12TH FEBRUARY 2022
Dear Friend of Darwin,
Today marks the 213th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin (and Abraham Lincoln). Happy Darwin Day!
On this day in 1859, his 50th birthday, a poorly Darwin wrote to his cousin William Darwin Fox from Moor Park in Surrey, where he was receiving what we would now consider ineffective/quack hydropathic treatment for his mysterious illness(es):
I have been extra bad of late, with the old severe vomiting rather often & much distressing swimming of the head; I have been here a week & shall stay another & it has already done me good. I am taking Pepsine, ie the chief element of the gastric juice, & I think it does me good & at first was charmed with it. My abstract is the cause, I believe of the main part of the ills to which my flesh is heir to; but I have only two more chapters & to correct all, & then I shall be a comparatively free man.
The ‘abstract’ Darwin blamed as the main cause of his ills was, of course, On the Origin of Species, which would finally be unleashed on the world nine months later. Writing as someone deeply ensconced in a book of his own at the moment (update below), I can certainly see the appeal of being a ‘comparatively free man’ once the project is finished. But I can’t imagine what it must be like to feel compelled to press on with a work you believe is making you physically ill.
Some Darwin- and evolution-related stories that caught my eye recently:
- Edward O Wilson obituary
A tribute to the great natural historian and ecologist, who provoked considerable controversy hypothesising on the biological basis of human social behaviour.
- Richard Leakey (1944–2022)
Obituary of the world-renowned palaeontologist of human origins.
- Video: Darwin’s lost microscope: the auction of a history-making ‘box of brass’
A mini-documentary about the first microscope used by Charles Darwin, which was sold at auction recently. (Sadly, I wasn’t the anonymous, extremely rich buyer.)
- Evolution: how Victorian sexism influenced Darwin’s theories
Ignore the click-baitey headline. An interesting article on Darwin’s theory of sexual selection, and what we’ve learnt since his time.
- Charles Darwin’s mitochondrial disorder: possible neuroendocrine involvement
The latest hypothesis in the perennial quest to explain Darwin’s mysterious illness(es).
- Evolution 101, with reference to coronavirus
T. Ryan Gregory on how viruses don’t want anything; they just spread to new hosts or they don’t, and replicate effectively in hosts or they don’t.
- The impact of flowering plants on the evolution of life on Earth
A new study has found that, from 100 to 50 million years ago, flowering plants dramatically boosted Earth’s biodiversity and rebuilt entire ecosystems.
- Loss of ancient grazers triggered a global rise in fires
The extinction of iconic grassland grazers such as the woolly mammoth, giant bison, and ancient horses seems to have triggered a dramatic increase in fires in the world’s grasslands.
- Study offers new insights into the timeline of mammal evolution
A new study has provided the most detailed timeline yet of mammalian evolution.
- World’s vast networks of underground fungi to be mapped for first time
An ambitious new project aims to identify the world’s endangered hotspots of mycorrhizal fungi.
- Video: True Facts: Proboscis Monkey
Some excellent science in amongst the humour!
Some book recommendations for you:
Journal of Researches
Due to various commitments and interruptions—and not at all due to lethargy on my behalf, oh no!—progress on my Darwin book has slowed since Christmas. But it has finally begun to pick up again. I’m currently working on a chapter about the evolution of the eye.
Darwin wrote about this topic in On the Origin of Species, which is frequently quoted out of context by creationists to imply that Darwin thought the eye was far too complex to have evolved through natural selection. Darwin, of course, thought no such thing. Indeed, we now know complex eyes such as our own have evolved from very simple beginnings many, many times over in different evolutionary lineages.
Expression of Emotions
Thanks for taking time to read this newsletter. One of my aims for this year is to share more stuff through this and my other newsletter, and to spend less time feeding the social media beasts—especially Facebook. It might not make me feel physically sick, like Darwin felt working on Origin, but, with every new innovation or restriction Zuckerberg & Co. introduce, maintaining a Facebook page has certainly grown nauseating. I would far rather cut out the censoring middle-man and communicate with you lovely people directly.
Please feel free to forward this newsletter to any friends you think might like to subscribe.
See you next time!
Richard Carter, FCD