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: ‘Insectivorous Plants’ by Charles Darwin Fri, 07 Jun 2019 15:04:14 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( Darwin at his most Darwinian.

Darwin at his most Darwinian.

Insectivorous Plants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A wonderful read.

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

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

The Development of Darwin’s Theory

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

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

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

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

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

Highly recommended.

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

A celebration of bees and how to save them.

The Good Bee

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

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

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

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

An enjoyable and entertaining read.


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

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

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

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

The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We now have members in 100 countries.

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


Dear Friend of Darwin,

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

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

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

Happy 210th birthday, Mr D!

Missing Links

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Natural Selections

Some book recommendations for you:

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

Journal of Researches

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

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

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

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

Expression of Emotions

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

See you next time!

Richard Carter, FCD
The Darwin bicentennial oak, 10 years on Tue, 12 Feb 2019 11:04:01 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD ( Ten years ago today, I planted the Darwin Bicentennial Oak in my garden. The Darwin Bicentennial Oak
The Darwin Bicentennial Oak
The Darwin Bicentennial Oak, 2 years on
The Darwin bicentennial oak, 6 years on
The Darwin bicentennial oak, 7 years on
The Darwin bicentennial oak, 8 years on
The Darwin bicentennial oak, 9 years on

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highly recommended.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book review: ‘Landfill’ by Tim Dee Thu, 31 Jan 2019 16:59:05 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD ( A celebration of gulls.

A celebration of gulls.

LandfillGulls don’t have the kudos of other seabirds—except among the real bird nerds. Not that they’re exclusively seabirds these days. Like those other maligned avians, pigeons, gulls have adapted to the new environments created by our own species’ inexorable expansion. They’ve fitted in, moving into our towns and cities, and especially on to our rubbish dumps.

Tim Dee’s Landfill is a celebration of gulls’ adaptability, and of the urban bird nerds who study them. Thanks to the latter, we now know far more about what gulls get up to in our human-centric environments. Our urban gulls have done well over the last few decades, but changes in waste-disposal practices are beginning to create problems. The gulls will no doubt continue to adapt, but most likely in reduced numbers.

An unusual book, and a thoroughly enjoyable read about an under-appreciated family of birds.


Book review: ‘The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 8, 1860’ Thu, 31 Jan 2019 16:56:50 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD ( Letters to and from Darwin in the immediate aftermath of the publication of ‘On the Origin of Species’.

Letters to and from Darwin in the immediate aftermath of the publication of ‘On the Origin of Species’.

The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 8, 1860In my opinion, the magnificent, multi-volume Correspondence of Charles Darwin is by far the best way we 21st-century fans have of getting to know our hero. Here is Darwin talking privately among friends (and a few enemies). And every single letter both to and from Darwin is annotated with meticulously researched footnotes explaining its context and references.

This particular volume comprises Darwin’s correspondence for the year 1860—that is, in the immediate aftermath of the publication of the first edition of On the Origin of Species. Here we encounter many of the initial responses to his revolutionary book from the people whose opinions Darwin most cared about: his fellow scientists. Some are extremely positive, some politely non-committal, and a few downright scathing. As the months progress, Darwin begins to build a list of who has been won over by his one long argument, who goes with him some way (and will perhaps, with encouragement, go further), and who should be written off as a lost cause.

This volume also reveals Darwin the shrewd tactician, developing allegiances, encouraging third-party rebuttals to negative reviews, and scheming to bring positive reviews to a wider audience. We also encounter a good deal of frustration on Darwin’s behalf at readers (sometimes wilfully) failing to appreciate his strongest arguments in favour of his theory, while seizing on those that Darwin himself acknowledged were the weakest. (You’d better get used to it, Mr D!)

As always, individual letters provide fascinating insights into Darwin’s thinking. In this volume, we read him, among many other things:

  • comparing evolutionary links between species to a network, as well as to the more familiar tree;
  • thriftily admonishing his amanuensis for not writing on both sides of the paper;
  • realising he should have credited Alfred Russel Wallace more for independently arriving at the idea of Natural Selection (something he would remedy in later editions of Origin);
  • being impressed with his publisher at his having managed to get copies of Origin into railway bookstalls;
  • regretting certain passages in Origin that he would later amend or drop altogether;
  • sending his former servant aboard HMS Beagle an ear-trumpet to help with his increasing deafness;
  • emphasising the importance of different traits in species being linked together in some way;
  • feeling sick at the very thought of a peacock’s tail;
  • accusing Prince Albert (behind his back) of impertinence;
  • failing to see how a benevolent creator could allow the pupae of parasitic wasps to eat their hosts from the inside;
  • congratulating his friend Charles Lyell on raising some excellent, insightful objections to his theory;
  • explaining that dominant species in one environment would by no means necessarily be the dominant species in a different environment;
  • speculating that, were all vertebrates except reptiles to be wiped out, mammals would not evolve again from the remaining reptiles;
  • confessing how easily he is distracted from his planned work;
  • noting how having a theory by which to work affects your observational skills;
  • predicting that his theory will only be generally accepted once the old guard has been superseded by younger scientists.

As with all the volumes in this series, this book is really aimed at people with a serious interest in Darwin. And, as with all the other volumes, it is absolutely magnificent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book review: ‘Lady Hope’ by L.R. Croft Mon, 10 Dec 2018 15:14:20 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD ( Re-flogging a long-dead horse.

Re-flogging a long-dead horse.

Lady HopeFor a religious man, Dr Laurence Croft seems perversely hell-bent on perpetuating the myth of Charles Darwin’s death-bed conversion to evangelical Christianity. A few years back, Croft wrote an absolutely dreadful book in which he tried to argue that Elizabeth Lady Hope’s long-discredited tale of having heard an ailing Charles Darwin privately repent his theory of evolution and embrace Christ Jesus ‘was indeed true’. Croft’s desperately unconvincing case relied on a combination of wishful thinking, conspiracy theories, conjectures suddenly morphing into ‘facts’, and stated circumstances about Darwin that were unlikely in the extreme.

In this latest book, Croft wisely avoids repeating most of his nebulous argument. Instead, he simply carries on re-flogging his long-dead horse, uncritically repeating Lady Hope’s fabricated story as if it were true.

Here’s an example, describing in intimate detail Lady Hope’s supposed meeting with Darwin (who was, we are informed, reclining on a chaise longue in his purple dressing gown at the time):

For a time they talked about mutual interests and [Darwin] quickly recognised [Lady Hope’s] exceptional intelligence. She then expressed some admiration for the flowers she could see in the garden below. She loved flowers, orchids in particular, and this was also one of Darwin’s best-loved flowers, and as he spoke about them she could see an intense look in his eyes and a pleasing expression. She then spoke of her experiences in far off places, Tasmania where she had been born, Australia and India and the strange creatures she had seen, including the giant tortoises she had encountered while she was staying in Mauritius. These reminiscences brought back memories to Darwin of these places, as he also had visited them while on HMS Beagle. Then she told him of her visit to Napoleon’s tomb on St Helena and how she had felt so depressed afterwards. He smiled engagingly at her and confessed to having had similar feelings on his visit to the same place many years before. He then asked her about her recent home at Carriden and she told him about some of the work she had done there in reclaiming drunkards. To Darwin it brought back happy memories of the time he had spent in the area, as a medical student at Edinburgh, with his friend Robert Grant when they had explored all along the rocky shores of the Firth of Forth collecting fascinating creatures in the tidal rock pools. Then he remembered the glimpse he once had of the turrets of Carriden House through the thickly wooded embankment, just like David Balfour had in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped.

And the source(s) for this extremely detailed story? Croft doesn’t cite any directly—although his bibliography lists numerous earlier accounts of the tale in newspapers, religious magazines, and his own books and articles.

Lady Hope’s account of Darwin’s deathbed conversion was strongly rebutted by Darwin’s own family. At the beginning of this book, Croft states:

I leave the reader to judge as to who might be telling the truth as the evidence is unfolded in the pages that follow.

He then proceeds to unfold no evidence whatsoever for Lady Hope’s unlikely tale, leaving this particular reader in no doubt at all as to who might have been telling the truth, and which ladyship’s pants were well and truly on fire.

Other than rehashing the Darwin myth, the rest of this book contains a biography of Lady Hope. I have no interest in Lady Hope, and, Darwin sections aside, have nothing to say as to its reliability.

File under fiction.

Disclosure: For some reason, I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher.

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

We now have members in 99 countries.

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


Dear Friend of Darwin,

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

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

Missing Links

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Natural Selections

Some book recommendations for you:

Unnatural Selection
by Katrina van Grouw
Art meets science in this stunningly illustrated book, published to mark the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s long, lesser-known work ‘The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication’.
The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being

by Alice Roberts
Evolution and the making of us. A fantastic book exploring how our bodies are compromises, constrained by physics, and by our developmental and evolutionary history.
Darwin’s Most Wonderful Plants

by Ken Thompson
A short, entertaining investigation of each of Darwin’s major works on plants. By the end of it, you’ll have a far better appreciation of Darwin the botanist.

Journal of Researches

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

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

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

Expression of Emotions

Thanks for taking time to read this newsletter. Please feel free to forward it to any friends you think might like to subscribe. And if you’re at a loss as to what to buy those friends for Christmas, you’ll find another shameless plug for my soon-to-be-seen-as-a-classic book below.

See you next time!

Richard Carter, FCD
Book review: ‘Darwin’s Most Wonderful Plants’ by Ken Thompson Mon, 19 Nov 2018 07:27:25 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD ( Darwin’s botany today.

Darwin’s botany today.

Darwin’s Most Wonderful PlantsWhile working on my next book, I recently had cause to consult Charles Darwin’s The Effects of Cross and Self-Fertilisation in the Vegetable Kingdom (1876). As with all the books Darwin wrote after On the Origin of Species, the apparently obscure subject matter provided him with ample opportunity to build his case for his revolutionary theory of evolution by means of Natural Selection. Not that I did anything but dip into his plant fertilisation book, you understand: it assumes far more knowledge of botany than I will ever possess.

Darwin theorised, experimented and wrote a great deal on plants. They made ideal research subjects for a man often confined to his home through ill health. And having a wonderful theory by which to work enabled him to ask (and answer) deceptively simple questions nobody had even thought to ask before. To cap it all, having as a best friend Joseph Dalton Hooker, one of the foremost botanists in the world, also gave Darwin someone to bounce his ideas off. Anyone who has read their correspondence will appreciate just how much Hooker selflessly contributed to Darwin’s work.

In this short but entertaining book, plant biologist Ken Thompson visits each of Darwin’s major works on plants. The subject matter includes orchids, climbing plants, insectivorous plants, plant domestication, and plant movement. Without getting too technical, Thompson examines Darwin’s thoughts and findings on each topic, while introducing us to some of the latest thinking.

By end of the book, I had a far better appreciation for Darwin the botanist. Although, ever modest, he no doubt saw himself as little more than a gifted amateur, he really was at the cutting edge of plant research. But, with Charles Darwin, you would hardly expect anything less.

A nice book. Highly recommended.

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

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

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

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

The story, in a nutshell, goes like this:

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

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

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

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

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

I was on the scent now!

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

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

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

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

Transcribing Etty
Transcribing Etty.

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

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


(But it serves you right, Bullzig!)

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

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

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

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

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

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

See also: PZ Myers - Maureen Brian has died

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


Dear Friend of Darwin,

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

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

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

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

Missing Links

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

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

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

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

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

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

Natural Selections

Some book recommendations for you:

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

Journal of Researches

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

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

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

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

Expression of Emotions

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

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

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

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

Well, that’s certainly the plan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(No, me neither.)

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

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

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

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

Time, perhaps for something of a relaunch.

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

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

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

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

Subscribe to the newsletter:

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

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

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

Darwin £10 notes
Some magnificent Darwin tenners.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Subscribe to the newsletter:

Here’s to the next 24 years…

Subscribe to the Friends of Charles Darwin newsletter Sat, 24 Feb 2018 09:10:57 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD ( An occasional newsletter about all things Darwin: what’s not to like? Subscribe here…
Subscribe to the newsletter:
The ghost of John Tyndall solves a mystery (probably) Mon, 12 Feb 2018 14:52:15 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD ( How a Twitter conversation with the ghost of John Tyndall (friend of Charles Darwin), helped identify the likely source of a morbid inscription in one of his books. The case of the morbid book inscription

In December 2013, while visiting one of my favourite second-hand book shops with a friend, I came across a first edition of the essay collection New Fragments by one of Charles Darwin’s close friends, the physicist John Tyndall.

I was still working on my book On the Moor: Science, History and Nature on a Country Walk at the time. John Tyndall features prominently in two chapters, so I felt compelled to buy the book. (Well, that was my excuse, and I’m sticking to it.) Perhaps more intriguing than the book itself was the dramatic, hand-written inscription on the title page:

Book inscription
Morbid book inscription.

Transcript: Received at [the?] Temple Chambers on Friday 15th January 1892 (on a bed of sickness that has been well nigh unto death)

I concluded the inevitable blog post about my find with the confident prediction, ‘I guess I’ll never know the story behind these words—which is one of the appeals of such enigmatic inscriptions.’

But, hang on! Not so fast, Richard…

Mystery solved?

Four years and three days after coming across the enigmatic inscription, I happened to end up in a Twitter exchange with none other than the ghost of John Tyndall. (Twitter is weird like that.) I took the opportunity to draw his attention to my find:

I think I may know the story behind those words...will get back to you later tomorrow.

— John Tyndall (@ProfTyndall) December 5, 2017


True to his word, the ghost of John Tyndall did indeed get back to me the next day, in the guise of his amanuensis and biographer, Roland Jackson, who wrote:

[T]here’s an outside chance that your book is inscribed by [the mathematician] Thomas [Archer] Hirst. 15 January was publication day and he might have risen from his sickbed to get a copy. He died on 16 February. Tyndall at the time was confined to Hindhead, and the writing isn’t his wife’s (who might have gone to get it but I think there’s no mention in the diary) or his I think.

I attach the only really contemporary letter of Hirst’s we have. His writing seems to have changed quite a bit as he got more and more ill. There are resemblances but I’m not sure strong enough to be definitive. See what you think, making allowances for a sick man scrawling it on his bed.

Here is the attached letter from Hirst:

Hirst letter
Letter from Thomas Archer Hirst to John Tyndall, 04-Jan-1892.
Reproduced by courtesy of the Royal Institution of Great Britain.


4 Jany 1892

My dear John

I have just ordered your dozen of Whisky It ought to reach you tomorrow, or next day, I trust you will continue to like it, at your midday repast.

What do you think of Sir W. Thomson’s new Peerage? People here are wondering what title he will select to bear.

As to your possible change from Hind Head; Spencer has just been saying that he found perfect quiet at Bournemouth. This is worth knowing; for he is almost as sensitive as you are, with respect to quietude at night.

Every yours affectionately | Tom

A letter concerning whisky, containing gossip about the future Lord Kelvin, and with word from (presumably) Herbert Spencer: right up my street!

I’m no handwriting expert, but, as Roland Jackson suggested, I compared my book inscription with the Hirst letter and noticed a number of similarities, namely:

  • the year 1892, which appears in both samples, looks very similar (especially, the elongated, lowered numeral 9, and the curly flourish at the top of the numeral 2);
  • the lower-case ‘m’ in the word ‘midday’, and the (presumably) upper-case ‘M’ in ‘My’ in the letter both have very distinctive curly opening finials. These closely resemble the curly opening finial on the letter ‘n’ in the word ‘nigh’ in the book inscription;
  • (less convincingly) the upper-case ‘T’s in ‘Thomson’ and ‘Tom’ in the letter are similar in style to the upper-case ‘T’ in ‘Temple’ in the book inscription.
Thomas Archer Hirst
Thomas Archer Hirst (1830–1892)

Two other factors to consider:

  1. Thomas Archer Hirst kept an extensive scientific-diary-cum-everyday-book for 47 years. Although the diary does not mention receiving Tyndall’s New Fragments, its final entry was dated 18th January 1892—just three days after the date of the book inscription. This would tie in very well with Hirst’s being ‘well nigh unto death’. (He died as a result of a major influenza epidemic less than a month later, at his home in Marylebone, London, on 16 February 1892.)
  2. Whoever wrote the inscription in my book was sufficiently interested in the writing of John Tyndall to take delivery of his latest book from their sickbed on the very day it was published. Hirst, being a very close friend of Tyndall, and a voracious science-reader would seem to fit that bill very nicely.

Do I think this conclusively proves my morbid book inscription was indeed written by Tyndall’s dear friend Thomas Archer Hirst? No I don’t. But do I strongly suspect it was? You betcha!

Pleasing co-incidences

I couldn’t let the opportunity occasioned by writing about Thomas Archer Hirst and John Tyndall go by without relating a couple of personally interesting co-incidences about their friendship.

While I was researching Tyndall for my book, I learnt that he and Hirst first became friends as young men while surveying a proposed railway line between Halifax and Keighley, West Yorkshire. Those towns both lie just 20 minutes’ drive from my home. More pleasing, however, was it to discover that the man they both worked for was my namesake, the land agent and surveyor Richard Carter.

Shameless plug

On the MoorRead more about John Tyndall (and Charles Darwin, Robert FitzRoy, Sir Thomas Browne, Celtic languages, evolution’s kludgy compromises, wheatears, triangulation, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, grouse disease, defining species, DNA barcoding, the Laws of Thermodynamics, the Brontës, snipe courtship, skeletons, rooks, the Greenhouse Effect, blue skies, the songs of skylarks, contrails, and much more) in my book On the Moor: Science, History and Nature on a Country Walk.

If humans evolved from monkeys, how come there are still monkeys? Sat, 11 Feb 2017 11:25:06 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD ( This is a question frequently posed by creationists—and quite often by perfectly rational people… This is a question frequently posed by creationists—and quite often by perfectly rational people. It betrays a common misunderstanding of how evolution occurs. In this particular case, the answer also depends on what the questioner means by ‘monkeys’.

Simple answer

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

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

The following analogy might help:

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

How new species evolve

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

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

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

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

So did we evolve from monkeys or not?

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, how do you define a monkey?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The great Darwin fossil hunt Wed, 17 Jun 2015 16:31:06 +0100 Richard Carter, FCD ( In which a friend beyond measure arranges a behind-the-scenes visit to the Natural History Museum to see fossils collected by Charles Darwin during the Beagle voyage. It's a question which has troubled some of the finest minds of our age: what do you get for the only self-confessed Darwin groupie in your life when they hit the Big Five-O?

Shortly after my partner, Jen, and I returned home from a week-long holiday in Venice celebrating my 50th birthday, I received a phone call from my friend beyond compare, Stense. It turned out that she had been organising a special birthday treat for me. Stense is good at that sort of thing. A few weeks later, having travelled down from Yorkshire and Scotland in the early hours, the two of us met outside the Natural History Museum in London. After a quick exchange of hugs and good to see yous, we hurried through the visitors' entrance to meet Dr Martin Munt, Head of Palaeobiology Collections at the Department of Earth Sciences. Stense had arranged for Martin to show us some fossils collected by none other than Charles Darwin—many of them on the Beagle voyage. Have I got the best friends in the world, or what?

After viewing a few non-Darwinian fossils described by one of the legendary-in-fossil-describing-circles Sowerbys, we headed off towards the barnacles section. As Martin led us through the maze of filing cabinets, I explained to Stense how a throwaway remark by Darwin's own friend beyond compare, Joseph Dalton Hooker, had inadvertently touched a raw nerve. In a letter to Darwin in 1845, Hooker had described a certain French scientist, who had made some howler in a recent paper, as ‘no Botanist’; a man who ‘[did]not know what it is to be a specific Naturalist himself’. Darwin had long worried that, as he had not established his biological credentials by studying any group of species in depth, his as-yet-unpublished species theory would not be taken seriously. Hooker's throwaway comment was to launch Darwin on an eight-year study of living and extinct barnacles. The books he wrote are still the definitive books on the subject.

We arrived at a cabinet identical, as far as I could tell, to all the other cabinets. Martin took out his keys and unlocked it, sliding open the door to reveal a set of drawers labelled CIRRIPEDIA: Balanomorpha. Inside each drawer were dozens of small cardboard boxes containing all manner of fossilised barnacles, many on them on the fossilised shells of other species.

Fossil barnacles
Darwin's (and others people's) fossil barnacles. Natural History Museum.

Martin explained that the museum's specimens tend to be stored according to biological taxonomy, rather than by who collected them, so Darwin's stuff is scattered throughout the building, often being stored amongst related samples from other collectors. We were then joined by Claire Mellish, Curator of Fossil Arthropods, who explained that many of Darwin's fossils had been given new labels over the years, although some still bore his original handwriting. One thing to look out for, she said, is Darwin's characteristic long, high crossbar on his lower-case letter ‘t’s. Claire located a fossil labelled Balanus crenatus in Darwin's handwriting, and arranged it in the drawer for me to photograph. When I Googled Balanus crenatus afterwards, I was delighted to learn that it is still a common species of acorn barnacle—most likely one of the very species I used to graze my knees on when rockpooling in Anglesey as a child.

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

While looking over the barnacles, I took the opportunity to share a favourite Darwin story. So obsessed did Darwin become with his barnacle studies during the years 1846 to 1854 that, according to family legend, one of Darwin's young children, on visiting a neighbour's house, is supposed to have asked where the gentleman of the house did his barnacles.

In his autobiography, written towards the end of his life, Darwin described how he first came to take an interest in Cirripedia (barnacles), voicing a suspicion that his obsession had earned him a place in literary parody:

In October, 1846, I began to work on 'Cirripedia.' When on the coast of Chile, I found a most curious form, which burrowed into the shells of Concholepas, and which differed so much from all other Cirripedes that I had to form a new sub-order for its sole reception. […] To understand the structure of my new Cirripede I had to examine and dissect many of the common forms; and this gradually led me on to take up the whole group. I worked steadily on this subject for the next eight years, and ultimately published two thick volumes (Published by the Ray Society.), describing all the known living species, and two thin quartos on the extinct species. I do not doubt that Sir E. Lytton Bulwer had me in his mind when he introduced in one of his novels a Professor Long, who had written two huge volumes on limpets.

After I had taken a few more photographs, Martin led Stense and me further into the maze of cabinets, into one of his own areas of expertise, the fossil molluscs. He slid open another cabinet door to reveal the coolest labels I have ever seen on a set of drawers:

South America
Charles Darwin Coll.
Voyage of the Beagle figd specimens

The individual drawers were further labelled Oysters, Bivalvia, and Gastropoda.

Martin explained that some of Darwin's specimens were seen as scientifically important (for example, when they were the original ‘type’ specimens defining new species); whereas other specimens, while not being especially important scientifically were still seen as historically important, on account of who collected them. The specimens in these drawers were both scientifically and historically important. Some of them were also rather beautiful.

Martin drew our attention to what he said was probably his favourite fossil collected by Darwin: that of a slipper limpet, collected in S. Cruz, Patagonia in 1834. It really was an odd-looking creature—or, as I later found out, stack of creatures layered one on top of another—resembling, to my inexpert eyes, something more akin to a modern art sculpture than a cluster of fossilised organisms.

Crepidula gregaria
Fossil slipper limpet (Crepidula gregaria) collected by Darwin during the Beagle voyage. Natural History Museum.

There were dozens of other fossils from the Beagle voyage in the drawers, including some still labelled in Darwin's handwriting, such as that of the type specimen of the bivalve Nucula ornata, which he collected at Port Desire in Patagonia.

Nucula ornata
Nucula ornata fossil molluscs collected by Darwin during the Beagle voyage. Natural History Museum.

Thoughtfully, some previous visitor—a curator, I suppose—had left photocopies of the engraved plates from Darwin's 1846 book Geological Observations on South America, which depicted many of the actual fossils stored in the drawers. The illustrations of the fossils, and their descriptions, came courtesy of G.B. Sowerby (one of the aforementioned, legendary-in-fossil-describing-circles Sowerbys). The photocopies had evidently been used in some sort of fossil stock-taking exercise, as there were lightly pencilled ticks against many of the images. There, on plate 2, figure 19, was the Nucula ornata fossil I had just photographed, and there on plate 3, figure 34, was Martin's slipper limpet, Crepidula gregaria.

Stense examining diagram
Stense examining Plate 3 of Darwin's Geological Observations on South America (1846). Natural History Museum. (Note the Crepidula gregaria slipper limpet, second from left, middle row.)

Sowerby described Crepidula gregaria as follows:

This species is remarkable for its lengthened form: it is found, grouped together in an argillaceous sandstone of a grayish colour. It bears a strong general resemblance to Crepidula fornicata, which is found, similarly grouped, on the coasts of New York, New England, and generally on the Atlantic coasts of N. America.

Martin explained that slipper limpets have now established themselves in certain areas on the south coast of England, having been transported from their natural habitats in ships' ballast.

For our final set of Darwin fossils, Martin led us yet further into the maze, to the Brachiopods section. Brachiopods are an ancient lineage of sea-dwelling bivalves which superficially resemble clams—although they're not actually molluscs. I have a strange soft-spot for brachiopods, having once imagined seeing the image of Charles Darwin in a fossilised cluster of them. Yes, I know, I really should get out more. The brachiopods Martin had brought us to see were collected by Darwin just south of Port Louis in the Falkland Islands on 22nd March, 1833.

Port Louis
Settlement at Port Louis.
From: Robert FitzRoy's Narrative of the Surveying Voyages of His Majesty's Ships Adventure and Beagle between the years 1826 and 1836.
Fossil brachiopods
Fossil brachiopods collected by Darwin during the Beagle voyage. Natural History Museum.

Darwin recorded collecting these very fossils in his Beagle diary, stating:

This is one of the quietest places we have ever been to. — […] I walked one day to the town, which consists in half a dozen houses pitched at random in different places. […] The whole aspect of the Falkland Islands, were however changed to my eyes from that walk; for I found a rock abounding with shells; & these of the most interesting geological aera.

He explained the significance of his finds in a letter home to his sister Caroline, written aboard HMS Beagle a few days later:

I have been very successful in geology; as I have found a number of fossil shells, in the very oldest rocks, which ever have organic remains.— This has long been a great desideratum in geology, viz the comparison of animals of equally remote epocks at different stations in the globe.

As Chancellor and van Wyhe explain in their book Charles Darwin's Notebooks from the Voyage of the Beagle:

It is difficult to overstate the importance of these fossils. At the time of their discovery fossils like these were little known beyond Europe and were regarded as almost the oldest known life on Earth.

Martin picked up one of the rocks containing a couple of particularly pretty Spirifer hawkinsii brachiopods and handed it to Stense. He explained that this particular rock was the one traditionally handed to visitors. Previous handlers of this rock, in addition to Charles Darwin, were said to include King George V and Princess Diana. To which illustrious list can now be added Stense, followed shortly afterwards by Yours Truly.

Spirifer hawkinsii
Spirifer hawkinsii brachiopods collected by Darwin during the Beagle voyage. Natural History Museum.

Darwin's Falkland Island fossils were eventually described by Morris and Sharpe in an 1846 paper in the Proceedings of the Geological Society. Their paper immediately followed one by Darwin on the Geology of the Falkland Islands, and included an engraving of the very fossil in Stense's hands.

Spirifer hawkinsii. Taken from Plate X of Morris, J., Sharpe, D. 1846. Description of eight species of brachyopodous shells from the Palaeozoic rocks of the Falkland Islands. Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society 2: (25 March) 274-278, pls. X - XI.
The same Spirifer hawkinsii fossils, depicted in The Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society 2 (25 March, 1846).

At the end of their paper, Morris and Sharpe concluded:

The number of species collected by Mr. Darwin from the Falkland Islands is too limited to justify any close comparison with the palæozoic fauna of other portions of the globe, still however their allocation is rather interesting: of the eight species above described, all belong to the family of Brachiopoda, which appear to have constituted the chief portion of the fauna of that locality, and there is also a species of Orbicula (Pl. X. fig. 5), too imperfect to be described […]

The general occurrence and extensive distribution of many species of Brachiopoda, either identical in character or analogous in form, in the palæozoic strata, has always been a subject deeply interesting to the palæontologist, and has given rise to the opinion, that a more equable temperature, a greater uniformity of physical character and surface arrangements may have been instrumental in producing this extension in the northern regions during the palæozoic period; and the valuable researches of Mr. Darwin have also revealed to us that the existing conditions of some portions of the southern hemisphere at the same æra were favourable to the development of other species of the family Brachiopoda nearly related to those which in Northern Europe characterise the rocks of the palæozoic æra.

Morris and Sharpe were writing in a time before the theory of plate tectonics, so did not appreciate that the land masses which would become Northern Europe and South America were considerably closer to each other in those days. They and Darwin believed these Falkland Island fossils to date from either the Silurian or Devonian geological period within the Palaeozoic era. We now know that they date from the Devonian, being approximately 386 million years old—from a time when the world's continents were arranged very differently to today, with the submerged section of the South American tectonic plate that would eventually become the Falkland Islands lying close to what would become southern Africa.

386 million years! And I thought turning 50 was pretty ancient!

As a final treat, on our way out of the building, Martin took the opportunity to show us some scientifically unremarkable, but historically important fossils collected by the geologist William Smith, creator of the first geological map of Great Britain. It was a timely reminder to this incorrigible Darwin groupie that there have been—and there still are—plenty of other hard-working, less-hallowed scientists finding out how the world works, in addition to our Charlie. According to its website, the Natural History Museum houses 80 million scientific specimens. Every single one of those specimens had to be collected by somebody, examined and curated, named, and perhaps written about. Many of them will be of considerably less historical interest than Darwin's famous specimens, but they will all have their own fascinating stories to tell.

📷 Full set of photos from the great Darwin fossil hunt


Thanks to Dr Martin Munt of the Natural History Museum for finding time to show us around, and to his colleague Claire Mellish for helping me finally to get an inkling of what Darwin saw in barnacles. And extra-special thanks to Stense for being a friend beyond compare for exactly half of my 50 years, and for having such wonderful ideas for birthday presents.


  • Burkhardt, F.H. & Smith, S., eds. (1985). The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 1, 1821–1836. Cambridge University Press.
  • Burkhardt, F.H. & Smith, S., eds. (1988). The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 3, 1844–1846. Cambridge University Press.
  • Chancellor, G. & van Wyhe, J., eds. (2009). Charles Darwin's Notebooks from the Voyage of the Beagle. Cambridge University Press.
  • Darwin, C.R. (1846). Geological Observations on South America. Being the third part of the geology of the voyage of the Beagle, under the command of Capt. Fitzroy, R.N. during the years 1832 to 1836. London: Smith Elder and Co. (Available at Darwin Online.)
  • Darwin, F., ed. (1887). The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, including an autobiographical chapter. London: John Murray. (Available at Darwin Online.)
  • FitzRoy, R. (1839). Narrative of the surveying voyages of His Majesty's Ships Adventure and Beagle between the years 1826 and 1836, describing their examination of the southern shores of South America, and the Beagle's circumnavigation of the globe. Proceedings of the second expedition, 1831-36, under the command of Captain Robert Fitz-Roy, R.N. London: Henry Colburn. (Available at Darwin Online.)
  • Keynes, R. D., ed. (2001). Charles Darwin's Beagle Diary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (Available at Darwin Online.)
  • Morris, J., & Sharpe, D. (1846). Description of eight species of brachyopodous shells from the Palaeozoic rocks of the Falkland Islands. Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society 2: (25 March) 274-278. (Available at Darwin Online.)

Further reading: