuing public scientific spat about Lyell having insufficiently acknowledged the work of others in his book;
  • Darwin’s delight at his friend Thomas Henry Huxley’s far more forthright book on a related topic, Man’s Place in Nature;
  • Darwin’s regret at having used biblical-sounding terms in On the Origin of Species;
  • Darwin’s public defence of On the Origin of Species, in the pages of ‘Athenæum’—a move he was soon to regret, and never to repeat;
  • ongoing discussions with Darwin’s closest friend in the United States, Asa Gray, concerning the civil war;
  • a campaign spearheaded by Darwin’s wife, Emma, against steel vermin traps;
  • Emma and Charles Darwin’s dismay at the apparent destruction of their daughter’s grave in Malvern (it was found eventually—Emma had been looking in the wrong place);
  • an unsuccessful campaign by his friends to have Darwin awarded the Royal Society’s highest honour, the Copley Medal (not to worry—spoiler alert—he was to receive it the following year).

As with all the volumes in this series, this book is really aimed at people with a serious interest in Charles Darwin. As with all the other volumes, every letter is annotated with meticulously researched footnotes explaining its context and references. The series as a whole is a masterpiece of scholarship.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
The full set! Sun, 02 Apr 2023 15:26:59 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( I have achieved my 30-year ambition of owning a complete published set of Darwin’s correspondence. Thirty years ago, in 1993, I treated myself to the first 8 volumes of Darwin’s Correspondence, which was all that had been published at the time. Ever since, one of my ambitions has been to live long enough to collect the full set. Today, on my 58th birthday, I realised that ambition.

The full 30-volume (31-book) set of the Correspondence of Charles Darwin.

Now there’s the small matter of reading them all. I’m currently half-way through volume 12.

Book review: ‘The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 10 • 1862’ Mon, 06 Mar 2023 11:07:16 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD ( Darwin grows in confidence.
The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 10 • 1862

The tenth volume of Charles Darwin’s correspondence comprises all the surviving letters both from and to Darwin from the year 1862.

As in the previous year, in 1862 Darwin was supposed to be working on his book about variation in domesticated animals and plants—the planned first part of his long-promised major work on the evolution of species, of which On the Origin of Species, now in its third edition, was supposed to have been only an ‘abstract’. But as in 1861, Darwin was easily distracted into botanical observation and experimentation. During the year, he continued his work on heterostyly (different length male and female sexual organs in individual flowers), which he correctly interpreted as an adaptation to avoid self-pollination. Darwin published two papers on this topic during the year, which also saw the publication of the book he had worked on the previous year, also on pollination, On The Various Contrivances by which British and Foreign Orchids are Fertilised by Insects.

In his correspondence of 1862, Darwin becomes noticeably more confident that his evolutionary reviews will ultimately be accepted—albeit, no doubt, with some modification. As he wrote to one correspondent:

I have not the least doubt that I have erred most seriously on many points; but now so many (yet few) really good judges concur in the main with me, that I do not fear that some such view will ultimately prevail, notwithstanding all the abuse & ridicule so freely poured on me.

Darwin’s growing confidence was buoyed by the support of younger naturalists who experienced less difficulty accepting his views. In 1862, he was particularly delighted by Henry Walter Bates’s application of natural selection to explain the uncanny similarity of different species of South American butterflies: a phenomenon now known as Batesian mimicry. Darwin was quick to encourage Bates to publish such views, and was largely instrumental in finding him a publisher for his now classic book (published the following year), The Naturalist on the River Amazons. Another of Darwin’s younger supporters who arrived on the scene around this time, freshly back from the Malay Archipelago, was Bates’s former travel-companion, and the man who independently arrived at the idea of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace.

Although his allies slowly increased in number, Darwin’s old enemies didn’t go away. But, with his growing confidence, Darwin seems to have found it easier to dismiss some of them. In particular, he is more open with his close friends about his mutual animosity with the anatomist and palaeontologist Richard Owen, confiding to Owen’s great rival Thomas Henry Huxley:

I do not suppose I shall see Owen’s 2d. Edit [of Palæontology]; but he is so dishonest that I really now care little what he says.

Other highlights featuring in Darwin’s 1862 correspondence include Darwin:

  • sharing jokes with Joseph Dalton Hooker about the British nobility’s dependence on the principle of primogeniture running contrary to the principle of natural selection;
  • enjoying Thomas Henry Huxley’s victories over Richard Owen in their ongoing battle over the relationship between humans and apes;
  • being exasperated at Huxley’s insistence that evolution by means of natural selection could never be fully accepted until humans managed to breed different domestic varieties from the same original stock that were mutually infertile;
  • finally conceding defeat over the glacial (as opposed to marine) origin of the geological features known as the parallel roads of Glen Roy;
  • receiving a monocle as a gist from his son;
  • correctly predicting the existence of an as-yet-undiscovered moth with a prodigiously long proboscis capable of feeding from the prodigiously long nectary of an unusual species of orchid;
  • being quizzed by his friend (and soon-to-be author of The Water-Babies) Rev. Charles Kingsley as to whether our old tales of elves, dwarfs, fairies and satyrs might reflect distant memories of encounters with ‘missing links’;
  • debating the role (or otherwise) of changed external conditions in the development on new variations in species;
  • urging a botanist in Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka) to try artificially fertilising Cinchona (quinine) trees, as they are ‘important to mankind’;
  • proudly describing his young son hypothesising about the adaptive benefit to adders of fleeing from humans, rather than being more belligerent;
  • thanking the wrong person for a complimentary book review;
  • describing jellyfish as ‘mere organised water’;
  • regretting his use of the word ‘races’ instead of ‘variations’ in the subtitle of On the Origin of Species;
  • being amused by a typographical error in an advertisement for his book on orchids;
  • wishing somebody would study the vocalisations of captive monkeys;
  • reminiscing with one of his old shipmates about sitting on the boom of HMS Beagle;
  • describing the idea of a holidays as ‘an unendurable bore’.

As with all the volumes in this series, this book is really aimed at people with a serious interest in Charles Darwin. As with all the other volumes, every letter is annotated with meticulously researched footnotes explaining its context and references. The series as a whole is a masterpiece of scholarship.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book review: ‘Darwin Comes to Town’ by Menno Schilthuizen Mon, 06 Mar 2023 10:44:47 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD ( How the urban jungle drives evolution
‘Darwin Comes to Town‘ by Menno Schilthuizen

As our species’ footprint continues to grow, consuming more and more of our planet’s resources, the habitats we create for ourselves spawn more and more potential ecological niches for enterprising species to exploit. Darwin Comes to Town explores how certain plant and animal species have begun to adapt to life alongside humans, and the traits that pre-dispose certain species and not others to integrate themselves into such environments.

What I particularly liked about this book were the examples Schilthuizen gives of far-from-obvious new human-made ecological niches that species have begun to exploit. Who, for example, would have thought that the patches of grass beneath the UK’s electricity pylons might comprise an interesting new niche? Our ageing pylons are coated in zinc, which has slowly leached into the soil beneath, creating a selective pressure for grasses more tolerant to that metal. Similarly, our habit of spreading rock-salt on our roads in winter has created pressure for more salt-tolerant plants in roadside verges.

Schilthuizen also explores the more obvious changes we have made on our environment, such as destroying wilderness, introducing non-native species, littering our streets with food, polluting the air, banishing darkness from the night sky, and filling our world with noise—all changes to which species have had to adapt, sometimes very successfully.

Darwin Comes to Town is an interesting, entertaining book, and unexpectedly uplifting at times: as we inexorably destroy wild habitats, we do, albeit unwittingly, occasionally provide new opportunities for species to exploit.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Hello, Kazakhstan! 🇰🇿 Sun, 12 Feb 2023 14:22:03 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD ( The Friends of Charles Darwin have their first member from Kazakhstan. We now have members in 106 countries. I am delighted to announce that the Friends of Charles Darwin have their first member from Kazakhstan: Saudat Alishayeva of Atyrau. Welcome!

We now have members in 106 countries.

The Darwin bicentennial oak, 14 years on Sun, 12 Feb 2023 13:30:20 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD ( Fourteen years ago today, I planted the Darwin Bicentennial Oak in my garden. Fourteen 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 fourteen years gathering material for the longest time-lapse movie ever. Or should that be shortest?

Charles Darwin’s book-writing process Sun, 12 Feb 2023 12:43:49 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD ( Charles Darwin’s approach to book-writing went through four key stages… Like many prolific authors, Charles Darwin did not enjoy writing books, claiming it was ‘dull work, but must be borne’1. He was easily distracted from his writing, preferring to spend his time observing, experimenting and hypothesising. But books needed to be written, and, over the years, Darwin adopted a writing process that worked for him. Indeed, certain elements of his process are still advocated as best practice by many modern writers.

Darwin’s approach to book-writing, described in detail in the Reminiscences 2 of his son Francis, and in less detail in Darwin’s Autobiography 3, went through four key stages:

  • Top-down planning/outlining
  • Initial rough draft
  • Fair copies
  • Revision of printers’ proofs

Top-down planning/outlining

When beginning his major works, Darwin would make a rough outline of the whole book first, then drill down into more detail:

[W]ith my large books I spend a good deal of time over the general arrangement of the matter. I first make the rudest outline in two or three pages, and then a larger one in several pages, a few words or one word standing for a whole discussion or series of facts. Each one of these headings is again enlarged and often transferred before I begin to write in extenso.4

Book plan
Outline for Darwin’s never-completed ‘big book’ on species.
Photo: Richard Carter

As described in my article about Darwin’s note-making system, while he was carrying out research, Darwin collected loose slips of information in different portfolios dedicated to particular topics of interest. The idea was, once he came to start writing on a particular topic, he would be able to open the corresponding portfolio, shuffle the various loose slips of paper around, and come up with a detailed outline. From this outline, he would develop an initial rough draft.

Initial rough draft

In his early days as a writer, Darwin struggled with his first drafts. He fussed too much over wording, trying to make the draft as good as possible. In later years he overcame this difficulty by adopting an approach recommended by many modern writers of simply going with the flow, not worrying at all about quality, and getting any old crap down on paper as quickly as possible:

There seems to be a sort of fatality in my mind leading me to put at first my statement or proposition in a wrong or awkward form. Formerly I used to think about my sentences before writing them down; but for several years I have found that it saves time to scribble in a vile hand whole pages as quickly as I possibly can, contracting half the words; and then correct deliberately. Sentences thus scribbled down are often better ones than I could have written deliberately.5

Manuscript page of ‘On the Origin of Species’
Manuscript page from the first edition of On the Origin of Species.
Photo: Richard Carter

One trick the proudly thrifty Darwin adopted to avoid both the terror of the blank page, and worrying too much about style in the rough drafts was to write on the backs of old letters and manuscripts.

He had a pet economy in paper, but it was rather a hobby than a real economy. All the blank sheets of letters received were kept in a portfolio to be used in making notes; it was his respect for paper that made him write so much on the backs of his old MS., and in this way, unfortunately, he destroyed large parts of the original MS. of his books. […]

It was characteristic of him that he felt unable to write with sufficient want of care if he used his best paper[.]6

Child’s drawing
Drawing made by one of Darwin’s children on the reverse of the same manuscript page of the first edition of On the Origin of Species.
Photo: Richard Carter

Fair copies

Having completed his rough draft, Darwin would have a fair copy made on widely ruled paper. So bad was his handwriting that he outsourced the production of this fair copy to the local schoolmaster, Mr Norman.

My father became so used to Mr. Norman’s handwriting, that he could not correct manuscript, even when clearly written out by one of his children, until it had been recopied by Mr. Norman.7

Darwin would then correct and improve this fair copy, and have a second, final fair copy made for sending to the printer.

One side-benefit Darwin saw in making two different fair copies was that the first, subsequently amended, fair copy could serve as a reassuring backup of his work, should something happen to the second copy after it was dispatched to the printer.

Revision of printers’ proofs

Once the proofs came back from the printer, Darwin set to work correcting and improving his words. He did not at all enjoy this stage of the writing process.

It was at this stage that he first seriously considered the style of what he had written. When this was going on he usually started some other piece of work as a relief. The correction of slips consisted in fact of two processes, for the corrections were first written in pencil, and then re-considered and written in ink.8

It sounds strange to modern readers that Darwin would only start worrying about literary style after the printers had already produced proofs of his work. Working on my own books, I find it extremely beneficial to be able to read my drafts in a different medium to the computer-screen on which they were composed—either on paper or e-book reader. Darwin also seems to have appreciated seeing his own words in a different format:

I never can write decently till I see it in print.9

In terms of literary style, Darwin preferred simple language with few superfluous words. When his new friend Henry Walter Bates began work on his first book, Darwin offered some stylistic advice:

As an old hackneyed author let me give you a bit of advice, viz to strike out every word, which is not quite necessary to connect subjects & which would not interest a stranger. I constantly asked myself, would a stranger care for this? & struck out or left in accordingly.— I think too much pains cannot be taken in making style transparently clear & throwing eloquence to the dogs. I hope that you will not think these few words impertinent.—10

During this final stage of the writing process, Darwin welcomed corrections and suggestions from family members. According to his daughter Henrietta11, he was always extremely grateful for suggested changes, making a point of remarking how much they improved the text, or giving all sorts of reasons why he didn’t agree with the proposed changes.

Darwin would then read his corrected proofs out loud to determine whether they needed further amendment:

I find it good to correct in pencil & read aloud, & if it sounds well, not to plague more over it.12

He would then return the completed book to the printer:

[I]t is great satisfaction finishing a job. It is certainly the greatest pleasure about a book.13

At which point, no doubt relieved to have got another book out of the way, Darwin would immediately move on to his next project.

…Which reminds me, I really ought to be working on my next book, rather than banging out posts on my website.

  1. Darwin, C.R. to H. W. Bates, 18 October [1862]. Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 3773”. [Read online] ↩
  2. Darwin, F. (ed.) (1887). The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, including an autobiographical chapter. London: John Murray. [Read online] ↩
  3. Darwin, C. R. (1958). The Autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809-1882. With the original omissions restored. Edited and with appendix and notes by his grand-daughter Nora Barlow. Collins. [Read online] ↩
  4. Darwin, C.R. 1958 ↩
  5. Darwin, C.R. 1958 ↩
  6. Darwin, F. 1887 ↩
  7. Darwin, F. 1887 ↩
  8. Darwin, F. 1887 ↩
  9. Darwin, C.R. to J. D. Hooker, 30 May [1861]. Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 3168”. [Read online] ↩
  10. Darwin, C.R. to H. W. Bates, 25 September [1861]. Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 3266”. [Read online] ↩
  11. Darwin, F. 1887 ↩
  12. DCP Letter no. 3773 ↩
  13. Darwin, C.R. to J. D. Hooker, [21 December 1862]. Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 3871”. [Read online] ↩
Book review: ‘The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 9 • 1861’ Wed, 18 Jan 2023 16:57:46 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD ( Poking around in flowers’ private parts.
The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 9 • 1861

The ninth volume of Charles Darwin’s correspondence comprises all the surviving letters both from and to Darwin from the year 1861.

On the Origin of Species had been published in late 1859, and, at this stage, Darwin was supposed to be working on his long-planned ‘big book’ on species, of which he had described Origin as an ‘abstract’. But, as Darwin admits several times in this volume, he much preferred experimenting to writing, so was easily distracted. In the event, Darwin spent much of 1861 investigating the complex pollination mechanism of orchids, which he would eventually describe in his snappily entitled 1862 book, On the Various Contrivances by which British and Foreign Orchids are Fertilised by Insects, and on the Good Effects of Intercrossing.

As with his previous eight-year study of barnacles, the pollination of orchids might sound like an inexplicably esoteric diversion for Darwin, who must surely have had far bigger fish to fry; but, as always, Darwin’s latest ‘hobby-horse’ bore considerable relevance to his theory of evolution by means of natural selection. Darwin was convinced that in-breeding in general, and self-fertilisation in particular, were detrimental to sexually reproducing species, so adaptations that help cross-fertilisation should be favoured by natural selection. With his orchids study, Darwin showed how the wonderfully complex designs of many species of orchid are adaptations to ensure pollen is carried to other flowers by insects, rather than fertilising the flower in which it develops. In parallel with his orchid studies, Darwin had another side-project to investigate the dimorphism (different forms) of flowers in the same species, especially primulas. Once again, Darwin was really studying how these plants avoid self-pollination.

But 1861 wasn’t just about poking around in flowers’ private parts. During the year, Darwin also put out a revised, third edition of On the Origin of Species. His correspondence also shows him, among many other things:

  • writing to his American friend Asa Gray about the American Civil War;
  • egging on his combative friend Thomas Henry Huxley in his ongoing feud with anatomist Richard Owen about the similarity or otherwise of human and ape brains;
  • repeatedly defending natural selection as a scientific theory by comparing it to the wave-theory of light: another suggested mechanism that explained a great deal without having been directly observed;
  • being thrilled at new(ish) friend Henry Walter Bates’s demonstration of mimicry in South American butterflies;
  • giving Bates writing tips;
  • encouraging other scientists in their evolution-adjacent studies;
  • joking about the impossibility of a theory of his being wrong;
  • writing a posthumous tribute to his favourite old college professor and close friend John Stevens Henslow;
  • receiving news that the philosopher John Stuart Mill endorsed the philosophical he had adopted in Origin;
  • finally conceding that he had previously committed ‘one long gigantic blunder’ in attributing the Scottish geological features known as the Parallel Roads of Glen Roy to the action of the sea, rather than glaciers;
  • arranging a job for his oldest son as a partner in a bank.

As with all the volumes in this series, this book is really aimed at people with a serious interest in Charles Darwin. As with all the other volumes, every letter is annotated with meticulously researched footnotes explaining its context and references. The series as a whole is a masterpiece of scholarship.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Modesty and candour: the Darwin-Wallace friendship Sun, 08 Jan 2023 10:20:19 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD ( To mark the 200th anniversary of Wallace’s birth, an article exploring the friendship between Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. The story of how Alfred Russel Wallace startled Charles Darwin into writing On the Origin of Species is well known. In June 1858, Darwin received a bombshell letter from Wallace, who at the time was on the far-flung Malay Archipelago. After many years’ research, Darwin had spent the last four years working on his long-planned ‘big book’ on species, having twenty years earlier arrived at the idea of natural selection as a mechanism for evolutionary change. In his letter, Wallace described essentially the same mechanism. Poor Darwin was devastated, but felt honour-bound to publish Wallace’s paper. Anxious that he should receive due credit for having come up with the idea first, and for having worked on it for two decades, Darwin’s close friends and confidants Charles Lyell and Joseph Dalton Hooker arranged for the hasty publication of Wallace’s paper alongside two unpublished documents written by Darwin. To mitigate the risk of being scooped any further, Darwin immediately set aside his ‘big book’ (which he never got round to finishing) and began writing an ‘abstract’ of it that was to become On the Origin of Species.

Modest almost to a fault, Wallace always expressed complete satisfaction at how his paper was published, and insisted it was only right that Darwin’s name became synonymous with the idea of natural selection:

As to the theory of “Natural Selection” itself, I shall always maintain it to be actually yours & your’s only. You had worked it out in details I had never thought of, years before I had a ray of light on the subject, & my paper would never have convinced anybody or been noticed as more than an ingenious speculation, whereas your book has revolutionized the study of Natural History, & carried away captive the best men of the present Age. All the merit I claim is the having been the means of inducing you to write & publish at once.

—Alfred Russel Wallace to Charles Darwin, 29 May [1864]
Alfred Russel Wallace
Alfred Russel Wallace (1823–1913)

Darwin and Wallace were to remain friends for the remainder of Darwin’s life. Wallace dedicated his magnificent book The Malay Archipelago to Darwin, ‘not only as a token of personal esteem and friendship but also to express my deep admiration for his genius and his works’. Late in his own life, Darwin was instrumental in securing a Civil List pension for the ever-cash-strapped Wallace.

Darwin seem to have seen Wallace as someone to bounce ideas off—not least because, unsurprisingly, Wallace had a deep understanding of natural selection. One wonderful example of this was when Darwin became utterly flummoxed as to why many caterpillars sport gaudy colours. Bright colours would make them easier for predators to spot. Darwin’s usual explanation for apparently disadvantageous colouration was sexual selection: bright colours being more attractive to potential mates. But caterpillars don’t mate until they have metamorphosed into butterflies, so their bright colours could not be explained in this way. As Darwin later recalled in The Descent of Man, ‘I then applied to Mr. Wallace, who has an innate genius for solving difficulties’. Wallace responded the following day:

Now great numbers are protected by their green colours assimilating with foliage or their brown colours resembling bark or twigs. Others are protected by prickles and long hairs—which no doubt render them distasteful to birds, especially to our small birds which I presume are the great destroyers of catterpillars. Now supposing that others, not hairy, are protected by a disagreeable taste or odour, it would be a positive advantage to them never to be mistaken for any of the palatable catterpillars, because a slight wound such as would be caused by a peck of a bird’s bill almost always I believe kills a growing catterpillar. Any gaudy & conspicuous colour therefore, that would plainly distinguish them from the brown & green eatable catterpillars, would enable birds to recognise them easily as a kind not fit for food, & thus they would escape seizure which is as bad as being eaten.

—Alfred Russel Wallace to Charles Darwin, 24 February [1867]

Wallace had identified a new biological concept to explain Darwin’s conundrum: warning colouration. In the same letter, he went on to describe how this hypothesis might be tested experimentally. The amateur entomologist John Jenner Weir performed such experiments a few months later.

Not all of Wallace’s advice to Darwin was quite so useful. On 2nd July 1866, he wrote to his friend urging him to drop the term natural selection in favour of Herbert Spencer’s alternative term, survival of the fittest. Wallace felt many people incorrectly assumed the term natural selection implied ‘the constant watching of an intelligent “chooser”’. So strongly did Wallace feel on this topic that he went through his own copy of On the Origin of Species, systematically crossing out the phrase natural selection and replacing it with survival of the fittest. Darwin followed Wallace’s advice and adopted the phrase survival of the fittest, first in his book The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication, then in later editions of On the Origin of Species. Nowadays, Wallace’s preferred phrase is seen as potentially misleading, as many people incorrectly assume the word fittest means physically fittest, rather than best fitted (i.e. best adapted to an environment and lifestyle).

Letter from A.R. Wallace
Wallace’s letter suggesting Darwin drop the term ‘natural selection’. (Photo: Richard Carter)

Darwin and Wallace by no means agreed on everything, but, when they did disagree, it was always amicably. Darwin, for example, placed more emphasis on competition between individuals of the same species as a driver for natural selection, whereas Wallace placed more emphasis on environmental drivers. Wallace was unimpressed with Darwin’s ideas on instinct, and pretty much rejected his idea of female preference as a driver for sexual selection. Rather than certain male birds evolving bright colours to attract females, Wallace suggested the female birds might have evolved drab colours to better camouflage them while they were sitting on their nests. After initial enthusiasm, Wallace also eventually rejected Darwin’s (very wrong) hypothetical mechanism for heredity, pangenesis.

One important area in which Darwin and Wallace were initially in strong agreement, but later differed, was on the application of the theory of evolution by means of natural selection to the human mind. Both initially agreed human intellect and morality must have evolved. But, in 1869, Wallace, who had developed an interest in spiritualism, went through a major about-face, admitting to his friend:

In my forthcoming article in the “Quarterly”, I venture for the first time on some limitations to the power of natural selection. I am afraid that Huxley & perhaps yourself will think them weak & unphilosophical. I merely wish you to know that they are in no way put in to please the Quarterly readers,—you will hardly suspect me of that,—but are the expression of a deep conviction founded on evidence which I have not alluded to in the article but which is to me absolutely unassailable.

—Alfred Russel Wallace to Charles Darwin, 24 March 1869

Ironically, the man who had argued against Darwin’s use of the term natural selection because it could be seen as implying an ‘an intelligent “chooser”’ now believed some form of greater power must have been at work in the development of the human mind. Darwin’s initial response, before reading Wallace’s article, displayed typical melodramatic humour: ‘I hope you have not murdered too completely your own & my child’, but his subsequent response on reading Wallace’s article displayed genuine concern:

Altogether I look at yr article as appearing in the Q-ly as an immense triumph for our cause. I presume that yr remarks on Man are those to which you alluded in yr note.

If you had not told me I shd have thought that they had been added by some one else. As you expected I differ grievously from you, & I am very sorry for it. I can see no necessity for calling in an additional & proximate cause in regard to Man.

—Charles Darwin to Alfred Russel Wallace, 14 April 1869

But even important differences like this need not damage a friendship. The following year, Wallace was to write in the preface to a book of his essays:

I have felt all my life, and I still feel, the most sincere satisfaction that Mr. Darwin had been at work long before me, and that it was not left for me to attempt to write “The Origin of Species”.

—Alfred Russel Wallace, Contributions to the Theory of Natural Selection (1870)

Darwin’s response summed up the two men’s friendship wonderfully well:

There never has been passed on me, or indeed on any one, a higher eulogium than yours. I wish that I fully deserved it. Your modesty and candour are very far from new to me. I hope it is a satisfaction to you to reflect,—& very few things in my life have been more satisfactory to me—that we have never felt any jealousy towards each other, though in one sense rivals. I believe that I can say this of myself with truth, & I am absolutely sure that it is true of you.

—Charles Darwin to Alfred Russel Wallace, 20 April [1870]
Newsletter No. 16: ‘Pilgrimages and plans’ Thu, 22 Dec 2022 19:37:23 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD ( A bumper Christmas edition of Darwin-related goodies.
Darwin newsletter


Dear Friend of Darwin,

My partner, Jen, and I recently visited Cambridge on a wonderful Darwin pilgrimage. We got to see many of Darwin’s original papers, specimens collected during the Beagle Voyage, and I even had my photo taken with the man himself (I’m the unconventionally handsome one on the right).

Me and Darwin

The visit was prompted by an exhibition to mark the official completion of the stupendous Darwin Correspondence Project, which had been running for almost 50 years. While we in town, I managed to meet a couple of the current project team, and took the opportunity to thank them for their tremendous work compiling and meticulously researching 30 volumes of Darwin’s correspondence. The final volume will be published early in the new year, filling the last remaining slot on my study shelves. Days after my visit, the project team announced the entire correspondence is now available online. Magnificent stuff! But also kind of sad: the end of an era.

Missing Links

Some Darwin-related stuff I thought you might like:

  1. Charles Darwin’s note-making system
    A post I wrote exploring how Darwin kept track of his assorted notes, helping him to produce such a huge body of work.
  2. Charles Darwin as a writer (video)
    Darwin scholar and biographer Dr Janet Browne recently gave an hour-long online lecture on Darwin’s literary techniques.
  3. Our Earth, shaped by life
    A nice piece about the two ‘bookends’ of Darwin’s scientific publishing career: his works on coral reefs and earthworms, and what they had in common.
  4. ‘Spontaneous revolutions’: Darwin’s diagrams of plant movement
    After weeks watching young tendrils slowly corkscrew their way toward the sun, Charles Darwin set about inventing a system for making botanic motion visible to the naked eye.
  5. Species and varieties
    At what point do different varieties of a species become sufficiently different to be considered different species? This new Darwin Correspondence Project essay explores Darwin’s views on ‘trying to define the undefinable’.
  6. Darwin’s barometer (video)
    An unboxing video of the wonderful mountain barometer used by Darwin during the Beagle voyage.
  7. Lois Darling’s Beagle
    A Linnean Society post about twentieth-century American yachtswoman, author and illustrator Lois Darling’s detailed research into the evolving design of HMS Beagle.
  8. Charles Darwin: autographed defence document fetches record price
    A signed piece of paper on which Darwin defended his theory of evolution has been sold for $882,000 (£719,000). Unfortunately, it was somewhat beyond my budget. (Image and transcript at Darwin Online.)
  9. ’Emma’ audio play
    On something of a role, the Darwin Correspondence Project yesterday published a delightful half-hour audio-play set at Down House on the day of Darwin’s funeral.

Plus… a few bonus links 🔗

Natural Selections

Some book recommendations:

More book reviews »

Journal of Researches

Due to my visit to Cambridge and various end-of-year-related activities, work on my Darwin book has entered a brief hiatus. I plan to resume work early in the new year, once the hangovers have subsided. Meanwhile, I’ve been making a number of small but important changes to the Friends of Charles Darwin website as part of a long-desired plan to start publishing more stuff on the site and in this newsletter, and less on social media. If everything goes to plan, I’m hoping this newsletter will go out a bit more regularly next year, rather than taking occasional four-month breaks (sorry about that).

…Oh, yes, and I‘ve joined Mastodon.

Expression of Emotions

Thanks for taking time to read this newsletter. Please feel free to forward it to any friends (or, indeed, enemies) you think might like to subscribe. And, as always, your feedback is welcome.

Have a fab one, and see you next year!

Richard Carter, FCD

Newsletter No. 16: Bonus links Thu, 22 Dec 2022 16:19:20 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD ( Some good stuff there wasn’t space for in newsletter No. 16. Some stuff there wasn’t space for in newsletter No. 16:

  1. Origin of Specious: misunderstandings about Patrick Matthew’s evolutionary thinking
    Journal article exploring how Patrick Matthew’s evolutionary ideas differed from Darwin’s.
  2. Palaeoanthropologist John Hawks describes the top 10 discoveries about ancient people from DNA in 2022, and, for good measure, three big insights into our African origins.
  3. DNA of 13 Neanderthals reveals ‘exciting’ snapshot of ancient community
    Analysis of remains found in southern Siberia shows an interconnecting web of relationships between different Neanderthal individuals. (See also: Original Nature paper.)
  4. Ancient DNA reveals a hidden history of human adaptation
    New genetic research has found evidence of 50 ‘hard sweeps’ in which rare but beneficial genetic variants swept rapidly through human populations.
  5. Breakthrough shows humans were already standing on their own two feet 7 million years ago
    An article describing new research on the skeleton of Sahelanthropus tchadensis, a candidate for the oldest-known representative of humanity. (See also Original Nature paper.)
  6. Shrew-like creature was placental mammals’ last common ancestor
    Placental mammals’ earliest primogenitor was probably a diminutive creature with a long snout, researchers suggest.
  7. Photos suggest rhino horns have shrunk over past century, likely due to hunting
    By scrutinizing over a century’s worth of photos, researchers have shown rhinoceros horns have gradually decreased in size over time.
  8. Why do gulls have grey wings?
    A new analysis reveals that heavier gull species have darker wings, hinting that colour might play a role in avian flight efficiency.
  9. Darwin, Marx, Satan, and a mythical dedication
    At the height of the McCarthyite Red Scare, the anti-evolution preacher John R. Rice asked his audience to whom Marx had dedicated The Communist Manifesto. His incorrect answer was Charles Darwin. (Thanks to the author for the Friends of Charles Darwin citation.)
  10. Speaking of Darwin
    A website exploring Charles Darwin’s early years in Shropshire.
  11. Insectivorous Plants (video)
    A song using the words of Charles Darwin from his letters about insectivorous plants, written by Dr Francis Neary of the Darwin Correspondence Project (with whom I downed several beers recently).
A long-desired plan Tue, 20 Dec 2022 11:22:48 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD ( A slightly improved website, and a change in emphasis on how the Friends of Charles Darwin publish stuff online… Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve made several small but important improvements to the Friends of Charles Darwin website, pretty much every one of which will go unnoticed by all but the most astute of observers. I’ll spare you the details, other than to say the site now looks more consistent, and I finally managed to track down the source of a problem that was making certain pages far slower than they should have been (which, contrary to all expectations, had nothing to do with any of my own inept programming). So, several minor improvements accumulated over time: how appropriate is that for a site dedicated to Charles Darwin?

The changes are part of a long-desired plan to become less reliant on the outrage manufactories of social media, and to start putting out more stuff both here and on my personal website. This move has been on the cards for quite some time. I’ve made no secret of the fact I would prefer people to follow my websites and newsletters directly, and to cut out the billionaire middlemen. Musk’s recent acquisition and ongoing firebombing of Twitter were not the inspiration for this move, but they provided some much-needed impetus.

I’m not naive enough to think people are going to abandon social media—and neither am I. But I don’t see why I should continue to populate their websites with Darwin-related content, rather than posting it on my own. So, from now on, the plan is to post stuff mainly on my websites and in my newsletters and to link to that stuff via social media.

If you would also like to cut out the middlemen and follow my stuff directly, here are the best ways to do so:

Friends of Charles Darwin stuff:

Richard Carter stuff:

Minor improvements over time… Who knows where this might lead?

Cambridge Darwin pilgrimage Fri, 02 Dec 2022 15:23:16 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD ( A trip to see a treasure-trove of Darwinalia. When I learnt of there was to be an exhibition entitled Darwin in Conversation at Cambridge University Library to mark the completion of the Darwin Correspondence Project, I realised a trip to Cambridge was an absolute must. My long-suffering partner, Jen, and I finally drove down at Halloween, staying for a couple of nights, and making our trip into something of a Darwin pilgrimage.

As luck would have it, a long-term online contact, Julian Derry (@JFDerry), emailed me a couple of days before the trip to alert me to an event being held by the Cambridge Philosophical Society to tie in with the exhibition. So we booked tickets and agree to meet afterwards. At the event, chaired by Dr Alison Pearn, Associate Director of the Darwin Correspondence Project, three scientists who are all direct descendants of Charles Darwin spoke about what it was like to be brought up having such an illustrious ancestor, and how he influenced their own careers. A video of the event was later made available on YouTube. Afterwards, we met briefly with Julian, who introduced us to Dr Francis Neary, Editor and Research Associate at the Darwin Correspondence Project, and we agreed to meet for beers the following evening.

Next morning, Jen and I made our way to the university library for the exhibition. It was a treasure-trove of Darwinalia: letters, maps, more letters, manuscripts, children’s doodles, more letters, notebooks, books, caricatures, more letters, and displays of various aspects of Darwin’s work, from writing books to investigating insectivorous plants, from following the flight-paths of bees to exploring human emotions. Also on display were two welcome, unplanned late additions to the exhibition: Darwin’s notebooks B and C, stolen from the library several years ago, anonymously returned only a few months earlier.

By prior arrangement, Alison Pearn briefly joined us at the exhibition for a quick chat about Darwin and the Correspondence Project, during which I took the opportunity to thank her and the rest of the team, past and present, for their astonishing scholarship over almost five decades.

After the exhibition, the rest of our day was spent on a whistle-stop tour of various Darwin-related Cambridge attractions: Christ’s College, in torrential rain, for the young Darwin statue; the Museum of Zoology for Darwin’s beetles, Beagle-voyage specimens, and barnacles; the Whipple Museum for his microscope; and the Sedgwick Museum for his geological stuff. Then, after fish and chips at The Eagle, it was down to the Maypole pub for real ale and enthusiastic Darwin conversation with Julian and Francis, during which I finally got to prove to Jen once and for all that it isn’t just me: there really are other Darwin nerds out there.

Thanks to Jen, Julian, Francis and Alison: it really was a very special trip.

Friends of Charles Darwin RSS feed has moved… Thu, 17 Nov 2022 09:44:11 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD ( For technical/usability reasons, the canonical URL (web address) for the main Friends of Charles Darwin RSS feed has changed. For technical reasons I won’t bore you with, the canonical URL (web address) for the Friends of Charles Darwin combined RSS ‘metafeed’ (which lists all the site’s latest articles, newsletters, reviews and blog posts) has changed to:

The (non-technical) reason for the change is to make the feed more user-friendly for people who happen to land on the page, but who don’t understand what an RSS feed is for.

The old feed URL should continue to work just fine. But if you’re already subscribed to the feed, you might want to update to the new ‘official’ version.

Apologies for any inconvenience. I’ll try to ensure this doesn’t happen again.

Hello, Lebanon! 🇱🇧 Wed, 09 Nov 2022 14:56:57 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD ( The Friends of Charles Darwin have their first member from Lebanon. We now have members in 105 countries. I am delighted to announce that the Friends of Charles Darwin have their first member from Lebanon: Mohammad S. Al-Zein of Beirut. Welcome!

We now have members in 105 countries.

Hello, Ukraine! 🇺🇦 Fri, 28 Oct 2022 17:49:15 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( The Friends of Charles Darwin have their first member from Ukraine. I am delighted to announce that the Friends of Charles Darwin have their first member from Ukraine: Kateryna Ocheretna of Kviy. Welcome! (And keep going, Ukraine!)

We now have members in 104 countries.

Book review: ‘Kindred’ by Rebecca Wragg Sykes Wed, 26 Oct 2022 11:17:55 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( An introduction to our formerly maligned cousins.
‘Kindred’ by Rebecca Wragg Sykes

As someone who publishes a Charles-Darwin-related newsletter, I’ve noticed new scientific papers concerning two particular topics ping on my radar with remarkable frequency (so remarkable that I’m remarking on it right now): the evolutionary history of domestic dogs, and our long-lost human cousins the Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis). Both of these subjects are clearly very hot topics in the archaeological science community. There’s a good reason for this: recent advances in the extraction and analysis of ancient DNA (aDNA) have opened up exciting new avenues of research, even when based on specimens collected many years ago.

Rebecca Wragg Sykes’s enjoyable book Kindred explores what we know, and what we can infer, about our extinct Neanderthal relatives. In the process, she punctures a number of outdated misconceptions about this particular branch of our increasingly bushy family-tree. In the same way that, over the last couple of decades, we’ve stopped seeing dinosaurs as lumbering, ill-adapted failures, now appreciating them for the magnificent creatures they were, in recent years we’ve begun to realise our cousins were far from the dimwitted knuckle-dragging ‘Neanderthals’ we once mistook them for. As Wragg Sykes puts it, ‘Neanderthals were never some sort of highway service station en route to Real People. They were state-of-the-art humans, just a different sort’.

As with all things archaeological, there is an unavoidable element of survivorship bias in our perceptions of the Neanderthals. The bodily remains and artefacts that have managed to survive in the archaeological record give us only a few fragments of the picture. As Wragg Sykes explains, 99% of Middle Palaeolithic human artefacts are stone, but most artefacts will have been organic, so rarely survived. Kindred wonderfully explains how we have managed to correct some of the our earlier misconceptions, and begun to fill in some of the gaps in knowledge of the Neanderthals. For example, it was fascinating to read how aDNA analysis of the tartar on their teeth has revealed their ‘paleao’ diets to have been more varied than clichéd mammoth burgers and cave-bear kebabs.

Inevitably, in addition to new, science-based revelations about the Neanderthals, Kindred contains a considerable amount of conjecture. This can often be annoying in books where you just want to learn the facts, but Wragg Sykes is always at pains to make clear when she is speculating, and the reasoning she used to get there—and her conjectures often sounded entirely reasonable to this generally sceptical non-expert.

Perhaps the biggest headline-grabbing scientific revelation about Neanderthals in recent years was that some of their DNA lives on in our own cells. In other words, they occasionally inter-bred with our Homo sapiens ancestors. The branches in family trees are more convoluted than many of the textbooks would have us believe. Not only were the Neanderthals our cousins, but an unknown number of them were also our direct ancestors. Some people might find this shocking, but, by the end of this book, I hope most readers, like me, will find the idea utterly delightful.

Kindred is a thoroughly enjoyable introduction to our formerly maligned cousins.


Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Charles Darwin’s note-making system Wed, 12 Oct 2022 16:30:33 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( An exploration of how Darwin kept track of his various notes, enabling him to produce a huge body of work. Charles Darwin’s life and work must be one of the most well documented of any scientist. We still have his Beagle Journal, most of his notebooks, much of his vast correspondence, many of the annotated books from his personal library, many of his own loose papers and draft manuscripts, not forgetting, of course, all the wonderful books and papers he published. Heck, we even have his student bills from university!

During his many years of research, Darwin consumed and processed vast amounts of information, merging it with thoughts and research of his own to produce all manner of publications on subjects as apparently diverse as coral reefs, insectivorous plants, barnacles (both living and fossil), earthworms, orchids, cross- and self-fertilisation, human emotions, climbing plants, domestication, not to forget, of course, evolution by means of natural selection, and human evolution and sexual selection.

Despite long-term ill-health, Darwin managed to churn out an awful lot of top-rate material over the years. It seems remarkable he was able to keep track of so many diverse topics. Fortunately, Darwin’s life is so well documented, we have a pretty good idea of how he made and arranged his notes—a practice that Darwin himself briefly describes in his autobiography:

As in several of my books facts observed by others have been very extensively used, and as I have always had several quite distinct subjects in hand at the same time, I may mention that I keep from thirty to forty large portfolios, in cabinets with labelled shelves, into which I can at once put a detached reference or memorandum. I have bought many books, and at their ends I make an index of all the facts that concern my work; or, if the book is not my own, write out a separate abstract, and of such abstracts I have a large drawer full. Before beginning on any subject I look to all the short indexes and make a general and classified index, and by taking the one or more proper portfolios I have all the information collected during my life ready for use.

In other words, in modern note-making parlance, Darwin:

  • gathered loose slips of information in a number of different filed folders dedicated to particular topics of interest. These slips included notes, speculations and draft fragments of his own; interesting snippets from, and comments on, stuff he had read; and extracts from personal correspondence;
  • made brief source/literature notes which he filed either: a) in the back of the book concerned; or b) in a dedicated file (i.e. drawer). Note: As we shall see from his son Francis’s account of Darwin’s note-taking system, Darwin sometimes also filed particular source/literature notes in the appropriate topic-related folder(s).

In the following sections, I explore Darwin’s note-making in more depth before giving one example of how Darwin transformed some rough notes into a published text.

Darwin’s reference and source notes

Darwin read vast amounts of scientific literature and, by way of light relief, also enjoyed having family correspondence, novels and other non-specialist books read aloud to him by his wife, Emma, while he rested.

During and immediately following the two decades’ research that culminated in the publication of On the Origin of Species, Darwin maintained reading notebooks listing, in chronological order, the books and papers he had read. He recorded work-related reading on the left-hand pages and leisure reading on the right. At the back of the same book, he also maintained a list of work-related material he planned to read. These notebooks will no doubt have been invaluable to Darwin when trying to recall obscure references.

When reading, Darwin treated work-related books very much as tools to be used. So much so that he was not above tearing particularly thick books in half down the spine to make them easier to handle. Indeed, according to his son Francis, “He used to boast that he had made [his close friend the geologist Charles] Lyell publish the second edition of one of his books in two volumes, instead of in one, by telling him how he had been obliged to cut [the first edition] in half.”

Francis also explains how his father annotated his reading material, and, later, made and filed indexed, abstracted notes:

In each book, as he read it, he marked passages bearing on his work. In reading a book or pamphlet, &c., he made pencil-lines at the side of the page, often adding short remarks, and at the end made a list of the pages marked. When it was to be catalogued and put away, the marked pages were looked at, and so a rough abstract of the book was made. This abstract would perhaps be written under three or four headings on different sheets, the facts being sorted out and added to the previously collected facts in different subjects. He had other sets of abstracts arranged, not according to subject, but according to periodical. When collecting facts on a large scale, in earlier years, he used to read through, and make abstracts, in this way, of whole series of periodicals.

Darwin’s notebooks and research portfolios

In the early days of his research into transmutation (i.e. evolution), at a time when he was still trying to identify a mechanism for evolutionary change, Darwin began to keep a number of transmutation notebooks in which he jotted down ideas, reading notes, and other information that seemed relevant to the general topic in hand. As he writes in his autobiography:

My first note-book was opened in July 1837. I worked on true Baconian principles, and without any theory collected facts on a wholesale scale, more especially with respect to domesticated productions, by printed enquiries, by conversation with skilful breeders and gardeners, and by extensive reading. When I see the list of books of all kinds which I read and abstracted, including whole series of Journals and Transactions, I am surprised at my industry.

Although Darwin continued to maintain a number of notebooks on various topics, shortly after his 1838 Eureka moment in which he identified a mechanism for evolution that he dubbed Natural Selection, he seems to have realised bound notebooks would be too restrictive when making notes for what was to become a twenty-year research programme. Instead, as we have already seen, he began to maintain a series of different loose-leaf portfolios dedicated to individual research topics.

It wasn’t just work-related textbooks that Darwin mistreated abysmally. Once he had begun his new system of collecting notes on loose slips of paper, he was not above tearing pages out of his old notebooks to file in the relevant portfolio. For example, on the inside cover of his famous Notebook B (1837–38), which contains his iconic ‘I think’ evolutionary tree diagram, Darwin noted:

All useful Pages cut out Dec. 7th. /1856/

(& again looked through April 21 1873)

Indeed, so useful does Darwin seem to have found his final (1839–41) notebook on transmutation that he tore it completely apart for filing in his various research portfolios.

Darwin adopted a very much top-down approach when researching and planning his never-to-be-completed ‘Big Book’ on species—an ‘abstract’ of which, he would later publish as On the Origin of Species. He had a broad outline for the book in mind, so arranged his portfolios to reflect the various planned chapter topics. The general idea was, once Darwin came to start writing a chapter, he would be able to open the corresponding portfolio, shuffle the various loose slips of paper about, and come up with a detailed outline for that chapter.

Darwin was so convinced of the usefulness of this technique that, in 1864, when trying to convince his close friend Thomas Henry Huxley to write a book on zoology aimed at a general audience, he suggested:

If you were to keep a portfolio open for a couple of years, and throw in slips of paper as subjects crossed your mind, you would soon have a skeleton (and that seems to me the difficulty) on which to put the flesh and colours in your inimitable manner.

In his Reminiscences, Francis Darwin also describes his father’s use of portfolios, and how, in later life, Darwin was amused to learn another scientist had independently arrived at the same note-making method:

In some of his early letters he speaks of filling several note-books with facts for his book on species; but it was certainly early that he adopted his plan of using portfolios […] My father and M. de Candolle were mutually pleased to discover that they had adopted the same plan of classifying facts. De Candolle describes the method in his ‘Phytologie,’ and in his sketch of my father mentions the satisfaction he felt in seeing it in action at Down.

On realising they had arrived at the same note-making technique, Darwin wrote to the French-Swiss botanist Alphonse de Candolle, saying:

It has pleased me to find that I have always followed your plan of making notes on separate pieces of paper; I keep several scores of large portfolios, arranged on very thin shelves about two inches apart, fastened to the walls of my study, and each shelf has its proper name or title; and I can thus put at once every memorandum into its proper place.

The thin shelves Darwin used for filing his portfolios are clearly visible in the alcove to the right of the fireplace in this etching of his study made shortly after he died. I also note the same image appears to show several loose slips of paper pinned to the wall at the side of the fireplace:

Darwin’s study at Down House
Darwin’s study at Down House

de Candolle was just as delighted as Darwin to learn they shared the same loose-slip note-making technique. In a brief sketch he wrote about visiting Darwin at his home, de Candolle recalls (my translation of his original French, very much aided and abetted by Google Translate):

When we returned to the house [having walked round the grounds], Darwin showed me his library, a large room on the ground floor, very convenient for a studious man: many books on the shelves; daylight from two sides; a table for writing and another for experimental equipment. […] He was kind enough to inform me that, for his notes, he had himself employed exactly the same process of loose slips that my father and I have followed, and which I have spoken of in detail in my Phytographie. Eighty years of our [i.e. de Candolle and his father’s] experience had shown me its value. I am more impressed with it than ever, since Darwin had devised it on his own. This method gives the work more accuracy, supplements memory, and saves years.

Example of Darwin’s annotated notes in action

I thought it might be fun to explore an example of Darwin capturing and processing some notes, and using them in a published document.

For the source document, I chose On the Nature of Limbs by Darwin’s friend (and soon-to-be enemy), the brilliant anatomist Richard Owen. In this book, Owen describes how the skeletons of all vertebrates seem to bear the same underlying basic layout. Owen proposes this is due to their all being derived from the same ideal ‘archetype’. He suggests this mysterious underlying design must have arisen through natural laws, but offers no suggestions as to how.

Already familiar with Owen’s ideas, Darwin highlighted (with marginal pencil lines) several passages in his personal copy of ‘On the Nature of Limbs’, and included a number of annotations. Five of his highlights were made against the following:

  • on p.9, in which Owen points out that human inventors don’t constrain themselves to a common basic design when designing different types of mechanical locomotion;
  • on p.10, in which Owen argues that the structure of individual species’ limbs are not wholly determined by their ‘final causes’ (or, as we might put it, their forms are not entirely determined by their functions);
  • on pp.13–14, in which Owen points out the uncanny similarities in structure between a mole’s forelimb (used for digging), a human hand (used for grasping), a bat’s wing (used for flying), and the fin of a dugong or whale (used for swimming);
  • on p.82, in which Owen observes that the limbs of the newly discovered Lepidosiren (South American lungfish)—a species that can live out of water, and move around on land using its fins—most closely resemble the limbs of Owen’s hypothetical archetype;
  • on p.86, in which Owen waxes lyrical about how, once ‘the Divine Mind’ had planned and established the ideal archetype, ‘[Nature] has advanced with slow and stately steps, guided by the archetypal light, amidst the wreck of worlds, from the first embodiment of the Vertebrate idea under its old Ichthyic [i.e. fishy] vestment, until it became arrayed in the glorious garb of the Human form.’

In his indexed summary of his highlights and annotations that he pinned into the back of his copy of Owen’s book, Darwin summarised the highlighted sections described above as follows:

  • 9. Man does not trammel himself in his inventions by any common type
  • 13 Capital comparison of hand of Mole, Bat & Fin
  • 10 Final causes not sole governing principle [see also:] 14, 37
  • 82 Lepidosiren realises nearly ideal Archetype (see my remarks at end of volume)
  • 86 Alludes in grandiloquent sentence to some law governi[n]g progression, guided by archetypal light — &c.—

By far the most important (and famous) note Darwin made in his copy of On the Nature of Limbs, however, were the remarks he links to in the index item for p.82 shown above. In the back of the book, Darwin wrote a separate note offering his own interpretation of Owen’s proposed archetype:

I look at Owens Archetypus as more than ideal, as a real representation as far as the most consummate skill & loftiest generalizations can represent th parent-form of th Vertebrata . —

I follow him that there is a created archetype, the parent of its class

Darwin had realised that, when Owen talked of a mysterious vertebrate archetype, although he didn’t know it, he was really talking about the common ancestor of all vertebrates.

Darwin’s notes on Owen’s book were to inform his most famous work, On the Origin of Species, in which he writes:

Morphology.—We have seen that the members of the same class, independently of their habits of life, resemble each other in the general plan of their organisation. […] This is the most interesting department of natural history, and may be said to be its very soul. What can be more curious than that the hand of a man, formed for grasping, that of a mole for digging, the leg of the horse, the paddle of the porpoise, and the wing of the bat, should all be constructed on the same pattern, and should include the same bones, in the same relative positions? […]

Nothing can be more hopeless than to attempt to explain this similarity of pattern in members of the same class, by utility or by the doctrine of final causes. The hopelessness of the attempt has been expressly admitted by Owen in his most interesting work on the 'Nature of Limbs.' On the ordinary view of the independent creation of each being, we can only say that so it is;—that it has so pleased the Creator to construct each animal and plant.

The explanation is manifest on the theory of the natural selection of successive slight modifications […] If we suppose that the ancient progenitor, the archetype as it may be called, of all mammals, had its limbs constructed on the existing general pattern, for whatever purpose they served, we can at once perceive the plain signification of the homologous construction of the limbs throughout the whole class.

Quite correct, as usual, Mr. D. The similar skeletal layouts of humans, moles, horses, porpoises and bats—and of frogs, lizards, birds, ichthyosaurs, and even fish—speak volumes. They speak of inheritance from a common ancestor. No other explanation makes sense.

Concluding remarks

Working, as I currently am, on a book about Charles Darwin, I’ve come to appreciate the importance of a reliable note-making system. I’m no note-making masochist, so, what with it being the twenty-first century and everything, I’ve adopted a highly flexible digital note-making app to gather and process my, and other people’s, thoughts. All such modern systems allow you to adopt Darwin’s top-down approach to note-making; or a bottom-up approach through which, by linking lots of small notes together, interesting new themes emerge; or, if you prefer, you can have a combination of both top-down and bottom-up. Each to their own.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, because my main focus is currently on the life and work of a single person, I’ve mostly adopted Darwin’s top-down approach to note-making. This is not because I’m in any way trying to emulate my hero, but because a top-down approach, in this case, makes most sense. Darwin adopted a top-down approach to most of his work, so many of the notes in my electronic system naturally reflect the individual topics he worked on. Indeed, I suspect there must be a considerable overlap between the major topics covered in my notes, and the topics assigned their own loose-slip portfolios in Darwin’s own note-making system. That said, I have experienced several of my own bottom-up, mini Eureka moments as, deep down in some obscure note in my system, I’ve suddenly identified a fascinating, unexpected link with some apparently unrelated note elsewhere.

When you set out to unify the whole of biology by devising, researching and promoting its single most important theory, you’d better have a reliable note-making system to hand. Darwin would no doubt have given his back teeth for a modern, digital system to keep track of all his notes, but, obviously, this was never an option. So, instead, he devised his own, entirely pragmatic, top-down note-making system that allowed him to gather and process notes on all manner of different research topics from hundreds of different sources. The sheer amount of work he managed to put out bears magnificent testament to how well Darwin’s system worked for him.

Hello, North Macedonia! 🇲🇰 Thu, 22 Sep 2022 07:19:07 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( The Friends of Charles Darwin have their first member from North Macedonia. Map showing location of North Macedonia

I am delighted to announce that the Friends of Charles Darwin have their first member from the Republic of North Macedonia: Hristijan Makedonski of Bitola. Welcome!

We now have members in 103 countries.

Newsletter No. 15: ‘Darwinian associations’ Fri, 19 Aug 2022 16:06:01 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( …everything has a Darwin connection!
Darwin newsletter

19TH AUGUST 2022

Dear Friend of Darwin,

Putting together these newsletters, I’m always surprised at just how many news stories and recent scientific studies have Darwinian associations. Clearly there’s a huge element of sampling bias here—I am, after all, on the lookout for exactly those sorts of articles—but should I be all that surprised?

As a self-confessed Darwin groupie, I like to joke everything has a Darwin connection. But in biology, it’s not really a joke. Darwin’s great theory of evolution by means of natural selection underpins the whole of modern biology. Yes, the theory has itself evolved over the years, as scientists delved deeper into its implications, found out more stuff, incorporated their own insights, and corrected a few of Darwin’s errors. But, embellishments notwithstanding, Darwin’s original theory is still very much with us, helping us make sense of the world. How, indeed, could any new biological study not have Darwinian associations?

Missing Links

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

  1. Darwin in Conversation
    Marking the completion of the magnificent Darwin Correspondence Project, a 40-year endeavour to publish all of Darwin’s correspondence, a new exhibition in Cambridge, UK celebrates the endlessly curious life and letters of Charles Darwin.
  2. Self-pollinating plant shows rapid loss of genetic variation
    A modern experimental study similar to a series of experiments performed by Charles Darwin has shown that, without bumble bees, a flowering plant that can self-pollinate lost substantial genetic variation within only nine generations.
  3. Ice Age wolf DNA reveals dogs trace ancestry to two separate wolf populations
    Darwin incorrectly concluded domestic dogs arose from more than one species of wild canid, not just wolves. The latest development in this popular field of research suggests dogs’ origins can be traced to at least two different populations of ancient wolves.
  4. How humans’ ability to digest milk evolved from famine and disease
    A major new study attempts to quantify how lactose tolerance developed in Europeans. See also: Why did Europeans evolve into becoming lactose tolerant?
  5. Study explores coevolution of mammals and their lice
    The first mammalian louse most likely species-hopped from birds, beginning the long co-evolution of mammals and their lice.
  6. New study challenges old views on what’s ‘primitive’ in mammalian reproduction
    For decades, marsupial reproduction has been seen as more ‘primitive’ than that of placental mammals. New research suggests otherwise.
  7. Tiny bodies of bats allow perfect balance between flight costs and heat dissipation
    Evolution often involves design compromises. Many mammal species living in cold climates tend to have large bodies and short limbs to reduce heat loss. But bats are an exception to the rule.
  8. Mystery solved: when mammals’ ancestors became warm-blooded
    It looks as if warm-bloodedness developed in our mammalian ancestors around 233 million years ago, during the Late Triassic period, at a time when many other features of the mammalian body plan were also falling into place.
  9. Rise of the dinosaurs traced back to their adaptation to cold
    Meanwhile, in other Late-Triassic news… Scientists have suggested coverings of feathers enabled early dinosaurs to survive when other creatures died off in a mass extinction event.
  10. Impact crater may be dinosaur killer’s baby cousin
    Scientists investigating the other end of the dinosaurs’ magnificent 165-million-year reign have discovered what seems to be a second impact crater of a very similar age to the one associated with the demise of the non-avian dinosaurs.
  11. All the better to better eat you with: dinosaurs evolved different eye socket shapes to allow stronger bites
    Large predatory dinosaurs evolved elongated eye sockets to better deal with high bite forces, a new study suggests.
  12. Ancestral genetic variation essential for rapid evolution of Darwin’s finches
    Researchers have identified 28 ancestral gene regions particularly important in the evolution of Darwin’s finches.
  13. Researcher examines how two volcanic eruptions forever changed flightless brown kiwi
    A nice example of Darwin’s important idea that geographical isolation can lead to divergence of populations.
  14. Darwin in Edinburgh
    An account of the recent Darwin in Edinburgh walking theatre tour.

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

Natural Selections

Some book recommendations for you:

More book reviews »

Journal of Researches

Natural selection and evolution also applies to writing. Earlier this week, I realised the latest chapter I’d been struggling to outline for my Darwin book wasn’t viable. It would never have what it takes to survive the trials of later drafts. One lesson my former career working on projects and programmes of work taught me is the sooner you stop a bad idea the better. So I see the rapid extinction of my latest chapter as a good thing: my book will be better without it.

Onward and upward, to the next chapter! (Let’s hope this one evolves some legs!)

Expression of Emotions

Thanks as always for taking time to read this newsletter. Please feel free to forward it to any friends you think might like to subscribe.

As I said last time, if you enjoy this newsletter, you might also like to check out my other newsletter, which is remarkably similar in format, but with less emphasis on Darwin-related stuff (even though, as we all know, everything has a Darwin connection).

See you next time!

Richard Carter, FCD

Newsletter 14: ‘The correct way to classify species’ Fri, 10 Jun 2022 16:18:49 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( Taxonomic techniques compared • Pterosaurs • plant evolution and mega-herbivores • punctuated equilibrium • chimp vocalisations • giraffes’s necks • whale evolution • giant tortoises • platypus conspiracy • book recommendations
Darwin newsletter

10TH JUNE 2022

Dear Friend of Darwin,

Charles Darwin appreciated one of the most compelling arguments in favour of his theory of evolution by means of natural selection was just how much apparently unrelated stuff it explained. In one letter, he asked an unconvinced colleague to consider the ‘large body of facts in Geographical Distribution, Geological Succession, & more especially in Classification, Homology, Embryology, [and] Rudimentary Organs’ that his theory explained. After years of research, he had written about each of these subjects in On the Origin of Species.

Species’ classification—what we would now call taxonomy—was a particularly interesting example. Expert taxonomists had categorised species according to similarities in their physical structures—that is, in their morphologies. Darwin realised the groupings contemporary taxonomists had come up with actually tended to reflect how closely the species were related to each other through genealogical descent. He rightly pointed out that genealogical descent was the correct way to classify species—which is exactly how modern taxonomists try to classify them.

As Darwin also pointed out, the idea that species were related through genealogical descent also threw considerable light on their geographical distributions. For example, all the many species of living and extinct kangaroos are or were indigenous to Australia and New Guinea because they all evolved from a common ancestor that lived in that region. The same goes for the rheas of South America, the finches of the Galápagos Islands, and all manner of other groups of related species.

An interesting new study (see item 1 in the ‘Missing Links’ section below) made use of Darwin’s realisation that species’ geographical distributions tend to reflect their genealogical descent. The study compared two different taxonomic techniques for classifying species: the traditional technique of comparing their morphologies, and the more recent technique of comparing their DNA. It found that DNA-based taxonomies more closely reflected species’ geographical groupings than did morphology-based taxonomies. In other words, DNA-based taxonomies tend to be more accurate than morphology-based taxonomies at reflecting genealogical descent.

When done properly, science has an admirable habit of spotting its own mistakes and correcting them. One implication of this new study, assuming its findings are widely accepted, is that many of our existing morphology-based taxonomies will require revision. Those where DNA comparisons can be made, at least. For those species where no DNA samples exist—which includes the vast majority of extinct species—more traditional morphology-based techniques remain the best approach we have.

Missing Links

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

  1. Study suggests that most of our evolutionary trees could be wrong
    Scientists compared evolutionary trees based on morphology with those based on molecular data, and mapped them according to geographical location. They found that the animals grouped together by molecular trees lived more closely together geographically than the animals grouped using the morphological trees.
    Associated journal paper: Molecular phylogenies map to biogeography better than morphological ones
  2. Microfossils may be evidence life began ‘very quickly’ after Earth formed
    Scientists believe a new specimen shows life existed earlier than is widely assumed.
  3. Pterosaurs and the evolution of melanin-based colours in feathers: pterosaurs had feathers and they were coloured!
    A remarkably well-preserved Pterosaur fossil reveals clues that it bore coloured feathers.
  4. How the dinosaur extinction changed plant evolution
    Following the extinction of non-avian dinosaurs 66 million years ago, large herbivores were missing on Earth for 25 million years. This raises the question of how the prolonged absence of ‘mega-herbivores’ affected the evolution of plants.
  5. Wild animals are evolving faster than anybody thought
    A long-term study of wild animal populations shows each generation is on average almost 20% genetically ‘better’ than its parents at surviving and reproducing.
  6. Catastrophe drives evolution. But life resides in the pauses
    Evolution is extraordinarily creative in the wake of a cataclysm. How does life keep steadily ticking over in between?
  7. Chimpanzees combine calls to form numerous vocal sequences
    Evidence of structured vocal sequences in wild chimpanzee communication provides insights into human language evolution.
    Associated journal paper: Chimpanzees produce diverse vocal sequences with ordered and recombinatorial properties
  8. Strange fossil solves giraffe evolutionary mystery
    Fossils of a strange early giraffoid have revealed what is claimed to be the key driving forces in giraffe evolution.
  9. Largest ever study of its kind reveals whales evolved in three rapid phases
    A new study has revealed that the diversity we see in whale skulls was achieved through three key periods of rapid evolution.
  10. ’Fantastic giant tortoise’ species thought extinct for 100 years found alive
    A rare Galápagos species, the ‘fantastic giant tortoise‘, long thought extinct, has been officially identified for the first time in more than a century.
  11. The Platypus Conspiracy
    Extremely silly video. (It’s Jerry’s fault.)

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

Natural Selections

Some book recommendations for you:

More book reviews »

Journal of Researches

The first draft of my Darwin book continues to evolve at an appropriately slow but steady pace, occasionally punctuated by brief bursts of activity. I have now written 88,000 words of my target 65,000—which just goes to show how bad I am at setting targets.

My latest chapter was about something Darwin got very, very wrong: his ‘provisional hypothesis’ of Pangenesis, in which he attempted to explain how heredity works. You won’t be at all surprised to hear I cut poor old Charlie a bit of slack, concluding it wasn’t such a bad attempt, given the various phenomena he was trying to explain—at least one of which, while generally accepted at the time, we now know to be completely bogus.

Expression of Emotions

Thanks for taking time to read this newsletter. As always, please feel free to forward it to any friends you think might like to subscribe. If you enjoy this newsletter, you might also like to check out my other newsletter, which is remarkably similar in format, but with less emphasis on Darwin-related stuff.

See you next time!

Richard Carter, FCD

Book review: ‘Islands of Abandonment’ by Cal Flyn Mon, 18 Apr 2022 13:49:47 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( Life in the post-human landscape.
‘Islands of Abandonment’ by Cal Flyn

Cal Flyn’s Islands of Abandonment is a refreshingly upbeat book about nature getting by in difficult circumstances. Its key message is that, when people remove themselves from environments, nature quickly moves in and adapts.

Flyn visits numerous places that have mostly been abandoned by humans, typically as a result of economic decline, or environmental disasters—either natural or manmade. Everywhere she goes, she finds nature has moved in, and is often thriving. Nature is more resilient and resourceful than we might think.

A pet gripe of mine is the feeling, often expressed by well-meaning environmentalists, that we are best placed to solve the environmental problems our species has created. Of course we should be taking steps to mitigate our impact on the planet, but what makes us think we know what we’re doing when it comes to trying to undo the mess we’ve made? As I said in a recent interview, when asked about my views on rewilding: ‘Ecosystems are complicated. They seem to work best when left to their own devices, rather than being curated by well-meaning humans.’ Islands of Abandonment repeatedly makes the same point, albeit far more eloquently.

A wonderful book.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book review: ‘Ancestors’ by Prof. Alice Roberts Mon, 18 Apr 2022 13:48:08 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( The prehistory of Britain in seven burials.
‘Ancestors’ by Prof. Alice Roberts

In this entertaining book, Prof. Alice Roberts visits a number of iconic prehistoric British burials, in the process taking the opportunity to guide us through the entire prehistory of Britain from the earliest pre-Neanderthals, through the Palaeolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic ’Stone Ages’, to the Copper Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age.

Roberts is particularly good on how our interpretation of archaeological evidence has evolved over recent years. Whereas we formerly pretty much assumed, for example, that changes in archaeological artefacts at particular sites implied changes in culture, we now take far more cognisance of the possibility that these artefacts might have been copied or traded between cultures.

Roberts also explains how we know what we think we now know about these predecessors, describing the scientific techniques used, and the latest interpretations of the evidence. She is also careful to point out where there are still areas of disagreement. I was particularly interested in how recent analyses of ancient DNA suggest that Neolithic British people seem to have left very few descendants in subsequent populations; and of how oxygen and strontium isotope analysis has established that certain individuals grew up in regions sometimes very distant to where their remains were found. These people got about!

Definitely my kind of book.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Newsletter No. 13: ‘Some excellent news’ Fri, 08 Apr 2022 16:04:28 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( Some great news • How the internet is supposed to work • Darwin plays backgammon • Links and book reviews • a necessary owl
Darwin newsletter

8TH APRIL 2022

Dear Friend of Darwin,

Finally, some excellent news… Those of you who read newsletter no. 9 just over a year ago might remember that it had recently been announced that two of Charles Darwin’s notebooks were missing, presumed stolen, from Cambridge University Library. They had last been seen two decades earlier, and for a long time had, rather wishfully, been thought of as mis-filed. One of the books contained Darwin’s iconic ‘Tree of Life’ diagram in which he first sketched branching evolutionary lineages, adding the momentous yet modest caption ‘I think’. This week, it was announced that the notebooks had been returned to the library anonymously in a pink gift bag. They are reported to be in excellent condition.

Writing as a Darwin nerd currently working on a book about my hero, I have to say we are extremely fortunate in how much of Darwin’s original documentation still exists, and is readily accessible online. The magnificent Darwin Correspondence Project, based at the aforementioned Cambridge University Library, recently published its 28th volume, and is finally nearing completion. I am privileged to own a full set of the series, but the project is also making freely available online the many thousands of surviving letters to and from Darwin, complete with the project’s meticulously researched footnotes. It is a continuing source of irritation to me that factual writing is often overlooked in discussions about ‘literature’, but if this project doesn’t receive a Nobel Prize for Literature on its completion, there really is no justice in this world.

Other online resources, without which I could not have begun to work on my book, include the wonderful Darwin Online, which has made all of Darwin’s publications and many of his manuscripts accessible to everyone; and the Darwin Manuscripts Project, based at the American Museum of Natural History. I should also not neglect to mention the great service done to us all by many academic publications and individual authors who have provided open access to scholarly papers on science, the history of science, and related topics.

Thank you all. You are wonderful examples of how the internet is supposed to work.

Missing Links

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

  1. Springtime asteroid hit ramped up extinction rates, say scientists
    Scientists have found evidence that the devastating asteroid impact 66 million years ago that saw off most of the dinosaurs happened in the spring in the northern hemisphere.
  2. Galápagos tortoises belong to new species
    Scientists have discovered that a type of giant tortoise present on one of the Galápagos Islands is not from the species it was previously thought to be.
  3. Monkey teeth are shedding new light on how early humans used tools
    Macaque monkeys’ tooth wear identical to our ancestors’ is throwing into question the long-held belief that tool-use caused the markings on hominin tooth fossils.
  4. What explains our lower back pain? Anthropologists turn to Neanderthals for answers
    Examining the spines of Neanderthals, an extinct human relative, may explain back-related ailments experienced by humans today, a team of anthropologists has concluded in a new comparative study.
  5. New insight into the possible origins of life
    Researchers have for the first time been able to create an RNA molecule that replicates, diversifies and develops complexity, following Darwinian evolution.
  6. First fossil of a daytime active owl found at the edge of the Tibetan Plateau
    Researchers have discovered the amazingly well-preserved fossil skeleton of an extinct owl that lived more than six million years ago in what is now China.

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

Natural Selections

Some book recommendations for you:

More book reviews »

Journal of Researches

Darwin’s life is so well documented that we even know how many games of backgammon he had won and lost at one point against his wife, Emma: 2,795 to 2,490. I recently made use of this anecdote as an example of Darwin’s own nerdishness: what was the point of playing backgammon unless you kept score? Darwin’s mock-triumphant boastfulness to his American friend Asa Gray on the backgammon tally is also a lovely example among many of Darwin’s gentle humour. The more I find out about the man, the more I like him.

Expression of Emotions

Thanks for taking time to read this newsletter. Please feel free to forward it to any friends you think might like to subscribe. You and they might also enjoy my other newsletter.

See you next time!

Richard Carter, FCD