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: ‘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:

Darwin: a companion
by Paul van Helvert & John van Wyhe
A monumental new reference work, and a must-have for all Darwin scholars.
The Development of Darwin’s Theory
by Dov Ospovat
Natural History, Natural Theology, and Natural Selection, 1838–1859. An important scholarly work that has been much occupying my mind in recent months. Not for the faint-hearted.
Arctic Dreams
by Barry Lopez
Deservedly seen as a science- and nature-writing classic. I loved it.

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
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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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Book review: ‘Gone’ by Michael Blencowe http://friendsofdarwin.com/reviews/book-review-gone-michael-blencowe/ http://friendsofdarwin.com/reviews/book-review-gone-michael-blencowe/ Wed, 24 Feb 2021 14:56:17 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD (friendsofdarwin.com) A search for what remains of the world’s extinct creatures.

A search for what remains of the world’s extinct creatures.

‘Gone’ by Michael Blencowe

I once got to see an egg of a great auk, an extinct North Atlantic flightless bird, whose scientific name gave us the word penguin. It was absolutely stunning.

In this very enjoyable book, Michael Blencowe sets off to visit the locales and remains of numerous extinct species, including the great auk, the Pinta Island tortoise, the dodo, Stellar‘s sea cow, and the upland moa. Less famous, less charismatic extinct species also feature, including the Xerces blue butterfly, the huia, the spectacled cormorant, Schomburgk’s deer, and Ivell’s sea anemone.

As well as paying his respects to these lost creatures, Blencowe also describes their tragic histories, how they were discovered, and what became of them.

Blencowe turns of to be something of fan of the explorer and naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller, who accompanied Vitus Bering on his tragic 1730s expedition from Russia to Alaska. I had very much wanted to find out a bit more about Steller, having first encountered him in a long poem by W.G. Sebald in his collection After Nature. Blencowe has tweaked my interest even further.

Despite its rather depressing subject matter, Gone is an enjoyable, easy read.

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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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:

Bully for Brontosaurus
by Stephen Jay Gould
Wonderful essays on natural history, evolution, and the history of science. (And, on a personal level, one of the most important books I ever read.)
Tamed
by Alice Roberts
A fantastic book on how humans, sometimes unwittingly, domesticated ten different types of plants and animals—including themselves.
‘Charles Darwin: Voyaging’ and ‘Charles Darwin: The Power of Place’
by Janet Browne
A magnificent two-volume biography of Charles Darwin.

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
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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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Book review: ‘The Stubborn Light of Things’ by Melissa Harrison http://friendsofdarwin.com/reviews/book-review-stubborn-light-of-things-melissa-harrison/ http://friendsofdarwin.com/reviews/book-review-stubborn-light-of-things-melissa-harrison/ Tue, 12 Jan 2021 14:13:23 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD (friendsofdarwin.com) A nature diary.

A nature diary.

‘The Stubborn Light of Things’ by Melissa Harrison

During the 2020 lockdown, Melissa Harrison’s weekly podcast, The Stubborn Light of Things, brought comfort to many people, myself included.

This essay collection, bearing the same name as the podcast, comprises seven years‘ worth of Harrison’s Nature Diary columns for the Times newspaper. It, too, brings plenty of comfort.

What I particularly like about Harrison’s style is she doesn’t put herself forwards as an expert. She’s just an ordinary person with an interest in nature—albeit an ordinary person with a regular nature diary column in the Times newspaper. She likes to stress she’s learning as she goes along, and there’s no shame in not knowing stuff or making mistakes about the natural world. That said, Harrison clearly has picked up lots of stuff about the natural world, so there’s plenty of interest to be found in this collection.

The book is split into two parts, marking Harrison’s transition from being mainly London-based to taking up residence in deepest Suffolk. So there’s a pleasing mix of urban and rural nature writing in the collection.

One piece which particularly resonated with me was Harrison’s description of how, on the banks of the River Stour in Dorset, she likes to:

…sit on a little wooden jetty, under an overhanging beech, and do nothing for an hour but watch the water slip slowly by.

Sometimes, something happens: a fish rises and ripples the surface, perhaps a grayling or brown trout; a kingfisher calls peep, then flashes past, glinting; a bright-eyed brown rat investigates the exposed roots of an alder on the bank. Most of the time, though, there is just the cold, slow-moving river bearing the odd dead leaf or feather, the contented notes of a wood pigeon from somewhere high above, and the light sparkling on the water and dappling the undersides of the leaves. My breathing slows, and perhaps my heart; my attention seems to be distilled and focused by the water, rather than its usual distracted scatter. It isn’t meditation, I don’t think, because my focus is keenly outward; but I’m sure every angler will recognise the feeling I describe.

Not just anglers. Harrison is here describing the feeling I have sitting on my favourite rock in Anglesey, gazing out to sea: nature waiting, as I like to think of it. Reading the above passage took me straight back there, to my favourite rock. For that alone, the book was worth its cover-price.

An excellent, uplifting read. Highly recommended.

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

Disclosure: Melissa Harrison and I follow each other on social media. I consider her an online friend. I made a guest appearance in episode 16 of her podcast, where I displayed my non-expertise about bats.

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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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Book review: ‘On the Origin of Species’ by Charles Darwin (1st ed., 1859) http://friendsofdarwin.com/reviews/book-review-origin-of-species-by-charles-darwin/ http://friendsofdarwin.com/reviews/book-review-origin-of-species-by-charles-darwin/ Tue, 24 Nov 2020 00:00:01 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD (friendsofdarwin.com) …or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.

…or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.

‘On the Origin of Species’ by Charles Darwin, 1st edition, title page

As revolutionary scientific works go, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species is remarkably accessible to the ordinary reader. True, some of the language is occasionally heavy going—Darwin wrote in haste, had a thing for double negatives and rogue commas, and occasionally embarked on convoluted, heavily nested sentences requiring several deep breaths to read out loud—but, minor stylistic concerns aside, over a century and a half after its publication, Origin is still a rewarding read for anyone wanting to get inside the mind of one of the most important figures in the history of science. Darwin’s great theory of evolution by means of natural selection forms the foundation of modern biology. To read Origin is to have the theory explained to you by the man himself. That should be a good enough reason for anyone to read it.

Darwin describes his masterpiece as ‘one long argument’. He knows his views will be seen as controversial by some of his contemporaries, and he’s out to convince. But he realises some of his audience—especially some of the old guard—will not be able to accept his evidence and line of reasoning. Indeed, at one point, he humorously states anyone who has read his friend Charles Lyell’s book Principles of Geology and is still unconvinced about the great age of the earth might as well close Origin right away.

Darwin’s great theory is brilliant in its simplicity: individual organisms within a species vary; those with beneficial variations will have a better chance of competing for limited resources, and of passing on those beneficial variations to future generations; over time, these beneficial variations will become more widespread in local populations. The composition of the population will have changed. The species will have evolved. Given enough time, more changes will accrue. New species will emerge from old—often, but not always, supplanting them.

Darwin begins his long argument in what should be comfortably familiar territory for his readers, describing how, consciously or otherwise, humans have selected preferred variants of domesticated animal and plant species over decades and centuries, leading to all manner of highly adapted breeds and strains. He goes on to describe how wild species also vary, and how far more individuals are produced than can possibly be supported by the environment. This, he says, leads to a struggle for existence in which many individuals will perish. Those individuals that vary from the rest in some advantageous way will stand a better chance of surviving, and of passing on those variations to future generations. While humans select between variants of domesticated species based on some personal preference, Nature selects between variants of wild species based on whether or not they are well enough adapted to meet the challenges of life:

I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term of Natural Selection, in order to mark its relation to man’s power of selection. […] As man can produce and certainly has produced a great result by his methodical and unconscious means of selection, what may not nature effect? Man can act only on external and visible characters: nature cares nothing for appearances, except in so far as they may be useful to any being. She can act on every internal organ, on every shade of constitutional difference, on the whole machinery of life. Man selects only for his own good; Nature only for that of the being which she tends.

In the fourth chapter of Origin, Darwin brilliantly illustrates his principle of natural selection with a number of hypothetical examples. These are not intended to show how certain adaptations did indeed evolve, for that could never be proved retrospectively; Darwin’s aim is simply to show how such adaptations could have evolved through natural selection.

Famously, Darwin never got to the bottom of what causes the observed variations that are central to his theory, nor how they are inherited by future generations. He did, however, identify a number of important phenomena associated with such variations, including the atrophying and occasional total disappearance of organs which no longer have any use, occasional throwbacks to former organs, the skipping of variations in some generations, and the correlation of certain variations in different parts of individual organisms. He made a few stabs at explaining these phenomena, but they would not be properly understood until after his death, when the new field of genetics was merged with his theory. Darwin would no doubt have been delighted that his theory continued to evolve, but remains the single most important idea in the field of biology.

Having worked on his theory for two decades prior to publication, Darwin was painfully aware of the objections that would most likely be raised against it. He meets these objections head on in Origin, dedicating an entire chapter to addressing some of them, while still being prepared to admit when he doesn’t yet have entirely satisfactory answers. He addresses other potential objections to his theory in later chapters, which we shall return to later.

Darwin then goes on to discuss how animal instincts are also subject to natural selection, before exploring hybridism. I have to admit, even my eyes began to glaze over during the hybridism chapter: Darwin does go on a bit. The key point he is trying to get across is at last stated boldly in the final phrase of the chapter: ‘…there is no fundamental distinction between species and varieties’. Under Darwinian evolution, new species are simply old varieties writ large.

Darwin next dedicates an entire chapter to the imperfection of the geological record. If species evolved from other species, where are all the intermediate fossils? He is careful to explain it is tempting but wrong to envisage ‘intermediates’ directly between two closely related modern species—what we would nowadays describe as the ‘missing link’ fallacy. What really links modern species is their common ancestor, and it is far from necessarily true that this common ancestor would resemble some weird 50:50 chimera of its living descendants. Even if, as Darwin convincingly argues, the fossil record weren’t hopelessly incomplete, it is quite possible we might sometimes simply not recognise fossils of common ancestors for what they really are. Of course, since Darwin’s day, the fossils of many common ancestors, or their close relatives, have been identified.

One important challenge Darwin needed to overcome was to explain the current geographical distribution of species. If all species descend from other species, each must have originated in some single geographical location. But many individual species, or closely related species, have now spread far and wide across the planet. How could salt-water-intolerant plants and animal, for example, have crossed entire oceans? Darwin brilliantly addresses this problem in two of Origin’s more entertaining chapters, citing his own weird experiments on plant dispersal, and invoking climate change, among other phenomena, to explain how currently inhospitable areas might once have acted as corridors for species dispersal. Darwin would dearly have loved the twentieth-century theory of plate tectonics, which explains how continents themselves can move, transporting species with them. To his great credit, although he mentions the contemporary theory of numerous ‘land bridges’ that were believed to have formerly linked continents, which would have provided an obvious mechanism of species dispersal, Darwin the geologist is honest enough to admit he is not a great supporter of that theory, so believes alternative mechanisms need to be identified.

Before summing up, Darwin discusses a number of phenomena that are easily explained by his theory of descent with modification, but which would make no sense at all had species been uniquely created from scratch. How is it even possible to classify species into groups if they bear no physical relationship with each other? Why do species belonging to particular groups have the same basic design or archetype? Why are different animal embryos so hard to tell apart? Why do certain species bear apparently useless, or near-useless organs? Creationists might try explain these away by appealing to the aesthetic whim of a creator moving in mysterious ways, but Darwin rightly recognised all of these apparent enigmas were easily explained by realising all species are related to each other geneologically.

In a magnificent final chapter, Darwin recaps what has gone before, but with increasing confidence. In places, he even manages to overcome his almost painful modesty and strut a little. His theory’s merit, he fully appreciates, is that it explains so much, and that it will open up many new fields of research:

when we regard every production of nature as one which has had a history; when we contemplate every complex structure and instinct as the summing up of many contrivances, each useful to the possessor, nearly in the same way as when we look at any great mechanical invention as the summing up of the labour, the experience, the reason, and even the blunders of numerous workmen; when we thus view each organic being, how far more interesting, I speak from experience, will the study of natural history become!

Well said, Mr D! You did indeed made natural history more interesting. You gave future biologists a theory by which to work. You revolutionised an entire science. There was grandeur in your view of life—and you knew it!

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. 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:

The Natural History of Selborne
by Gilbert White
A British nature writing classic.
The Flamingo’s Smile
by Stephen Jay Gould
Reflections in natural history from the late, great essayist.
The History of Life
by Michael J Benton
A very short introduction.

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
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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:

Sexual Selection
by Marlene Zuk & Leigh W. Simmons
A very short introduction to a subject brought to the world’s attention by Charles Darwin.
The Lunar Men: The Friends who Made the Future, 1730–1810
by Jenny Uglow
A collective biography of a remarkable group of friends, including both of Charles Darwin’s grandfathers.
Ever Since Darwin
by Stephen Jay Gould
Reflections in natural history. The first collection of Gould’s brilliant essays on evolution and the history of science.
The Invention of Nature
by Andrea Wulf
The adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the lost hero of science—and hero of Charles Darwin!

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
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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:

The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex
by Charles Darwin
In On the Origin of Species, Darwin coyly observed: ‘Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history’. In The Decent of Man, he finally sets out to enlighten us as to our origins.
The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals
by Charles Darwin
Darwin evidently decided 900+ pages were quite enough for his two-volume Descent of Man, so he gave human and animal emotions a book of their own.
Darwin: a very short introduction
by Jonathan Howard
A useful little book concentrating less on Darwin’s life-story, and more on his work and its implications.
Animal Behaviour: a very short introduction
by Tristram D. Wyatt
A book containing some nice examples of how natural selection has honed animal behaviour to make the most of life’s opportunities and challenges.

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
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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:

The Voyage of the Beagle
by Charles Darwin
Our hero’s ‘journal of researches into the natural history and geology of the countries visited during the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle round the world’.
Charles Darwin’s Beagle Diary
by R.D. Keynes
An annotated version of the journal Darwin kept aboard HMS Beagle.
Darwin’s Fossils
by Adrian Lister
About the many different types of fossils Darwin collected and studied during his lifetime. Copiously illustrated.
Charles Darwin, Geologist
by Sandra Herbert
About Darwin’s geological discoveries and theories.
More book reviews »

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
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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:

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

Journal of Researches

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


Expression of Emotions

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

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

See you next time!

Richard Carter, FCD
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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. SerbiaI am delighted to announce that the Friends of Charles Darwin have their first member from Azerbaijan: Tamara Petrović of Novi Sad. Welcome!

We now have members in 100 countries.

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

12TH FEBRUARY 2019

Dear Friend of Darwin,

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

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

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

Happy 210th birthday, Mr D!


Missing Links

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Natural Selections

Some book recommendations for you:

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

Journal of Researches

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

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

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

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

Expression of Emotions

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

See you next time!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We now have members in 99 countries.

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