Friends of Charles Darwin - combined feed (blog posts, articles, newsletters, and reviews). http://friendsofdarwin.com All new blog posts, articles, newsletters, and reviews from the Friends of Charles Darwin. en-gb Richard Carter, FCD Newsletter No. 20: ‘All observation must be for or against some view…’ http://friendsofdarwin.com/newsletter/all-observation-must-be-for-or-against-some-view/ http://friendsofdarwin.com/newsletter/all-observation-must-be-for-or-against-some-view/ Fri, 19 Apr 2024 16:05:00 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD (friendsofdarwin.com) Darwin’s primroses destroyed! • Beagle specimens unearthed • cross-pollination • birds’ tree-of-life • beetles • seaweed • male mammals not so big after all • Frans de Waal • butterfly mimicry • William Buckland • book recommendation • another research rabbit hole!

19TH APRIL 2024

Dear Friend of Darwin,

Today marks the 142nd anniversary of Charles Darwin’s death. As crappy anniversaries go, it’s certainly up there. But the more I read about Darwin, the more I’m astonished at how much he managed to cram into a life blighted by chronic illness. From small, seemingly inconsequential observations to major (r)evolutionary works, he was always working on something.

150 years ago this month, in April 1874, Darwin noticed many flowers had been destroyed in the wood of the Sandwalk—the path at the end of his garden where he did much of his thinking. He had observed this phenomenon over many years, but the damage seemed to have grown far worse that particular spring. Having examined the destroyed flowers—his beloved primroses, cowslips and polyanthuses—Darwin blamed the local birds. One of is sons suggested they might be after nectar. Darwin concurred.

Primroses
Primroses growing in the Yorkshire Dales.

On making such an observation, you or I might think, oh, that’s interesting. We might even go so far as to spend a few seconds blurting out a post about it on social media to show how observant we are. But Darwin, being Darwin, decided to write a long letter to the prestigious science journal ‘Nature’, requesting feedback from its readers as to whether this flower-destruction by birds was a new habit local to his area, or a more widespread phenomenon. If the latter, Darwin reasoned, the birds’ behaviour must be instinctive. Darwin being Darwin, he soon received plenty of feedback. In particular, the chemist Edward Frankland, who had corresponded with Darwin previously, wrote to explain that he owned a captive bullfinch and canary, and happened to have a large bouquet of cowslips to hand, so had performed an experiment. The native bullfinch bit through the cowslips with precision, extracting the nectaries and young ovaries, while the non-native canary simply destroyed the flowers with wild abandon. Frankland concluded the native bullfinch’s expertise must be down to instinct. At Darwin’s behest, Frankland went on to perform further experiments. This and other correspondence led, of course, to Darwin writing a follow-up letter to ’Nature’, summarising the feedback and adding some further thoughts of his own.

When observing new phenomena, Darwin couldn’t help hypothesising. Indeed, he saw little point in observing unless it tested or inspired some hypothesis. As he had opined thirteen years earlier to another correspondent:

How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service!

At this time of year, the local greenfinches, bullfinches, and assorted fellow avian vandals seem to enjoy nothing more than biting off the newly opened flower-buds on the large cherry tree in our garden. I’ve noticed this activity over many springs, but had never stopped to think about it before. 142 years after his untimely demise, Darwin continues to show us how to look at the world in a better way.

Natural selection

‘The Golden Mole’ by Katherine Rundell

A book you might enjoy:

The Golden Mole by Katherine Rundell
Interesting facts about remarkable species. An enjoyable light read.

More book reviews »

Missing links

Some Darwin-related articles you might find of interest:

  1. Darwin’s plant specimens stored for 200 years to go on public display
    Specimens collected during the voyage of the Beagle have been unearthed at a Cambridge University archive.
  2. Botanists analyze the role of pollinators in the evolution of flowers with various sexual forms
    A new study supports Darwin’s hypothesis that certain flowering plant species evolved heterostyly (male and female sex-organs of different relative lengths in different individual plants) to encourage cross-pollination by insects.
    Original paper: Convergent evolutionary patterns of heterostyly across angiosperms support the pollination-precision hypothesis.
  3. After 10 years of work, landmark study reveals new ‘tree of life’ for all birds living today
    The extinction of the dinosaurs sparked an explosion of bird species, according to the largest-ever study of bird genetics.
    Original paper: Complexity of avian evolution revealed by family-level genomes.
  4. Why do so many beetle species exist?
    Of the roughly one-million named insect species on Earth, about 400,000 are beetles. Diet seems to have played a key role in the evolution of the vast beetle family tree.
  5. How seaweed became multicellular
    A deep dive into macroalgae genetics has uncovered the genetic underpinnings that enabled macroalgae, or ‘seaweed,’ to evolve multicellularity.
    Original paper: Macroalgal deep genomics illuminate multiple paths to aquatic, photosynthetic multicellularity.
  6. It’s a myth that male animals are usually larger than females
    A new study has found that, in many mammal species, males are not larger than females.
    Original paper: New estimates indicate that males are not larger than females in most mammal species
    Comment: The original paper seems somewhat unfair in claiming that, in The Descent of Man, Darwin accepted as common knowledge the (incorrect) idea that male mammals are typically larger than females. Darwin did (correctly) point out that the sexes of many mammals differ in a number of ways, including in body-size; and he did (correctly) say that “with most animals when the male is larger than the female, he seems to have acquired his greater size by having conquered during many generations other males”; but I could not find any passage where Darwin claimed larger male mammals were the norm. Indeed, Darwin highlights numerous (admittedly non-mammalian) examples where females are typically larger than males.
  7. Frans de Waal (1948–2024), primatologist who questioned the uniqueness of human minds
    Obituary of the researcher and prolific science communicator who laid bare the social lives of apes.
    See also: A remembrance of Frans de Waal.
  8. Butterflies mimic each other’s flight behavior to avoid predators, show scientists
    Researchers have shown that inedible species of butterfly that mimic each other’s colour patterns have also evolved similar flight behaviours to warn predators and avoid being eaten.
    Original paper: Pervasive mimicry in flight behavior among aposematic butterflies.
  9. William Buckland, megalosaurus and the Bible
    An account of a meeting of the Geological Society of London on 20th February 1824, in which two clergymen first presented Megalosaurus and Pleisiosaurus fossils.

Journal of researches

Among well(ish)-deserved short holidays, I’ve spent the last couple of weeks down my latest research rabbit-hole, finding out about the evolutionary history of pinnipeds (true seals, sea lions, fur seals, and walruses). As always, my latest research topic proved far more interesting—and diverting—than I’d realised. I only intended to uncover a few interesting evolutionary titbits about grey seals to mention in passing in my next chapter, but, as ever, I ended up opening a whole can of worms.

Darwin once wrote to his close friend, and inspiration, the geologist Sir Charles Lyell:

A naturalist’s life wd. be a happy one, if he had only to observe & never to write.

To which, I would add a corollary: a writer’s life would be a happy one, if they had only to research and never to write.

(I will finish this book one day, I promise!)

Expression of Emotions

Thanks as always for reading this newsletter. Please feel free to send feedback, and to recommend it to your most discerning friends—or even your worst enemies.

See you next time!

Richard Carter, FCD
friendsofdarwin.com
richardcarter.com

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Book review: ‘The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 21 • 1873’ http://friendsofdarwin.com/reviews/book-review-the-correspondence-of-charles-darwin-volume-21-1873/ http://friendsofdarwin.com/reviews/book-review-the-correspondence-of-charles-darwin-volume-21-1873/ Fri, 29 Mar 2024 08:45:15 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD (friendsofdarwin.com) Back to botany.
‘The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 21 • 1873’

The twenty-first volume of Charles Darwin’s correspondence comprises all the surviving letters both from and to Darwin from the year 1873.

During this year, Darwin continued to deal with correspondence resulting from the publication the previous year of The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. 1873 also saw him beginning to revise The Descent of Man with the help of his son George. But most of Darwin’s efforts during the year came from the resumption of his botanical studies into insectivorous plants and pollination.

Highlights from Darwin’s correspondence for 1873 include:

  • Darwin expressing some scepticism over Francis Galton’s plans for a register of naturally gifted individuals, while stating ‘the object seems a grand one’.
  • Darwin (who was extremely prone to scope-creep in his projects) realising “I must remember that I am growing old, otherwise I shd. go on forever with Drosera as I did with barnacles”.
  • Darwin writing on the relative importance of external conditions and natural selection in causing new adaptations.
  • Darwin thanking Alfred Russel Wallace for reviewing The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals while standing his ground regarding Wallace’s criticisms. In reply, Wallace concedes he might be wrong on some points.
  • Darwin adding his name to a petition to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, William Gladstone, urging that the herbarium and library at Kew Gardens not be moved to the new Natural History Museum (as proposed by Richard Owen).
  • Darwin defending his view that all existing human languages could be “derived from a common stock, far more simple or less developed than any one now spoken”.
  • Darwin forwarding an account to the journal Nature of a family of dogs all scared of butchers.
  • Darwin later sending Nature an anecdote of a coach-horse that had gone blind, but still stopped at public houses. He believes his own horse might have a homing instinct, and marvels at the homing instinct of turtles at Ascension Island.
  • Darwin describing Dionaea (the Venus fly-trap) as “the most wonderful plant in the world”.
  • Darwin asking John Scott Burdon Sanderson to investigate possible (nerve-like) electric currents in Dionaea. (Sanderson was so excited at detecting such currents that he telegraphed Darwin with the news.)
  • Darwin’s fan letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, commander of a ‘black regiment’ during the U.S. Civil War. (They had previously met, but Darwin hadn’t known about Higginson’s former role.)
  • Darwin, having discovered a women’s suffrage supporter intends to present a petition to the House of Commons on which Darwin’s is the only signature, asking for his name be erased unless other signatures are added.
  • Darwin writing to Marian Evans (George Eliot), asking if it would be all right for his daughter to call at her home. (In a postscript, he says his wife has complained that he hasn’t asked if they might call as well, “but I tell that I still have some shreds of modesty”.) See also Evans’s reply.
  • Darwin providing some information about giant tortoises collected from the Galápagos Islands during the Beagle voyage.
  • Darwin writing an affectionate letter to Thomas Henry Huxley, explaining that eighteen of Huxley’s friends have organised a collection for him to help him out of his financial difficulties.
  • Huxley’s overwhelmed, grateful reply, in which he admits he had been having a nervous breakdown, going on to say, “Have I said a word of appreciation for your own letter? I shall keep it for my children that their children may know what manner of man their father’s friend was & why he loved him.”
  • Darwin referring to himself as (recently widowed) geologist Charles Lyell’s “old & true disciple”.
  • In response to a questionnaire sent to noted scientists by Francis Galton, Darwin attempting to assess his own talents and influences.
  • Darwin being sent an anecdote of supposed spontaneous generation of life in rotten Easter eggs!
  • Darwin sending comments on a book about hay-fever, politely pointing out to the author that he might not be fully aware that wind- and insect-pollinated plants have different types of pollen. (See also. the author’s reply.)
  • Darwin’s son Francis sending an account of himself and his fiancée counting the nectar holes made in flowers by bees.
  • Darwin agreeing for his name to be included among patrons of a cat show, but jokingly advising against it on the grounds that “people may refuse to go & admire a lot of atheistical cats!”
  • Darwin’s famous letter to Karl Marx, thanking him for sending a copy of Das Kapital. (For more on this letter, see my FAQ article Didn't Karl Marx offer to dedicate Das Kapital to Darwin?.)
  • Darwin writing to his son George, urging him to reconsider before publishing an essay on religion.
  • Darwin admitting, “It is precious easy to suggest experiments, & often most difficult, as I know to my cost, to carry them out.”
  • George Darwin’s account of attending a séance.
  • The new local vicar objecting to Darwin’s application for the continued use of the school room as a working men’s reading room.

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

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
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Book review: ‘Buried’ by Prof. Alice Roberts http://friendsofdarwin.com/reviews/book-review-buried-by-alice-roberts/ http://friendsofdarwin.com/reviews/book-review-buried-by-alice-roberts/ Fri, 22 Mar 2024 15:20:26 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD (friendsofdarwin.com) An alternative history of the first millennium in Britain.
‘Buried’ by Prof. Alice Roberts

My computer-based notes system takes a hammering whenever I read one of Prof. Alice Roberts’s books. She writes on subjects of interest to me which have little to do with my current major project, but which I suspect might crop up in future projects. So, while reading this book, in among my hundreds of notes about Charles Darwin, I found myself making notes about why ‘Anglo-Saxon’ is a problematic term; how high levels of strontium in excavated skeletons can be an indicator that the people in question used seaweed for fertiliser; how the etymologies of the words ‘pagan’ and ‘heathen’ both refer to people who lived in the countryside; and how ancient DNA can be used to identify specific pathogens associated with different plagues. (I know, I probably should get out more.)

As with all of Roberts’s books, Buried is a fascinating read, exploring various funerary rituals observed in first-millennium Britain, and the various ways in which we might interpret them. Why, for example, would a significant number of Romano-British burials involve decapitation? And why were certain ancient burials accompanied by blingy grave-goods, and others not?

Roberts discusses various cultures associated with this period—Romano-British, Anglo-Saxon, Viking—and how archaeology has brought into question certain historical accounts and interpretations. In a fascinating section near the end, she explains how the long-standing ‘culture-history’ archaeological paradigm has been challenged by ‘cultural diffusion’ theory. In other words, are changes in material culture over time (artefacts, funerary practices, etc.) an indication of the latest ‘wave’ of new settlers arriving on the scene, or are they an indication of people adopting new ideas from elsewhere? Or perhaps, as seems more likely, is it sometimes one, sometimes the other, and sometimes a combination of the two?

As with its predecessor, Ancestors, Buried comes highly recommended by this reader. I look forward to reading (and making copious notes from) the final book of this trilogy, Crypt.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
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Book review:  ‘The Golden Mole’ by Katherine Rundell http://friendsofdarwin.com/reviews/book-review-the-golden-mole-by-katherine-rundell/ http://friendsofdarwin.com/reviews/book-review-the-golden-mole-by-katherine-rundell/ Sun, 10 Mar 2024 15:10:08 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD (friendsofdarwin.com) Interesting facts about remarkable species.
‘The Golden Mole’ by Katherine Rundell

This is a lovely idea for a book: a collection of short essays on remarkable, mostly endangered species. Nothing too heavy or definitive; simply a few interesting facts about the species in question, some personal thoughts and observations, then on to the next species.

A few of the interesting facts that caught my attention:

  • wombats could out-sprint the fastest human, fight with their backsides, and have cube-shaped poo;
  • Greenland sharks can live for several hundred years, and eat their siblings while still in the womb;
  • hermit crabs queue in line in order of size so each can move into the next largest's vacated shell;
  • the first confirmation that birds migrate over great distances came in 1822, when a stork arrived in Germany with an African spear embedded in it.

An enjoyable, untaxing read.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
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Now we are 30 http://friendsofdarwin.com/focd-30th-anniversary/ http://friendsofdarwin.com/focd-30th-anniversary/ Sat, 02 Mar 2024 11:38:15 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD (friendsofdarwin.com) 02-Mar-2024: The Friends of Charles Darwin were founded 30 years ago today!
FOCD 30th anniversary

The Friends of Charles Darwin were founded 30 years ago today, on 2nd March 1994. Happy birthday to us!

It all started in the Red Lion public house, at Parkgate on the Wirral, when my pal and regular drinking partner Nigel ‘Fitz’ Longhurst and I, decided it was outrageous Charles Darwin had never appeared on a British bank note. So, on this day in 1994, we dashed off a letter to the Chief Cashier of the Bank of England, asking why on earth not, signing ourselves Friends of Charles Darwin. We later allowed others to start adding their names as Friends of Charles Darwin on this dedicated website.

I've always said I don't think our campaign had much to do with Darwin eventually appearing on the (sadly, now defunct) Bank of England Darwin £10 note, but we still treated it as a cause for major celebration.

Nigel ‘Fitz’ Longhurst, FCD (L) and a youthful Richard Carter, FCD (R), celebrating in the only way they knew how.

Fitz died ten years ago, in June 2014. I was honoured to be asked to officiate at his funeral, and made sure a crisp Darwin tenner accompanied him in his grave.

Since then, I’ve kept the Friends of Charles Darwin brand going with no particular campaign in mind, not least because, in the alarming post-truth era we seem to have entered, I think Charles Darwin could still do with all the friends he can get.

I’m currently writing a book inspired by Darwin, and am investing most of my Friends of Charles Darwin efforts in my newsletters. So, if you haven’t done so already, please subscribe.

Thirty years! When did I start counting in decades? Here’s to the next few years at least!

Darwin £10 notes
Crisp Darwin tenners
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Book review: ‘The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 20 • 1872’ http://friendsofdarwin.com/reviews/book-review-the-correspondence-of-charles-darwin-volume-20-1872/ http://friendsofdarwin.com/reviews/book-review-the-correspondence-of-charles-darwin-volume-20-1872/ Tue, 27 Feb 2024 13:30:47 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD (friendsofdarwin.com) Publication of the final edition of ‘The Origin of Species’, and of ‘The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals’.
The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 20 • 1872

The twentieth volume of Charles Darwin’s correspondence comprises all the surviving letters both from and to Darwin from the year 1872.

During this year, Darwin continued to deal with correspondence resulting from the publication the previous year of The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. 1872 also saw the publication of the sixth and final (and, at Darwin’s request, cheaper) edition of The Origin of Species (from which the prefix On was finally removed from the title), and the publication of The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. It also saw the resumption of his studies into earthworms and insectivorous plants.

Highlights from Darwin’s correspondence for 1872 include:

  • Darwin’s son William reporting measuring ridges and furrows and the depth of Stonehenge stones to assist in Darwin’s earthworm studies.
  • Darwin asking his niece Lucy Caroline Wedgwood to measure wormholes with knitting needles.
  • Joseph Dalton Hooker worrying about Thomas Henry Huxley, and thinking he should be put in charge of setting up the new Natural History Museum.
  • Darwin finally getting so pissed off with St George Jackson Mivart that he requests no further correspondence from him, later comparing the degradation of his relationship with Mivart to that with another former friend, Richard Owen. (For more on this topic, see Newsletter No. 18).
  • Darwin attempting to answer a complex question on butterfly mimicry, and a lengthy reply from Raphael Meldola, invoking both natural selection and sexual selection.
  • Bartholomew James Sulivan sending news of former HMS Beagle shipmates.
  • Darwin finishing updating the sixth (and final) edition of On the Origin of Species, being anxious the book should be cheaply priced, with its pages cut.
  • Darwin receiving a weird letter concerning the scientific mystic Andrew Jackson Davis.
  • Darwin providing a preface for a new French edition of On the Origin of Species, taking the opportunity to distance himself from Mme. Clémence Auguste Royer’s earlier editions.
  • Asa Gray, who knows Darwin so well, urging him not to get sidetracked into some new project until he has published his research on insectivorous plants. (Gray was America’s foremost botanist, so somewhat biased.)
  • Darwin agreeing with Anton Dohrn that “the cause of Wallace’s sad falling away” was his attempt to combine natural selection with spiritualism.
  • Darwin modestly suggesting that writing The Descent of Man was possibly as a mistake, “but any how it will pave the way for some better work”.
  • Friedrich Hildebrand pointing out that Darwin’s works have inspired questions and observations nobody would have dreamt of before.
  • Darwin claiming evolution (as opposed to natural selection) is now generally accepted throughout Europe, except in France.
  • William Darwin sending his father a holder for Russian cigarettes.
  • Darwin saying many British scientists disagree with his idea of female choice in sexual selection, thinking it absurd.
  • Darwin writing, “As far as I can judge, very few naturalists believe in [sexual selection]. I may have erred on many points, and extended the doctrine too far, but I feel a strong conviction that sexual selection will hereafter be admitted to be a powerful agency.”
  • Darwin advising his sceptical friend Thomas Campbell Eyton that, if he keeps testing facts, he’s likely to become a convert to the idea of evolution, if not natural selection.
  • Francis Galton reporting he has attended a séance and cannot explain what he saw, but describing spiritualism as ‘rubbish’—apparently, Benjamin Franklin put in an appearance! (A decidedly less sceptical Galton later invites Darwin to attend a séance, but Darwin declines.)
  • Darwin giving detailed instructions for drawing an aggressive dog.
  • Darwin receiving a bizarre letter about Burmese woman who allegedly became pregnant with an ape.
  • Darwin defending his views on human evolution, citing his former friend St George Jackson Mivart in support of our relationship with simians.
  • Roland Trimen writing about Richard Owen’s inconsistency on the subject of evolution, and his jealousy.
  • Darwin adding his name to a petition for a UK-US copyright agreement.
  • Darwin providing writing advice: “Few authors, I think, strike out half enough; & I am not half severe enough on my own writings.”
  • Darwin declaring “the subject of music is beyond me”.
  • Darwin being delighted with Fritz Müller’s similar thoughts to his own regarding bees and sexual selection. He encloses a paper he wrote concerning bees’ flight paths, of which only the version Müller had translated into German survives.
  • Darwin thanking Charles Lyell for sending a copy of the 11th edition of his Principles of Geology. Darwin differs with Lyell over his views of natural selection, observing: “And I suppose that you will admit that the difference in the brain of a clever & dull man is not much more wonderful than the difference in the length of the noses of any two men.”
  • A letter from Samuel Butler explaining that his novel Erewhon has been misinterpreted by some as a satire of On the Origin of Species.
  • Darwin asking his son to ask the London Zoo superintendent to put a snake in an enclosure with a porcupine to see how the porcupine reacts, and the superintendent’s reply.
  • Darwin’s great American friend Asa Gray quoting him as being a reader of ‘trashy novels’.
  • Darwin on recognising one’s own knowledge limitations: “I fear that a man is most apt to fall into error exactly where from his ignorance he feels no doubts.”
  • - Darwin writing to Alfred Russel Wallace: “I hate controversy, chiefly perhaps because I do it badly; but as Dr Bree accuses you of “blundering”, I have thought myself bound to send the enclosed letter to Nature;”
  • Darwin on his former friend Richard Owen : “I used to be ashamed of hating him so much, but now I will carefully cherish my hatred & contempt to the last day of my life.” He later confesses, “I long to meet him to have the pleasure of cutting him dead.”
  • (Too much information…) Darwin ordering a new enema, subsequently asking for one with a shorter nozzle!
  • Darwin being impressed by Francis Galton’s recent letter to a journal about the inefficacy of prayer.
  • Darwin’s publisher John Murray expressing surprise at the success of The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, blaming Darwin’s modesty for misleading him.
  • William Duppa Crotch writing about a recent huge lemming migration in Norway.
  • Darwin sending his old university friend John Maurice Herbert a copy of The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, reminiscing about Cambridge days.
  • Darwin writing about his love for his dog Polly.
  • Darwin writing to Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), thanking him for offering the use of Dodgson’s photograph of the girl Flora Rankin. (He did not make use of it.)
  • A correspondent reporting an anecdote about a young man who could vomit at will. (It sounds to have been something of a party-piece.)

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

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
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Newsletter No. 19: ‘Ruinous propensity’ http://friendsofdarwin.com/newsletter/ruinous-propensity/ http://friendsofdarwin.com/newsletter/ruinous-propensity/ Mon, 12 Feb 2024 16:00:43 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD (friendsofdarwin.com) Darwin’s 215th birthday • moths to the flame • Darwin’s personal library • caterpillars and blue tits • more moths • Hell chickens • the birth of the moon • navel gazing • book recommendations • and more…

12TH FEBRUARY 2024

Dear Friend of Darwin,

Today marks the 215th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth. Happy Darwin Day! And happy 15th anniversary to the Darwin Bicentennial Oak!

In April 1871, the entomologist Roland Trimen wrote to Darwin to ask if he could explain ‘that most ruinous propensity of nocturnal winged animals (chiefly insects) to rush impetuously into bright flames’. It’s a question all of us must have wondered about, as had Darwin. In his reply, he admitted to being somewhat flummoxed:

You ask me whether I have any notion about the meaning of moths &c flying into candles, & birds against light-houses.— I have not.— I have looked at the case as one of curiosity, which is very strong with the higher animals, & I presume even with insects. A light is a very new object, & its distance cannot be judged, but how it comes that an insect is so stupid as to go on flying into the same candle I cannot conceive. It looks as if they were drawn towards it.— Sir C. Lyell, I remember, made years ago the difficulty greater by asking me, what stops all the moths in the world flying every moon-light night up to the moon, or as near as they could get.—Perhaps they have instinctively learnt that this cannot be done.—

Over the years, various potential explanations have been put forward for insects in general—and moths in particular—being attracted to artificial lights. Perhaps they evolved to use the moon for navigation, but were being confused by this new, much closer, night-time light-source. Or perhaps they were attracted to the heat emitted by the light.

Last month, a new study (see Missing Links section below) proposed a compelling new explanation: at night, the sky above a moth tends to be lighter than the ground below, so moths instinctively turn their backs to the light to ensure they stay the right way up. When moths apply the same behaviour to a much nearer artificial light, they end up flying in circles around it!

Darwin would surely have been delighted by this explanation.

Peppered moths
Dark and light forms of the peppered moth, Biston betularia, Dublin Natural History Museum.

Natural selection

‘Darwin’s Fossils’ by Adrian Lister

A book you might enjoy:

Darwin’s Fossils by Adrian Lister
A beautifully illustrated account of the many fossils collected by Charles Darwin.

More book reviews »

Missing links

Some Darwin-related articles you might find of interest:

  1. The Complete Library of Charles Darwin - Introduction
    Published to mark Charles Darwin’s 215th birthday, the latest stupendous offering from Darwin Online… Following 18 years of research, a digital recreation of the more than 7,350 titles across 13,000 volumes/items that were once to be found in Darwin’s personal library. Discover the works Darwin owned, used and read!
    The Complete Library can be accessed here.
  2. Why are moths attracted to lights? Science may finally have an answer
    Insect flight paths were filmed at night using hi-res and infrared technology with surprising results.
    Original paper:Why flying insects gather at artificial light
  3. Blue tit populations closely linked to numbers of moth caterpillars
    The critical importance of moth caterpillars numbers to the population size of a common insect-eating garden bird, the blue tit, were highlighted in a new study.
    Original paper: Population links between an insectivorous bird and moths disentangled through national‐scale monitoring data
  4. We’ve found out how earless moths use sound to defend themselves against bats—and it could give engineers new ideas
    Ermine moths’ wings make ultrasonic clicking noises during flight, presumably to confuse bats.
    Original paper: Buckling-induced sound production in the aeroelastic tymbals of Yponomeuta
  5. Complex green organisms emerged a billion years ago, says new research
    Using modern gene sequencing data, researchers have dated the emergence of multicellularity to almost a billion years ago.
    Original paper: Phylogenomic insights into the first multicellular streptophyte
  6. A newly identified ‘Hell chicken’ species suggests dinosaurs weren’t sliding toward extinction before the fateful asteroid hit
    Rather than a juvenile of a known species, several fossilised bones represent a new species—and shed light on the question of whether dinosaurs were already in decline before disaster struck.
    Original paper: A new oviraptorosaur (Dinosauria: Theropoda) from the end-Maastrichtian Hell Creek Formation of North America
  7. The violent birth of the moon
    Did a colossal collision with a doomed planet give us our satellite? I found this article of particular interest as it describes the important contribution made by astronomer George Darwin (son of Charles) to our understanding of the moon’s formation.
  8. Secrets within the teeth of the first Homo fossils
    New studies of fossil teeth are helping untangle the human family tree.
    Original paper: Dental morphology in Homo habilis and its implications for the evolution of early Homo
  9. Navel gazing with Philip Gosse
    On Darwin’s contemporary, a serious scientist who thought the earth was only 6,000 years old, but had been created to look as if it were much older.

Journal of researches

One of the occupational hazards of running a Darwin-related newsletter while writing a book about Darwin is that I keep discovering new stories about stuff I’ve already covered in the book. This newsletter edition’s (entirely coincidental) preponderance of moth-related stories is a good example: I’ve already written a chapter about the ongoing evolutionary arms-races between moths and bats, but now I have even more stuff to consider for the next draft.

As it happens, a few years back, I contributed a short audio piece about bats to Melissa Harrison’s wonderful podcast The Stubborn Light of Things . The fiasco I went through recording my piece was enough to put me off podcasting for life!

Expression of Emotions

Thanks as always for reading the newsletter. Please feel free to provide comments—and to recommend it to your most discerning friends.

See you next time!

Richard Carter, FCD
friendsofdarwin.com
richardcarter.com


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The Darwin bicentennial oak, 15 years on http://friendsofdarwin.com/the-darwin-bicentennial-oak-15-years-on/ http://friendsofdarwin.com/the-darwin-bicentennial-oak-15-years-on/ Mon, 12 Feb 2024 10:25:16 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD (friendsofdarwin.com) Fifteen years ago today, I planted the Darwin Bicentennial Oak in my garden. Fifteen 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 fifteen years gathering material for the longest time-lapse movie ever. Or should that be shortest?

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Book review: ‘The Notebook’ by Roland Allen http://friendsofdarwin.com/reviews/book-review-the-notebook-by-roland-allen/ http://friendsofdarwin.com/reviews/book-review-the-notebook-by-roland-allen/ Sun, 04 Feb 2024 15:04:49 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD (friendsofdarwin.com) A history of thinking on paper.
‘The Notebook: a history of thinking on paper’ by Roland Allen

As someone with something of a notebook habit, I expected to enjoy this book very much indeed. I was not to be disappointed.

Roland Allen has produced an entertaining history of notebooks, each chapter dedicated to different aspects of their development and use. He takes us from the earliest surviving example of a notebook—a Bronze Age wax-tablet affair recovered from a shipwreck off the coast of Turkey—through to more modern interpretations in the form of bullet journals and intensive care unit patient diaries.

We encounter many different types of notebooks, including papyrus codices, accountants’ ledgers, waste books, Florentine zibaldoni, common-place books, diaries and journals, recipe books, music books, police officers’ notebooks, artists’ sketchbooks, scientists’ notebooks, erasable ‘table books’, friendship books, and ships’ logs. We are also told some fascinating stories about numerous confirmed or likely notebook users, including French nobleman Nicolas Fouquet (whose notebooks were responsible for his ultimate downfall), Leonardo da Vinci, Erasmus, Michel de Montaigne, William Shakespeare, Francis Bacon, Samuel Pepys, Carl Linnaeus, Herman Melville, Albrecht Dürer, Rembrandt, Mark Twain, Béla Bartók, Ernest Hemingway, Bruce Chatwin, Patricia Highsmith, Agatha Christie, Brian Eno, Bob Dylan, Francis Ford Coppola, and, of course, Charles Darwin.

Me admiring Darwin’s notebooks B & C
Peak geekery: a self-confessed ‘Darwin groupie’ and ‘notebook nerd’ admiring Darwin’s notebooks B & C.

In addition to these high-profile notebook users, Allen has also unearthed some less celebrated figures who either made good use of notebooks, or whose notebooks subsequently proved most useful to scientists and academics. For example, I was particularly interested by an initiative to trawl old ships’ logs to extract historical weather records. And as a fan of Sir Thomas Browne, I was also interested to learn about his daughter’s common-place book.

The Notebook: a history of thinking on paper is a fabulous read.

Highly recommended.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
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Newsletter No. 18: ‘Unnecessary irreligious deductions’ http://friendsofdarwin.com/newsletter/unnecessary-irreligious-deductions/ http://friendsofdarwin.com/newsletter/unnecessary-irreligious-deductions/ Fri, 26 Jan 2024 16:00:00 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD (friendsofdarwin.com) Darwin versus Mivart, plus Darwin-related links and book recommendations.

26TH JANUARY 2024

Dear Friend of Darwin,

I recently finished reading Charles Darwin’s correspondence for the year 1871. As I say in my review, it was a busy year for Darwin: in addition to publishing The Descent of Man, he continued working on his next book, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, and revised The Origin of Species for its sixth and final edition.

Darwin seems to have decided to revise Origin at short notice, primarily to address recent criticism by zoologist St George Jackson Mivart. Darwin had been on amicable terms with Mivart, but their relationship began to sour with the publication a short time before The Descent of Man of Mivart’s book On the Genesis  of Species, which threw doubt on the ability of natural selection to explain certain animal features. This book was followed by an anonymous Quarterly Review article by Mivart expressing similar views. Anonymous reviews were standard practice at the time, but Darwin was in no doubt as to the identity of its author.

St. George Jackson Mivart
St. George Jackson Mivart (1827–1900).
Photograph by Barraud & Jerrard.
Public Domain Mark. Source: Wellcome Collection.

Darwin saw Mivart’s criticism as particularly damaging because Mivart was an acknowledged expert on primates who fully accepted the fact of evolution, but who was now claiming natural selection could not adequately explain how it came about. Darwin was annoyed at having been accused of dogmatism by Mivart, and by Mivart’s having selectively quoted and misquoted him. He saw nothing original in Mivart’s objections to natural selection, having already raised and, he believed, adequately dealt with most of them in Origin and elsewhere, but he was concerned to see them gaining traction. Darwin correctly assumed Mivart’s misgivings were to some extent religiously motivated. Mivart, a devout convert to Roman Catholicism, confirmed he was particularly concerned about the ‘unnecessary irreligious deductions’ that might be made from Darwin’s theory.

To address Mivart’s damaging attacks on natural selection, Darwin arranged for the re-publication in the UK of an American review highly critical of Mivart’s book. He then decided to address Mivart and other critics in a new edition of Origin, which he immediately began working on. In parallel, Darwin’s great supporter, and Mivart’s former tutor, Thomas Henry Huxley published an essay criticising both Mivart’s book and his anonymous Quarterly Review article. Thanks to Darwin, Huxley also knew full well who had written the review, mischievously outing Mivart without actually naming him:

[T]here are some curious similarities between Mr. Mivart and the Quarterly Reviewer, and these are sometimes so close, that, if Mr. Mivart thought it worth while, I think he might make out a good case of plagiarism against the Reviewer, who studiously abstains from quoting him.

Ironically, in addressing Mivart’s criticisms in the final edition of Origin, Darwin placed more emphasis on a ‘Lamarckian’ element of his thinking that we now know to be bogus: the Principle of Use and Disuse, which claimed that repeated use or disuse of an organ or behaviour could affect whether or not it was inherited by future generations.

Early the following year, Darwin wrote in response to Mivart asking him to discontinue their correspondence, and comparing Mivart’s actions to those of another former friend:

If I had not been personally known to you, I shd. not have been vexed at the spirit which seems to me & to some others to pervade all your articles in relation to me, notwithstanding general expressions to the contrary. [… Y]our several articles have mortified me more than those of any other man, excepting Prof. Owen; & for the same reasons, as I was silly enough to think he felt friendly towards me.

Natural selection

A book you might enjoy:

‘Darwin Comes to Town‘ by Menno Schilthuizen

Darwin Comes to Town by Menno Schilthuizen
A fascinating exploration of how species are having to adapt to modern, human-centric environments.

More book reviews »

Missing links

Some Darwin-related articles you might find of interest:

  1. Darwin in Patagonia: tracing the naturalist’s route around the foot of South America
    A fascinating article revisiting locations visited by Darwin during the Beagle voyage.
  2. Down House - A Tour of Charles Darwin’s Gardens
    A video tour of the gardens of Down House, former home of Darwin and his family.
  3. Charles Lyell’s archaeological specimens at the University of Edinburgh
    Darwin’s friend and inspiration Charles Lyell is most famous for the huge contribution he made to geology. But he was also interested in archaeology.
  4. Study of Darwin’s finches sheds light on how one species become many
    Biologists have analysed nearly two decades of field data on finches in the Galápagos Islands to identify the relationship between beak traits and the longevity of individual finches from four different species.
    Original paper: The fitness landscape of a community of Darwin’s finches
  5. Meadow brown butterflies ‘adapt’ to global heating by developing fewer spots
    A study has found female chrysalises that develop at higher temperatures have fewer eyespots, making them harder to see in dry grass.
    Original paper: Eyespot variation and field temperature in the Meadow Brown butterfly
  6. Flowers ‘giving up’ on scarce insects and evolving to self-pollinate, say scientists
    French wild pansies are producing smaller flowers and less nectar than 20 to 30 years ago.
    Original paper: Ongoing convergent evolution of a selfing syndrome threatens plant–pollinator interactions
  7. Theoretical research offers explanation as to why some animals shrink over time
    The mystery behind why Alaskan horses, cryptodiran turtles and island lizards shrank over time may have been solved in a new study.
    Original paper: Ecological determinants of Cope’s rule and its inverse
  8. French cheese under threat
    Cheeses host a multitude of microorganisms that turn milk into curds. Selected by humans, these ferments are not exempt from food industry regulations—to the point that blue cheeses and Camembert could disappear.
  9. Scientists crack mystery of how MS gene spread
    The DNA of ancient cattle herders has revealed how diseases evolved in Europe over thousands of years.
    Original paper: The selection landscape and genetic legacy of ancient Eurasians
  10. Top 10 discoveries about ancient people from DNA in 2023
    Paleoanthropologist John Hawks on important genetic studies made last year.
  11. New evidence that insect wings may have evolved from gills
    How did insect wings originate? This is a question that represents an unsolved mystery of insect evolution. Despite many years of research, it is still not entirely clear from which body structure insect …
    Original paper: Thoracic and abdominal outgrowths in early pterygotes: a clue to the common ancestor of winged insects?
  12. Thick ones, pointy ones—how albatross beaks evolved to match their prey
    New research shows how albatross species evolved different beak shapes to make the most of the ocean’s food resources.
    Original paper: Intrinsic and extrinsic drivers of shape variation in the albatross compound bill
  13. Can seabirds hear their way across the ocean? Our research suggests so
    New research suggests certain seabirds might use infrasound to find places to forage for food.
    Original paper: Albatrosses orient toward infrasound while foraging

Journal of researches

Some time ago, I wrote about the unavoidably provisional nature of factual writing: how new facts keep emerging, so you can never hope to write the definitive piece on any subject. I see this as a good thing.

This very newsletter provides one of many examples I could cite of this phenomenon. I’ve already written a chapter for my Darwin book about Mivart and Darwin, specifically about Mivart’s claim that the highly distorted faces of flat-fish could never have evolved through small, incremental steps. But, in reading Darwin’s 1871 correspondence, I unearthed plenty more information about their areas of disagreement. As always, I’ve left myself a note to consider incorporating some of this new information into the second draft of the chapter, but I suspect I won’t make any major changes. As I say, you can’t be definitive on any topic; some things have to be left out. Which, I suppose, is one reason I wrote more about Darwin and Mivart in this newsletter. It seemed a shame to let it go to waste!

Expression of emotions

Thanks as always for making time to read this newsletter. Appropriately, I’m sure it will continue to evolve, so please feel free to send any feedback. And, as always, please share it with anyone you think might be interested, encouraging them to subscribe.

See you next time!

Richard Carter, FCD
friendsofdarwin.com
richardcarter.com

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Book review: ‘The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 19 • 1871’ http://friendsofdarwin.com/reviews/book-review-the-correspondence-of-charles-darwin-volume-19-1871/ http://friendsofdarwin.com/reviews/book-review-the-correspondence-of-charles-darwin-volume-19-1871/ Thu, 25 Jan 2024 14:32:04 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD (friendsofdarwin.com) A busy year for Darwin: ‘The Descent of Man’ published, with another book on the way, and the final edition of ‘The Origin of Species’.
The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 19 • 1871

The nineteenth volume of Charles Darwin’s correspondence comprises all the surviving letters both from and to Darwin from the year 1871.

It was a busy year for Darwin. In addition to the publication of The Descent of Man, which brought plenty of correspondence in its aftermath, the year also saw him working on his next book, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, and revising The Origin of Species for its sixth and final edition. (In this edition, Darwin dropped the word ‘On’ from the title.)

Darwin’s decision to revise Origin seems to have been made at short notice, being largely driven by his wish to address recent criticism by zoologist St George Jackson Mivart, which I describe in more detail in edition 18 of the Friends of Charles Darwin newsletter. Below are listed some highlights regarding Darwin’s disagreement with Mivart, followed by some more general highlights from his correspondence for 1871.

Highlights from Mivart-related correspondence

  • Darwin telling his best friend, Joseph Dalton Hooker, he thinks Mivart’s book against him is very good, but unfortunately theological.
  • Darwin congratulating Mivart for summarising the many objections to natural selection very well, but informing him he has answers to most.
  • Darwin asking Mivart to remove accusations of dogmatism on Darwin’s part from any future edition of his book, and Mivart undertaking to do so, or to explain his reasoning.
  • Mivart admitting his religious misgivings regarding natural selection, saying, ‘Unhappily the acceptance of your views means with many the abandonment of belief in God. […] I am persuaded you only seek the promotion of truth though I regret you do not more protect against these unnecessary irreligious deductions.’
  • Mivart saying he fully accepts evolution, but cannot accept Darwin’s ‘exaggerated view of the action of “Natural Selection”’.
  • Darwin expressing his frustration about Mivart’s book to Alexander Agassiz: “There is not one new point in it though many are admirably illustrated. Mivart never racks his brains to see, what can be fairly said on the opposite side, and he argues as if I had said nothing about the effects of use or the direct action of external conditions; though in another part of the book on those points almost every illustration is taken from my writings & observations.”
  • Darwin explaining to his friend Alfred Russel Wallace: “You will think me a bigot, when I say after studying Mivart, I was never before in my life so convinced of general (i.e. not in detail) truth of views in the Origin.”
  • Darwin approaching his publisher regarding re-printing a recent American paper critical of Mivart’s book.
  • Thomas Henry Huxley informing Darwin he has written article highly critical of Mivart, being clearly amused to find himself having to defend Catholic orthodoxy against Mivart, but going on to say, “I am sorry to be obliged to pitch into Mivart, who has done good work & is by no means a bad fellow.”

Highlights from other correspondence

  • Darwin unsuccessfully petitioning his neighbour and friend John Lubbock, M.P. for a telegraph to be installed in their village.
  • Darwin being anxious to finish writing The Descent of Man, writing: “Good God how glad I shall be when I can drive the whole of the confounded book out of my head—”.
  • Alfred Russel Wallace, who had come to differ with Darwin on a couple of important issues, expressing relief at Darwin’s ‘tenderness’ in The Descent of Man towards Wallace’s ‘heresies’.
  • Darwin famously imagining the origin of life ‘in some warm little pond’.
  • The director of a Yorkshire lunatic asylum sending his observations of crying and laughter in his patients, and later on blushing.
  • Darwin receiving a poem written in the style of Robert Burns.
  • Physicist John Tyndall comparing humans’ hairy nostrils with firemen’s respirators.
  • Darwin receiving a highly eccentric letter from ‘A child of God’.
  • Darwin receiving another letter from a religiously motivated correspondent comparing his appearance to that of an ape. (Darwin was suitably amused.)
  • The Russian translator of The Descent of Man, having to go to court to try to overturn a publishing ban by the Russian government.
  • Darwin being very pleased with Wallace’s review of The Descent of Man, and responding to Wallace’s thoughts on protective coloration.
  • Darwin planning a gift of around £25–£50 to his daughter Henrietta as thanks for her work on The Descent of Man.
  • Darwin’s views on vivisection.
  • Darwin sending condolences to Robert Chambers’ recently bereaved daughter, saying he had under appreciated Chambers’ anonymously published work, Vestiges of Creation.
  • Darwin defending his provisional (and incorrect) hypothesis of Pangenesis in the journal Nature in response to a recent paper by his half-cousin Francis Galton.
  • Darwin providing advice to the members of a new American club on how to go about studying biology: the importance of speculation, observation, and being prepared to drop pet theories once they have been shown to be false.
  • Darwin claiming so many people have now changed their minds to his way of thinking since the publication of On the Origin of Species, he believes they are likely to do the same in ten years regarding The Descent of Man.
  • Darwin’s affectionate letter to his daughter Henrietta Litchfield after her marriage, and her equally affectionate reply.
  • Darwin on avoiding writing on religious matters: “Many years ago I was strongly advised by a friend never to introduce anything about religion—in my works, if I wished to advance science in England; & this led me not to consider the mutual bearings of the two subjects. Had I foreseen, how much more liberal the world would become, I shd. perhaps have acted differently.”
  • Darwin speculating to his son Horace on what makes someone a discoverer of new things: “As far as I can conjecture, the art consists in habitually searching for the causes or meaning of everything which occurs. This implies sharp observation & requires as much knowledge as possible of the subjects investigated.”
  • A field report from Darwin’s son George, who has been measuring ancient ridges and furrow with his brother Horace to assist with Darwin’s earthworm studies.

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

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
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Newsletter No. 17: ‘The man behind the mythology’ http://friendsofdarwin.com/newsletter/the-man-behind-the-mythology/ http://friendsofdarwin.com/newsletter/the-man-behind-the-mythology/ Fri, 22 Dec 2023 16:05:00 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD (friendsofdarwin.com) Coming out of hiatus • Darwin’s correspondence • Darwin and Wallace’s friendship • Darwin-related articles


22 DECEMBER, 2023

Dear Friend of Darwin,

The winter solstice in the northern hemisphere might seem an odd day on which to bring this newsletter out of extended hibernation, but the end of one year and the start of the next is traditionally a time associated with fresh starts—so let’s go for it! (Apologies for the extended radio-silence, which was largely due to circumstances beyond my control.)

2023 saw a major landmark in Darwin studies: the official completion of the Darwin Correspondence Project. This was a 49-year initiative to collate, transcribe, research, annotate, and publish all of the over 15,000 surviving letters both from and to Charles Darwin. All of the correspondence is now available free online, although, being a total Darwin nerd, I have, over many years, gradually acquired a full set of the 30 printed volumes of this magnificent monument to Darwin’s life and work.

The Correspondence of Charles Darwin (30 vols)

Having previously only read the first eight volumes of Darwin’s correspondence, this year I decided it was about time I started to work my way through the rest. So I set myself the challenge of reading at least ten pages of the correspondence every day that I was at home. I soon started thinking of this as my Daily Darwin routine. I’m astonished to say, I’ve stuck with it, not having missed a single day, and am currently nearing the end of volume 19. It has been an absolute delight.

Reading Darwin’s letters is by far the best way of getting to know the man behind the mythology. You read stuff that would never make it into biographies, and form your own opinions of his character based on what he himself wrote in private to friends, family and colleagues. You become familiar with Darwin’s gentle, self-deprecating humour, his modesty, and his ability to turn on the charm when making huge impositions on people for information—but only, of course, if it would be ‘without much trouble’. As you continue to read, obscure recurring themes begin to emerge; you pick up some nice quotes, and strange snippets of Darwinian trivia; and, increasingly, you just can’t help liking the chap.

You can expect plenty of select morsels from Darwin’s correspondence in future newsletters. In the meantime, here are a couple of articles I wrote this year informed by some of his letters:

Natural selection

Also published to mark Alfred Russel Wallace’s bicentenary…

‘Radical By Nature’ by James T. Costa

Radical By Nature by James T. Costa
Recommended to anyone wanting to know more about a justifiably celebrated, fascinating figure from the history of science.

Missing links

Some Darwin-related articles that pinged on my radar…

  1. Natural history: Thoreau’s debt to Darwin
    How American naturalist and essayist David Thoreau reined in his romantic transcendentalism and became more scientific after reading On the Origin of Species.
  2. The drafts of Origin of species
    Darwin Online has managed to track down some rare manuscript pages of the first edition of On the Origin of Species. Here, they present scans and transcriptions of every available surviving page.
  3. Reindeers’ blue eyes act as night vision goggles to help them find food in winter
    A new study suggests reindeer’s eyes change colour as colder months approach to enhance ultraviolet vision, helping them spot lichen vital for their survival. (If you can stomach the titular pun, see also the cited paper: Reindeer and the quest for Scottish enlichenment.)
  4. On a related topic… Humans may have influenced evolution of dogs’ eye colour, researchers say
    The suggestion is humans distrust dogs with blue eyes, so have selected against them. A new paper’s leads author says, “I speculate that lighter irises have some evolutionary advantage for wolves, but domestication has lost this selective pressure and darker eyes have emerged in some primitive dogs.” Might I perhaps suggest blue eyes might be advantageous to wolves in the same way it’s claimed they are for reindeer (see above): to help them see better in winter? (Cited paper: Are dark-eyed dogs favoured by humans? Domestication as a potential driver of iris colour difference between dogs and wolves.)
  5. Genetic analysis shows head lice evolution mirrors human migration and colonization in the Americas
    The parallel evolutionary histories of parasites and their hosts can be reflected in their genes. A new analysis of human lice genetic diversity suggests they came to the Americas twice—once during the first wave of human migration across the Bering Strait, and again during European colonisation. (Cited paper: Nuclear genetic diversity of head lice sheds light on human dispersal around the world.)
  6. How animal traits have shaped the journey of species across the globe
    Species dispersal was a subject of immense interest to Darwin. New research looks into how different species have managed to cross geographic barriers throughout history, and whether their individual traits played a crucial role in these journeys.
  7. How snails cross vast oceans
    More on species dispersal, exploring how land snails dispersed over salty oceans.
  8. How butterflies conquered the world: a new ‘family tree’ traces their 100-million-year journey across the globe
    The most detailed evolutionary tree of butterfly species ever created reveals their geographical origins.
  9. How the tongue shaped life on Earth
    Specialised organs for catching, ingesting, and swallowing different types of food, tongues had a dramatic impact on animal evolution.
  10. All the hominins made tools
    A study of associations between stone tool evidence and fossil hominin remains shows that a wide range of species made stone artefacts.
  11. 4.5 billion years in 1 hour (YouTube video)
    A mesmerising, hour-long animation taking us through Earth’s 4.5-billion-year history, each second representing 1.5-million years. Watch and chill-out.

Journal of researches

Due to previously mentioned circumstances beyond my control, progress on my book Through Darwin’s Eyes was extremely sporadic this year. But things have picked up, and I’m currently half-way through a chapter inspired by one or two visits over the last few years to a gannet colony on the East Yorkshire coast. I’m looking forward to getting fully back into the flow in 2024!

Expression of Emotions

Thanks as always for subscribing, and taking time to read this newsletter. Apologies once again for the extended hiatus: I think I can guarantee it won’t be anywhere near as long until the next newsletter

Have a great year-end, and I’ll be in touch again in 2024.

Richard Carter, FCD
friendsofdarwin.com
richardcarter.com
Where to follow me

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Book review: ‘The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 18 • 1870’ http://friendsofdarwin.com/reviews/book-review-the-correspondence-of-charles-darwin-volume-18-1870/ http://friendsofdarwin.com/reviews/book-review-the-correspondence-of-charles-darwin-volume-18-1870/ Sun, 17 Dec 2023 13:06:24 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD (friendsofdarwin.com) Putting the finishing touches to ‘The Descent of Man’.
The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 18 • 1870

The eighteenth volume of Charles Darwin’s correspondence comprises all the surviving letters both from and to Darwin from the year 1870.

Darwin spent most of this year continuing work on his next book, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. During this period, he finally accepted that this would be a large (two-volume) book, and that his research into human emotions would need to wait for a separate book in its own right.

Highlights from Darwin’s correspondence for 1870 include:

  • Darwin arranging to send duplicate and unwanted books to the Linnean Society.
  • Darwin expressing delight at the woodcuts for ‘The Descent of Man’, and later admitting he has been gloating over them.
  • Darwin groaning at his friend Alfred Russel Wallace (who had come to differ significantly from Darwin on human evolution) for writing ‘like a metamorphosed (in retrograde direction) naturalist’, despite Wallace having been ‘the author of the best paper that ever appeared in Anth[ropological] Review!’
  • Wallace, shortly before publication of ‘The Descent of Man’, subsequently joking, “I look forward with fear & trembling to being crushed under a mountain of facts!”
  • Darwin writing to his daughter Henrietta regarding her role proof-reading ‘The Descent of Man’: “I fear parts are too like a Sermon: who wd ever have thought that I shd. turn parson?” (Henrietta’s response is similarly light-hearted.)
  • An American correspondent sending Darwin an account of Canadian pond-weed invading Britain.
  • Darwin summing up his scientific education.
  • A correspondent predicting the migration of species between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea through the newly opened Suez Canal. (He originally intended this as a joke, but his prediction was taken sufficiently seriously to initiate a scientific expedition, and turned out to be correct. It is now known as the Lessepsian migration.)
  • Darwin congratulating his friend, near-neighbour and scientific protégé John Lubbock on being elected a Member of Parliament.
  • Darwin being pestered to provide content for new journal, ‘Academy’.
  • Darwin’s best friend, Joseph Dalton Hooker, advising him not to get wound up by William Thomson and other physicists’ claims that the earth was not sufficiently old for the current diversity of life to have evolved.
  • The sculptor Thomas Woolner sending Darwin a drawing of the small atavistic bump on the rim of the human ear, dubbed by Darwin the Woolnerian tip, but now known as Darwin’s tubercle.
  • Darwin receiving detailed observations of human emotions from the West Riding Lunatic Asylum.
  • A series of letters ( 1, 2, 3, 4, 5) from Darwin’s second cousin Francis Galton describing blood-transfusion experiments performed on rabbits to test Darwin’s hypothesis of pangenesis.
  • Darwin humorously comparing himself unfavourably with Immanuel Kant: “the one man a great philosopher looking exclusively into his own mind, the other a degraded wretch looking from the outside thro’ apes & savages at the moral sense of mankind.”
  • Darwin writing to Wallace about their friendship: “Your modesty and candour are very far from new to me. I hope it is a satisfaction to you to reflect,—& very few things in my life have been more satisfactory to me—that we have never felt any jealousy towards each other, though in one sense rivals. I believe that I can say this of myself with truth, & I am absolutely sure that it is true of you.”
  • St George Jackson Mivart, a religious scientist, expressing his esteem for Darwin while making clear his irritation at how natural selection is being applied, and comparing Thomas Henry Huxley’s ‘Man’s Place in Nature’ to ‘obscenities’.
  • A medical officer at Sussex Lunatic Asylum partially blaming one unfortunate patient’s condition on masturbation.
  • Darwin declining to review an essay collection, saying, “it is an immense relief to me to be able to say that I never write reviews”.
  • Darwin reporting having met his old geology tutor Adam Sedgwick at Cambridge, and having been tired out by him: “Is it not humiliating to be thus killed by a man of 86, who evidently never dreamed that he was killing me.”
  • Darwin admitting that his latest book, ‘The Descent of Man’, is “as usual running to much greater length than I expected”.
  • Darwin requesting observations on vomiting.
  • Darwin describing his views on predestination and design to Hooker: “Your conclusion that all speculation about preordination is idle waste of time is the only wise one: but how difficult it is not to speculate. My theology is a simple muddle: I cannot look at the Universe as the result of blind chance, yet I can see no evidence of beneficent design, or indeed of design of any kind in the details.— As for each variation that has ever occurred having been preordained for a special end, I can no believe in it, than that the spot on which each drop of rain falls has been specially ordained.—“.
  • Darwin unsuccessfully attempting to have a question about cousin marriages included in the national census. (More here.)
  • Darwin making a clear distinction between the fact of evolution and the theory of natural selection that attempts to explain it: “I see in the last number of the Révue that M. Edwards is inclined to believe that existing species are the modified descendants of extinct species. Such an admission seems to me very much more important than whether natural selection has been a more or less efficient means of change; though for my own part I shd never have been able to admit the evolution of species, unless I cd have partly explained to myself how the innumerable & beautiful adaptations, which we see all around us, had originated.”
  • Darwin, on holiday in Torquay, joking, “I admire the beautiful scenery more than could be reasonably expected of an acknowledged descendent of an Ape.”

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

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
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Book review: ‘The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 17 • 1869’ http://friendsofdarwin.com/reviews/book-review-the-correspondence-of-charles-darwin-volume-17-1869/ http://friendsofdarwin.com/reviews/book-review-the-correspondence-of-charles-darwin-volume-17-1869/ Tue, 07 Nov 2023 16:43:09 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD (friendsofdarwin.com) Researching human evolution, human and animal emotions, and sexual selection.
The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 17 • 1869

The seventeenth volume of Charles Darwin’s correspondence comprises all the surviving letters both from and to Darwin from the year 1869. During this year, Darwin continued his research into human evolution, human and animal emotions, and sexual selection. This would eventually result in two major books: The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. During the year, Darwin also revised On the Origin of Species for its fifth edition.

The year 1869 saw a major about-face by Darwin’s friend Alfred Russel Wallace. Although Wallace had arrived at the idea of natural selection independently of Darwin, he began to entertain serious doubts that it could explain human intellect and morality without the involvement of some higher power. Darwin was deeply distressed by Wallace’s apostasy, although the two remained on friendly and respectful terms.

Highlights from Darwin’s correspondence for 1869 include:

  • A letter from a women’s suffrage campaigner about parrots.
  • Darwin being ‘disgusted’ at the number of changes required for the fifth edition of On the Origin of Species, bearing in mind the previous edition had been published only two years earlier. He later observed, if he lived another twenty years, he would no doubt have to modify Origin and his views a great deal, but “it is a beginning, & that is something”.
  • Wallace announcing he is dedicating what will become his most famous book, The Malay Archipelago, to Darwin. And Darwin saying this honour is something for his children’s children to be proud of. He later sent Wallace more feedback about the book.
  • Darwin wondering how news of new nectar spreads through bee-hives, but supposing it is not communicated by the bees. (How he would have loved to know about the waggle-dance!)
  • Darwin’s enthusiastic letter to James Croll regarding Croll’s hypothesis of asynchronous ice-periods in the northern and southern hemispheres.
  • George Henslow’s strange hypothesis that the colouration of offspring can be affected by what their mother saw while pregnant.
  • Wallace on the results of John Jenner Weir’s caterpillar experiments supporting Wallace’s hypothesis of protective colouration. (More here.)
  • Thomas Henry Huxley’s cartoon of himself as a riled dog.
  • Darwin summing up the main theoretical changes in the fifth edition of Origin.
  • Darwin answering a questionnaire, saying his education only really began aboard HMS Beagle.
  • Wallace warning Darwin about his forthcoming article expressing certain limitations on natural selection regarding human evolution, and Darwin’s joking response, “I hope you have not murdered too completely your own and my child”.
  • Darwin, having subsequently read Wallace’s article, declaring ‘[I] differ grevously from you’. He goes on to express his disappointment in more detail to their mutual friend and inspiration Charles Lyell.
  • Darwin’s thoughts on the term ‘struggle for existence’.
  • Darwin being full of praise for Wallace’s recent review of two new editions of works by Lyell, and reporting ‘a baddish fall’ from his horse.
  • One of a number of occasional letters to Darwin from religious nutters.
  • Darwin’s first correspondence from the head of a Yorkshire lunatic asylum regarding the expression of emotions by various patients. See also: here, here, and here.
  • Darwin asking his American friend Asa Gray to observe the colours of German men’s beards.
  • …and asking another correspondent to observe the expression of emotions in women who are in labour.
  • …and hearing from another correspondent who has provoked two Indian locals into a near-fight so he can observe their body-language for Darwin.
  • Darwin enquiring about efficacy of “Pulvermachers Volta-Electric Chain bands” in relieving dyspepsia and nervous weakness.
  • Darwin receiving a poem taking the piss out of teleology.
  • Darwin defending his provisional (and incorrect) hypothesis of pangenesis in the popular science press.
  • Darwin’s best friend, Joseph Dalton Hooker, being greatly disappointed by the new science journal ‘Nature’.
  • Hooker explaining his reluctance to accept a knighthood.
  • A correspondent suggesting a joint photograph be taken of Darwin and Wallace. Sadly, it was never to be. (Or maybe it was!)

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

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
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Book review: ‘The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 16, part 2 • 1868’ http://friendsofdarwin.com/reviews/book-review-the-correspondence-of-charles-darwin-volume-16-part-2-1868/ http://friendsofdarwin.com/reviews/book-review-the-correspondence-of-charles-darwin-volume-16-part-2-1868/ Wed, 27 Sep 2023 17:44:38 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD (friendsofdarwin.com) Researching human evolution and expressions, and revising ‘On the Origin of Species’.
The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 16, part II • July–December 1867

The sixteenth volume of Charles Darwin’s correspondence comprises all the surviving letters both from and to Darwin from the year 1868. Uniquely for this 30-volume collection, Darwin wrote and received so many letters in 1868 that they had to be split across two physical books (published as a pair). The following refers to part two of volume 16, covering the months July–December 1868.

In the second half of 1868, Darwin continued his research into human evolution, human emotions and sexual selection. Near the end of the year, he also began work on revising On the Origin of Species for its fifth edition. Highlights from this period include:

  • Darwin reporting that, although he has had the manuscript for the next volume of his planned ‘big book’ on species almost ready for several years, he has decided to amuse himself by writing a ‘short volume’ on Man;
  • Thomas Henry Huxley enquiring on behalf of Prof. Kühne about the ‘possibility of paying his devotions at the Shrine of Dr. Darwin’. (The letter is illustrated with a cartoon by Huxley.)
  • Louis Agassiz explaining to Darwin that his disagreement with Darwin is not personal;
  • Alfred Russel Wallace’s detailed objections to female choice in sexual selection (as opposed to protective colouration through camouflage) as an explanation of the different colours of certain male and female birds—and Darwin’s response;
  • Darwin’s later letter to Wallace on the same subject, saying: ‘I grieve to differ from you, & it actually terrifies me & makes me constantly distrust myself’—and Wallace’s reply;
  • Joseph Dalton Hooker reporting he has been selling photographs, chiefly of Darwin, at the British Association for the Advancement of Science on behalf of photographer Julia Margaret Cameron;
  • Darwin opining, ‘I am not sure whether it wd not be wisest for scientific men quite to ignore the whole subject of religion’;
  • An affectionate letter from the ageing anti-evolutionist Adam Sedgwick, who had taken the young Darwin on a geological tour of North Wales, and Darwin’s reply;
  • Darwin declaring, ‘I believe that almost every book wd be improved by condensation’;
  • Darwin claiming to be trembling at Ernst Haeckel’s boldness at proposing a detailed evolutionary tree, but agreeing with Thomas Henry Huxley that ‘some one must be bold enough to make a beginning in drawing up tables of descent’;
  • Darwin complaining he is ‘undergoing the purgatory of sitting for hours to Thomas Woolner’ for a bust sculpture;
  • Darwin humorously referring to claims by physicists that the world is not old enough for his theory of evolution to be correct: ‘The brevity of the world troubles me, on account of the pre-silurian creatures which must have lived in numbers during endless ages, else my views wd be wrong, which is impossible — Q.E.D.—’;
  • Darwin, while working on the latest edition, complaining he is sick of correcting ‘that everlasting Origin’;
  • Darwin reporting he has installed Joseph Dalton Hooker’s photograph over his chimney piece so he will never be bold enough to make theoretical wriggles under his gaze. (Making such wriggles was a running joke between the two friends.)
  • Darwin complaining about Richard Owen misquoting him, saying ‘he puts words from me in inverted commas & alters them’;
  • Darwin on the difficulty of reconciling evolution with the idea of an omnipotent, omniscient creator;
  • Ernst Haeckel jokingly comparing his newborn son to a ‘quadrumane’.

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

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
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Book review: ‘The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 16, part 1 • 1868’ http://friendsofdarwin.com/reviews/book-review-the-correspondence-of-charles-darwin-volume-16-part-1-1868/ http://friendsofdarwin.com/reviews/book-review-the-correspondence-of-charles-darwin-volume-16-part-1-1868/ Wed, 27 Sep 2023 17:23:59 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD (friendsofdarwin.com) Researching human evolution and expressions.
The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 16, part I • January–June 1867

The sixteenth volume of Charles Darwin’s correspondence comprises all the surviving letters both from and to Darwin from the year 1868. Uniquely for this 30-volume collection, Darwin wrote and received so many letters in 1868 that they had to be split across two physical books (published as a pair). The following refers to part one of volume 16, covering the months January–June 1868.

January 1868 finally saw the publication of Darwin’s two-part book The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication. Darwin then immediately began work of what he believed at the time would be a ‘short essay’ on human evolution. But, as so often happened with Darwin’s work, its scope rapidly expanded. His planned essay was to become two major works: his two-volume The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871), and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872).

Highlights of Darwin’s early 1868 correspondence include:

  • Darwin confidently predicting the idea of common descent will soon become universally accepted—while expressing bemusement at the French in particular for currently failing to accept it;
  • Darwin expressing delight at his son George’s recent success in mathematics at Cambridge;
  • Darwin receiving an indescribably bizarre letter seemingly associating evolutionary history with the (English) names of certain localities and countries—or, at least, that’s what I think it’s trying to do;
  • Darwin asking a favour ‘which will appear the oddest ever asked’ about observing elephants crying. (Answer: They don’t cry!)
  • Darwin wistfully remarking, ‘What a splendid pursuit Natural History would be if it was all observing & no writing.’
  • Darwin’s old Beagle shipmate Bartholomew Sulivan sending him a photograph of a group of four Fuegian boys, one of whom is the son of ‘Jemmy Button’ (one of the Fuegians who travelled aboard Beagle. See also Darwin’s reply;
  • Darwin recalling ‘an extraordinary account of male[ moth]s finding females at great distances’. See also subsequent received correspondence (1, 2) suggesting the males are attracted by scent;
  • Darwin expecting a ‘blowing up’ from his friend Thomas Henry Huxley regarding his (we now know, incorrect) unpublished hypothesis of pangenesis, and later being amused by Huxley’s joke ‘Genesis is difficult to believe, but Pangenesis is a deuced deal more difficult.’
  • Darwin observing (post publication) ‘It seems that the poor infant Pangenesis will expire, unblessed & uncussed by the world, but I have faith in a future & better world for the poor dear child!’
  • Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace politely disagreeing in a series of letters about the role of (female-choice) sexual selection versus camouflage in the different colourations of male and female birds;
  • Darwin expressing distrust in himself for disagreeing with Wallace’s view that birds’ nest-building is a learnt activity, rather than instinctive;
  • naturalist John Jenner Weir informing Darwin of experimental results supporting Wallace’s hypothesis that brightly coloured caterpillars are rejected as food by birds;
  • Darwin describing himself in a photograph as ‘a hideous affair—merely a modified, hardly an improved, Gorilla’;
  • Darwin sending his friend Joseph Dalton Hooker grass seeds recovered from locust dung for identification (and Hooker’s response);
  • avid reader Darwin complaining, ‘It drives me mad & I know it does you too, that one has no time for reading anything beyond what must be read: my room is encumbered with unread books.—‘;
  • Joseph Dalton Hooker being horrified at having somehow forgotten to mention the birth of his latest daughter;
  • Darwin informing the perpetual curate of the village of Downe about the dodgy dealings of the latest incumbent.

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

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
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Book Review: ‘One Midsummer’s Day’ by Mark Cocker http://friendsofdarwin.com/reviews/book-review-one-midsummers-day-by-mark-cocker/ http://friendsofdarwin.com/reviews/book-review-one-midsummers-day-by-mark-cocker/ Tue, 29 Aug 2023 13:43:31 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD (friendsofdarwin.com) Swifts and the story of life on earth.
‘One Midsummer’s Day’ by Mark Cocker

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

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

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

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

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

Couldn’t agree more!

Highly recommended.

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

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

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Book review: ‘The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 15 • 1867’ http://friendsofdarwin.com/reviews/book-review-the-correspondence-of-charles-darwin-volume-15-1867/ http://friendsofdarwin.com/reviews/book-review-the-correspondence-of-charles-darwin-volume-15-1867/ Wed, 19 Jul 2023 15:06:36 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD (friendsofdarwin.com) Correcting proofs and researching human evolution, sexual selection, and expressions.
The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 15 • 1867

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

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

Other highlights featuring in Darwin’s 1867 correspondence include:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other highlights featuring in Darwin’s 1866 correspondence include:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highlights from Darwin’s 1865 correspondence include:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other highlights featuring in Darwin’s 1864 correspondence include:

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

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

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

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

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

Other highlights featuring in Darwin’s 1863 correspondence include:

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

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

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

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

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

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Book review: ‘The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 10 • 1862’ http://friendsofdarwin.com/reviews/book-review-the-correspondence-of-charles-darwin-volume-10-1862/ http://friendsofdarwin.com/reviews/book-review-the-correspondence-of-charles-darwin-volume-10-1862/ Mon, 06 Mar 2023 11:07:16 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD (friendsofdarwin.com) Darwin grows in confidence.
The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 10 • 1862

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We now have members in 106 countries.

Kazakhstan
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The Darwin bicentennial oak, 14 years on http://friendsofdarwin.com/the-darwin-bicentennial-oak-14-years-on/ http://friendsofdarwin.com/the-darwin-bicentennial-oak-14-years-on/ Sun, 12 Feb 2023 13:30:20 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD (friendsofdarwin.com) Fourteen years ago today, I planted the Darwin Bicentennial Oak in my garden. Fourteen years ago today, I planted the Darwin Bicentennial Oak in my garden. I am pleased to report that it is still doing well.

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

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

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

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

Top-down planning/outlining

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

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

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

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

Initial rough draft

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fair copies

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

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

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

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

Revision of printers’ proofs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He would then return the completed book to the printer:

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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