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 Book review: ‘Islands of Abandonment’ by Cal Flyn http://friendsofdarwin.com/reviews/book-review-islands-of-abandonment-cal-flyn/ http://friendsofdarwin.com/reviews/book-review-islands-of-abandonment-cal-flyn/ Mon, 18 Apr 2022 13:49:47 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD (friendsofdarwin.com) Life in the post-human landscape.

Life in the post-human landscape.

‘Islands of Abandonment’ by Cal Flyn

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

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

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

A wonderful book.

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

The prehistory of Britain in seven burials.

‘Ancestors’ by Prof. Alice Roberts

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

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

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

Definitely my kind of book.

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

8TH APRIL 2022

Dear Friend of Darwin,

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

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

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

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


Missing Links

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

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

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


Natural Selections

Some book recommendations for you:

More book reviews »


Journal of Researches

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


Expression of Emotions

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

See you next time!

Richard Carter, FCD

friendsofdarwin.com
richardcarter.com

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Newsletter No. 12: ‘A comparatively free man’ http://friendsofdarwin.com/newsletter/a-comparatively-free-man/ http://friendsofdarwin.com/newsletter/a-comparatively-free-man/ Sat, 12 Feb 2022 09:29:01 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD (friendsofdarwin.com) A poorly Darwin writes to his cousin • links and book recommendations • the evolution of the eye
Darwin newsletter

12TH FEBRUARY 2022

Dear Friend of Darwin,

Today marks the 213th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin (and Abraham Lincoln). Happy Darwin Day!

On this day in 1859, his 50th birthday, a poorly Darwin wrote to his cousin William Darwin Fox from Moor Park in Surrey, where he was receiving what we would now consider ineffective/quack hydropathic treatment for his mysterious illness(es):

I have been extra bad of late, with the old severe vomiting rather often & much distressing swimming of the head; I have been here a week & shall stay another & it has already done me good. I am taking Pepsine, ie the chief element of the gastric juice, & I think it does me good & at first was charmed with it. My abstract is the cause, I believe of the main part of the ills to which my flesh is heir to; but I have only two more chapters & to correct all, & then I shall be a comparatively free man.

The ‘abstract’ Darwin blamed as the main cause of his ills was, of course, On the Origin of Species, which would finally be unleashed on the world nine months later. Writing as someone deeply ensconced in a book of his own at the moment (update below), I can certainly see the appeal of being a ‘comparatively free man’ once the project is finished. But I can’t imagine what it must be like to feel compelled to press on with a work you believe is making you physically ill.


Missing Links

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

  1. Edward O Wilson obituary
    A tribute to the great natural historian and ecologist, who provoked considerable controversy hypothesising on the biological basis of human social behaviour.
  2. Richard Leakey (1944–2022)
    Obituary of the world-renowned palaeontologist of human origins.
  3. Video: Darwin’s lost microscope: the auction of a history-making ‘box of brass’
    A mini-documentary about the first microscope used by Charles Darwin, which was sold at auction recently. (Sadly, I wasn’t the anonymous, extremely rich buyer.)
  4. Evolution: how Victorian sexism influenced Darwin’s theories
    Ignore the click-baitey headline. An interesting article on Darwin’s theory of sexual selection, and what we’ve learnt since his time.
  5. Charles Darwin’s mitochondrial disorder: possible neuroendocrine involvement
    The latest hypothesis in the perennial quest to explain Darwin’s mysterious illness(es).
  6. Evolution 101, with reference to coronavirus
    T. Ryan Gregory on how viruses don’t want anything; they just spread to new hosts or they don’t, and replicate effectively in hosts or they don’t.
  7. The impact of flowering plants on the evolution of life on Earth
    A new study has found that, from 100 to 50 million years ago, flowering plants dramatically boosted Earth’s biodiversity and rebuilt entire ecosystems.
  8. Loss of ancient grazers triggered a global rise in fires
    The extinction of iconic grassland grazers such as the woolly mammoth, giant bison, and ancient horses seems to have triggered a dramatic increase in fires in the world’s grasslands.
  9. Study offers new insights into the timeline of mammal evolution
    A new study has provided the most detailed timeline yet of mammalian evolution.
  10. World’s vast networks of underground fungi to be mapped for first time
    An ambitious new project aims to identify the world’s endangered hotspots of mycorrhizal fungi.
  11. Video: True Facts: Proboscis Monkey
    Some excellent science in amongst the humour!

Natural Selections

Some book recommendations for you:

’The Diversity of Life’ by Edward O. WilsonDarwin’s Most Wonderful PlantsThe Incredible Unlikeliness of Being

More book reviews »


Journal of Researches

Due to various commitments and interruptions—and not at all due to lethargy on my behalf, oh no!—progress on my Darwin book has slowed since Christmas. But it has finally begun to pick up again. I’m currently working on a chapter about the evolution of the eye.

Darwin wrote about this topic in On the Origin of Species, which is frequently quoted out of context by creationists to imply that Darwin thought the eye was far too complex to have evolved through natural selection. Darwin, of course, thought no such thing. Indeed, we now know complex eyes such as our own have evolved from very simple beginnings many, many times over in different evolutionary lineages.


Expression of Emotions

Thanks for taking time to read this newsletter. One of my aims for this year is to share more stuff through this and my other newsletter, and to spend less time feeding the social media beasts—especially Facebook. It might not make me feel physically sick, like Darwin felt working on Origin, but, with every new innovation or restriction Zuckerberg & Co. introduce, maintaining a Facebook page has certainly grown nauseating. I would far rather cut out the censoring middle-man and communicate with you lovely people directly.

Please feel free to forward this newsletter to any friends you think might like to subscribe.

See you next time!

Richard Carter, FCD

friendsofdarwin.com
richardcarter.com

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Book review: ‘The Diversity of Life’ by Edward O. Wilson http://friendsofdarwin.com/reviews/book-review-the-diversity-of-life-edward-o-wilson/ http://friendsofdarwin.com/reviews/book-review-the-diversity-of-life-edward-o-wilson/ Mon, 07 Feb 2022 15:41:42 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD (friendsofdarwin.com) On our most valuable but least appreciated resource.

On our most valuable but least appreciated resource.

‘The Diversity of Life’ by Edward O. Wilson

I was put off reading this book for at least a quarter of a century by first trying to read Edward O Wilson’s On Human Nature, which I soon abandoned. It wasn’t my cup of tea at all. I was only prompted to dig out my unopened copy of The Diversity of Life after Wilson’s death was announced in December 2021, when a naturalist friend assured me I would love it.

The Diversity of Life is an excellent book. The first half is packed full of fascinating science concerning evolution, speciation, extinction, biodiversity and the creation of ecosystems. Being reasonably well-read on these subjects, I was pleasantly surprised at how much new information I picked up, and at the many new perspectives I gained on familiar ideas. Wilson is excellent at describing the complex interactions that govern the natural world, making biology a far less clear-cut science than, say, physics. As he puts it:

Such is the dilemma of evolutionary biology. We have problems to solve, we have clear answers—too many clear answers. The difficult part is picking out the right answer. […] What we understand best about evolution is mostly genetic, and what we understand least is mostly ecological. I will go further and suggest that the major remaining questions of evolutionary biology are ecological rather than genetic in content.

The second half of The Diversity of Life is a call to arms to mitigate the damage our species is doing to the biodiversity of our planet. Wilson rightly objects to the earth being treated as a limitless resource to be exploited in the name of economics. But he appreciates such objections are unlikely to get him very far. Instead, he makes the pragmatic case that we need to recognise the economic wisdom of preserving natural resources:

Biodiversity is our most valuable but least appreciated resource. […] Proponents of the New Environmentalism act on this reality. They recognize that only new ways of drawing income from land already cleared, or from intact wildlands themselves, will save biodiversity from the mill of human poverty. The race is on to develop methods, to draw more income from the wildlands without killing them, and so to give the invisible hand of free-market economics a green thumb.

Thirty years after The Diversity of Life was first published, the cynic in me can’t help thinking we haven’t got very far recognising the economic importance of biodiversity. Short-termism always seems to trump more strategic thinking. But I think Wilson was right that the best hope for the future of our planet is, somehow, to give free-market economics a greener thumb. The question is how? But we need to find a way:

In amnesiac revery it is also easy to overlook the services that ecosystems provide humanity. They enrich the soil and create the very air we breathe. Without these amenities, the remaining tenure of the human race would be nasty and brief.

The Diversity of Life is an important book on a vitally important subject. I’m glad I finally got round to reading it. I just wish more economists and business-leaders would do the same.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
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Hello, French Polynesia! http://friendsofdarwin.com/hello-french-polynesia/ http://friendsofdarwin.com/hello-french-polynesia/ Thu, 25 Nov 2021 14:39:21 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD (friendsofdarwin.com) I am delighted to announce that the Friends of Charles Darwin have their first member from French Polynesia

I am delighted to announce that the Friends of Charles Darwin have their first member from French Polynesia: Teiva Plenet of Tahiti. Welcome!

Very appropriately, Teiva joins us on the 186th anniversary of the day on which the officers and crew of HMS Beagle welcomed on board Queen Pōmarre of Tahiti.

We now have members in 102 countries.

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Newsletter No. 11: ‘Give that man a medal!’ http://friendsofdarwin.com/newsletter/give-that-man-a-medal/ http://friendsofdarwin.com/newsletter/give-that-man-a-medal/ Fri, 05 Nov 2021 16:21:00 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD (friendsofdarwin.com) A contentious gong · loads of links · book recommendations · Alfred Russel Wallace’s missing ‘L‘
Darwin newsletter

5TH NOVEMBER 2021

Dear Friend of Darwin,

On this day in 1864, Charles Darwin received news from Edward Sabine, President of the Royal Society, that he had been awarded the society’s oldest and most prestigious award, the Copley Medal, ‘for the eminent services you have rendered in the three departments of geology zoology and botany’.

Sabine had successfully exerted his influence the previous year to see that the medal went to the geologist Adam Sedgwick instead of Darwin. Sabine had viewed with ‘extreme concern the efforts of a very strong party [within the society] to obtain the award of the Copley Medal to him [Darwin] expressly on the ground of his conclusions as to the “Origin of Species”’. Sabine did not want the Royal Society to be seen as endorsing Darwin’s, then, still scientifically controversial theory.

At his 1864 presidential address, Sabine claimed the society’s council had not taken On the Origin of Species into account when selecting Darwin for the award. At the end of the address, Darwin’s friend Thomas Henry Huxley challenged this claim by calling for the council’s minutes to be read out. The controversy dragged on for some time, but, officially, it seems Sabine was correct: Darwin received the Royal Society’s greatest accolade without his single greatest contribution to science being taken into account—although I’m sure some of the council members must also privately have borne Darwin’s evolutionary work in mind when casting their votes.


Missing Links

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

  1. A new fossil discovery may add hundreds of millions of years to the evolutionary history of animals
    A recently discovered sponge fossil may be the oldest known animal fossil, extending the evolutionary timeline by hundreds of millions of years.
  2. Charles Darwin’s dwarf kidney beans cleaned and catalogued
    The ‘weird and wonderful’ items collected by Charles Darwin are being made available online.
  3. DNA shows Japanese wolf closest relative of domestic dogs
    A team of researchers has found evidence that the Japanese wolf is the closest known relative of domestic dogs.
  4. Experts name new species of human ancestor
    An international team of researchers has announced the naming of a new species of human ancestor, Homo bodoensis.
  5. Flies like yellow, bees like blue: how flower colours cater to the taste of pollinating insects
    Plants use their flower colours for ‘brand recognition’ among insects—but also work together to attract more pollinators.
  6. Fossils and ancient DNA paint a vibrant picture of human origins
    Paleoanthropologists have sketched a rough timeline of how human evolution played out, centring the early action in Africa.
  7. Going up: birds and mammals evolve faster if their home is rising
    The rise and fall of Earth’s land surface over the last three million years shaped the evolution of birds and mammals, a new study has found, with new species evolving at higher rates where the land has risen most.
  8. Heels: a new account of the Double Helix
    Nathaniel Comfort reviews Howard Markel’s new book about Rosalind Franklin, The Secret of Life.
  9. Ivory poaching has led to evolution of tuskless elephants, study finds
    Researchers say findings in Mozambique demonstrate the impact of human interference on nature.
  10. An indigenous people in the Philippines have the most Denisovan DNA
    Genetic comparisons crown the Indigenous Ayta Magbukon people as having the most DNA, 5 percent, from the mysterious ancient hominids.
  11. How venomous snakes got their fangs
    How have snakes evolved venom fangs so many times in their evolutionary history? Research suggests it’s due to a structure called ‘plicidentine’ in their teeth that can evolve into venom grooves.
  12. Mammals’ noses come from reptiles’ jaws: evolutionary development of facial bones
    New examinations of skeletons and animal embryos have allowed researchers to discover how mammals developed protruding, flexible noses.
  13. The former slave-turned-Edinburgh taxidermist who trained Charles Darwin
    John Edmonstone came to Edinburgh from a timber plantation in Demerara in 1817 and became one of the city’s most celebrated taxidermists.

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


Natural Selections

Some book recommendations for you:

More book reviews »


Journal of Researches

At the latest count, the first draft of my Darwin book had reached 79,000 words, with several chapters still to go. But editing is like natural selection: many unfit words will no doubt be culled, once I finally get round to the second draft. With any luck, the analogy will not end there, and something more fit for purpose will slowly evolve.

I recently completed a chapter about Alfred Russel Wallace’s 1858 bombshell letter to Darwin, and Darwin’s subsequent rush to publish his theory of evolution by means of natural selection alongside Wallace’s version. One interesting snippet I uncovered during my research answered a minor question I’d never got round to investigating: why did Alfred Russel Wallace’s middle name have only one ‘L’? It turns out the name was misspelt on his birth certificate.


Expression of Emotions

With the social media in general, and Facebook in particular, making it harder and harder for people to see the stuff they’ve actually asked to see, thanks once again for cutting out the media-magnate middlemen by subscribing to this newsletter. As always, please feel free to forward it to any friends you think might like to subscribe.

See you next time!

Richard Carter, FCD
friendsofdarwin.com
richardcarter.com

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Book review: ‘The Enlightenment’ by Ritchie Robertson http://friendsofdarwin.com/reviews/book-review-enlightenment-ritchie-robertson/ http://friendsofdarwin.com/reviews/book-review-enlightenment-ritchie-robertson/ Tue, 31 Aug 2021 09:06:02 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD (friendsofdarwin.com) The pursuit of happiness, 1680–1790.

The pursuit of happiness, 1680–1790.

‘The Enlightenment’ by Ritchie Robertson

This is a monumental (984-page) book on a monumental subject: the primarily European intellectual movement running from roughly 1680 to 1790, which sought to increase human happiness through science and reasoning. In the preface, Robertson explains the Enlightenment also represented:

a sea change in sensibility, in which people became more attuned to other people’s feelings and more concerned for what we would call humane or humanitarian values. […T]he greatest motive for studying this subject is the awareness that the Enlightenment, though distant in time, remains vitally important. In an age that seems dominated by ‘fake news’, widespread credulity, xenophobia and unscrupulous demagogues, it matters more intensely than even to hold on to reliable knowledge, to be aware of our common humanity, and to pursue the possibility of human happiness.

He’ll get no argument from me, there.

The Enlightenment is a fascinating read. It overturned a number of assumptions I’d made about the period. I was surprised, for example, to discover just how many ‘enlighteners’, as Robertson calls them, seem not to have been atheists; how coffee-houses and salons played only a very minor role in the movement; and how little Enlightenment thinking influenced the American and French revolutions—although it did provide a significant input into the American Constitution.

A few of the many other major topics covered in this book include the Scientific Revolution, religious enlightenment, how enlightenment thinking affected the study of history and human society, and the growth of cosmopolitanism.

I can’t possibly do justice to this massive book in a short review, but, if, like me, you’ve often thought you ought to find out more about this fascinating period in our species’ intellectual development, this is the book for you.

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. 10: ‘Attending a very little to species’ http://friendsofdarwin.com/newsletter/attending-a-very-little-to-species/ http://friendsofdarwin.com/newsletter/attending-a-very-little-to-species/ Fri, 30 Jul 2021 14:07:46 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD (friendsofdarwin.com) In which Darwin gets to work on species, and I disappear down a research rabbit-hole. With loads of links to recent Darwin- and evolution-related stories.
Darwin newsletter

30TH JULY 2021

Dear Friend of Darwin,

On this day in 1837, nine months after returning to Britain at the end of the Beagle voyage, Charles Darwin wrote to his inspiration and new friend, the geologist Charles Lyell:

I believe there are 27 [species of] land birds from the Galapagos, all new except one, (a species of very wide range) yet all of an American form, some north, some south, Now as the Galapos is on the Equator is not this curious— […] I have been attending a very little to species of birds, & the passages of forms, do appear frightful—every thing is arbitrary; no two naturalists agree on any fundamental idea [of what defines a species] that I can see.
 

Contrary to popular myth, Darwin had not immediately realised the various finches he had collected on the Galápagos Islands comprised different members of a group of closely allied species—although he had been intrigued by the different mockingbird species found on the islands. It wasn’t until Darwin’s and his Beagle shipmates’ collections were later examined by the ornithologist John Gould that their true diversity was appreciated.

In the same month Darwin was writing to Lyell, he had just begun his first notebook on the ‘Transmutation of Species’. He wasn’t to publish his discoveries for another two decades.

Experts still disagree over what precisely defines a species. But one thing Darwin made clear is that there’s a non-arbitrary, natural way to group them: by genealogical descent. In other words, the best way to classify species is by how closely they’re related to each other.

As insights go, that’s pretty profound.


Missing Links

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

  1. Ban imposed on overseas sale of John Gould’s landmark ornithological studies
    The UK government has put a temporary export ban on a collection of ‘exquisite’ works by the celebrated 19th-century ornithologist John Gould, in an attempt to save them for the nation. (That would be the same John Gould who analysed the birds collected on the Beagle voyage—see above.)
  2. Scientists discover the first known algae species with three distinct sexes
    Researchers from a number of Japanese universities have discovered that a type of green algae has three distinct sexes. Other closely related algae have different sex systems, meaning the discovery might provide clues as to how these sexual changes evolve.
  3. Rise of marine predators reshaped ocean life as dramatically as sudden mass extinctions
    Evolutionary arms races between marine animals overhauled ocean ecosystems on scales similar to the mass extinctions triggered by global disasters, a new study shows.
  4. Massive human head in Chinese well forces scientists to rethink evolution
    The ‘Dragon Man’ skull has revealed a new branch of our family tree, which is more closely related to modern humans than to the Neanderthals.
  5. ‘Big-brained’ mammals may just have small bodies, study suggests
    Large-brained mammals are typically considered intelligent. But a new study suggests body size could have become smaller to adapt to environmental changes, making the brain appear proportionally larger. In other words, relatively large brain size might have nothing to do with being clever. And, on a related topic…
  6. Human body size shaped by climate, evolutionary study shows
    New research combining data from 300-million fossils and climate models has given clues as to the effect of temperature on body size.
  7. Origins of flowers traced back to fossilised plants from 126 million years ago - study finds
    Darwin described it as an ‘abominable mystery’ as to when flowers first appeared on Earth. Now their origins have been traced back to fossilised plants from 126 million years ago.
  8. One incredible ocean crossing may have made human evolution possible
    Humans evolved in Africa, along with chimpanzees, gorillas and monkeys. But primates themselves appear to have evolved elsewhere—most likely in Asia—before colonising Africa. At the time, around 50 million years ago, Africa was an island isolated from the rest of the world by ocean. So how did primates get there?
  9. Mammals in the time of dinosaurs held each other back
    A new study analysing the variability of mammal fossils suggests it was not dinosaurs, but other mammals, that were the main competitors of modern mammals before and after the mass extinction of dinosaurs.
  10. How did blue whales get so big? (video)
    Body size is one of the most important factors in determining how an organism functions and interacts with its environment. Scientists are studying the blue whale to understand how it evolved to such a large size, and what lessons it might hold for protecting the species in the future.
  11. Galápagos tortoise found alive is from a species thought extinct since 1906 (video)
    Tests carried out on a giant tortoise found in 2019 confirm it belongs to a species believed extinct.
  12. True Facts: Deception in the rainforest (video)
    Plenty of good science in this humorous Ze Frank video.

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


Natural Selections

Some book recommendations for you:

More book reviews »


Journal of Researches

Work on my Darwin book took a major unplanned detour in recent months. During my routine trawling of blog posts, podcasts, YouTube videos, and what-have-you, I came across several references to a wonderful system (and associated app) for making and organising research notes. It turned out to be just the sort of system I’d been looking for all these years.

So I disappeared down a major research rabbit-hole, rearranging and refactoring my existing notes for the book—including some for the chapters I’d already written. This might sound like an unnecessary distraction, but it turned out to be an extremely useful exercise: I now have a much better idea of how the book will hang together, and several new ideas for future chapters. Earlier this week, I began work on the latest chapter, which is about Darwin taking 20 years to publish his theory of evolution by means of natural selection. Next to that, a few months detour to rearrange research notes sound a lot more reasonable.


Expression of Emotions

Thanks for taking time to read this newsletter. With so many digital distractions about, your attention is much appreciated.

Please feel free to forward this newsletter to any friends you think might like to subscribe.

See you next time!

Richard Carter, FCD
friendsofdarwin.com
richardcarter.com

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Book review: ‘Darwin: a companion’ by Paul van Helvert & John van Wyhe http://friendsofdarwin.com/reviews/book-review-darwin-a-companion-van-helvert-van-wyhe/ http://friendsofdarwin.com/reviews/book-review-darwin-a-companion-van-helvert-van-wyhe/ Mon, 26 Jul 2021 20:46:58 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD (friendsofdarwin.com) A monumental reference work, and a must-have for all Darwin scholars.

A monumental reference work, and a must-have for all Darwin scholars.

‘Darwin: a companion’ by Paul van Helvert & John van Wyhe

This is not a book to be read from cover to cover. It’s very much a reference work, to be dipped into at random, or to be consulted when you can’t quite recall some obscure detail concerning Darwin. Within one day of my being sent this book, it had already given me several useful pointers in research for my own Darwin book.

The detail in Darwin: a Companion borders on the encyclopaedic. If you’re interested, for example, in how much the Darwin household spent on cheese, or candles, or dripping each year from 1867 to 1881, the handy table of household expenditure on p.227 is definitely for you. And if you need to consult a list of 284 places named after Mr Darwin, you might want to check out pp.96–99. On a personal note, I was frankly astonished to find the Darwin Bicentennial Oak I planted in my garden on Darwin’s 200th birthday receive an honourable mention in the list. Vans Helvert and Wyhe have certainly left no Darwinian stone unturned.

A monumental reference work, and a must-have for all Darwin scholars.

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

Disclosures:

  • I received a free review copy of this book.
  • I have met John van Wyhe, and transcribed one document for his website Darwin Online.

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Book review: ‘Etta Lemon’ by Tessa Boase http://friendsofdarwin.com/reviews/book-review-etta-lemon-tessa-boase/ http://friendsofdarwin.com/reviews/book-review-etta-lemon-tessa-boase/ Mon, 26 Jul 2021 10:17:40 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD (friendsofdarwin.com) I am currently reading this book. Review to follow. Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher.
The woman who saved the birds.

I am currently reading this book. Review to follow.

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 Screaming Sky’ by Charles Foster http://friendsofdarwin.com/reviews/book-review-the-screaming-sky-charles-foster/ http://friendsofdarwin.com/reviews/book-review-the-screaming-sky-charles-foster/ Mon, 26 Jul 2021 09:55:58 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD (friendsofdarwin.com) A celebration of swifts.

A celebration of swifts.

‘The Screaming Sky’ by Charles Foster

I very much enjoyed this celebration of swifts, which receive my nomination for the most unusual birds found in the UK.

I've previously described swifts as turtles of the air in that, like sea turtles, swifts only leave their preferred element to nest. Otherwise, they spend pretty much their entire lives on the wing—including their sleeping hours. As Charles Foster puts it, far better than I did, swifts ‘inhabit the air as fish inhabit the sea’. Astonishing creatures.

Foster is a huge fan of swifts. He structures this delightful book around swifts’ yearly migration cycle. They only spend a few summer months in UK skies. We forget most of the protein that makes them is derived from African insects.

There are many wonderful, precise observations in this book: ‘[Swifts] hunt, they don’t trawl,’ Foster says. He also writes about the sky having tides, and of how, in flight, ‘swifts always seem to be pulled; never drive themselves forward’. That’s exactly right—although I’d never thought of it in that way.

Foster’s writing is anthropomorphic at times, but, as a shameless practitioner of that generally frowned-upon technique, I’m all for its deployment in moderation. As Foster puts it, ‘anthropomorphism […] is a good first guess as to what an animal is feeling’. Yes—and it’s also affectionate fun.

Finally, I should mention the production quality of this book. The publishers, the wonderful Little Toller, have done the author proud: The Screaming Sky is beautifully bound and illustrated, on top-quality paper, with a fabulous cover by Jonathan Pomroy. The book is an absolute delight to handle. There’s really no excuse for all books not being of a similar quality.

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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Book review: ‘The Eternal Season’ by Stephen Rutt http://friendsofdarwin.com/reviews/book-review-the-eternal-season-stephen-rutt/ http://friendsofdarwin.com/reviews/book-review-the-eternal-season-stephen-rutt/ Wed, 30 Jun 2021 12:22:15 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD (friendsofdarwin.com) Ghosts of summers past, present and future.

Ghosts of summers past, present and future.

‘The Eternal Season’ by Stephen Rutt

Set during the (first) coronavirus pandemic summer of 2020—a time during which many British people sought solace in the natural world—The Eternal Season describes Stephen Rutt’s unplanned lockdown exile in southern England, and subsequent return to Scotland.

It’s a book about trying to enjoy, and find comfort from, the familiar seasonal minutiae of nature. But the more Rutt observes, the more he comes to appreciate our own species’ ongoing pernicious affects on the natural world.

Even though The Eternal Season celebrates joys of summer, it’s also a book with nagging concerns. Unwelcome changes are afoot. Baselines are shifting—sometimes so subtly we barely notice. But we should be noticing. Our new normals would once have been seen as alarmingly abnormal. As Rutt perceptively observes, ‘The worst catastrophes come in increments, not as a sudden apocalypse.’

As someone who himself tries to blend science- and nature-writing, I appreciate how difficult it is to get the mix just right. Rutt achieves this admirably. The Eternal Season is very much a traditional ‘nature’ book, but with just the right amount of science to make you stop and think. I picked up some useful new terms from this book. Terms I’ll now be incorporating into my own lexicon, such as phenological mismatch, photoperiod, and ecoliterate. But don’t let these unlovely terms put you off: they describe important concepts that gave this reader genuine pause for thought.

Highly recommended.

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: ‘Women on Nature’ by Katherine Norbury (ed.) http://friendsofdarwin.com/reviews/book-review-women-on-nature-katherine-norbury-ed/ http://friendsofdarwin.com/reviews/book-review-women-on-nature-katherine-norbury-ed/ Wed, 09 Jun 2021 07:25:54 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD (friendsofdarwin.com) 100+ voices on place, landscape and the natural world.

100+ voices on place, landscape and the natural world.

‘Women on Nature’ by Katherine Norbury (ed.)

Women on Nature is an enjoyable anthology of nature-related writing by women writers, past and present, based in Britain and Ireland. It provides an eclectic mix of factual writing, fiction and poetry.

I approach books like these very much as tasters: as a way to try out writers I haven't encountered before whom I might want to look into in future. In this respect, I picked up a few excellent pointers—although I was embarrassed to discover one of the ‘new’ authors I identified in this anthology was a woman whose non-eponymous Twitter feed and blog I already followed and enjoyed. Note to self: there are real names behind obscure handles.

If you’re into nature-related writing, you’ll almost certainly enjoy this anthology.

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

Disclosure: Women and Nature was a crowdfunded project from Unbound. I was one of the 842 sponsors.

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Book review: ‘The Circling Sky’ by Neil Ansell http://friendsofdarwin.com/reviews/book-review-circling-sky-neil-ansell/ http://friendsofdarwin.com/reviews/book-review-circling-sky-neil-ansell/ Sun, 11 Apr 2021 12:07:25 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD (friendsofdarwin.com) On nature and belonging in an ancient forest.

On nature and belonging in an ancient forest.

‘The Circling Sky’ by Neil Ansell

The Circling Sky describes a year’s worth of regular visits Neil Ansell made to the New Forest in Southern England beginning in early 2019. Ansell was born and raised near the forest, and wanted to re-explore an area that had meant a great deal to him as an enthusiastic young naturalist.

The book is primarily about the nature Ansell encounters during his visits to the forest, but he also finds time to reflect on his younger days, and to philosophise about our own species’ impact on the natural world.

Agreeably, Ansell tends to set out on his walks without any particular aim in mind. He doesn’t seem especially concerned to encounter the forest’s headline species. As he puts it, ‘My natural inclination has always been to just wander out alone, and see what I see, and miss what I miss.’ It seems to me the most enjoyable nature encounters are those in which you simply come across species getting on with the all-important business of getting on. There are many such encounters in this book, not just with birds and mammals, but also with trees, flowers and invertebrates—especially butterflies and dragonflies. Ansell is particularly good at describing the roles individual species play in the local ecosystems. ‘Everything affects everything else,’ he explains; ‘we are all on this journey together. Ecosystems evolve, just as surely as do species.’

And, just as surely as do species, ecosystems can diminish and ultimately die out. In recent times, this has been mostly due to our own species’ actions. While Ansell is quick to endorse the idea that we should all take steps to reduce our own impact on the natural world, he says he can’t help feeling ‘we have all been conned into believing that we share equal responsibility’. The fault is not with individuals, but with the system itself: a system ‘we have all been dropped into […] that was never of our own choosing’. It’s the system that needs addressing, not simply the actions of individuals caught up inside it.

I don’t want to give the impression that The Circling Sky is all doom and gloom. Far from it. The joy far outweighs the melancholy. But writing about our species’ impact on our planet has become almost a necessity in the early years of the twenty-first century. As Ansell puts it:

Nature writing may often be read for comfort and reassurance, but perhaps we need to allow a little room for anger too, for the ability to rage at everything that has been taken from us, and been taken by us.

Ansell gets the balance just right: plenty of comfort and reassurance, mixed with just a little bit of anger.

Highly recommended.

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

Disclosure: Neil Ansell provided some cover blurb for my book On the Moor. I have since met him, and consider him a personal friend. I received a free review copy of The Circling Sky from the publisher.

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Newsletter No. 9: ‘Time flies’ http://friendsofdarwin.com/newsletter/time-flies/ http://friendsofdarwin.com/newsletter/time-flies/ Fri, 12 Feb 2021 15:21:44 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD (friendsofdarwin.com) Stolen notebooks · DNA barcoding · butterflies · Mary Anning · flowers · cool videos · insects · snakes · mammalian evolution · book reviews
Darwin newsletter

12TH FEBRUARY 2021

Dear Friend of Darwin,

I hope you and your loved ones are keeping well in these difficult times.

Today marks Charles Darwin’s 212th birthday. Happy birthday, old chap!

Time flies. I find it hard to believe it’s 12 years since the Darwin bicentennial celebrations. Twelve years to the day since I stood in line at Hebden Bridge post office to buy the sheet of Darwin stamps that now graces my study wall. And 12 years to the day since I planted the tiny Darwin Bicentennial Oak sapling in the corner of our garden. That little tree is a lot taller now, although still a mere whippersnapper as far as oaks are concerned. It’s sad to reflect I’ll never see it reach its prime—if, indeed, it ever makes it that far. But it’s also comforting to realise that, long after we’re all gone, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful will continue to grow, reproduce, and evolve.


Missing Links

Some Darwin- and evolution-related stories that caught my eye recently. These go all the way to eleven…

  1. Charles Darwin’s notebooks reported stolen from Cambridge University
    Library staff believed manuscripts were ‘mis-shelved’ in 2000, but now think theft likely. 🤬
    See also: Charles Darwin: Notepads worth millions lost for 20 years
    …I well remember remarking to a friend, at the Darwin bicentennial exhibition at London’s Natural History Museum in 2009, how it was unfortunate there was only a facsimile of Darwin’s most famous notebook on display, even though most of his other notebooks were there. Now we know why.

  2. Counting the species: how DNA barcoding is rewriting the book of life
    We do not know how many species live on earth. Barcoding could change that—and open the way for incredible discoveries.
    See also: Hundreds of new genomes help fill the bird ‘tree of life’

  3. Butterfly dichromatism primarily evolved via Darwin’s, not Wallace’s, model
    Sexual dimorphism is typically thought to result from sexual selection for elaborated male traits, as proposed by Darwin. However, natural selection could reduce expression of elaborated traits in females, as proposed by Alfred Russel Wallace. A new study considers these different explanations in the case of certain butterflies.
    See also: Butterfly colour diversity due to female preferences

  4. Is this really Mary Anning at Lyme Regis? Or someone else somewhere else?
    Michael Roberts makes a pretty convincing case that a portrait of the famous fossil collector Mary Anning is not at all what it seems.

  5. Chinese flower has evolved to be less visible to pickers
    A flower used in traditional Chinese medicine seems to have turned grey to blend in with the surrounding rocks.

  6. Evidence backs Darwin’s theory about ‘runt’ flowers
    Until now, no one had properly tested Darwin’s hypothesis on the link between bilateral symmetry and self-fertilisation in permanently closed flowers.

  7. Lockdown Embryology and Lockdown Anatomy (videos)
    Anatomist, presenter, and author (see book recommendations below) Prof Alice Roberts has produced two excellent video series to entertain and educate us during lockdown.

  8. The wings of insects might have evolved from the legs of crustaceans
    The first wings on earth might have evolved from the scuttling legs of an ancient, flightless crustacean.
    See also: How the insect got its wings: scientists (at last!) tell the tale

  9. Spitting cobras may have evolved unique venom to defend from ancient humans
    …a projectile defence being beneficial against attackers who keep their distance.

  10. Lend an ear to a classic tale of mammalian evolution
    Fossil evidence enables a re-evaluation of how the middle ear evolved.
    See also: Fossilised glider takes the origin of mammals back to the Triassic (video)

  11. True Facts: The Incredible Tardigrade (video)
    The latest in Ze Frank’s silly, yet surprisingly educational videos. This one is on tardigrades, also known as ‘water bears’.

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


Natural Selections

Some book recommendations for you:

More book reviews »


Journal of Researches

Work on my ‘Darwin book’ continues its slow-but-steady progress. Having set myself the entirely arbitrary target of (at least) matching the word-count of my Moor book, my first draft could be said to be just over 90% of the way there—although experience has taught me you really shouldn’t measure progress on books in such a way.

Recently, I’ve been writing about oak trees and squirrels, and about how Darwin made species classification make sense. Monkeys are next on the agenda—although the way I tend to get sidetracked, I might well end up writing about something else entirely.


Expression of Emotions

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

I’m planning to review the format of these newsletters. If you have any comments or suggestions, please drop me a line.

See you next time!

Richard Carter, FCD
friendsofdarwin.com
richardcarter.com

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The Darwin bicentennial oak, 12 years on http://friendsofdarwin.com/the-darwin-bicentennial-oak-12-years-on/ http://friendsofdarwin.com/the-darwin-bicentennial-oak-12-years-on/ Fri, 12 Feb 2021 09:50:53 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD (friendsofdarwin.com) Twelve years ago today, I planted the Darwin Bicentennial Oak in my garden.
The Darwin Bicentennial Oak
12-Feb-2009

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

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Hello, South Korea! http://friendsofdarwin.com/hello-south-korea/ http://friendsofdarwin.com/hello-south-korea/ Thu, 03 Dec 2020 15:42:09 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD (friendsofdarwin.com) I am delighted to announce that the Friends of Charles Darwin have their first member from South Korea.
South Korea

I am delighted to announce that the Friends of Charles Darwin have their first member from South Korea: Dongwook Cha of Seoul. Welcome!

We now have members in 101 countries.

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Newsletter No. 8: ‘Reading for amusement’ http://friendsofdarwin.com/newsletter/reading-for-amusement/ http://friendsofdarwin.com/newsletter/reading-for-amusement/ Mon, 28 Sep 2020 16:08:54 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD (friendsofdarwin.com) Darwin reads Malthus · mass extinctions · earthworms · Gilbert White · Lonesome George · lichen · zebras · Neanderthals · life on Venus? · bats · book reviews · and more…
Darwin newsletter

28TH SEPTEMBER 2020

Dear Friend of Darwin,

On this day in 1838, in one of the great eureka moments that aren’t really supposed to happen in the history of science, Charles Darwin ‘happened to read for amusement [Rev. Thomas] Malthus on Population and […] it at once struck me [how] favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed’. The realisation filled a major gap in Darwin’s developing theory, giving him the idea for the evolutionary mechanism that he was to call Natural Selection.

To mark the anniversary of this moment of inspiration, I’ve just posted a new article: Darwin brainstorms Malthus.


Missing Links

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

  1. Newly discovered mass extinction event triggered the dawn of the dinosaurs
    New research suggests a series of volcanic eruptions 233 million years ago fundamentally changed life on Earth.

  2. Catastrophe drives evolution. But life resides in the pauses
    Evolution is extraordinarily creative in the wake of a cataclysm. How does life keep steadily ticking over in between?

  3. Darwin’s Earthworms (video)
    A fascinating presentation on how Charles Darwin investigated earthworm intelligence, earthworm senses, and their burial of objects.

  4. Gilbert White’s influence on Charles Darwin
    To mark the 300th anniversary of the birth of the great clergyman-naturalist, I recently wrote a brief account of Rev. Gilbert White’s influence on Charles Darwin. (See also the book reviews below.)

  5. Preserving Lonesome George (video)
    Taxidermy in action. In 2013, the American Museum of Natural History helped to oversee the preservation of the last Galápagos Pinta Island tortoise, known as Lonesome George.

  6. Study reveals how lichens stayed together, split up, swapped partners, and changed form over 250 million years
    A team of researchers has assembled the largest family tree of lichens to date, shedding light on the ebb and flow of symbioses over vast evolutionary timescales.

  7. Zebra stripes and their role in dazzling flies
    The search for the true reason for zebras’ stripes continues.

  8. Seven footprints may be the earliest evidence of humans on the Arabian Peninsula
    Experts say discovery of 120,000-year-old prints could shed new light on spread of Homo sapiens out of Africa

  9. How Neanderthals lost their Y chromosome
    A new study suggests Homo sapiens men out-competed their brawny brethren when they mated with Neanderthal women more than 100,000 years ago.

  10. Did we just detect life on Venus? (video)
    The recent detection of a possible biomarker in the atmosphere of Venus made headlines across the world. This video explores how Venus could plausibly host life, and whether the findings really mean we’ve finally found extraterrestrial life.

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


Natural Selections

Some book recommendations for you:

More book reviews »


Journal of Researches

Work on my Darwin book continues slowly but steadily. During my research, I recently found myself trying to convert the following sentence from a fascinating scientific paper into something vaguely resembling English:

Tetraploids can result from autopolyploidization of diploids, or crosses between hexaploids and diploids.

My recent research into bats also provided me with the perfect excuse to gatecrash episode 16 of Melissa Harrison’s delightful nature podcast, The Stubborn Light of Things to talk about echolocation and other adaptations. There’s an extended version of my audio piece at the end of this article about the fiasco I went through putting it together.


Expression of Emotions

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

See you next time!

Richard Carter, FCD
friendsofdarwin.com
richardcarter.com

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28-Sep-1838: Darwin brainstorms Malthus http://friendsofdarwin.com/articles/darwin-reads-malthus/ http://friendsofdarwin.com/articles/darwin-reads-malthus/ Mon, 28 Sep 2020 00:01:00 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD (friendsofdarwin.com) On 28 September 1838, Charles Darwin made some notes inspired by the writings of Rev. Thomas Malthus, and a famous simile was born. This article is a lightly edited extract from my book On the Moor: science, history and nature on a country walk.

In On the Origin of Species, Darwin uses a famous simile to illustrate his concept of a struggle for existence:

Nature may be compared to a yielding surface, with ten thousand sharp wedges packed close together and driven inwards by incessant blows, sometimes one wedge being struck, and then another with greater force.

For some reason, Darwin groupie that I unashamedly am, I’ve never been enamoured of his wedge simile. Maybe Darwin wasn’t either: he removed it from subsequent editions of his book.

It so happens, Darwin came up with his wedge simile during one of the great eureka moments in the history of science—although I should, perhaps, point out that modern historians of science tend to pooh-pooh the very idea of eureka moments. This particular eureka moment occurred on 28th September 1838, when, as Darwin explained in his autobiography over four decades later (getting the month wrong, and, it has been suggested, misremembering the sudden nature of the revelation):

In October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic enquiry, I happened to read for amusement ‘Malthus on Population,’ and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed.

Darwin’s idea of what constituted an amusing read might seem odd to modern readers, but fortune favours the prepared mind. Thanks to observations he had made during and after his five-year voyage around the world aboard HMS Beagle, Darwin was already convinced, as others had been before him, that species evolve. But he, like the rest of them, lacked a physical mechanism by which evolution might occur. Reading the Reverend Thomas Malthus’s essay on the dangers of human population growth, Darwin realised he now had such a mechanism: a struggle for existence, in which better-adapted individuals stand a better chance of surviving and reproducing. He dubbed this mechanism Natural Selection (in contrast to artificial selection: the selective breeding employed by humans to develop desirable traits in domesticated plants and animals). In the same notebook in which Darwin recorded Malthus’s key points, he also jotted down some initial thoughts of his own, and the wedge simile was born:

28th We ought to be far from wondering of changes in numbers of species, from small changes in nature of locality. Even the energetic language of Decandolle does not convey the warring of the species as inference from Malthus. — increase of brutes must be prevented solely by positive checks, excepting that famine may stop desire. — in nature production does not increase, whilst no check prevail, but the positive check of famine & consequently death. 

Population is increase at geometrical ratio in far shorter time than 25 years — yet until the one sentence of Malthus no one clearly perceived the great check amongst men. — there is spring, like food used for other purposes as wheat for making brandy. — Even a few years plenty, makes population in Men increase & an ordinary crop causes a dearth. take Europe on an average every species must have same number killed year with year by hawks, by cold &c. — even one species of hawk decreasing in number must affect instantaneously all the rest. — The final cause of all this wedging, must be to sort out proper structure, & adapt it to changes. — to do that for form, which Malthus shows is the final effect (by means however of volition) of this populousness on the energy of man. One may say there is a force like a hundred thousand wedges trying force every kind of adapted structure into the gaps in the oeconomy of nature, or rather forming gaps by thrusting out weaker ones. — 

Charles Darwin’s Notebook D [Transmutation of species (7-10.1838)]. CUL-DAR123.
Transcribed by Kees Rookmaaker. Darwin Online
Thomas Malthus
Thomas Malthus
(1766–1834)
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Gilbert White’s influence on Charles Darwin http://friendsofdarwin.com/articles/gilbert-whites-influence-on-charles-darwin/ http://friendsofdarwin.com/articles/gilbert-whites-influence-on-charles-darwin/ Sat, 18 Jul 2020 08:00:00 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD (friendsofdarwin.com) To mark the 300th anniversary of his birth, a brief account of Rev. Gilbert White’s influence on Charles Darwin. 18 July 2020

Today marks the 300th anniversary of the birth of the great Hampshire parson-naturalist Gilbert White, whose classic book The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne has been in continuous print since 1789.

Charles Darwin was something of a Gilbert White fanboy. In his autobiography, written towards the end of his life, he reminisced about his own childhood fascination with natural history:

From reading White’s ‘Selborne’, I took much pleasure in watching the habits of birds, and even made notes on the subject. In my simplicity I remember wondering why every gentleman did not become an ornithologist.

‘The Natural History of Selborne’ by Gilbert White
The title page of one of my copies of ‘The Natural History of Selborne’ by Gilbert White.

Had history taken a slightly different turn, and had the opportunity not arisen of a place aboard HMS Beagle, there’s a very good chance Darwin might himself have ended up a parson-naturalist. His father’s plans for him, once he had dropped out of medical training, was for a career as a country clergyman. It was to this end that Darwin studied at Cambridge.

In 1846, Darwin wrote to thank Leonard Jenyns for a promised copy of his new biography of Gilbert White. Jenyns was a parson-naturalist himself, and had turned down the offer of the place aboard HMS Beagle, suggesting Darwin as a suitable alternative. Of the White biography, Darwin observed:

I feel sure I shall like it, for all discussions & observations on what the world would call trifling points in Natural History, always, appear to me very interesting. In such foreign periodicals, as I have seen, there are no such papers, as White, or Waterton; or some few other naturalists in Loudon’s & Charlesworth’s Journal, would have written, & a great loss it has always appeared to me.

White and his classic work are mentioned several times in Darwin’s correspondence and notebooks, and in a number of his published works, including The Descent of Man, The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication, and The Formation of Vegetable Mould, Through the Action of Worms.

In his late 40s, while visiting a nearby ‘water-cure’ establishment for his various ailments, Darwin, in his son’s words, ‘made a pilgrimage to the shrine of Gilbert White at Selborne’.

Anyone whose classic book influenced my hero is also a hero in my book.

Happy 300th birthday, Rev. White!

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Newsletter No. 7: ‘Stirring up the mud’ http://friendsofdarwin.com/newsletter/stirring-up-the-mud/ http://friendsofdarwin.com/newsletter/stirring-up-the-mud/ Fri, 03 Jul 2020 14:58:15 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD (friendsofdarwin.com) 160 years after Darwin ‘stirred up the mud’, the ‘controversy’ over evolution by means of natural selection was settled long ago, as far as the scientific community is concerned.
Darwin newsletter

3RD JULY 2020

Dear Friend of Darwin,

I hope you and your loved ones are keeping safe and well in this time of crisis.

160 years ago today, Charles Darwin wrote to his American friend Asa Gray with news of the now legendary 1860 British Association debate in Oxford, which had taken place a few days earlier.

In his absence, Darwin’s friends Thomas Henry Huxley and Joseph Dalton Hooker had crossed swords with anatomist Richard Owen and the Bishop of Oxford, ‘Soapy’ Sam Wilberforce, on the subject of Darwin’s recently published book, On the Origin of Species. Eyewitness accounts vary, and what exactly was said is now lost. Both sides seem to have come away thinking they had acquitted themselves well in the debate, although popular legend has it Darwin’s friends wiped the floor with the evolutionary naysayers.

Here’s how Darwin reported the story, second-hand, to Gray:

Yesterday I had letter from Hooker at B. Assocn at Oxford; & he tells me that there was one day a savage fight on my Book between Owen & Huxley; [… The] Bishop of Oxford, one of most eloquent men in England, ridiculed me at great length & with much spirit; & Hooker answered him, I imagine, with wonderful spirit & success.—

Owen will not prove right, when he said that the whole subject would be forgotten in 10 years. My book has stirred up the mud with a vengeance; & it will be a blessing to me if all my friends do not get to hate me. But I look at it as certain, if I had not stirred up the mud some one else would very soon; so that the sooner the battle is fought the sooner it will be settled,— not that the subject will be settled in our lives’ times.

160 years later, some people still refuse to accept Darwin’s great theory of evolution by means of natural selection, although the matter was settled long ago, as far as the scientific community is concerned.


Missing Links (part 1)

Some Darwin- and evolution-related stories that caught my eye recently. (There are a few more stories to share than usual, so I’ve split the Missing Links into two parts this time, for the sake of variety.)

  1. Richard Fortey on Charles Lyell (video)
    Brian Cox interviews geologist and palaeontologist Richard Fortey on Darwin’s great friend, Sir Charles Lyell.

  2. Erasmus Darwin and the great slaughterhouse of nature
    On Charles Darwin’s evolutionary (and genealogical) predecessor Erasmus Darwin.

  3. Emma Darwin and the invisible heroism of the scientific caretaker
    Emma Darwin represents a scientific role that has played a massive, if historically invisible part in humanity’s scientific history.

  4. Dock for Darwin’s ship gets protected status
    The remains of a rare 19th Century dock built for Charles Darwin’s ship HMS Beagle has been recognised as a site of national importance.

  5. Ancient bird skull found in amber was tiny predator in the time of giant dinosaurs
    The skull of Oculudentavis, found encased in amber, provides new clues into the transition from dinosaurs to birds, and may be smallest of either ever found.

  6. When fish gave us the finger: this ancient four-limbed fish reveals the origins of the human hand
    On the first complete specimen of Elpistostege watsoni, a tetrapod-like fish that lived more than 380-million years ago.

  7. A crucial idea Darwin had on evolution was just confirmed, 140 years after his death
    Darwin suggested an animal species with greater diversity in its line will produce more sub-species, too. Looks as if he was right.


Natural Selections

Some book recommendations for you:

More book reviews »


Journal of Researches

On a personal note, one unexpected benefit of the UK coronavirus lockdown has been that, confined mostly to the house, I’ve had far fewer excuses for not pressing on with my ‘Darwin book’.

Since the last newsletter, I’ve been researching and writing on all manner of topics, including: beards, birdsong, vestigial features, the geographical and geological succession of species, continental drift, instinct, colour vision, bats, coral reefs, and earthworms. I’ve also found out one or two new things about Charles Darwin, and continue to like him more each day.

Yes, I know, I probably should get out more. But that’s not a particularly good option at the moment.


Missing Links (part 2)

  1. Biodiversity and climate change: size matters, and it depends on the region
    Climate change is affecting our planet’s biodiversity, yet some species can find ways to adapt.

  2. How gene flow between species influences the evolution of Darwin’s finches
    Despite the traditional view that species do not exchange genes by hybridisation, recent studies show gene flow between closely related species is more common than previously thought.

  3. The Cave Lion’s Tale
    Twenty new lion genomes give fresh perspectives on relationships between extinct and living populations of the King of Beasts.

  4. Insect wings evolved from legs, mayfly genome suggests
    …and in at least one species, gills double as a nose.

  5. Plants can camouflage odours to avoid being eaten
    Complex plant communities evolve to emit similar odours, a pack mentality that keeps them alive and confuses hungry herbivores.

  6. Fossil discoveries suggest the earliest dinosaurs laid soft-shelled eggs
    Finding soft-shelled dinosaur eggs in the fossil record for the first time has scientists rethinking how dinosaur eggs evolved.

  7. Hints at jaw evolution found in marsupials and monotremes
    Infant marsupials and monotremes use a connection between their ear and jaw to enable them to suckle. This may help explain how the bones of the middle ear and jaw evolved in mammals and their predecessors.

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


Expression of Emotions

Thanks for taking time to read this newsletter. Sorry it was later (so longer) than usual. I’ll try to make them more frequent (so shorter) in future.

Please feel free to forward this newsletter to any friends you think might like to subscribe.

See you next time.

Keep safe.

Richard Carter, FCD
friendsofdarwin.com
richardcarter.com

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26-Apr-1882: Charles Darwin buried in Westminster Abbey http://friendsofdarwin.com/articles/darwins-funeral/ http://friendsofdarwin.com/articles/darwins-funeral/ Sun, 26 Apr 2020 08:59:54 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD (friendsofdarwin.com) On 26th April 1882, Charles Darwin was buried in Westminster Abbey. How this honour came about is described by his son Francis Darwin in The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin… Darwin’s funeral

The funeral ceremony of Charles Darwin at Westminster Abbey, 26 April 1882.
Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

On 26th April 1882, Charles Darwin was buried in Westminster Abbey. How this honour came about is described by his son Francis Darwin in The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin:

THE FUNERAL IN WESTMINSTER ABBEY

On the Friday succeeding my father’s death, the following letter, signed by twenty members of Parliament, was addressed to Dr. Bradley, Dean of Westminster:—

HOUSE OF COMMONS, April 21, 1882.

Very Rev. Sir,

We hope you will not think we are taking a liberty if we venture to suggest that it would be acceptable to a very large number of our fellow-countrymen of all classes and opinions that our illustrious countryman, Mr. Darwin, should be buried in Westminster Abbey.

We remain, your obedient servants,

JOHN LUBBOCK, NEVIL STOREY MASKELYNE, A.J. MUNDELLA, G.O. TREVELYAN, LYON PLAYFAIR, CHARLES W. DILKE, DAVID WEDDERBURN, ARTHUR RUSSEL, HORACE DAVEY, BENJAMIN ARMITAGE, RICHARD B. MARTIN, FRANCIS W. BUXTON, E.L. STANLEY, HENRY BROADHURST, JOHN BARRAN, F.J. CHEETHAM, H.S. HOLLAND, H. CAMPBELL-BANNERMAN, CHARLES BRUCE, RICHARD FORT.

The Dean was abroad at the time, and telegraphed his cordial acquiescence.

The family had desired that my father should be buried at Down: with regard to their wishes, Sir John Lubbock wrote:—

HOUSE OF COMMONS, April 25, 1882.

My dear Darwin,

I quite sympathise with your feeling, and personally I should greatly have preferred that your father should have rested in Down amongst us all. It is, I am sure, quite understood that the initiative was not taken by you. Still, from a national point of view, it is clearly right that he should be buried in the Abbey. I esteem it a great privilege to be allowed to accompany my dear master to the grave.

Believe me, yours most sincerely,

JOHN LUBBOCK. W.E. DARWIN, ESQ.

The family gave up their first-formed plans, and the funeral took place in Westminster Abbey on April 26th. The pall-bearers were:—

SIR JOHN LUBBOCK,
MR. HUXLEY,
MR. JAMES RUSSELL LOWELL (American Minister),
MR. A.R. WALLACE,
THE DUKE OF DEVONSHIRE,
CANON FARRAR,
SIR J.D. HOOKER,
MR. W.M. SPOTTISWOODE (President of the Royal Society),
THE EARL OF DERBY,
THE DUKE OF ARGYLL.

The funeral was attended by the representatives of France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Russia, and by those of the Universities, and learned Societies, as well as by large numbers of personal friends and distinguished men.

The grave is in the North aisle of the Nave close to the angle of the choir-screen, and a few feet from the grave of Sir Isaac Newton. The stone bears the inscription—

CHARLES ROBERT DARWIN
BORN 12 FEBRUARY 1809
DIED 19 APRIL 1882

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Newsletter No. 6: ‘Building on a theory’ http://friendsofdarwin.com/newsletter/building-on-a-theory/ http://friendsofdarwin.com/newsletter/building-on-a-theory/ Wed, 12 Feb 2020 10:27:22 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD (friendsofdarwin.com) To mark Charles Darwin’s 211th birthday, some thoughts on his 1871 classic, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, an unlikely anecdote about a snail, plus all the usual book reviews and links to Darwin-related news stories.
Darwin newsletter

12TH FEBRUARY 2020

Dear Friend of Darwin,

Today marks the 211th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin in Shrewsbury, Shropshire. Happy birthday, old chap! And Happy Darwin Day to one and all!

Earlier this week, I finally finished reading Darwin’s 1871 classic, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. There’s a link to my review in the book recommendations section below. As scientific door-stops go, Descent is a biggie: 900+ pages of evidence and argument about our place in nature, and about Darwin’s other great evolutionary idea: sexual selection. As I say in my review, Darwin writes with considerably more confidence in The Descent of Man than he did in On the Origin of Species. He treats evolution by means of natural selection as a given: a theory that has won the day, and can now be built on.

We’re still building on it.


Missing Links

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

  1. Shrinking dinosaurs and the evolution of endothermy in birds
    The evolution of warm-bloodedness represented a major development in vertebrate history. How and when it happened in birds and mammals remains contentious. A new study suggests it might have been made easier thanks to species decreasing in size.

  2. Neanderthal genes found for first time in African populations
    For the first time, human populations in Africa have been revealed to share Neanderthal ancestry. The findings add a new twist to the tale of ancient humans and our closest known relatives.

  3. Neanderthals dived for shells to make tools, research suggests
    Neanderthals went diving for shells to turn into tools, according to new research. This suggests our big-browed cousins made more use of the sea than previously thought.

  4. Ancient fossil ‘may prove scorpion was first land-dwelling animal’
    Palaeontologists have revealed the remains of what might have been the first animal to set foot on land—an ancient scorpion.

  5. Dinosaur extinction: ‘Asteroid strike was culprit’
    This one will no doubt continue to run and run… A new study discounts the idea that large-scale vulcanism drove the demise of the dinosaurs.

  6. Study traces evolution of acoustic communication
    Darwin described acoustic communication between animals in the sexual selection portion of The Descent of Man. A new study of evolutionary trees suggests the ability evolved separately in mammals, birds, frogs and crocodilians during the last 100–200 million years.

  7. First mushrooms appeared earlier than previously thought
    A new study suggests the first mushrooms evolved 715–810 million years ago, 300 million years earlier than previously thought. It also suggests mushrooms could have been important partners for the first land-plants.

  8. Galápagos experts find a tortoise related to Lonesome George
    Conservationists working around the largest volcano on the Galápagos Islands say they have found 30 giant tortoises partially descended from two extinct species, including that of the famous Lonesome George.

  9. How and when spines changed in mammalian evolution
    A new study sheds light on how and when changes in the spine occurred during mammalian evolution.

  10. How the development of skulls and beaks made Darwin’s finches one of the most diverse species
    The finches of the Galápagos Islands are among the most celebrated examples of adaptive radiation in the evolution of modern vertebrates. A new study provides fresh insights into their rapid development and evolutionary success.

  11. A Little Oasis
    Artist Georgie Bennett, speaks with Head Gardener at Down House, Antony O’Rourke, about the importance of maintaining Darwin’s legacy for future generations.

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


Natural Selections

Some book recommendations for you:

More book reviews »


Journal of Researches

Progress on my ‘Darwin book’ continues at what feels like a snail’s pace. Coincidentally, snails feature prominently in the chapter I’m currently working on. During my research, I came across a very strange snail anecdote that somehow made its way into The Descent of Man:

These animals appear also susceptible of some degree of permanent attachment: an accurate observer, Mr. Lonsdale, informs me that he placed a pair of land-shells (Helix pomatia), one of which was weakly, into a small and ill-provided garden. After a short time the strong and healthy individual disappeared, and was traced by its track of slime over a wall into an adjoining well-stocked garden. Mr. Lonsdale concluded that it had deserted its sickly mate; but after an absence of twenty-four hours it returned, and apparently communicated the result of its successful exploration, for both then started along the same track and disappeared over the wall.

With unlikely anecdotes like this making the cut, is it any wonder The Descent of Man ended up such an extremely long book? I guarantee my book will be shorter… Much, much shorter, the way things are going!


Expression of Emotions

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

See you next time!

Richard Carter, FCD
friendsofdarwin.com
richardcarter.com

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The Darwin bicentennial oak, 11 years on http://friendsofdarwin.com/bicentennial-oak-2020-02/ http://friendsofdarwin.com/bicentennial-oak-2020-02/ Wed, 12 Feb 2020 09:44:28 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD (friendsofdarwin.com) Eleven years ago today, I planted the Darwin Bicentennial Oak in my garden.
The Darwin Bicentennial Oak
12-Feb-2009

The Darwin Bicentennial Oak
24-May-2009

The Darwin Bicentennial Oak, 2 years on
12th-Feb-2011

12-Feb-2013
12-Feb-2013

The Darwin bicentennial oak, 6 years on
12-Feb-2015

The Darwin bicentennial oak, 7 years on
12-Feb-2016

The Darwin bicentennial oak, 8 years on
12-Feb-2017

The Darwin bicentennial oak, 9 years on
12-Feb-2018

12-Feb-2019
12-Feb-2019

12-Feb-2020
12-Feb-2020

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

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Newsletter No. 5: ‘Discovery and adventure’ http://friendsofdarwin.com/newsletter/discovery-and-adventure/ http://friendsofdarwin.com/newsletter/discovery-and-adventure/ Fri, 27 Dec 2019 13:12:23 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD (friendsofdarwin.com) Our fifth newsletter marks the anniversary of Charles Darwin setting sail aboard HMS Beagle.
Darwin newsletter

27TH DECEMBER 2019

Dear Friend of Darwin,

On this day in 1831, Charles Darwin set sail aboard HMS Beagle on what turned out to be a five-year voyage of discovery and adventure. The opening sentences of his account of the voyage read like something out of Robert Louis Stevenson:

After having been twice driven back by heavy south-western gales, Her Majesty’s ship Beagle, a ten-gun brig, under the command of Captain Fitz Roy, R.N., sailed from Devonport on the 27th of December, 1831. The object of the expedition was to complete the survey of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, commenced under Captain King in 1826 to 1830—to survey the shores of Chile, Peru, and of some islands in the Pacific—and to carry a chain of chronometrical measurements round the World.

Darwin would later describe the voyage as by far the most important event in his life, and one that determined his whole career.

If you haven’t yet read Darwin’s classic Voyage of the Beagle, perhaps 2020 might be the year to finally getting round to it. I provide links to this and a few other Beagle-voyage-related books below. But first…


Missing Links

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

  1. The ambitious plans to transform Shrewsbury’s Mount House
    A cyber security entrepreneur has stepped in to save and re-purpose Charles Darwin’s birthplace and childhood home in Shrewsbury.

  2. Darwin at the Zoo (video)
    A trip to the archives of the Zoological Society of London to look at various Darwin-related treasures.

  3. Humboldt, Darwin and the importance of little things
    How Alexander von Humboldt’s holistic description of nature was a great source of guidance and inspiration for the young Charles Darwin when travelling aboard HMS Beagle.

  4. Babies in the womb have lizard-like hand muscles
    A relic from when reptiles transitioned to mammals, these muscles are probably one of the oldest, albeit fleeting, human evolutionary remnants.

  5. To adapt to climate change, North American birds are shrinking, while other animals are evolving to give birth earlier.

  6. Extraordinary skull fossil reveals secrets of snake evolution
    The discovery of a perfectly preserved snake skull fossil answers many questions about the evolution of snakes from lizards.

  7. Secrets of the largest ape that ever lived
    The fossilised tooth of a mysterious extinct ape is shedding new light on the evolution of great apes.

  8. Seven-million years of human evolution (video)
    The evolutionary history of hominins—the group that includes modern humans, our immediate ancestors, and other extinct relatives.

  9. Neanderthal footprints found in France offer snapshot of their lives
    Scientists have found 257 prints that were preserved in wind-driven sand 80,000 years ago.

  10. Ancient humans survived longer than we thought
    An ancient ancestor of modern humans, Homo erectus, survived into comparatively recent times in South East Asia, a new study has revealed.

  11. Earliest known cave art by modern humans found in Indonesia
    Images depicting human-animal hybrid figures have been dated to nearly 44,000 years old, making them the oldest known cave art by our species.

  12. 18,000-year-old puppy found frozen in ice
    A wonderfully preserved ancient puppy discovered frozen in ice dates from around the time wolves were becoming domesticated.

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


Natural Selections

Some Beagle-voyage-related book recommendations for you:


Journal of Researches

The highlight of my 50th-birthday treat of a behind-the-scenes tour of London’s Natural History Museum was getting to handle an important fossil collected by Darwin in the Falkland Islands during the Beagle voyage. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if an account of my tour somehow sneaks its way into my as-yet-untitled ‘Darwin book’.

In the meantime, I’ve just completed the first draft of a chapter about autumn leaves and one of my top-ten birds, the dipper—or, as Darwin referred to it, the water ouzel. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that my New Year’s resolution will be to crack on with the book.


Expression of Emotions

Very special thanks to any of you who heeded my plea in the previous newsletter to pledge to help save Sir Charles Lyell’s notebooks for historical research. As you will have heard, the campaign was successful, and the collection has been acquired by the University of Edinburgh.

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

See you next time!

Richard Carter, FCD
friendsofdarwin.com
richardcarter.com

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

20TH JULY 2019

Dear Friend of Darwin,

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

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

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


Missing Links

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Natural Selections

Some book recommendations for you:


Journal of Researches

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


Expression of Emotions

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

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

See you next time!

Richard Carter, FCD
friendsofdarwin.com
richardcarter.com

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

Six Selfies
Yours Truly expressing a gamut of emotions for A to B.
‘Emotional Field 2’ by Jo Pearl
Emotional Field 2 by Jo Pearl
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Hello, Serbia! http://friendsofdarwin.com/hello-serbia/ http://friendsofdarwin.com/hello-serbia/ Mon, 29 Apr 2019 15:28:28 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD (friendsofdarwin.com) I am delighted to announce that the Friends of Charles Darwin have their first member from Serbia.
Serbia

I am delighted to announce that the Friends of Charles Darwin have their first member from Serbia: Tamara Petrović of Novi Sad. Welcome!

We now have members in 100 countries.

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The Darwin bicentennial oak, 10 years on http://friendsofdarwin.com/bicentennial-oak-2019-02/ http://friendsofdarwin.com/bicentennial-oak-2019-02/ Tue, 12 Feb 2019 11:04:01 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD (friendsofdarwin.com) Ten years ago today, I planted the Darwin Bicentennial Oak in my garden.
The Darwin Bicentennial Oak
12-Feb-2009

The Darwin Bicentennial Oak
24-May-2009

The Darwin Bicentennial Oak, 2 years on
12th-Feb-2011

12-Feb-2013
12-Feb-2013

The Darwin bicentennial oak, 6 years on
12-Feb-2015

The Darwin bicentennial oak, 7 years on
12-Feb-2016

The Darwin bicentennial oak, 8 years on
12-Feb-2017

The Darwin bicentennial oak, 9 years on
12-Feb-2018

12-Feb-2019
12-Feb-2019

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

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

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