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: ‘Darwin’s Fossils’ by Adrian Lister Mon, 14 Oct 2019 16:16:15 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( Discoveries that shaped evolution.

Discoveries that shaped evolution.

‘Darwin’s Fossils’ by Adrian Lister

For my fiftieth birthday, a dear friend arranged for us to go on a behind-the-scenes tour at the Natural History Museum in London, to examine fossil specimens collected by Charles Darwin during the Beagle voyage.

This beautiful, copiously illustrated book took me back to that wonderful day. It describes the many different types of fossils Darwin collected and studied during his lifetime.

As you would expect, the Beagle voyage features prominently. Adrian Lister, a Research Leader at the Natural History Museum, describes where the fossils were collected, what they tell us about the local geology, and how they contributed to Darwin’s work.

Every double-page spread contains at least one wonderful illustration, many of which were specially commissioned for the book. I was delighted to spot among them the so-called ‘Royal brachipods’, extremely ancient fossils collected by Darwin on the Falkland Islands in 1833, which were subsequently shown to Queen Victoria (and, many years later, to my friend and me).

This is an absolutely gorgeous book.

Highly recommended.

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

Book review: ‘On the Origin of Species’, second edition facsimile Mon, 14 Oct 2019 16:07:05 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( A faithful(ish) copy of the original.

A faithful(ish) copy of the original.

‘On the Origin of Species’, second edition facsimile

Darwin’s masterpiece On the Origin of Species needs no introduction. It is one of the most important science books ever written, and underpins the whole of modern biology.

This particular edition, published by the British Natural History Museum, is a faithful(ish) facsimile of the second edition of Origin, which was published in 1860, less than a year after the first edition.

The typesetting reflects that of the original, and is pleasing to the eye. The green cover also reflects the colour of the original, although it is made of a modern material, rather than being cloth bound.

I own many copies of Origin. This is one of the prettiest. If you haven’t got round to reading Darwin’s great work yet, you could do far worse than picking up this facsimile edition.

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

Book review: ‘Animal Behaviour’ by Tristram D. Wyatt Wed, 02 Oct 2019 22:24:31 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( A very short introduction.

A very short introduction.

Animal Behaviour

The environments in which animals find themselves might at any time contain threats, potential meals, parenting challenges, or mating opportunities. This short but informative book is about how animals interact with those environments, to make the most of the opportunities presented, and to mitigate the threats posed.

Subjects covered include how animals sense and respond to opportunities or dangers, how they learn and pass on those lessons to others, how they hoodwink potential predators, how they communicate, how they make strategic or tactical decisions, and how they act collectively.

The book contains some nice examples of how natural selection has honed animal behaviour to make the most of life’s opportunities and challenges, be it determining how many eggs to lay in a clutch, employing countermeasures to escape predators, or using tools to obtain food.

An entertaining little book.

Newsletter No. 4: Giant leaps Sat, 20 Jul 2019 11:34:14 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( Apollo 11 · Origin of Species · Richard Owen · Charles Lyell · sloths · lice · deaf moths · pregnant lizards · puppy eyes · palaeoanthropology · book reviews · heads on spikes! Darwin newsletter

20TH JULY 2019

Dear Friend of Darwin,

Fifty years ago today, members of our talented species first touched down on the surface of our planet’s moon. As giant leaps go, it hasn’t yet proved to be on quite the same scale as our ancestors’ leaving the oceans or coming down from the trees, but it’s still early days in our exploration of space. I watched the event sitting on my father’s lap. I was four years old. I wish I could say I clearly remember Apollo 11’s touchdown, but I’ve re-watched recordings of it so many times, the original experience is now inseparable from the repeats. But I’m still immensely grateful to my Dad for ensuring I would always be able to say I’d witnessed Neil and Buzz land on the moon live on TV.

One-hundred and sixty-one years ago today, while staying at The King’s Head hotel in Sandown on the Isle of Wight, Charles Darwin began to write an ‘abstract’ of his long-planned major work on evolution. It was published sixteen months later under the snappy title, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. If you haven’t read it yet, you really ought to.

Today also marks the 215th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin’s friend, and later enemy, the brilliant anatomist Richard Owen. Owen effectively founded the London Natural History Museum, and gave us the word dinosaur. A science hero in anyone’s books.

Missing Links

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

  1. Pledge to save Charles Lyell’s notebooks
    294 remarkable, privately owned notebooks of Charles Darwin’s great friend the Scottish geologist Sir Charles Lyell have been temporarily blocked from export in the hope of finding a UK buyer. It is vitally important these unique historical documents remain available to researchers, rather than passing into private hands. The University of Edinburgh has launched a campaign to secure the notebooks. If you are able, please pledge whatever you can.

  2. Mylodon darwinii: Darwin’s ground sloth
    The first specimen of Mylodon darwinii, a ground sloth found by Charles Darwin at Punta Alta in Argentinain in 1832, is now available online. It is the latest 3D model in the Natural History Museum’s online Darwin’s Fossil Mammals collection.

  3. Not so fast: ancient proteins shed light on sloth evolution
    Talking of sloths, analysing ancient biomolecules, scientists have shown how living and extinct sloths are related to one another. The study also provides support for the hypothesis that some of the larger islands in the West Indies were once briefly connected to northern South America.

  4. This is a truly lousy experiment about evolution
    By placing feather-eating lice on white, black, and grey pigeons, researchers showed how the parasites change colour to better blend in.

  5. Deaf moths use ultrasound to warn hungry bats they’re poisonous
    Many species of moth use ultrasound as a defensive strategy against approaching bats. Deaf moths can’t hear bats approaching, but one group has evolved the ability to produce their anti-bat sounds continuously, and in such a way that it doesn’t attract hungry bats.

  6. The first known case of eggs plus live birth from one pregnancy in a tiny lizard
    Darwin would have loved this transitional example. The evolution of live birth from egg-laying is no mean feat. Now new research reports on the first known example where both eggs and a live birth came from the same lizard pregnancy.

  7. Dogs’ eyes evolve to appeal to humans
    The eyes have it… As will come as no surprise to any dog lover, scientists have found a muscle that allows dogs to make ‘puppy eyes’ and bond with humans.

  8. Siberia’s ancient ghost clan starts to surrender its secrets
    A mysterious group of extinct humans known as Denisovans is helping to rewrite our understanding of human evolution. Who were they?

  9. Piece of skull found in Greece ‘is oldest human fossil outside Africa’
    Remains discovered on the Mani peninsula could rewrite the history of Homo sapiens in Eurasia.

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

Natural Selections

Some book recommendations for you:

The Development of Darwin’s Theory
by Dov Ospovat
Darwin’s slowness in going to press with his revolutionary theory might seem baffling, but the late Dov Ospovat brilliantly shows how Darwin’s own views on Natural Selection themselves evolved during this period.
Insectivorous Plants
by Charles Darwin
A wonderful read. Darwin at his most Darwinian, writing about the little things.
Evolutionary edition of ‘On the Origin of Species’
by Simon Phillipson
An aesthetically pleasing volume, indicating how Darwin’s great work on evolution itself evolved.
More book reviews »

Journal of Researches

Progress on my ‘Darwin book’ continues at a glacial pace. Without doubt, the oddest development (which I can now report on, having formerly been sworn to secrecy) was being asked to pose for a series of ceramic sculptures by the artist Jo Pearl. Jo’s work was inspired by Charles Darwin’s book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. I’m confident the strange experience of seeing six versions of my head displayed like beetles on spikes will make it into my book.

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.

Finally, at the risk of repeating myself, if you are able to pledge any amount of funding to help secure Charles Lyell’s notebooks for historical research, please do so.

See you next time!

Richard Carter, FCD
Book review: Evolutionary edition of ‘On the Origin of Species’ by Simon Phillipson Fri, 12 Jul 2019 12:34:43 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( An aesthetically pleasing volume, indicating how Darwin’s great work on evolution itself evolved.

An aesthetically pleasing volume, indicating how Darwin’s great work on evolution itself evolved.

Evolutionary edition of Origin

This is an unusual, typographically attractive version of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. The result of a successful Kickstarter campaign, the primary aim of Simon Phillipson’s project was to produce an aesthetically pleasing printed object harking back to the letter-pressed layouts of the nineteenth-century originals. But Phillipson also took the opportunity to explore the alterations Darwin made to his book during its six UK editions.

On the right-hand page of each double-page spread, Phillipson has reproduced the wording of the sixth and final edition of Origin (1872), highlighting in bronze those words that Darwin had changed at some point since the first edition. Opposite, in the corresponding location on the otherwise blank page, Phillipson indicates how the words and punctuation appeared in earlier editions of Origin, before Darwin amended them.

This volume does not attempt to be a definitive variorum edition. In order not to over-complicate matters, Phillipson has not tried to indicate the edition(s) in which the text was amended. Nor has he indicated where Darwin inserted additional words into the earlier text. If you need that level of detail, you should refer to more academic variorums intended for serious researchers (e.g. the Online Variorum available at Darwin Online). This volume is primarily aimed at readers who might enjoy ‘dipping into’ Origin, exploring the kinds of changes Darwin made as he continued to tweak his masterpiece.

This interpretation of Origin was designed to be a beautiful, artistic work. The aim was to provide the reader with an enjoyable aesthetic experience, while indicating how Origin itself evolved over time. In this respect, it succeeds admirably: Phillipson has produced a beautiful and unusual version of Darwin’s great work.

Evolutionary edition of ‘On the Origin of Species’ by Simon Phillipson

Copies of this book are available via Simon Phillipson’s website.

Disclosure: I received two free copies of this book from the publisher.

An embarrassment of Richards Thu, 20 Jun 2019 12:46:45 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( In which my head appears on a spike (six times). Running a Charles Darwin fansite, I’ve received plenty of very odd emails over the years. But none quite so odd as the recent request from ceramicist Jo Pearl for me to pose for a series of tiny sculptures inspired by Charles Darwin’s book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. How could I possibly say no to that?

Six Selfies
Yours Truly expressing a gamut of emotions for A to B.
‘Emotional Field 2’ by Jo Pearl
Emotional Field 2 by Jo Pearl
Book review: ‘Insectivorous Plants’ by Charles Darwin Fri, 07 Jun 2019 15:04:14 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( Darwin at his most Darwinian.

Darwin at his most Darwinian.

Insectivorous Plants

One of Charles Darwin’s more endearing characteristics was the way in which he could become completely absorbed in some apparently trivial side-project. The opening paragraph of Insectivorous Plants describes the genesis of one such project:

During the summer of 1860, I was surprised by finding how large a number of insects were caught by the leaves of the common sun-dew (Drosera rotundifolia) on a heath in Sussex. I had heard that insects were thus caught, but knew nothing further on the subject. […] Many plants cause the death of insects, for instance the sticky buds of the horse-chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum), without thereby receiving, as far as we can perceive, any advantage; but it was soon evident that Drosera was excellently adapted for the special purpose of catching insects, so that the subject seemed well worthy of investigation.

Most of Darwin’s book Insectivorous Plants, published 15 years after this chance encounter on a Sussex heath, is taken up with investigating the common sundew. It’s Darwin at his most Darwinian, packed with detailed observations and ingenious little experiments. He devised all manner of tests to investigate the movement and co-ordination of Drosera’s sticky ‘tentacles’; to establish what triggered them; and to show how the plants digest their captured food. Typical of Darwin, some of his tests seem more than a little bizarre. Feeding fragments of a cat’s ear and a dog’s tooth to the plants were two of my favourite examples. But, as ever, there was logic behind his enthusiastic eccentricity.

Darwin himself realised he might be going a bit over the top with his experiments, describing them as ‘twaddle’ to his best friend, Joseph Dalton Hooker. His wife, Emma, even joked to a friend that she supposed he hoped to prove Drosera was actually an animal. She wasn’t too far off the mark: in one or two places, Darwin draws our attention to how similar some of Drosera’s features are to those of animals. For example:

A plant of Drosera, with the edges of its leaves curled inwards, so as to form a temporary stomach, with the glands of the closely inflected tentacles pouring forth their acid secretion, which dissolves animal matter, afterwards to be absorbed, may be said to feed like an animal.

In reality, Darwin seems to have wanted to show how such unusual adaptations (for a plant) function, and how they could have arisen. Darwin was a details man: his wonderful theory of evolution by means of Natural Selection explains the weird, little anomalies, as well as the grand themes.

The later chapters of this book deal with other insectivorous plants such as Venus fly-traps and bladderworts, but Darwin’s beloved Drosera rotundifolia is really the star of the show.

A wonderful read.

Book review: ‘The Development of Darwin’s Theory’ by Dov Ospovat Fri, 07 Jun 2019 14:40:36 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( Natural History, Natural Theology, and Natural Selection, 1838–1859.

Natural History, Natural Theology, and Natural Selection, 1838–1859.

The Development of Darwin’s Theory

This book must have sat unread on by bookshelf, silently admonishing me, for at least twenty years. More fool me for not having got round to it sooner. It’s a brilliant book.

The Development of Darwin’s Theory covers the two decades between Darwin’s first coming up with the idea of Natural Selection as a mechanism for evolution, and the publication of On the Origin of Species. Darwin’s slowness in going to press with his revolutionary theory might seem baffling, but the late Dov Ospovat brilliantly shows how Darwin’s own views on Natural Selection themselves evolved during this period.

With an educational background in Natural Theology, Darwin’s early belief was that the adaptations brought about by Natural Selection were perfect, and their purpose was to maintain balance in a progressive natural world. These beliefs were to change as he continued to flesh out his theory.

Ospovat shows how Darwin’s thinking was heavily influenced by other scientists working in related fields, and how, in order to bolster his own theory, Darwin was at pains to show how the latest scientific thinking about species could be explained by evolution by means of Natural Selection.

The Development of Darwin’s Theory is very much an academic book, and can be a bit hard-going in places for the lay reader, but it offers major insights into Darwin’s thinking in what were, perhaps, the two most important decades of his life.

Highly recommended.

Book review: ‘The Good Bee’ by Alison Benjamin & Brian McCallum Tue, 21 May 2019 07:00:18 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( A celebration of bees and how to save them.

A celebration of bees and how to save them.

The Good Bee

When I was a young boy, my widowed grandmother’s gentleman friend, Uncle Chuckie, kept bees in his spacious garden. When we visited his house, honeybees would occasionally fly into the living room. To my sister’s and my astonishment, Uncle Chuckie would gently grasp an errant bee between thumb and forefinger, inspect it closely, and, before releasing it back into the garden, announce something along the lines of, “Ah, yes! This one’s named Henry!” My sister and I totally believed Uncle Chuckie could identify his bees individually, not even realising the bee in question was far more likely to be a Henrietta than a Henry.

Beekeeping is going through something of a renaissance at the moment. Everyone seems to be at it. Even my lifelong friend Carolyn, who occasionally used to visit Uncle Chuckie with us. People’s rediscovered interest in apiculture isn’t, as far as I can tell, driven by an increased demand for honey or beeswax. It seems to have far more to do with people realising, worldwide, bees are in trouble, and that, for our own good, we should be doing more to help them.

Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum are one of many couples who have been bitten by the beekeeping bug. Their engaging, charmingly illustrated book is packed full of interesting facts about both wild and domesticated bees. To be honest, I had no idea there were so many types of bee. Thousands of species in fact. In addition to the familiar bumblebees and honeybees, there are, among others, stingless bees, cuckoo bees, carpenter bees, mason bees, leafcutter bees, and ivy bees. I vaguely recalled having read somewhere about sweat bees that obtain moisture and minerals from humans’ and other animals’ perspiration, but vulture bees that make a form of honey from carrion were completely new to me. How long before someone incorporates these amazing creatures into a macabre horror story?

As well as exploring the many different types of bees, their produce, and how we put it to use, Benjamin and McCallum describe the crisis bees and other insects are going through. It’s the same, sad old story: habitat destruction, disease, pesticides, and climate change. They also provide some useful advice about how we can do our bit for bees, and encourage them back into our gardens.

An enjoyable and entertaining read.


Postscript: After I’d finished reading this book, I decided to give my review copy to Carolyn as thanks for all the jars of honey she’s presented me with over the years. I also thought I’d take the opportunity to capture some of her bees on video to accompany this review. The exercise didn’t quite go according to plan…

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

Book review: ‘The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals’ by Charles Darwin Sat, 04 May 2019 14:24:40 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( How animals and people express emotions, and what this tells us about our ancestry.

How animals and people express emotions, and what this tells us about our ancestry.

The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals

Darwin’s book on emotions is an entertaining read. As ever, he makes many perceptive observations, describing how humans and animals express emotions. But he makes no real attempt to draw the two together

While Darwin gives examples of body-language we share with certain domestic animals, such as shaking or perspiring in fear, he wisely steers clear of making comparisons of ‘higher’ emotions. He doesn’t, for example, attempt to show similarities in body-language between affectionate dogs and humans. (Not least, presumably, because humans don’t have tails to wag!)

Darwin does eventually become a bit bolder when comparing the body-language of humans and other primates, describing how certain apes and monkeys ‘laugh’ when pleased, ‘chuckle’ and wrinkle their eyes when tickled, ‘weep’ when grieving, and ’pout’ when sulking. But he never explicitly presses home an argument claiming we and our fellow simians inherited common facial expressions from a common ancestor. His rhetorical technique seems to be to describe the similarities, but to let the reader work out the implications for themself.

Darwin is far stronger arguing for a common set of expressions across all humans. As someone who believed all mankind was descended from common human ancestors, Darwin thought we would most likely share a common set of emotions. This put him at odds with other evolutionary scientists of his day, who argued different races of humans had evolved from different non-human parent stock. Such arguments were used, along with other specious reasoning, to justify the subjugation of other races by what were assumed to be clearly superior white Europeans. As a fervent opponent of slavery (and, let’s face it, as a far better evolutionary scientist), Darwin had no time for such nonsense.

In one way at least The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals was a thoroughly groundbreaking book: it was the first scientific book written in English to contain photographs. And some of them are absolute belters.

The version of the book I read contained a useful running commentary by the psychologist Paul Ekman. It turns out much, but not all, of what Darwin said about the expression of emotions is still supported by modern experts in the field.

Hello, Serbia! Mon, 29 Apr 2019 15:28:28 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( I am delighted to announce that the Friends of Charles Darwin have their first member from Serbia. SerbiaI am delighted to announce that the Friends of Charles Darwin have their first member from Azerbaijan: Tamara Petrović of Novi Sad. Welcome!

We now have members in 100 countries.

Newsletter No. 3: Knee-deep in barnacles Tue, 12 Feb 2019 11:22:13 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD ( Our third newsletter marks Charles Darwin’s 210th birthday. Darwin newsletter


Dear Friend of Darwin,

In one of my favourite poems, Philip Larkin describes becoming ‘breathless’ on realising he’s started to talk in terms of quarter-centuries and multiple decades. I know the feeling.

Today marks ten years since Charles Darwin’s bicentenary, when the whole world (not just me) went Darwin-mad. Is it really an entire decade since I planted the Darwin Bicentennial Oak in my garden? And since I stood in line at Hebden Bridge Post Office to buy the sheet of commemorative Darwin stamps now gracing my study wall? Time flies. I’m considerably greyer than I was, and the oak is considerably taller. But it’s still only a sapling. Mere decades count as nothing to oaks.

It also just occurred to me that next month will mark the 25th anniversary of the Friends of Charles Darwin. A quarter of a century: how on earth did that happen? I’d better get a move on!

Happy 210th birthday, Mr D!

Missing Links

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

  1. Galápagos island gets its first iguanas since Darwin after mass-release
    A group of more than 1,400 iguanas have been reintroduced to Santiago Island in the Galápagos archipelago, nearly two centuries after they disappeared from the island.

  2. Darwin ‘Origin of Species’ draft stopped from leaving UK
    A handwritten draft from Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species is at risk of leaving the UK unless a buyer can be found. A sale for the extract, and two other pages, has been agreed but delayed by the UK government.

  3. Neanderthals, Denisovans and Modern Humans
    How DNA analysis of ancient human remains is revolutionising our understanding of the history of human populations, their movements, and their mixing, throughout time and across the world. A review of Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past by David Reich.

  4. A courting peacock can shake its partner’s head from afar
    Details of an interesting new hypothesis that female peacocks’ crest feathers can detect courtship vibrations from males’ tail feathers.

  5. What makes us human? (YouTube)
    Humanists UK’s new President, Professor Alice Roberts, provides an answer to the question ‘What makes us human?’ for BBC 2’s Jeremy Vine, informed by her training as an anatomist and archaeologist, and her rational and positive humanist outlook on life.

  6. A Voyage of Sketches: the Art of Conrad Martens (YouTube)
    A video whose existence had somehow previously escaped my notice, about the intricate pencil drawings and watercolours of Conrad Martens, shipmate of Charles Darwin as they travelled around South America on the voyage of HMS Beagle.

  7. Charles Darwin’s ailments are ‘typical of Lyme disease’ in UK
    (Yet) Another new hypothesis on Darwin’s mysterious, chronic illness. (For what it’s worth, my unsubstantiated hunch is that Darwin had more than one ailment—but we’ll never know for sure what they were.)

  8. Evolution, illustrated: Study captures one of the clearest pictures yet of evolution in vertebrates
    A team of international researchers conducted a multi-year study in which hundreds of mice were released into massive, custom-built outdoor enclosures to track how light- and dark-colored mice survived in light- and dark-colored habitats.

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

Natural Selections

Some book recommendations for you:

Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species
by Sabina Radeva
Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection explained for young children.
The Seabird’s Cry
by Adam Nicolson
A science-centric investigation of the lives of puffins, gannets, and other ocean voyagers.
Darwin and the Barnacle
by Rebecca Stott
An exploration of Charles Darwin’s eight-year barnacle odyssey.

Journal of Researches

Progress on my Darwin book slowed to a trickle during the Christmas lull, after which I rashly decided to decorate our junk room. But I’m slowly getting back into the swing of things.

Before the lull, I was knee-deep in barnacles (see book recommendation above). It turns out I’m not the only writer to be easily distracted. Having come up with his theory of evolution by means of natural selection, but before getting round to writing On the Origin of Species, Darwin spent eight years studying and writing about barnacles. I suppose it beats decorating.

Darwin embarked on this unintentionally long research programme to establish his credentials as an expert on a particular group of species. A careless comment by his best friend, Joseph Dalton Hooker, about the temerity of another individual to theorise on species without being an expert in any, settled Darwin’s mind once and for all: he needed to develop a reputation as a systematicist before he could theorise in public about species. One important, unexpected outcome of Darwin’s barnacle work was his coming to appreciate just how much variation there is both between and within species.

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

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.

See you next time!

Richard Carter, FCD
The Darwin bicentennial oak, 10 years on Tue, 12 Feb 2019 11:04:01 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD ( Ten years ago today, I planted the Darwin Bicentennial Oak in my garden.
The Darwin Bicentennial Oak

The Darwin Bicentennial Oak

The Darwin Bicentennial Oak, 2 years on


The Darwin bicentennial oak, 6 years on

The Darwin bicentennial oak, 7 years on

The Darwin bicentennial oak, 8 years on

The Darwin bicentennial oak, 9 years on


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

03-Dec-1831: Darwin’s first night aboard HMS Beagle Sun, 10 Feb 2019 12:00:31 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD ( Darwin records his experimentations with a hammock. Charles Darwin spent his first night aboard HMS Beagle as she lay at anchor in Barnet Pool, Plymouth. The following day, he recorded the experience in his new diary:

I am writing this for the first time on board, it is now about one oclock & I intend sleeping in my hammock. — I did so last night & experienced a most ludicrous difficulty in getting into it; my great fault of jockeyship was in trying to put my legs in first. The hammock being suspended, I thus only succeded in pushing [it] away without making any progress in inserting my own body. — The correct method is to sit accurately in centre of bed, then give yourself a dexterous twist & your head & feet come into their respective places.— After a little time I daresay I shall, like others, find it very comfortable. — I have spent the day partly on board & partly with my brother: in the evening, Cap King & son, Stokes, my brother & myself dined with Cap FitzRoy. —

In the morning the ship rolled a good deal, but I did not feel uncomfortable; this gives me great hopes of escaping sea sickness. — I find others trust in the same weak support. — May we not be confounded. — It is very pleasant talking with officer on Watch at night — every thing is so quiet & still, nothing interrupts the silence but the half hour bells. — I will now go & wish Stuart (officer on duty) good night & then for practising my skill in vaulting into my hammock. —

His concerns about sea sickness turned out very well founded. Darwin suffered from it for the duration of Beagle’s five-year voyage.

Book review: ‘The Seabird’s Cry’ by Adam Nicolson Thu, 31 Jan 2019 17:02:54 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD ( The lives of puffins, gannets, and other ocean voyagers.

The lives of puffins, gannets, and other ocean voyagers.

The Seabird’s CryThe Seabird’s Cry is a hugely entertaining book about birds that spent much of their lives at sea. There are chapters on fulmars, puffins, kittiwakes, gulls, guillemots, cormorants and shags, shearwaters, gannets, the extinct great auks and their surviving close relatives the razorbills, and albatrosses.

The prose borders on the poetic in places, and occasionally on the anthropomorphic—although not in an objectionable way. But Nicolson also pulls no punches in describing the less savoury habits of certain seabird species.

There is also a plenty of fascinating science in this book, exploring, for example, how scientists eventually managed to track various ocean-going species’ foraging and migration routes, and gain insights into how they navigate. Indeed, science is pretty much the hero of this book. As Nicolson says in the introduction:

Science, for all that non-scientists disparage it, is dedicated to that urge towards [exploring life], and the astonishing findings of modern seabird scientists mean that a sense of wonder now emerges not from ignorance of birds but from understanding them.

Anyone who has read the final chapter of my book On the Moor will appreciate how heartily I endorse these sentiments.

Highly recommended.

Book review: ‘Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species’ by Sabina Radeva Thu, 31 Jan 2019 17:01:06 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD ( Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection explained for young children.

Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection explained for young children.

Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of SpeciesAlthough modern evolutionary theory encompasses all manner of complex considerations, at its heart, as laid out by Charles Darwin in 1859, it is still a remarkably simple idea. I’ve often joked that a reasonably intelligent five-year-old child should be able to understand the basic concepts, even though they seem totally beyond the grasp of most creationists.

In this beautifully illustrated book, Sabina Radeva sets out to explain the basic concepts of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection to children of five years and upwards. She also finds room to outline how evolutionary theory has advanced since Darwin’s time, and to explain some common misconceptions about Darwin’s theory.

There are a few big words in this book that younger children (and possibly their parents) might struggle to understand, but Radeva thoughtfully includes a simple glossary at the end to help them out.

I was particularly pleased to see Darwin quoted directly in small snippets throughout this book, reminding readers that this is not a made-up story, and that Charles Darwin was a real person who wrote a really important book. Hopefully, when they grow older, the interest kindled by reading Sabina Radeva’s delightful book will encourage her readers to check out Charles Darwin’s original.

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

29-Jan-1839: Charles Darwin marries Emma Wedgwood Tue, 29 Jan 2019 11:15:04 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD ( On 29th January 1839, after a short courtship and engagement, Charles Darwin married his cousin Emma Wedgwood at St Peter's Church, Maer, Staffordshire. On 29th January 1839, after a short courtship and engagement, Charles Darwin married his cousin Emma Wedgwood at St Peter’s Church, Maer, Staffordshire.

The bride wore a greenish-grey rich silk dress, and white clipped bonnet trimmed with blonde and flowers. The presiding local vicar was John Allen Wedgwood, another cousin. After the ceremony, the happy couple immediately rushed away to their new home in Gower Street, London.

Charles and Emma Darwin
Charles and Emma Darwin (1840).
(Composite image from two contemporaneous portraits by George Richmond.)

Before deciding to seek a wife, Darwin famously made a list outlining the pros and cons of marriage, romantically concluding, amongst other compelling reasons for getting hitched, that a wife would make a better companion than a dog.

During their brief engagement, Charles and Emma corresponded about their differing religious views. The devout Emma was concerned about being separated from her future husband in the afterlife, but sensibly concluded ‘honest and conscientious [religious] doubts cannot be a sin’. It seems likely that concerns over Emma’s religious sensitivities remained an important factor in Darwin seldom openly expressing views on religious matters throughout the rest of his life.

Inter-cousin marriages were far more common in the nineteenth century, particularly in wealthy families. But the fact Charles and Emma continued a line of inter-cousin marriages going back a number of generations was to become a huge concern for Darwin, whose work on species later convinced him of the undesirability of close inter-breeding.

Despite these concerns, Emma and Charles Darwin’s marriage was a long and happy one, as their affectionate correspondence on the rare occasions they were apart demonstrates. They had ten children, seven of whom survived into adulthood. They read novels and played backgammon together in the evenings. And Emma was to become Charles’s devoted nurse during his chronic illness. Appropriately, she was there with him in the end. He died in her arms after a devoted marriage of 43 years.

Hello, Azerbaijan! Mon, 26 Nov 2018 09:13:52 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD ( I am delighted to announce that the Friends of Charles Darwin have their first member from Azerbaijan. AlgeriaI am delighted to announce that the Friends of Charles Darwin have their first member from Azerbaijan: Arzu Gadirov of Baku. Welcome!

We now have members in 99 countries.

Newsletter No. 2: Writing with a dip pen Sat, 24 Nov 2018 09:10:39 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD ( Our second newsletter marks the 159th anniversary of the publication of ‘On the Origin of Species’… Darwin newsletter


Dear Friend of Darwin,

Today marks the 159th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Unlike most other revolutionary science texts, Origin was written with a general audience in mind. It’s still remarkably accessible, and a rewarding read, even though Darwin’s prose can grow a little tortuous in places. We now know Darwin was wrong on a few details, but his key argument still stands, and forms the bedrock of modern biology. If you haven’t read Origin yet, perhaps you should give it a go.

It is of considerable delight to me that Darwin was taking the waters on Ilkley Moor in Yorkshire, just thirteen miles as the lapwing flies from where I write these words, on the day Origin first appeared in print. I explain how Darwin ended up in Ilkley in my book On the Moor: science, history and nature on a country walk, whose first anniversary (non-coincidentally) also falls today. If you haven’t read On the Moor yet, perhaps you should give it a go too!

Missing Links

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

  1. Origin of the species: where did Darwin’s finches come from?
    How the iconic finches that radiated throughout the Galápagos Islands might, surprisingly, have had their origin in the Caribbean.

  2. Darwin comes to town: how cities are creating new species
    Our planet grows ever more human-centric. In particular, our cities provide challenging new environments into which species are adapting.

  3. Why don’t birds have teeth?
    It used to be thought birds became toothless to reduce weight during flight. But perhaps it was a side-effect of evolving shorter incubation periods.

  4. Nose to blowhole: an Evo-Devo story (15 min video)
    How cetacean (whale, dolphin and porpoise) faces have evolved, and how they change shape as their fetuses develop, allowing nostrils to become blowholes.

  5. The evolution of anti-bat sensory illusions in moths (technical paper)
    I love this sort of thing. It seems certain silk moths have evolved elaborate hind-wings with spinning tails that confuse bats’ echolocation systems. A brilliant countermeasure in an evolutionary arms race.

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

Natural Selections

Some book recommendations for you:

Unnatural Selection
by Katrina van Grouw
Art meets science in this stunningly illustrated book, published to mark the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s long, lesser-known work ‘The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication’.
The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being
by Alice Roberts
Evolution and the making of us. A fantastic book exploring how our bodies are compromises, constrained by physics, and by our developmental and evolutionary history.
Darwin’s Most Wonderful Plants
by Ken Thompson
A short, entertaining investigation of each of Darwin’s major works on plants. By the end of it, you’ll have a far better appreciation of Darwin the botanist.

Journal of Researches

It’s still early days working on my Darwin book, but I’ve been enjoying dipping into a number of my hero’s lesser-known works, reading up on pigeons, dogs, and foxgloves. Although Darwin described On the Origin of Species as ‘one long argument’, he continued to flesh out his argument in all his subsequent books.

As a healthy individual struggling to get going on only his second book, despite having access to a medium-sized arsenal of modern technology, I’m frankly in awe of Charles Darwin: a man beset by chronic illness, who managed to produce a magnificent body of work writing with a dip pen, and relying on a social network powered by postage stamps.

During my recent research, while I was finally getting to the bottom of a highly dubious anecdote about Darwin that turned out to be true, I ended up transcribing a previously unpublished ‘autobiographical fragment’ by his daughter Henrietta. The transcription is now available on the magnificent ‘Darwin Online’ website. My first small contribution to original history of science research.

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. And if you’re at a loss as to what to buy those friends for Christmas, you’ll find another shameless plug for my soon-to-be-seen-as-a-classic book below.

See you next time!

Richard Carter, FCD
A cat among the pigeons Tue, 28 Aug 2018 14:56:55 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( Could Charles Darwin really have been a moggy murderer?
Domestic cats
So-called ‘domesticated’ cats.

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

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

The story, in a nutshell, goes like this:

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

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

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

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

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

I was on the scent now!

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

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

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

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

Transcribing Etty
Transcribing Etty.

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

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


(But it serves you right, Bullzig!)

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

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

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

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

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

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

See also: PZ Myers - Maureen Brian has died

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


Dear Friend of Darwin,

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

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

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

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

Missing Links

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

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

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

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

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

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

Natural Selections

Some book recommendations for you:

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

Journal of Researches

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

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

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

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

Expression of Emotions

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

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

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

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

Well, that’s certainly the plan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(No, me neither.)

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

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

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

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

Time, perhaps for something of a relaunch.

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

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

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

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

Subscribe to the newsletter:

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

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

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

Darwin £10 notes
Some magnificent Darwin tenners.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Subscribe to the newsletter:

Here’s to the next 24 years…

Subscribe to the Friends of Charles Darwin newsletter Sat, 24 Feb 2018 09:10:57 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD ( An occasional newsletter about all things Darwin: what’s not to like? Subscribe here…
Subscribe to the newsletter:
If humans evolved from monkeys, how come there are still monkeys? Sat, 11 Feb 2017 11:25:06 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD ( This is a question frequently posed by creationists—and quite often by perfectly rational people… This is a question frequently posed by creationists—and quite often by perfectly rational people. It betrays a common misunderstanding of how evolution occurs. In this particular case, the answer also depends on what the questioner means by ‘monkeys’.

Simple answer

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

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

The following analogy might help:

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

How new species evolve

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

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

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

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

So did we evolve from monkeys or not?

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, how do you define a monkey?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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