Friends of Charles Darwin - combined feed (blog posts, articles, newsletters, and reviews). All new blog posts, articles, newsletters, and reviews from the Friends of Charles Darwin. en-gb Richard Carter, FCD Book review: ‘The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 10 • 1862’ Mon, 06 Mar 2023 11:07:16 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD ( Darwin grows in confidence.
The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 10 • 1862

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We now have members in 106 countries.

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

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

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

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

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

Top-down planning/outlining

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

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

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

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

Initial rough draft

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fair copies

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

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

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

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

Revision of printers’ proofs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He would then return the completed book to the printer:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Modesty and candour: the Darwin-Wallace friendship Sun, 08 Jan 2023 10:20:19 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD ( To mark the 200th anniversary of Wallace’s birth, an article exploring the friendship between Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. The story of how Alfred Russel Wallace startled Charles Darwin into writing On the Origin of Species is well known. In June 1858, Darwin received a bombshell letter from Wallace, who at the time was on the far-flung Malay Archipelago. After many years’ research, Darwin had spent the last four years working on his long-planned ‘big book’ on species, having twenty years earlier arrived at the idea of natural selection as a mechanism for evolutionary change. In his letter, Wallace described essentially the same mechanism. Poor Darwin was devastated, but felt honour-bound to publish Wallace’s paper. Anxious that he should receive due credit for having come up with the idea first, and for having worked on it for two decades, Darwin’s close friends and confidants Charles Lyell and Joseph Dalton Hooker arranged for the hasty publication of Wallace’s paper alongside two unpublished documents written by Darwin. To mitigate the risk of being scooped any further, Darwin immediately set aside his ‘big book’ (which he never got round to finishing) and began writing an ‘abstract’ of it that was to become On the Origin of Species.

Modest almost to a fault, Wallace always expressed complete satisfaction at how his paper was published, and insisted it was only right that Darwin’s name became synonymous with the idea of natural selection:

As to the theory of “Natural Selection” itself, I shall always maintain it to be actually yours & your’s only. You had worked it out in details I had never thought of, years before I had a ray of light on the subject, & my paper would never have convinced anybody or been noticed as more than an ingenious speculation, whereas your book has revolutionized the study of Natural History, & carried away captive the best men of the present Age. All the merit I claim is the having been the means of inducing you to write & publish at once.

—Alfred Russel Wallace to Charles Darwin, 29 May [1864]
Alfred Russel Wallace
Alfred Russel Wallace (1823–1913)

Darwin and Wallace were to remain friends for the remainder of Darwin’s life. Wallace dedicated his magnificent book The Malay Archipelago to Darwin, ‘not only as a token of personal esteem and friendship but also to express my deep admiration for his genius and his works’. Late in his own life, Darwin was instrumental in securing a Civil List pension for the ever-cash-strapped Wallace.

Darwin seem to have seen Wallace as someone to bounce ideas off—not least because, unsurprisingly, Wallace had a deep understanding of natural selection. One wonderful example of this was when Darwin became utterly flummoxed as to why many caterpillars sport gaudy colours. Bright colours would make them easier for predators to spot. Darwin’s usual explanation for apparently disadvantageous colouration was sexual selection: bright colours being more attractive to potential mates. But caterpillars don’t mate until they have metamorphosed into butterflies, so their bright colours could not be explained in this way. As Darwin later recalled in The Descent of Man, ‘I then applied to Mr. Wallace, who has an innate genius for solving difficulties’. Wallace responded the following day:

Now great numbers are protected by their green colours assimilating with foliage or their brown colours resembling bark or twigs. Others are protected by prickles and long hairs—which no doubt render them distasteful to birds, especially to our small birds which I presume are the great destroyers of catterpillars. Now supposing that others, not hairy, are protected by a disagreeable taste or odour, it would be a positive advantage to them never to be mistaken for any of the palatable catterpillars, because a slight wound such as would be caused by a peck of a bird’s bill almost always I believe kills a growing catterpillar. Any gaudy & conspicuous colour therefore, that would plainly distinguish them from the brown & green eatable catterpillars, would enable birds to recognise them easily as a kind not fit for food, & thus they would escape seizure which is as bad as being eaten.

—Alfred Russel Wallace to Charles Darwin, 24 February [1867]

Wallace had identified a new biological concept to explain Darwin’s conundrum: warning colouration. In the same letter, he went on to describe how this hypothesis might be tested experimentally. The amateur entomologist John Jenner Weir performed such experiments a few months later.

Not all of Wallace’s advice to Darwin was quite so useful. On 2nd July 1866, he wrote to his friend urging him to drop the term natural selection in favour of Herbert Spencer’s alternative term, survival of the fittest. Wallace felt many people incorrectly assumed the term natural selection implied ‘the constant watching of an intelligent “chooser”’. So strongly did Wallace feel on this topic that he went through his own copy of On the Origin of Species, systematically crossing out the phrase natural selection and replacing it with survival of the fittest. Darwin followed Wallace’s advice and adopted the phrase survival of the fittest, first in his book The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication, then in later editions of On the Origin of Species. Nowadays, Wallace’s preferred phrase is seen as potentially misleading, as many people incorrectly assume the word fittest means physically fittest, rather than best fitted (i.e. best adapted to an environment and lifestyle).

Letter from A.R. Wallace
Wallace’s letter suggesting Darwin drop the term ‘natural selection’. (Photo: Richard Carter)

Darwin and Wallace by no means agreed on everything, but, when they did disagree, it was always amicably. Darwin, for example, placed more emphasis on competition between individuals of the same species as a driver for natural selection, whereas Wallace placed more emphasis on environmental drivers. Wallace was unimpressed with Darwin’s ideas on instinct, and pretty much rejected his idea of sexual selection. Rather than certain male birds evolving bright colours to attract females, Wallace suggested the female birds might have evolved drab colours to better camouflage them while they were sitting on their nests. After initial enthusiasm, Wallace also eventually rejected Darwin’s (very wrong) hypothetical mechanism for heredity, pangenesis.

One important area in which Darwin and Wallace were initially in strong agreement, but later differed, was on the application of the theory of evolution by means of natural selection to the human mind. Both initially agreed human intellect and morality must have evolved. But, in 1869, Wallace, who had developed an interest in spiritualism, went through a major about-face, admitting to his friend:

In my forthcoming article in the “Quarterly”, I venture for the first time on some limitations to the power of natural selection. I am afraid that Huxley & perhaps yourself will think them weak & unphilosophical. I merely wish you to know that they are in no way put in to please the Quarterly readers,—you will hardly suspect me of that,—but are the expression of a deep conviction founded on evidence which I have not alluded to in the article but which is to me absolutely unassailable.

—Alfred Russel Wallace to Charles Darwin, 24 March 1869

Ironically, the man who had argued against Darwin’s use of the term natural selection because it could be seen as implying an ‘an intelligent “chooser”’ now believed some form of greater power must have been at work in the development of the human mind. Darwin’s initial response, before reading Wallace’s article, displayed typical melodramatic humour: ‘I hope you have not murdered too completely your own & my child’, but his subsequent response on reading Wallace’s article displayed genuine concern:

Altogether I look at yr article as appearing in the Q-ly as an immense triumph for our cause. I presume that yr remarks on Man are those to which you alluded in yr note.

If you had not told me I shd have thought that they had been added by some one else. As you expected I differ grievously from you, & I am very sorry for it. I can see no necessity for calling in an additional & proximate cause in regard to Man.

—Charles Darwin to Alfred Russel Wallace, 14 April 1869

But even important differences like this need not damage a friendship. The following year, Wallace was to write in the preface to a book of his essays:

I have felt all my life, and I still feel, the most sincere satisfaction that Mr. Darwin had been at work long before me, and that it was not left for me to attempt to write “The Origin of Species”.

—Alfred Russel Wallace, Contributions to the Theory of Natural Selection (1870)

Darwin’s response summed up the two men’s friendship wonderfully well:

There never has been passed on me, or indeed on any one, a higher eulogium than yours. I wish that I fully deserved it. Your modesty and candour are very far from new to me. I hope it is a satisfaction to you to reflect,—& very few things in my life have been more satisfactory to me—that we have never felt any jealousy towards each other, though in one sense rivals. I believe that I can say this of myself with truth, & I am absolutely sure that it is true of you.

—Charles Darwin to Alfred Russel Wallace, 20 April [1870]
Newsletter No. 16: ‘Pilgrimages and plans’ Thu, 22 Dec 2022 19:37:23 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD ( A bumper Christmas edition of Darwin-related goodies.
Darwin newsletter


Dear Friend of Darwin,

My partner, Jen, and I recently visited Cambridge on a wonderful Darwin pilgrimage. We got to see many of Darwin’s original papers, specimens collected during the Beagle Voyage, and I even had my photo taken with the man himself (I’m the unconventionally handsome one on the right).

Me and Darwin

The visit was prompted by an exhibition to mark the official completion of the stupendous Darwin Correspondence Project, which had been running for almost 50 years. While we in town, I managed to meet a couple of the current project team, and took the opportunity to thank them for their tremendous work compiling and meticulously researching 30 volumes of Darwin’s correspondence. The final volume will be published early in the new year, filling the last remaining slot on my study shelves. Days after my visit, the project team announced the entire correspondence is now available online. Magnificent stuff! But also kind of sad: the end of an era.

Missing Links

Some Darwin-related stuff I thought you might like:

  1. Charles Darwin’s note-making system
    A post I wrote exploring how Darwin kept track of his assorted notes, helping him to produce such a huge body of work.
  2. Charles Darwin as a writer (video)
    Darwin scholar and biographer Dr Janet Browne recently gave an hour-long online lecture on Darwin’s literary techniques.
  3. Our Earth, shaped by life
    A nice piece about the two ‘bookends’ of Darwin’s scientific publishing career: his works on coral reefs and earthworms, and what they had in common.
  4. ‘Spontaneous revolutions’: Darwin’s diagrams of plant movement
    After weeks watching young tendrils slowly corkscrew their way toward the sun, Charles Darwin set about inventing a system for making botanic motion visible to the naked eye.
  5. Species and varieties
    At what point do different varieties of a species become sufficiently different to be considered different species? This new Darwin Correspondence Project essay explores Darwin’s views on ‘trying to define the undefinable’.
  6. Darwin’s barometer (video)
    An unboxing video of the wonderful mountain barometer used by Darwin during the Beagle voyage.
  7. Lois Darling’s Beagle
    A Linnean Society post about twentieth-century American yachtswoman, author and illustrator Lois Darling’s detailed research into the evolving design of HMS Beagle.
  8. Charles Darwin: autographed defence document fetches record price
    A signed piece of paper on which Darwin defended his theory of evolution has been sold for $882,000 (£719,000). Unfortunately, it was somewhat beyond my budget. (Image and transcript at Darwin Online.)
  9. ’Emma’ audio play
    On something of a role, the Darwin Correspondence Project yesterday published a delightful half-hour audio-play set at Down House on the day of Darwin’s funeral.

Plus… a few bonus links 🔗

Natural Selections

Some book recommendations:

More book reviews »

Journal of Researches

Due to my visit to Cambridge and various end-of-year-related activities, work on my Darwin book has entered a brief hiatus. I plan to resume work early in the new year, once the hangovers have subsided. Meanwhile, I’ve been making a number of small but important changes to the Friends of Charles Darwin website as part of a long-desired plan to start publishing more stuff on the site and in this newsletter, and less on social media. If everything goes to plan, I’m hoping this newsletter will go out a bit more regularly next year, rather than taking occasional four-month breaks (sorry about that).

…Oh, yes, and I‘ve joined Mastodon.

Expression of Emotions

Thanks for taking time to read this newsletter. Please feel free to forward it to any friends (or, indeed, enemies) you think might like to subscribe. And, as always, your feedback is welcome.

Have a fab one, and see you next year!

Richard Carter, FCD

Newsletter No. 16: Bonus links Thu, 22 Dec 2022 16:19:20 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD ( Some good stuff there wasn’t space for in newsletter No. 16. Some stuff there wasn’t space for in newsletter No. 16:

  1. Origin of Specious: misunderstandings about Patrick Matthew’s evolutionary thinking
    Journal article exploring how Patrick Matthew’s evolutionary ideas differed from Darwin’s.
  2. Palaeoanthropologist John Hawks describes the top 10 discoveries about ancient people from DNA in 2022, and, for good measure, three big insights into our African origins.
  3. DNA of 13 Neanderthals reveals ‘exciting’ snapshot of ancient community
    Analysis of remains found in southern Siberia shows an interconnecting web of relationships between different Neanderthal individuals. (See also: Original Nature paper.)
  4. Ancient DNA reveals a hidden history of human adaptation
    New genetic research has found evidence of 50 ‘hard sweeps’ in which rare but beneficial genetic variants swept rapidly through human populations.
  5. Breakthrough shows humans were already standing on their own two feet 7 million years ago
    An article describing new research on the skeleton of Sahelanthropus tchadensis, a candidate for the oldest-known representative of humanity. (See also Original Nature paper.)
  6. Shrew-like creature was placental mammals’ last common ancestor
    Placental mammals’ earliest primogenitor was probably a diminutive creature with a long snout, researchers suggest.
  7. Photos suggest rhino horns have shrunk over past century, likely due to hunting
    By scrutinizing over a century’s worth of photos, researchers have shown rhinoceros horns have gradually decreased in size over time.
  8. Why do gulls have grey wings?
    A new analysis reveals that heavier gull species have darker wings, hinting that colour might play a role in avian flight efficiency.
  9. Darwin, Marx, Satan, and a mythical dedication
    At the height of the McCarthyite Red Scare, the anti-evolution preacher John R. Rice asked his audience to whom Marx had dedicated The Communist Manifesto. His incorrect answer was Charles Darwin. (Thanks to the author for the Friends of Charles Darwin citation.)
  10. Speaking of Darwin
    A website exploring Charles Darwin’s early years in Shropshire.
  11. Insectivorous Plants (video)
    A song using the words of Charles Darwin from his letters about insectivorous plants, written by Dr Francis Neary of the Darwin Correspondence Project (with whom I downed several beers recently).
A long-desired plan Tue, 20 Dec 2022 11:22:48 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD ( A slightly improved website, and a change in emphasis on how the Friends of Charles Darwin publish stuff online… Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve made several small but important improvements to the Friends of Charles Darwin website, pretty much every one of which will go unnoticed by all but the most astute of observers. I’ll spare you the details, other than to say the site now looks more consistent, and I finally managed to track down the source of a problem that was making certain pages far slower than they should have been (which, contrary to all expectations, had nothing to do with any of my own inept programming). So, several minor improvements accumulated over time: how appropriate is that for a site dedicated to Charles Darwin?

The changes are part of a long-desired plan to become less reliant on the outrage manufactories of social media, and to start putting out more stuff both here and on my personal website. This move has been on the cards for quite some time. I’ve made no secret of the fact I would prefer people to follow my websites and newsletters directly, and to cut out the billionaire middlemen. Musk’s recent acquisition and ongoing firebombing of Twitter were not the inspiration for this move, but they provided some much-needed impetus.

I’m not naive enough to think people are going to abandon social media—and neither am I. But I don’t see why I should continue to populate their websites with Darwin-related content, rather than posting it on my own. So, from now on, the plan is to post stuff mainly on my websites and in my newsletters and to link to that stuff via social media.

If you would also like to cut out the middlemen and follow my stuff directly, here are the best ways to do so:

Friends of Charles Darwin stuff:

Richard Carter stuff:

Minor improvements over time… Who knows where this might lead?

Cambridge Darwin pilgrimage Fri, 02 Dec 2022 15:23:16 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD ( A trip to see a treasure-trove of Darwinalia. When I learnt of there was to be an exhibition entitled Darwin in Conversation at Cambridge University Library to mark the completion of the Darwin Correspondence Project, I realised a trip to Cambridge was an absolute must. My long-suffering partner, Jen, and I finally drove down at Halloween, staying for a couple of nights, and making our trip into something of a Darwin pilgrimage.

As luck would have it, a long-term online contact, Julian Derry (@JFDerry), emailed me a couple of days before the trip to alert me to an event being held by the Cambridge Philosophical Society to tie in with the exhibition. So we booked tickets and agree to meet afterwards. At the event, chaired by Dr Alison Pearn, Associate Director of the Darwin Correspondence Project, three scientists who are all direct descendants of Charles Darwin spoke about what it was like to be brought up having such an illustrious ancestor, and how he influenced their own careers. A video of the event was later made available on YouTube. Afterwards, we met briefly with Julian, who introduced us to Dr Francis Neary, Editor and Research Associate at the Darwin Correspondence Project, and we agreed to meet for beers the following evening.

Next morning, Jen and I made our way to the university library for the exhibition. It was a treasure-trove of Darwinalia: letters, maps, more letters, manuscripts, children’s doodles, more letters, notebooks, books, caricatures, more letters, and displays of various aspects of Darwin’s work, from writing books to investigating insectivorous plants, from following the flight-paths of bees to exploring human emotions. Also on display were two welcome, unplanned late additions to the exhibition: Darwin’s notebooks B and C, stolen from the library several years ago, anonymously returned only a few months earlier.

By prior arrangement, Alison Pearn briefly joined us at the exhibition for a quick chat about Darwin and the Correspondence Project, during which I took the opportunity to thank her and the rest of the team, past and present, for their astonishing scholarship over almost five decades.

After the exhibition, the rest of our day was spent on a whistle-stop tour of various Darwin-related Cambridge attractions: Christ’s College, in torrential rain, for the young Darwin statue; the Museum of Zoology for Darwin’s beetles, Beagle-voyage specimens, and barnacles; the Whipple Museum for his microscope; and the Sedgwick Museum for his geological stuff. Then, after fish and chips at The Eagle, it was down to the Maypole pub for real ale and enthusiastic Darwin conversation with Julian and Francis, during which I finally got to prove to Jen once and for all that it isn’t just me: there really are other Darwin nerds out there.

Thanks to Jen, Julian, Francis and Alison: it really was a very special trip.

Friends of Charles Darwin RSS feed has moved… Thu, 17 Nov 2022 09:44:11 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD ( For technical/usability reasons, the canonical URL (web address) for the main Friends of Charles Darwin RSS feed has changed. For technical reasons I won’t bore you with, the canonical URL (web address) for the Friends of Charles Darwin combined RSS ‘metafeed’ (which lists all the site’s latest articles, newsletters, reviews and blog posts) has changed to:

The (non-technical) reason for the change is to make the feed more user-friendly for people who happen to land on the page, but who don’t understand what an RSS feed is for.

The old feed URL should continue to work just fine. But if you’re already subscribed to the feed, you might want to update to the new ‘official’ version.

Apologies for any inconvenience. I’ll try to ensure this doesn’t happen again.

Hello, Lebanon! 🇱🇧 Wed, 09 Nov 2022 14:56:57 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD ( The Friends of Charles Darwin have their first member from Lebanon. We now have members in 105 countries. I am delighted to announce that the Friends of Charles Darwin have their first member from Lebanon: Mohammad S. Al-Zein of Beirut. Welcome!

We now have members in 105 countries.

Hello, Ukraine! 🇺🇦 Fri, 28 Oct 2022 17:49:15 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( The Friends of Charles Darwin have their first member from Ukraine. I am delighted to announce that the Friends of Charles Darwin have their first member from Ukraine: Kateryna Ocheretna of Kviy. Welcome! (And keep going, Ukraine!)

We now have members in 104 countries.

Book review: ‘Kindred’ by Rebecca Wragg Sykes Wed, 26 Oct 2022 11:17:55 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( An introduction to our formerly maligned cousins.
‘Kindred’ by Rebecca Wragg Sykes

As someone who publishes a Charles-Darwin-related newsletter, I’ve noticed new scientific papers concerning two particular topics ping on my radar with remarkable frequency (so remarkable that I’m remarking on it right now): the evolutionary history of domestic dogs, and our long-lost human cousins the Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis). Both of these subjects are clearly very hot topics in the archaeological science community. There’s a good reason for this: recent advances in the extraction and analysis of ancient DNA (aDNA) have opened up exciting new avenues of research, even when based on specimens collected many years ago.

Rebecca Wragg Sykes’s enjoyable book Kindred explores what we know, and what we can infer, about our extinct Neanderthal relatives. In the process, she punctures a number of outdated misconceptions about this particular branch of our increasingly bushy family-tree. In the same way that, over the last couple of decades, we’ve stopped seeing dinosaurs as lumbering, ill-adapted failures, now appreciating them for the magnificent creatures they were, in recent years we’ve begun to realise our cousins were far from the dimwitted knuckle-dragging ‘Neanderthals’ we once mistook them for. As Wragg Sykes puts it, ‘Neanderthals were never some sort of highway service station en route to Real People. They were state-of-the-art humans, just a different sort’.

As with all things archaeological, there is an unavoidable element of survivorship bias in our perceptions of the Neanderthals. The bodily remains and artefacts that have managed to survive in the archaeological record give us only a few fragments of the picture. As Wragg Sykes explains, 99% of Middle Palaeolithic human artefacts are stone, but most artefacts will have been organic, so rarely survived. Kindred wonderfully explains how we have managed to correct some of the our earlier misconceptions, and begun to fill in some of the gaps in knowledge of the Neanderthals. For example, it was fascinating to read how aDNA analysis of the tartar on their teeth has revealed their ‘paleao’ diets to have been more varied than clichéd mammoth burgers and cave-bear kebabs.

Inevitably, in addition to new, science-based revelations about the Neanderthals, Kindred contains a considerable amount of conjecture. This can often be annoying in books where you just want to learn the facts, but Wragg Sykes is always at pains to make clear when she is speculating, and the reasoning she used to get there—and her conjectures often sounded entirely reasonable to this generally sceptical non-expert.

Perhaps the biggest headline-grabbing scientific revelation about Neanderthals in recent years was that some of their DNA lives on in our own cells. In other words, they occasionally inter-bred with our Homo sapiens ancestors. The branches in family trees are more convoluted than many of the textbooks would have us believe. Not only were the Neanderthals our cousins, but an unknown number of them were also our direct ancestors. Some people might find this shocking, but, by the end of this book, I hope most readers, like me, will find the idea utterly delightful.

Kindred is a thoroughly enjoyable introduction to our formerly maligned cousins.


Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Charles Darwin’s note-making system Wed, 12 Oct 2022 16:30:33 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( An exploration of how Darwin kept track of his various notes, enabling him to produce a huge body of work. Charles Darwin’s life and work must be one of the most well documented of any scientist. We still have his Beagle Journal, most of his notebooks, much of his vast correspondence, many of the annotated books from his personal library, many of his own loose papers and draft manuscripts, not forgetting, of course, all the wonderful books and papers he published. Heck, we even have his student bills from university!

During his many years of research, Darwin consumed and processed vast amounts of information, merging it with thoughts and research of his own to produce all manner of publications on subjects as apparently diverse as coral reefs, insectivorous plants, barnacles (both living and fossil), earthworms, orchids, cross- and self-fertilisation, human emotions, climbing plants, domestication, not to forget, of course, evolution by means of natural selection, and human evolution and sexual selection.

Despite long-term ill-health, Darwin managed to churn out an awful lot of top-rate material over the years. It seems remarkable he was able to keep track of so many diverse topics. Fortunately, Darwin’s life is so well documented, we have a pretty good idea of how he made and arranged his notes—a practice that Darwin himself briefly describes in his autobiography:

As in several of my books facts observed by others have been very extensively used, and as I have always had several quite distinct subjects in hand at the same time, I may mention that I keep from thirty to forty large portfolios, in cabinets with labelled shelves, into which I can at once put a detached reference or memorandum. I have bought many books, and at their ends I make an index of all the facts that concern my work; or, if the book is not my own, write out a separate abstract, and of such abstracts I have a large drawer full. Before beginning on any subject I look to all the short indexes and make a general and classified index, and by taking the one or more proper portfolios I have all the information collected during my life ready for use.

In other words, in modern note-making parlance, Darwin:

  • gathered loose slips of information in a number of different filed folders dedicated to particular topics of interest. These slips included notes, speculations and draft fragments of his own; interesting snippets from, and comments on, stuff he had read; and extracts from personal correspondence;
  • made brief source/literature notes which he filed either: a) in the back of the book concerned; or b) in a dedicated file (i.e. drawer). Note: As we shall see from his son Francis’s account of Darwin’s note-taking system, Darwin sometimes also filed particular source/literature notes in the appropriate topic-related folder(s).

In the following sections, I explore Darwin’s note-making in more depth before giving one example of how Darwin transformed some rough notes into a published text.

Darwin’s reference and source notes

Darwin read vast amounts of scientific literature and, by way of light relief, also enjoyed having family correspondence, novels and other non-specialist books read aloud to him by his wife, Emma, while he rested.

During and immediately following the two decades’ research that culminated in the publication of On the Origin of Species, Darwin maintained reading notebooks listing, in chronological order, the books and papers he had read. He recorded work-related reading on the left-hand pages and leisure reading on the right. At the back of the same book, he also maintained a list of work-related material he planned to read. These notebooks will no doubt have been invaluable to Darwin when trying to recall obscure references.

When reading, Darwin treated work-related books very much as tools to be used. So much so that he was not above tearing particularly thick books in half down the spine to make them easier to handle. Indeed, according to his son Francis, “He used to boast that he had made [his close friend the geologist Charles] Lyell publish the second edition of one of his books in two volumes, instead of in one, by telling him how he had been obliged to cut [the first edition] in half.”

Francis also explains how his father annotated his reading material, and, later, made and filed indexed, abstracted notes:

In each book, as he read it, he marked passages bearing on his work. In reading a book or pamphlet, &c., he made pencil-lines at the side of the page, often adding short remarks, and at the end made a list of the pages marked. When it was to be catalogued and put away, the marked pages were looked at, and so a rough abstract of the book was made. This abstract would perhaps be written under three or four headings on different sheets, the facts being sorted out and added to the previously collected facts in different subjects. He had other sets of abstracts arranged, not according to subject, but according to periodical. When collecting facts on a large scale, in earlier years, he used to read through, and make abstracts, in this way, of whole series of periodicals.

Darwin’s notebooks and research portfolios

In the early days of his research into transmutation (i.e. evolution), at a time when he was still trying to identify a mechanism for evolutionary change, Darwin began to keep a number of transmutation notebooks in which he jotted down ideas, reading notes, and other information that seemed relevant to the general topic in hand. As he writes in his autobiography:

My first note-book was opened in July 1837. I worked on true Baconian principles, and without any theory collected facts on a wholesale scale, more especially with respect to domesticated productions, by printed enquiries, by conversation with skilful breeders and gardeners, and by extensive reading. When I see the list of books of all kinds which I read and abstracted, including whole series of Journals and Transactions, I am surprised at my industry.

Although Darwin continued to maintain a number of notebooks on various topics, shortly after his 1838 Eureka moment in which he identified a mechanism for evolution that he dubbed Natural Selection, he seems to have realised bound notebooks would be too restrictive when making notes for what was to become a twenty-year research programme. Instead, as we have already seen, he began to maintain a series of different loose-leaf portfolios dedicated to individual research topics.

It wasn’t just work-related textbooks that Darwin mistreated abysmally. Once he had begun his new system of collecting notes on loose slips of paper, he was not above tearing pages out of his old notebooks to file in the relevant portfolio. For example, on the inside cover of his famous Notebook B (1837–38), which contains his iconic ‘I think’ evolutionary tree diagram, Darwin noted:

All useful Pages cut out Dec. 7th. /1856/

(& again looked through April 21 1873)

Indeed, so useful does Darwin seem to have found his final (1839–41) notebook on transmutation that he tore it completely apart for filing in his various research portfolios.

Darwin adopted a very much top-down approach when researching and planning his never-to-be-completed ‘Big Book’ on species—an ‘abstract’ of which, he would later publish as On the Origin of Species. He had a broad outline for the book in mind, so arranged his portfolios to reflect the various planned chapter topics. The general idea was, once Darwin came to start writing a chapter, he would be able to open the corresponding portfolio, shuffle the various loose slips of paper about, and come up with a detailed outline for that chapter.

Darwin was so convinced of the usefulness of this technique that, in 1864, when trying to convince his close friend Thomas Henry Huxley to write a book on zoology aimed at a general audience, he suggested:

If you were to keep a portfolio open for a couple of years, and throw in slips of paper as subjects crossed your mind, you would soon have a skeleton (and that seems to me the difficulty) on which to put the flesh and colours in your inimitable manner.

In his Reminiscences, Francis Darwin also describes his father’s use of portfolios, and how, in later life, Darwin was amused to learn another scientist had independently arrived at the same note-making method:

In some of his early letters he speaks of filling several note-books with facts for his book on species; but it was certainly early that he adopted his plan of using portfolios […] My father and M. de Candolle were mutually pleased to discover that they had adopted the same plan of classifying facts. De Candolle describes the method in his ‘Phytologie,’ and in his sketch of my father mentions the satisfaction he felt in seeing it in action at Down.

On realising they had arrived at the same note-making technique, Darwin wrote to the French-Swiss botanist Alphonse de Candolle, saying:

It has pleased me to find that I have always followed your plan of making notes on separate pieces of paper; I keep several scores of large portfolios, arranged on very thin shelves about two inches apart, fastened to the walls of my study, and each shelf has its proper name or title; and I can thus put at once every memorandum into its proper place.

The thin shelves Darwin used for filing his portfolios are clearly visible in the alcove to the right of the fireplace in this etching of his study made shortly after he died. I also note the same image appears to show several loose slips of paper pinned to the wall at the side of the fireplace:

Darwin’s study at Down House
Darwin’s study at Down House

de Candolle was just as delighted as Darwin to learn they shared the same loose-slip note-making technique. In a brief sketch he wrote about visiting Darwin at his home, de Candolle recalls (my translation of his original French, very much aided and abetted by Google Translate):

When we returned to the house [having walked round the grounds], Darwin showed me his library, a large room on the ground floor, very convenient for a studious man: many books on the shelves; daylight from two sides; a table for writing and another for experimental equipment. […] He was kind enough to inform me that, for his notes, he had himself employed exactly the same process of loose slips that my father and I have followed, and which I have spoken of in detail in my Phytographie. Eighty years of our [i.e. de Candolle and his father’s] experience had shown me its value. I am more impressed with it than ever, since Darwin had devised it on his own. This method gives the work more accuracy, supplements memory, and saves years.

Example of Darwin’s annotated notes in action

I thought it might be fun to explore an example of Darwin capturing and processing some notes, and using them in a published document.

For the source document, I chose On the Nature of Limbs by Darwin’s friend (and soon-to-be enemy), the brilliant anatomist Richard Owen. In this book, Owen describes how the skeletons of all vertebrates seem to bear the same underlying basic layout. Owen proposes this is due to their all being derived from the same ideal ‘archetype’. He suggests this mysterious underlying design must have arisen through natural laws, but offers no suggestions as to how.

Already familiar with Owen’s ideas, Darwin highlighted (with marginal pencil lines) several passages in his personal copy of ‘On the Nature of Limbs’, and included a number of annotations. Five of his highlights were made against the following:

  • on p.9, in which Owen points out that human inventors don’t constrain themselves to a common basic design when designing different types of mechanical locomotion;
  • on p.10, in which Owen argues that the structure of individual species’ limbs are not wholly determined by their ‘final causes’ (or, as we might put it, their forms are not entirely determined by their functions);
  • on pp.13–14, in which Owen points out the uncanny similarities in structure between a mole’s forelimb (used for digging), a human hand (used for grasping), a bat’s wing (used for flying), and the fin of a dugong or whale (used for swimming);
  • on p.82, in which Owen observes that the limbs of the newly discovered Lepidosiren (South American lungfish)—a species that can live out of water, and move around on land using its fins—most closely resemble the limbs of Owen’s hypothetical archetype;
  • on p.86, in which Owen waxes lyrical about how, once ‘the Divine Mind’ had planned and established the ideal archetype, ‘[Nature] has advanced with slow and stately steps, guided by the archetypal light, amidst the wreck of worlds, from the first embodiment of the Vertebrate idea under its old Ichthyic [i.e. fishy] vestment, until it became arrayed in the glorious garb of the Human form.’

In his indexed summary of his highlights and annotations that he pinned into the back of his copy of Owen’s book, Darwin summarised the highlighted sections described above as follows:

  • 9. Man does not trammel himself in his inventions by any common type
  • 13 Capital comparison of hand of Mole, Bat & Fin
  • 10 Final causes not sole governing principle [see also:] 14, 37
  • 82 Lepidosiren realises nearly ideal Archetype (see my remarks at end of volume)
  • 86 Alludes in grandiloquent sentence to some law governi[n]g progression, guided by archetypal light — &c.—

By far the most important (and famous) note Darwin made in his copy of On the Nature of Limbs, however, were the remarks he links to in the index item for p.82 shown above. In the back of the book, Darwin wrote a separate note offering his own interpretation of Owen’s proposed archetype:

I look at Owens Archetypus as more than ideal, as a real representation as far as the most consummate skill & loftiest generalizations can represent th parent-form of th Vertebrata . —

I follow him that there is a created archetype, the parent of its class

Darwin had realised that, when Owen talked of a mysterious vertebrate archetype, although he didn’t know it, he was really talking about the common ancestor of all vertebrates.

Darwin’s notes on Owen’s book were to inform his most famous work, On the Origin of Species, in which he writes:

Morphology.—We have seen that the members of the same class, independently of their habits of life, resemble each other in the general plan of their organisation. […] This is the most interesting department of natural history, and may be said to be its very soul. What can be more curious than that the hand of a man, formed for grasping, that of a mole for digging, the leg of the horse, the paddle of the porpoise, and the wing of the bat, should all be constructed on the same pattern, and should include the same bones, in the same relative positions? […]

Nothing can be more hopeless than to attempt to explain this similarity of pattern in members of the same class, by utility or by the doctrine of final causes. The hopelessness of the attempt has been expressly admitted by Owen in his most interesting work on the 'Nature of Limbs.' On the ordinary view of the independent creation of each being, we can only say that so it is;—that it has so pleased the Creator to construct each animal and plant.

The explanation is manifest on the theory of the natural selection of successive slight modifications […] If we suppose that the ancient progenitor, the archetype as it may be called, of all mammals, had its limbs constructed on the existing general pattern, for whatever purpose they served, we can at once perceive the plain signification of the homologous construction of the limbs throughout the whole class.

Quite correct, as usual, Mr. D. The similar skeletal layouts of humans, moles, horses, porpoises and bats—and of frogs, lizards, birds, ichthyosaurs, and even fish—speak volumes. They speak of inheritance from a common ancestor. No other explanation makes sense.

Concluding remarks

Working, as I currently am, on a book about Charles Darwin, I’ve come to appreciate the importance of a reliable note-making system. I’m no note-making masochist, so, what with it being the twenty-first century and everything, I’ve adopted a highly flexible digital note-making app to gather and process my, and other people’s, thoughts. All such modern systems allow you to adopt Darwin’s top-down approach to note-making; or a bottom-up approach through which, by linking lots of small notes together, interesting new themes emerge; or, if you prefer, you can have a combination of both top-down and bottom-up. Each to their own.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, because my main focus is currently on the life and work of a single person, I’ve mostly adopted Darwin’s top-down approach to note-making. This is not because I’m in any way trying to emulate my hero, but because a top-down approach, in this case, makes most sense. Darwin adopted a top-down approach to most of his work, so many of the notes in my electronic system naturally reflect the individual topics he worked on. Indeed, I suspect there must be a considerable overlap between the major topics covered in my notes, and the topics assigned their own loose-slip portfolios in Darwin’s own note-making system. That said, I have experienced several of my own bottom-up, mini Eureka moments as, deep down in some obscure note in my system, I’ve suddenly identified a fascinating, unexpected link with some apparently unrelated note elsewhere.

When you set out to unify the whole of biology by devising, researching and promoting its single most important theory, you’d better have a reliable note-making system to hand. Darwin would no doubt have given his back teeth for a modern, digital system to keep track of all his notes, but, obviously, this was never an option. So, instead, he devised his own, entirely pragmatic, top-down note-making system that allowed him to gather and process notes on all manner of different research topics from hundreds of different sources. The sheer amount of work he managed to put out bears magnificent testament to how well Darwin’s system worked for him.

Hello, North Macedonia! 🇲🇰 Thu, 22 Sep 2022 07:19:07 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( The Friends of Charles Darwin have their first member from North Macedonia. Map showing location of North Macedonia

I am delighted to announce that the Friends of Charles Darwin have their first member from the Republic of North Macedonia: Hristijan Makedonski of Bitola. Welcome!

We now have members in 103 countries.

Newsletter No. 15: ‘Darwinian associations’ Fri, 19 Aug 2022 16:06:01 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( …everything has a Darwin connection!
Darwin newsletter

19TH AUGUST 2022

Dear Friend of Darwin,

Putting together these newsletters, I’m always surprised at just how many news stories and recent scientific studies have Darwinian associations. Clearly there’s a huge element of sampling bias here—I am, after all, on the lookout for exactly those sorts of articles—but should I be all that surprised?

As a self-confessed Darwin groupie, I like to joke everything has a Darwin connection. But in biology, it’s not really a joke. Darwin’s great theory of evolution by means of natural selection underpins the whole of modern biology. Yes, the theory has itself evolved over the years, as scientists delved deeper into its implications, found out more stuff, incorporated their own insights, and corrected a few of Darwin’s errors. But, embellishments notwithstanding, Darwin’s original theory is still very much with us, helping us make sense of the world. How, indeed, could any new biological study not have Darwinian associations?

Missing Links

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

  1. Darwin in Conversation
    Marking the completion of the magnificent Darwin Correspondence Project, a 40-year endeavour to publish all of Darwin’s correspondence, a new exhibition in Cambridge, UK celebrates the endlessly curious life and letters of Charles Darwin.
  2. Self-pollinating plant shows rapid loss of genetic variation
    A modern experimental study similar to a series of experiments performed by Charles Darwin has shown that, without bumble bees, a flowering plant that can self-pollinate lost substantial genetic variation within only nine generations.
  3. Ice Age wolf DNA reveals dogs trace ancestry to two separate wolf populations
    Darwin incorrectly concluded domestic dogs arose from more than one species of wild canid, not just wolves. The latest development in this popular field of research suggests dogs’ origins can be traced to at least two different populations of ancient wolves.
  4. How humans’ ability to digest milk evolved from famine and disease
    A major new study attempts to quantify how lactose tolerance developed in Europeans. See also: Why did Europeans evolve into becoming lactose tolerant?
  5. Study explores coevolution of mammals and their lice
    The first mammalian louse most likely species-hopped from birds, beginning the long co-evolution of mammals and their lice.
  6. New study challenges old views on what’s ‘primitive’ in mammalian reproduction
    For decades, marsupial reproduction has been seen as more ‘primitive’ than that of placental mammals. New research suggests otherwise.
  7. Tiny bodies of bats allow perfect balance between flight costs and heat dissipation
    Evolution often involves design compromises. Many mammal species living in cold climates tend to have large bodies and short limbs to reduce heat loss. But bats are an exception to the rule.
  8. Mystery solved: when mammals’ ancestors became warm-blooded
    It looks as if warm-bloodedness developed in our mammalian ancestors around 233 million years ago, during the Late Triassic period, at a time when many other features of the mammalian body plan were also falling into place.
  9. Rise of the dinosaurs traced back to their adaptation to cold
    Meanwhile, in other Late-Triassic news… Scientists have suggested coverings of feathers enabled early dinosaurs to survive when other creatures died off in a mass extinction event.
  10. Impact crater may be dinosaur killer’s baby cousin
    Scientists investigating the other end of the dinosaurs’ magnificent 165-million-year reign have discovered what seems to be a second impact crater of a very similar age to the one associated with the demise of the non-avian dinosaurs.
  11. All the better to better eat you with: dinosaurs evolved different eye socket shapes to allow stronger bites
    Large predatory dinosaurs evolved elongated eye sockets to better deal with high bite forces, a new study suggests.
  12. Ancestral genetic variation essential for rapid evolution of Darwin’s finches
    Researchers have identified 28 ancestral gene regions particularly important in the evolution of Darwin’s finches.
  13. Researcher examines how two volcanic eruptions forever changed flightless brown kiwi
    A nice example of Darwin’s important idea that geographical isolation can lead to divergence of populations.
  14. Darwin in Edinburgh
    An account of the recent Darwin in Edinburgh walking theatre tour.

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

Natural Selections

Some book recommendations for you:

More book reviews »

Journal of Researches

Natural selection and evolution also applies to writing. Earlier this week, I realised the latest chapter I’d been struggling to outline for my Darwin book wasn’t viable. It would never have what it takes to survive the trials of later drafts. One lesson my former career working on projects and programmes of work taught me is the sooner you stop a bad idea the better. So I see the rapid extinction of my latest chapter as a good thing: my book will be better without it.

Onward and upward, to the next chapter! (Let’s hope this one evolves some legs!)

Expression of Emotions

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

As I said last time, if you enjoy this newsletter, you might also like to check out my other newsletter, which is remarkably similar in format, but with less emphasis on Darwin-related stuff (even though, as we all know, everything has a Darwin connection).

See you next time!

Richard Carter, FCD

Newsletter 14: ‘The correct way to classify species’ Fri, 10 Jun 2022 16:18:49 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( Taxonomic techniques compared • Pterosaurs • plant evolution and mega-herbivores • punctuated equilibrium • chimp vocalisations • giraffes’s necks • whale evolution • giant tortoises • platypus conspiracy • book recommendations
Darwin newsletter

10TH JUNE 2022

Dear Friend of Darwin,

Charles Darwin appreciated one of the most compelling arguments in favour of his theory of evolution by means of natural selection was just how much apparently unrelated stuff it explained. In one letter, he asked an unconvinced colleague to consider the ‘large body of facts in Geographical Distribution, Geological Succession, & more especially in Classification, Homology, Embryology, [and] Rudimentary Organs’ that his theory explained. After years of research, he had written about each of these subjects in On the Origin of Species.

Species’ classification—what we would now call taxonomy—was a particularly interesting example. Expert taxonomists had categorised species according to similarities in their physical structures—that is, in their morphologies. Darwin realised the groupings contemporary taxonomists had come up with actually tended to reflect how closely the species were related to each other through genealogical descent. He rightly pointed out that genealogical descent was the correct way to classify species—which is exactly how modern taxonomists try to classify them.

As Darwin also pointed out, the idea that species were related through genealogical descent also threw considerable light on their geographical distributions. For example, all the many species of living and extinct kangaroos are or were indigenous to Australia and New Guinea because they all evolved from a common ancestor that lived in that region. The same goes for the rheas of South America, the finches of the Galápagos Islands, and all manner of other groups of related species.

An interesting new study (see item 1 in the ‘Missing Links’ section below) made use of Darwin’s realisation that species’ geographical distributions tend to reflect their genealogical descent. The study compared two different taxonomic techniques for classifying species: the traditional technique of comparing their morphologies, and the more recent technique of comparing their DNA. It found that DNA-based taxonomies more closely reflected species’ geographical groupings than did morphology-based taxonomies. In other words, DNA-based taxonomies tend to be more accurate than morphology-based taxonomies at reflecting genealogical descent.

When done properly, science has an admirable habit of spotting its own mistakes and correcting them. One implication of this new study, assuming its findings are widely accepted, is that many of our existing morphology-based taxonomies will require revision. Those where DNA comparisons can be made, at least. For those species where no DNA samples exist—which includes the vast majority of extinct species—more traditional morphology-based techniques remain the best approach we have.

Missing Links

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

  1. Study suggests that most of our evolutionary trees could be wrong
    Scientists compared evolutionary trees based on morphology with those based on molecular data, and mapped them according to geographical location. They found that the animals grouped together by molecular trees lived more closely together geographically than the animals grouped using the morphological trees.
    Associated journal paper: Molecular phylogenies map to biogeography better than morphological ones
  2. Microfossils may be evidence life began ‘very quickly’ after Earth formed
    Scientists believe a new specimen shows life existed earlier than is widely assumed.
  3. Pterosaurs and the evolution of melanin-based colours in feathers: pterosaurs had feathers and they were coloured!
    A remarkably well-preserved Pterosaur fossil reveals clues that it bore coloured feathers.
  4. How the dinosaur extinction changed plant evolution
    Following the extinction of non-avian dinosaurs 66 million years ago, large herbivores were missing on Earth for 25 million years. This raises the question of how the prolonged absence of ‘mega-herbivores’ affected the evolution of plants.
  5. Wild animals are evolving faster than anybody thought
    A long-term study of wild animal populations shows each generation is on average almost 20% genetically ‘better’ than its parents at surviving and reproducing.
  6. 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?
  7. Chimpanzees combine calls to form numerous vocal sequences
    Evidence of structured vocal sequences in wild chimpanzee communication provides insights into human language evolution.
    Associated journal paper: Chimpanzees produce diverse vocal sequences with ordered and recombinatorial properties
  8. Strange fossil solves giraffe evolutionary mystery
    Fossils of a strange early giraffoid have revealed what is claimed to be the key driving forces in giraffe evolution.
  9. Largest ever study of its kind reveals whales evolved in three rapid phases
    A new study has revealed that the diversity we see in whale skulls was achieved through three key periods of rapid evolution.
  10. ’Fantastic giant tortoise’ species thought extinct for 100 years found alive
    A rare Galápagos species, the ‘fantastic giant tortoise‘, long thought extinct, has been officially identified for the first time in more than a century.
  11. The Platypus Conspiracy
    Extremely silly video. (It’s Jerry’s fault.)

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

Natural Selections

Some book recommendations for you:

More book reviews »

Journal of Researches

The first draft of my Darwin book continues to evolve at an appropriately slow but steady pace, occasionally punctuated by brief bursts of activity. I have now written 88,000 words of my target 65,000—which just goes to show how bad I am at setting targets.

My latest chapter was about something Darwin got very, very wrong: his ‘provisional hypothesis’ of Pangenesis, in which he attempted to explain how heredity works. You won’t be at all surprised to hear I cut poor old Charlie a bit of slack, concluding it wasn’t such a bad attempt, given the various phenomena he was trying to explain—at least one of which, while generally accepted at the time, we now know to be completely bogus.

Expression of Emotions

Thanks for taking time to read this newsletter. As always, please feel free to forward it to any friends you think might like to subscribe. If you enjoy this newsletter, you might also like to check out my other newsletter, which is remarkably similar in format, but with less emphasis on Darwin-related stuff.

See you next time!

Richard Carter, FCD

Book review: ‘Islands of Abandonment’ by Cal Flyn Mon, 18 Apr 2022 13:49:47 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( Life in the post-human landscape.
‘Islands of Abandonment’ by Cal Flyn

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

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

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

A wonderful book.

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

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

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

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

Definitely my kind of book.

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

8TH APRIL 2022

Dear Friend of Darwin,

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

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

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

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

Missing Links

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

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

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

Natural Selections

Some book recommendations for you:

More book reviews »

Journal of Researches

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

Expression of Emotions

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

See you next time!

Richard Carter, FCD

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


Dear Friend of Darwin,

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

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

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

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

Missing Links

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

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

Natural Selections

Some book recommendations for you:

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

More book reviews »

Journal of Researches

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

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

Expression of Emotions

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

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

See you next time!

Richard Carter, FCD

Book review: ‘The Diversity of Life’ by Edward O. Wilson Mon, 07 Feb 2022 15:41:42 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD ( On our most valuable but least appreciated resource.
‘The Diversity of Life’ by Edward O. Wilson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We now have members in 102 countries.

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


Dear Friend of Darwin,

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

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

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

Missing Links

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

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

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

Natural Selections

Some book recommendations for you:

More book reviews »

Journal of Researches

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

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

Expression of Emotions

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

See you next time!

Richard Carter, FCD

Book review: ‘The Enlightenment’ by Ritchie Robertson Tue, 31 Aug 2021 09:06:02 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( 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.
Newsletter No. 10: ‘Attending a very little to species’ Fri, 30 Jul 2021 14:07:46 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( 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.

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Natural Selections

Some book recommendations for you:

More book reviews »

Journal of Researches

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

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

Expression of Emotions

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

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See you next time!

Richard Carter, FCD

Book review: ‘Darwin: a companion’ by Paul van Helvert & John van Wyhe Mon, 26 Jul 2021 20:46:58 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( 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.


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

Book review: ‘Gone’ by Michael Blencowe Wed, 24 Feb 2021 14:56:17 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD ( 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.


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.