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

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

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

On the Moor covers (front and back)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We now have members in 98 countries.

Cosmological conversation with my dad Wed, 27 Sep 2017 23:05:39 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( How far away is the sun? Dad: How far away is the sun?
Me: A little over eight light minutes.
Dad: I meant in miles.
Me: Well, light travels at about 186,282.397 miles per second, so the distance to the sun would be a little over 186,282.397 × 60 × 8 miles.
Dad: I don’t think I’ve ever told you this before, but… Piss off!

End of an era Wed, 27 Sep 2017 16:20:52 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( This morning, I went to the cash point for some money, only to be presented with a wad of brand new £10 notes featuring Jane Austen instead of Charles Darwin. It was bound to happen eventually.

This morning, I went to the cash point for some money, only to be presented with a wad of brand new £10 notes featuring Jane Austen instead of Charles Darwin. It’s the end of a magnificent era.

Austen tenners

Some Jane Austen tenners (and a Charles Darwin tenner) this morning.

Call it sour grapes, if you like, but I’m unimpressed by the new notes. I was always going to be. Replacing Darwin could be nothing but a huge step backwards, as far as I was concerned. But the new, plastic tenners are way too Austentatious for my taste. I understand and support the calls for more women on bank notes, but couldn’t we have had the Brontë sisters instead? Three women for the price of one, who would also plug another outrageous gap of there being no people from the North of England on our bank notes.

Still, the Darwin tenner had an excellent run, and I’m pleased to report I still have several pristine notes tucked safely away inside one of the many Darwin biographies on my study bookshelves.

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

More Reflections in Natural History.

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

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

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

Highly recommended.

Book review: ‘Ever Since Darwin’ by Stephen Jay Gould Sun, 24 Sep 2017 15:58:50 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( Reflections in Natural History.

Reflections in Natural History.

Ever Since DarwinThe first of Stephen Jay Gould’s long-running series of popular science essay collections that first appeared in his monthly column in Natural History magazine, Ever Since Darwin covers topics including:

  • Charles Darwin;
  • human evolution;
  • evolutionary oddities;
  • recurring patterns in evolutionary history;
  • theories of the earth;
  • how organisms’ (and other structures’) shapes change with size;
  • the social and political impact of scientific theories.

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

Highly recommended.

Book review: ‘Humanism’ by Stephen Law Sun, 24 Sep 2017 15:49:41 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( A very short introduction.

A very short introduction.

Humanism: a very short introductionHaving gradually begun to calm down after a couple of days’ impotent rage at the result of the EU Referendum, I turned to this short book on humanism in an attempt to restore some of my faith in humanity. I was seeking reassurance that people, as individuals, still mostly try to do the right thing, given the information available to them. That, as human beings, we really should all try to be on the same side. And that, cynicism aside, we are still capable in embracing big ideas while, it is to be hoped, rejecting unsubstantiated nonsense.

I’ve always avoided describing myself as a humanist. Partly because the word seems to mean different things to different people; partly because I don’t like labels, and I’m not really a joiner; and partly because, if I’m honest, I’ve always found the word a bit cringeworthy (an entirely unreasonable reservation, I accept, but a reservation nevertheless).

The philosopher Stephen Law gets this short guide off to an excellent start with a brief introductory chapter entitled What is humanism? Here, while acknowledging that the word ‘humanism’ means different things to different people, he identifies seven minimum characteristics that most humanists would agree unites them philosophically. In subsequent chapters, Law goes on to describe how these characteristics influence humanist views on morality, secularism, education, and the meaning of life. All of which, as you should expect, are explained very rationally.

Less interesting to me were the back-to-back chapters entitled Arguments for the existence of God, and An argument against the existence of God. While ‘atheist’ is one of the few labels I am happy to embrace, it seemed to me that these chapters deflected somewhat from the central topic of the book, and would have been better placed in an introduction to theism or atheism.

This minor criticism aside, I enjoyed this book very much indeed, and emerged from it considerably calmer, feeling better disposed to my fellow human beings, and reluctantly accepting that the label ‘humanist’ might, after all, apply to me.

Book review: ‘Improbable Destinies’ by Jonathan Losos Tue, 22 Aug 2017 15:18:48 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( How predictable is evolution?

How predictable is evolution?

Improbable DestiniesThe late Stephen Jay Gould more than once observed that, were it possible to roll back time and re-run evolutionary history, we would most likely end up with very different results. Minor differences in circumstances can lead to very different evolutionary pathways.

Others, most notably Simon Conway Morris, hold that evolution is far more predictable than Gould would have had us believe. As evidence, they cite the interesting phenomenon of convergent evolution, where different species evolve strikingly similar features in similar circumstances. A classic example is the similar body shapes of dolphins, sharks, ichthyosaurs, and (at more of a stretch) penguins: these predators’ ‘designs’ enable them to move quickly under water. If mammals, fish, ichthyosaurs, and birds evolved such similar shapes for moving at speed in the same environment, the argument goes, evolution must, to some extent, be predictable.

Those who maintain that evolution is more predictable than we might suppose sometimes go so far as to claim that upright, bipedal, intelligent life was almost inevitable on Earth. Had it not been for that pesky asteroid, they say, the world would now, quite possibly, be being ruled by dinosaurian, rather than mammalian, humanoids. This despite the fact that, as far as we know, upright, bipedal, intelligent dinosaurs failed to evolve in the 180-million years that dinosaurs actually did rule the earth.

Jonathon Losos's interesting book sets out to explore both the phenomenon of convergent evolution, and the possibility of performing experiments to assess evolutionary predictions. In the first part of the book, he describes many examples of convergent evolution. In subsequent sections, he describes experiments in the wild, and in more controlled environments, to determine whether the accuracy of various evolutionary predictions can be tested.

Although convergent evolution is a genuinely fascinating phenomenon, it is considerably less remarkable when the species in question are closely related. When presented with similar environmental challenges, is it really at all surprising when closely related species evolve similar solutions? Evolution can only tinker with what is already there; how many fundamentally different tweaks can be made to closely related lizards, for example, to help them evade a new predator? In fairness to Losos, he makes this point more than once, but, to this non-expert at least, it seemed as if more might have been made of it. There is a world of a difference between two species of stickleback, to cite another example, evolving brighter colours in the absence of predators, and dinosaurs evolving into intelligent humanoids. Even if small-scale convergent evolution of closely related species is common, extrapolating to claim that the evolution of intelligent humanoids is almost inevitable is another thing entirely.

Sensibly, Losos doesn't spend too much time examining arguments about putative humanoid dinosaurs—although he does eventually make his own position clear. This book is primarily about the experiments: how scientists have begun to test evolutionary predictions, and to assess how particular examples of convergent evolution come about. Both of which strike me as far more interesting and useful than coming up with untestable hypotheses about where dinosaurs might have gone next.

An entertaining book on an interesting subject.

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

Now we are 4,000 Tue, 08 Aug 2017 13:47:24 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( The Friends of Charles Darwin have their 4,000th member. I'm pleased to announce that the Friends of Charles Darwin have their 4,000th member: John Davison of Wessex, England.


Book review: ‘Built on Bones’ by Brenna Hassett Fri, 07 Apr 2017 15:39:40 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( 15,000 years of urban life and death.

15,000 years of urban life and death.

Built on BonesBuilt on Bones explores how archaeologists interpret dental and skeletal remains. In particular, it examines what we can infer from changes in humans’ bodies associated with our move from hunter-gatherer groups to agricultural and, later, urban societies. Or, as Brenna Hassett puts it: ‘This book is about human adaptation in the face of human invention.’

It’s a fascinating subject for a book, and bioarchaeologist Hassett is well qualified to write about it. The book contained some, to me, surprising revelations. For example, throughout the world, the adoption of agriculture seemed to go hand-in-hand with a decrease in physical stature. This could indicate that agricultural diets were not as nutritious as hunter-gatherer diets—although Hassett is quick to pour scorn on the current fad for so-called ‘palaeo’ diets.

Hassett explains how our move to urban lifestyle, while conveying certain benefits, also seems to have had numerous drawbacks—especially for those lower down the pecking order. She includes several chapters on how urban living led to new forms of violence, and encouraged different types of disease. All of which sounds rather gloomy—which perhaps explains Hassett’s liberal use of (a few too many) footnote-based jokes.

Built on Bones covers a surprisingly interesting subject in an entertaining manner. If I have one criticism it is that, in the early chapters in particular, Hassett often writes extremely long, heavily nested sentences. So much so that, on a number of occasions, I finally reached the end of a sentence only to discover I had entirely forgotten what it had been about. It’s a flaw I have tried to overcome, with limited success, in my own writing. (Handy hint: Try reading your sentences out loud. If you begin to asphyxiate before the end, they’re almost certainly too long.)

Occasional epic sentences aside, an entertaining read.

The Darwin bicentennial oak, 8 years on Sun, 12 Feb 2017 11:30:05 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD ( Eight years ago today, I planted the Darwin Bicentennial Oak in my garden. The Darwin Bicentennial Oak

Planted 12-Feb-2009

The Darwin bicentennial oak, 8 years on


Eight 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 eight years gathering material for the longest time-lapse movie ever. Or should that be shortest?

The name's Darwin: Charles Darwin Sun, 12 Feb 2017 10:07:14 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD ( KILLER FACT: Charles Darwin once featured in a James Bond film. KILLER FACT: Charles Darwin once rubbed shoulders (literally) with fellow heroic British icon James Bond. In the opening credits to Daniel Craig's first Bond film, Casino Royale, in fact. Can you spot him?

Darwin meets Bond

That chap gets everywhere.

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

Simple answer

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

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

The following analogy might help:

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

How new species evolve

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

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

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

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

So did we evolve from monkeys or not?

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, how do you define a monkey?

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

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

Three new book reviews Wed, 18 May 2016 17:36:47 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( I've just posted three new book reviews in the Books section. I've just posted three new book reviews in the Reviews section, all of them from the Oxford University Press's Very Short Introduction series:

The Ice Age
by Jamie Woodward
A very short introduction.

The History of Life
by Michael J Benton
A very short introduction.

The Enlightenment
by John Robertson
A very short introduction.

Book review: ‘The Enlightenment’ by John Robertson Wed, 18 May 2016 15:59:52 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( A very short introduction.

A very short introduction.

The EnlightenmentI’ve always struggled to get my head around what precisely was meant by the Enlightenment. To me, it means a period in the eighteenth century, in which intellectuals tried to be a bit more, well, enlightened. It speaks to me of science, and networking, and the idea of progress—including a gradual abandonment of religion, and the adoption of more secular thought. But it was never clear to me whether how I thought of the Enlightenment was consistent with how everyone else thinks of it. So, when I saw Oxford University Press’s short introduction to this very subject, I thought it was time to find out once and for all what the Enlightenment was all about.

It turns out my general confusion was far more reasonable than I’d imagined. As Michael J Benson explains in this rather high-brow, and often difficult-to-understand ‘introduction’, the concept of the Enlightenment meant different things to different people at the time, and has evolved to mean different things to different people today. Benson goes to great lengths to explain the different takes on the concept, making a particular distinction between what it meant (and means) to philosophers, and what it means to historians. As a person who is neither, however, I found his early description of the Enlightenment as “a distinct intellectual movement of the 18th century, dedicated to the better understanding, and thence practical advancement, of the human condition on this earth” a useful one-line summary.

Benson clearly knows his subject inside-out, and his writing is necessarily succinct. At times, however, it becomes so succinct as to be incomprehensible to the lay-person. Well, to this lay-person, at least. Here’s an example (from p.54):

In the Catholic intellectual world, meanwhile, the problem of sociability came to the fore by another route. The catalyst was the Lettres Provinciales (1657) by Blaise Pascal (1623–62). Inspired by rigourist Augustinian theology, the Provinciales were a scathingly ironic attack on the moral casuistry and missionary compromises of the Jesuits. Insisting on the passion-driven concupiscence of the fallen man, Pascal effectively denied the capacity of natural law, or of its ancient philosophical progenitor, Stoicism, to render and keep men sociable. But if the Fall had made natural sociability impossible, how then did men manage to live in societies? [ …]

(No, me neither.)

Such personal cluelessness aside, I did, however, particularly enjoy Benson’s chapter on ‘Enlightening the public’. This was more in line with what I looking for from this book: a description of how Enlightenment ideas were communicated to the public by way of coffee houses, the printed word, literary salons, and so on.

A useful but difficult book.

Book review: ‘The History of Life’ by Michael J Benton Wed, 18 May 2016 15:57:30 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( A very short introduction.

A very short introduction.

The History of LifeCovering over 3.5 billion years of life on earth in just 166 pages was always going to be something of a tall order. The History of Life is a whistle-stop tour of that period, taking us from the earliest fossils to the modern day.

Michael Benton is particularly good at describing the different ‘types’ of life punctuated by Earth’s great mass-extinction events. I was also pleased to see him dedicate the last couple of pages of this book to making it clear that evolution does not have any endgame in mind, that it is still ongoing, and that mankind is not the ‘pinnacle’ of our planet’s evolutionary history—just ask any cockroach!

Book review: ‘The Ice Age’ by Jamie Woodward Wed, 18 May 2016 15:55:34 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( A very short introduction.

A very short introduction.

The Ice AgeThe title says it all: this is a brief introduction to the Ice Age. I’ve since read a few other books in Oxford University Press’s brief introduction series, but this one stood out. Woodward gets the mix of history and scientific theory exactly right.

As a self-confessed Darwin groupie, I was already familiar with a number of the early scientific figures involved in the development of our understanding of the Ice Age (Buckland, Lyell, Agassiz, and so forth), but there were many figures I hadn’t encountered before. I was particularly taken by Woodward’s description of the brilliant work of Nick Shackleton in the 1970s, whose analysis of isotopes of oxygen, taken from microscopic shells retrieved from ocean core samples, clearly demonstrated that there had been numerous glacial and inter-glacial periods over the last million years.

A very interesting and useful book.

Attenborough reads Darwin Mon, 16 May 2016 20:02:40 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( In celebration of his 90th birthday, the BBC has released a short video of Sir David Attenborough reading from the final paragraph of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species. In celebration of his 90th birthday, the BBC has released a short video of Sir David Attenborough reading from the final paragraph of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species:

It's the classic Darwin quote. I read the same paragraph in its entirety at the funeral of my Friends of Charles Darwin co-founder, Fitz. I have also left instructions for it to be read at mine.

Book review: ‘Darwin's Pigeons’ by Richard Bailey Mon, 07 Mar 2016 15:57:49 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD ( A sumptuous photobook of pigeon varieties.

A sumptuous photobook of pigeon varieties.

Darwin's PigeonsHad the Rev. Whitwell Elwin got his way, Charles Darwin would have left all his theorising about evolution ‘without the evidence’ out of On the Origin of Species, and written a popular book about pigeons instead. In fairness to Whitwell, he suggested that such a book might be ‘the best mode of preparing the way’ for Darwin's planned longer book—which Darwin never completed—expounding his theory of evolution by means of Natural Selection in far more detail. Fortunately, neither Darwin nor his publisher found Elwin's suggestion at all compelling.

Pigeons feature prominently in the first chapter of On the Origin of Species, in which Darwin explores the subject of variation of breeds under domestication. Discussing how humans have gradually produced new breeds of domesticated animals through selective breeding over many years is a useful analogy to how Nature has gradually evolved new species of wild animals through Natural Selection over far longer timescales.

Darwin spent many years researching all manner of animals under domestication, but showed a particular interest regarding pigeons. In chapter one of Origin, he explains:

Believing that it is always best to study some special group, I have, after deliberation, taken up domestic pigeons. I have kept every breed which I could purchase or obtain, and have been most kindly favoured with skins from several quarters of the world […]. Many treatises in different languages have been published on pigeons, and some of them are very important, as being of considerably antiquity. I have associated with several eminent fanciers, and have been permitted to join two of the London Pigeon Clubs.

Darwin then begins to wax lyrical about the wonderful variety to be found in domesticated pigeons:

The diversity of the breeds is something astonishing. Compare the English carrier and the short-faced tumbler, and see the wonderful difference in their beaks, entailing corresponding differences in their skulls. The carrier, more especially the male bird, is also remarkable from the wonderful development of the carunculated skin about the head, and this is accompanied by greatly elongated eyelids, very large external orifices to the nostrils, and a wide gape of mouth. The short-faced tumbler has a beak in outline almost like that of a finch; and the common tumbler has the singular and strictly inherited habit of flying at a great height in a compact flock, and tumbling in the air head over heels. The runt is a bird of great size, with long, massive beak and large feet; some of the sub-breeds of runts have very long necks, others very long wings and tails, others singularly short tails. The barb is allied to the carrier, but, instead of a very long beak, has a very short and very broad one. The pouter has a much elongated body, wings, and legs; and its enormously developed crop, which it glories in inflating, may well excite astonishment and even laughter. The turbit has a very short and conical beak, with a line of reversed feathers down the breast; and it has the habit of continually expanding slightly the upper part of the oesophagus. The Jacobin has the feathers so much reversed along the back of the neck that they form a hood, and it has, proportionally to its size, much elongated wing and tail feathers. The trumpeter and laugher, as their names express, utter a very different coo from the other breeds. The fantail has thirty or even forty tail-feathers, instead of twelve or fourteen, the normal number in all members of the great pigeon family; and these feathers are kept expanded, and are carried so erect that in good birds the head and tail touch; the oil-gland is quite aborted. Several other less distinct breeds might have been specified.

Photographer Richard Bailey's Kickstarter crowd-funded photobook Darwin's Pigeons sets out to illustrate some of this astonishing diversity for a modern audience. It contains sumptuous photographs of racers, tipplers, homers, scandaroons, turbits, fantails, jacobins, pouters, and a host of other pigeon varieties. The photographs, taken against plain, white backgrounds are wonderful, portraying the birds as real characters. As a keen photographer myself, I appreciate how challenging it must have been to capture these creatures in such striking poses.

Darwin's Pigeons is the outcome of an unusual photography project. It deserves to sell well.

Sample images from Darwin's Pigeons:

Black Jacobin

Black Jacobin.

American Showracer

American Showracer.

English Carrier

English Carrier.

Competition Tippler

Competition Tippler.

Capuchine - Mealy Cock

Capuchine - Mealy Cock.

Horseman Pouter

Horseman Pouter.

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book, and a second copy to give away as a prize.

Book Review: ‘The Invention of Nature’ by Andrea Wulf Mon, 29 Feb 2016 11:34:47 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD ( Review of ‘The Invention of Nature: the adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the lost hero of science’. The Invention of NatureOver in the reviews section, I've just added a review of Andrea Wulf's Costa-Award-winning biography, The Invention of Nature: the adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the lost hero of science.

Book review: ‘The Invention of Nature’ by Andrea Wulf Mon, 29 Feb 2016 11:22:42 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD ( The adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the lost hero of science.

The adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the lost hero of science.

The Invention of NatureAlexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) was a nineteenth-century rockstar. A scientific celebrity. One of the most famous men in the world. He seems to have been held in high esteem by pretty much everyone who was anyone (with the notable exception of Napoléon Bonaparte, who did not conceal his dislike for Humboldt when the two men met).

A phenomenal polymath, Humboldt's fame grew with the publication of the magnificent series of books he wrote following his extensive travels in the Americas. As a university student, Charles Darwin was an unabashed fan of Humboldt's writing. Indeed, it could be argued that Darwin might never have got the itch to set sail on a voyage of scientific discovery himself, had he not been such a Humboldt fanboy. This from Darwin's autobiography, written toward the end of his life:

During my last year at Cambridge, I read with care and profound interest Humboldt's ‘Personal Narrative’. This work, and Sir J. Herschel's ‘Introduction to the Study of Natural Philosophy’, stirred up in me a burning zeal to add even the most humble contribution to the noble structure of Natural Science. No one or a dozen other books influenced me nearly so much as these two. I copied out from Humboldt long passages about Teneriffe, and read them aloud […] to (I think) Henslow, Ramsay, and Dawes, for on a previous occasion I had talked about the glories of Teneriffe, and some of the party declared they would endeavour to go there; but I think that they were only half in earnest. I was, however, quite in earnest, and got an introduction to a merchant in London to enquire about ships; but the scheme was, of course, knocked on the head by the voyage of the ‘Beagle’.

Humboldt was interested in all branches of science, recognising the importance of taking accurate measurements. He studied ocean currents, volcanoes, glaciers, vegetation zones, the earth's magnetic field, climate, and a host of other subjects, stressing the importance of taking what might nowadays be referred to as a ‘holistic’ or ‘ecological’ view of the natural world. As Wulf explains (p.88):

‘Nature is a living whole,’ he later said, not a ‘dead aggregate’. One single life had been poured over stones, plants, animals and humankind. It was this ‘universal profusion with which life is everywhere distributed’ that most impressed Humboldt. Even the atmosphere carried the kernels of future life—pollen, insect eggs and seeds. Life was everywhere and those ‘organic powers are incessantly at work’, he wrote. Humboldt was not so much interested in finding new isolated facts but in connecting them. Individual phenomena were only important ‘in their relation to the whole’, he explained.

It was this kind of thinking that led Humboldt to invent isotherms: lines connecting locations of equal temperatures on a map. While others might note the temperatures of individual locations, Humboldt sought a joined-up, bigger picture. He was also one of the first people to notice mankind's often detrimental affects on the natural world: an ecologist before the word was invented.

Andrea Wulf's entertaining, Costa-Award-winning biography provides a useful introduction to Humboldt: a man whose fame has much declined since his day—although I would question his being described as a ‘lost hero of science’ in the book's subtitle. The book is particularly good describing Humboldt's influence on other important historical figures such as Goethe, Darwin, Simón Bolívar, Ernst Haeckel, and John Muir.

A thoroughly enjoyable read.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was Darwin a vegetarian? Tue, 12 Mar 2013 09:52:34 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD ( Er, no he wasn’t… No, he wasn’t.

That is to say, there is not a shred of evidence to make us think that he ever was—and quite a lot of evidence to the contrary. For some reason, though, many pro-vegetarian websites claim him as one of theirs.

In his youth, Darwin bagged pheasants and partridges by the score. At university, he was a member of a social dining club called The Gluttons, who specialised in eating strange meals. He became very sick after one infamous Gluttons dinner of brown (tawny) owl. During the Beagle voyage, Darwin also ate, amongst other creatures, Galápagos tortoise, puma, and rhea. Furthermore, his wife’s Recipes book (Amazon uk | .com) also contains numerous meat dishes.

But the real clincher is to be found in the Sir Francis Darwin’s reminiscences about his father:

Latterly he gave up late dinner, and had a simple tea at half-past seven (while we had dinner), with an egg or a small piece of meat.

So, Darwin certainly wasn’t a vegetarian in his latter days.

W.B. Tegetmeier Sun, 04 Nov 2012 13:33:27 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD ( This article was first published on 04-Nov-2012: William Bernhardt Tegetmeier's 196th birthday. For every giant that strides the scientific world like a colossus, there are many thousands more mini-heroes of science whose contributions are sometimes overlooked or forgotten. One of my particular favourite mini-heroes is William Bernhardt Tegetmeier, whose 196th birthday gives me the perfect…

This article was first published on 04-Nov-2012: William Bernhardt Tegetmeier's 196th birthday.

WB Tegetmeier

W.B. Tegetmeier (1816–1912).

For every giant that strides the scientific world like a colossus, there are many thousands more mini-heroes of science whose contributions are sometimes overlooked or forgotten. One of my particular favourite mini-heroes is William Bernhardt Tegetmeier, whose 196th birthday gives me the perfect excuse for this article.

Tegetmeier was born in Colnbrook, Buckinghamshire on 4th November, 1816. His father was a surgeon who had emigrated from America. After the family had relocated to London, the teenage Tegetmeier became his father's apprentice. His medical training continued at University College, London, and in its hospital. But Tegetmeier was bored by the work and eventually left to become, briefly, a ‘mesmeric healer’. It takes all sorts. A few years later, in 1845, he became a lecturer in ‘domestic economy’ at the Home and Colonial Society's training college. It was here that he met his wife, a teacher at the adjoining infants' school. They were both fired on the announcement of their marriage, but Tegetmeier was later reinstated.

It was while he was at the training college that Tegetmeier began what was to become a long writing career. His 1858 book A Manual of Domestic Economy was particularly successful, going through 14 editions. Amongst his many subsequent books were Bees, Hives and Honey (1865), The Poultry Book (1867), and Pigeons: Their Structure, Varieties, Habits, and Management (1868).

Tegetmeier as a pigeon

Cartoon of Tegetmeier as a pigeon

Tegetmeier had been interested in pigeons and domestic fowl since his youth. In adulthood, he was recognised as an authority on both subjects. It was in this capacity that, in 1855, he found himself being introduced to another gentleman who had recently begun to show an interest in pigeons. Many years later, in an article for Tatler, Tegetmeier described the encounter:

Continuing my love for pigeons, I became the secretary of the most exclusive pigeon association, the Philoperisteron Society, which held its annual meetings in the great hall of the Freemasons' Tavern. At one of these exhibitions I heard a voice which said, ‘Oh, here's Tegetmeier ; he will tell you all about these birds better than I can’. I turned round, and saw [my friend William] Yarrell with a stranger, whom he introduced as Mr. Darwin.

Tegetmeier almost certainly misremembered the location of his first encounter with Charles Darwin—correspondence and diary entries indicate it is more likely that they first met at the Anerley Show in August 1855—but their meeting sparked a friendship which was to last until Darwin's death 27 years later. Within days, Darwin was writing to Tegetmeier, pumping him for information:

Dear Sir

I have been thinking over your offer of helping me to the dead bodies of some of the good birds of Poultry.— Really considering how complete a stranger I am to you, I think it one of the most goodnatured offers ever made to me.— I have hardly the means to keep all the kinds of poultry, & to buy first-rate birds, merely to make skeletons of them, I should think too great an outlay. Therefore if you can help me even to a few it would be a very great assistance. […]

I published some years since a Natural History Journal of my Travels, which has been liked by some naturalists: if you should feel the least interest in seeing it, I shd. be proud to present you with a copy.—

Tegetmeier's signature

Tegetmeier's signature.

Tegetmeier was ever eager to oblige, as Darwin continued to pump him for information on poultry, pigeons, and many other animals, gathering evidence in support of his theory of evolution by means of Natural Selection. Of particular interest to Darwin was Tegetmeier's expertise in honeybees (Tegetmeier was the Founder and President of the Apiarian Society).

Tegetmeier, 1879.

Tegetmeier, 1879.

The intricate, hexagonal honeycomb of the honeybee was seen as a classic example of divine design; Darwin believed the instinct to build them had evolved from one to build far cruder, circular wax cells, which is still exhibited by other species of bees. Tegetmeier was soon experimenting on Darwin's behalf, and providing Darwin with hives of bees to enable him to perform his own experiments. Tegetmeier's finding that honeybees actually construct simple, cylindrical cells, which only become hexagonal when they come into contact with adjacent cells was announced at the 1858 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. The following year, Darwin also described their experiments in chapter 7 of ‘On the Origin of Species’:

Following the example of Mr Tegetmeier, I separated two combs, and put between them a long, thick, square strip of wax: the bees instantly began to excavate minute circular pits in it; and as they deepened these little pits, they made them wider and wider until they were converted into shallow basins, appearing to the eye perfectly true or parts of a sphere, and of about the diameter of a cell. It was most interesting to me to observe that wherever several bees had begun to excavate these basins near together, they had begun their work at such a distance from each other, that by the time the basins had acquired the above stated width (i.e. about the width of an ordinary cell), and were in depth about one sixth of the diameter of the sphere of which they formed a part, the rims of the basins intersected or broke into each other. As soon as this occurred, the bees ceased to excavate, and began to build up flat walls of wax on the lines of intersection between the basins, so that each hexagonal prism was built upon the festooned edge of a smooth basin, instead of on the straight edges of a three-sided pyramid as in the case of ordinary cells.

By way of a thank you for all his support, Darwin wrote to Tegetmeier on 9th April, 1859, stating:

I shall go next month to press with an abstract of my general views on the origin of species, & it will make a volume of about 500 pages, & I shall have much pleasure in sending you a copy when it is published.— I shall give abstract of conclusions at which I have arrived on Bees cells.—

Believe me with many thanks

Yours very sincerely

C. Darwin

Tegetmeier, age 62.

Tegetmeier, age 62.

Tegetmeier was immensely (and justifiably) proud of the assistance he had been able to give Darwin, and kept the above letter tucked safely inside his presentation copy of the first edition of On the Origin of Species. If ever you need an example of the contribution gifted amateurs can make to our scientific knowledge, look no further than William Bernhardt Tegetmeier—and, of course, his friend Charles Robert Darwin.

Until I began researching Tegetmeier for this article, I had no idea just how many books he had written; nor was I aware of his long career as a journalist; nor did I know that he was a founder and highly active member of the bohemian Savage Club, which is still going strong today. You tend to forget that minor scientific figures such as Tegetmeier live full and colourful lives outside the references and footnotes of science publications.

Tegetmeier as Damio

A colourful character: Tegetmeier as Damio.

In Tegetmeier's case, it was indeed a very full life: he lived to a ripe old age, dying a fortnight after his 96th birthday, on 19th November, 1912. He was buried in Marylebone cemetery, Finchley. In September 2008, a commemorative plaque in his honour was unveiled at his former home: 101, St James' Lane, Muswell Hill, London.

Sources for this article:

Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Tue, 17 Jul 2012 10:19:53 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( Thanks to Charles Darwin, we now have an answer to this hoary old chestnut… Thanks to Charles Darwin, we now have an answer to this hoary old chestnut:

Species evolve from other species over time. Because evolution is a mostly slow and gradual process, it is difficult—bordering on impossible—to state categorically when one species actually becomes another. It’s a bit like trying to state the precise point at which red becomes orange in a rainbow: different people will have different views.

But one thing is for certain: however you choose to define a chicken, if you go far enough back in time in the avian ‘family tree’, you will come to the first ever chicken. That first chicken’s mother was undoubtedly a bird very similar to, but not actually (according to your chosen definition), a chicken. And this chicken-like bird laid the egg from which the first chicken hatched.

So the egg came before the chicken.

Was Darwin a believer in homeopathy? Tue, 17 Jul 2012 10:18:02 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( As always, don’t believe a word homeopaths tell you… No, he wasn’t.

Darwin certainly experimented with all sorts of crackpot treatments for his mysterious illness—and he was convinced that some of them worked—but even he drew the line at the nonsense that is homeopathy.

On 4th September, 1850, Darwin wrote to his cousin:

You speak about Homœopathy; which is a subject which makes me more wrath, even than does Clair-voyance: clairvoyance so transcends belief, that one’s ordinary faculties are put out of question, but in Homœopathy common sense & common observation come into play, & both these must go to the Dogs, if the infinetesimal doses have any effect whatever.

I think we can safely take that as a ’no’.

Doesn't Evolution break the Second Law of Thermodynamics? Tue, 17 Jul 2012 10:15:08 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( It would be in big trouble if it did… No, it doesn’t.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics is one of the most fundamental laws of nature: evolution really would be in big trouble if it contravened it. Put not particularly simply, the Second Law of Thermodynamics states that the entropy (the amount of disorganisation) in a closed system tends to increase with time. Put more simply, this means that matter does not tend to organise itself in a particular location unless there is some external energy source powering it. Evolution can be seen as matter organising itself.

Earth and sun

Earth and a major external power source.

Evolution-deniers who cite the Second Law of Thermodynamics as proof against evolution happening on our planet either conveniently forget to mention, or do not realise, that the earth is not a closed system: it has a rather massive external energy source, namely the sun. If we were to consider the entire solar system to be a closed system (which, to all intents and purposes, it is), then the occurrence of evolution on any of the planets would not break the Second Law of Thermodynamics, because, while evolution represents a local decrease in entropy, the burning of fuel within the sun represents a far greater increase in entropy—so, within the closed system as a whole, there is still an overall increase in entropy.

This is not a case of special pleading on behalf of evolution, by the way: the concept of a closed system is fundamental to the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

Didn't Darwin admit that the eye was too complex to have evolved? Tue, 17 Jul 2012 10:13:35 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( Don’t believe the quote-miners… No, he didn’t.

Evolution deniers are very fond of quoting the following passage from On the Origin of Species, chapter 6:

To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree.

…but they invariably neglect to quote the remainder of the section, where Darwin goes on to say that, absurd though it might seem, he had no problem believing it.

…If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down. But I can find out no such case.

Indeed, in a later edition of On the Origin of Species, Darwin went on to have a go at so-called common sense:

When it was first said that the sun stood still and the world turned round, the common sense of mankind declared the doctrine false; but the old saying of vox populi, vox dei, as every philosopher knows, cannot be trusted in science. Reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a simple and imperfect eye to one complex and perfect can be shown to exist, each grade being useful to its possessor, as is certainly the case; if further, the eye ever varies and the variations be inherited, as is likewise certainly the case and if such variations should be useful to any animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, should not be considered as subversive of the theory.

Now there’s a man with confidence in his theory.

Didn’t Darwin recant of his Theory of Evolution on his deathbed and embrace Christianity? Tue, 17 Jul 2012 10:11:36 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( A lie that refuses to die… No, he didn’t.

This story was invented by a certain Lady Hope, who was an evangelical Christian and shameless liar. Her account was denied by Darwin’s own daughter, Henrietta, a devout Christian, who was with her father throughout his final illness.

For more on this subject, please see the Lady Hope Story (Talk Origins website).

Unfortunately, Lady Hope’s lie simply refuses to die. I review a very bad book perpetuating the myth here.

Isn't Evolution Only a Theory? Tue, 17 Jul 2012 10:10:34 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( Less of the ‘only’, if you don't mind… Less of the only, if you don’t mind.

For more on this subject, please see the article Only a Theory?