12TH FEBRUARY 2020
Dear Friend of Darwin,
Today marks the 211th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin in Shrewsbury, Shropshire. Happy birthday, old chap! And Happy Darwin Day to one and all!
Earlier this week, I finally finished reading Darwin’s 1871 classic, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. There’s a link to my review in the book recommendations section below. As scientific door-stops go, Descent is a biggie: 900+ pages of evidence and argument about our place in nature, and about Darwin’s other great evolutionary idea: sexual selection. As I say in my review, Darwin writes with considerably more confidence in The Descent of Man than he did in On the Origin of Species. He treats evolution by means of natural selection as a given: a theory that has won the day, and can now be built on.
We’re still building on it.
Some Darwin- and evolution-related stories that caught my eye recently:
Shrinking dinosaurs and the evolution of endothermy in birds
The evolution of warm-bloodedness represented a major development in vertebrate history. How and when it happened in birds and mammals remains contentious. A new study suggests it might have been made easier thanks to species decreasing in size.
Neanderthal genes found for first time in African populations
For the first time, human populations in Africa have been revealed to share Neanderthal ancestry. The findings add a new twist to the tale of ancient humans and our closest known relatives.
Neanderthals dived for shells to make tools, research suggests
Neanderthals went diving for shells to turn into tools, according to new research. This suggests our big-browed cousins made more use of the sea than previously thought.
Ancient fossil ‘may prove scorpion was first land-dwelling animal’
Palaeontologists have revealed the remains of what might have been the first animal to set foot on land—an ancient scorpion.
Dinosaur extinction: ‘Asteroid strike was culprit’
This one will no doubt continue to run and run… A new study discounts the idea that large-scale vulcanism drove the demise of the dinosaurs.
Study traces evolution of acoustic communication
Darwin described acoustic communication between animals in the sexual selection portion of The Descent of Man. A new study of evolutionary trees suggests the ability evolved separately in mammals, birds, frogs and crocodilians during the last 100–200 million years.
First mushrooms appeared earlier than previously thought
A new study suggests the first mushrooms evolved 715–810 million years ago, 300 million years earlier than previously thought. It also suggests mushrooms could have been important partners for the first land-plants.
Galápagos experts find a tortoise related to Lonesome George
Conservationists working around the largest volcano on the Galápagos Islands say they have found 30 giant tortoises partially descended from two extinct species, including that of the famous Lonesome George.
How and when spines changed in mammalian evolution
A new study sheds light on how and when changes in the spine occurred during mammalian evolution.
How the development of skulls and beaks made Darwin’s finches one of the most diverse species
The finches of the Galápagos Islands are among the most celebrated examples of adaptive radiation in the evolution of modern vertebrates. A new study provides fresh insights into their rapid development and evolutionary success.
A Little Oasis
Artist Georgie Bennett, speaks with Head Gardener at Down House, Antony O’Rourke, about the importance of maintaining Darwin’s legacy for future generations.
For regular links like these, please like and follow the Friends of Charles Darwin Facebook page.
Some book recommendations for you:
The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex
by Charles Darwin
In On the Origin of Species, Darwin coyly observed: ‘Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history’. In The Decent of Man, he finally sets out to enlighten us as to our origins.
The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals
by Charles Darwin
Darwin evidently decided 900+ pages were quite enough for his two-volume Descent of Man, so he gave human and animal emotions a book of their own.
Darwin: a very short introduction
by Jonathan Howard
A useful little book concentrating less on Darwin’s life-story, and more on his work and its implications.
Animal Behaviour: a very short introduction
by Tristram D. Wyatt
A book containing some nice examples of how natural selection has honed animal behaviour to make the most of life’s opportunities and challenges.
Journal of Researches
Progress on my ‘Darwin book’ continues at what feels like a snail’s pace. Coincidentally, snails feature prominently in the chapter I’m currently working on. During my research, I came across a very strange snail anecdote that somehow made its way into The Descent of Man:
These animals appear also susceptible of some degree of permanent attachment: an accurate observer, Mr. Lonsdale, informs me that he placed a pair of land-shells (Helix pomatia), one of which was weakly, into a small and ill-provided garden. After a short time the strong and healthy individual disappeared, and was traced by its track of slime over a wall into an adjoining well-stocked garden. Mr. Lonsdale concluded that it had deserted its sickly mate; but after an absence of twenty-four hours it returned, and apparently communicated the result of its successful exploration, for both then started along the same track and disappeared over the wall.
With unlikely anecdotes like this making the cut, is it any wonder The Descent of Man ended up such an extremely long book? I guarantee my book will be shorter… Much, much shorter, the way things are going!
Expression of Emotions
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See you next time!