5TH NOVEMBER 2021
Dear Friend of Darwin,
On this day in 1864, Charles Darwin received news from Edward Sabine, President of the Royal Society, that he had been awarded the society’s oldest and most prestigious award, the Copley Medal, ‘for the eminent services you have rendered in the three departments of geology zoology and botany’.
Sabine had successfully exerted his influence the previous year to see that the medal went to the geologist Adam Sedgwick instead of Darwin. Sabine had viewed with ‘extreme concern the efforts of a very strong party [within the society] to obtain the award of the Copley Medal to him [Darwin] expressly on the ground of his conclusions as to the “Origin of Species”’. Sabine did not want the Royal Society to be seen as endorsing Darwin’s, then, still scientifically controversial theory.
At his 1864 presidential address, Sabine claimed the society’s council had not taken On the Origin of Species into account when selecting Darwin for the award. At the end of the address, Darwin’s friend Thomas Henry Huxley challenged this claim by calling for the council’s minutes to be read out. The controversy dragged on for some time, but, officially, it seems Sabine was correct: Darwin received the Royal Society’s greatest accolade without his single greatest contribution to science being taken into account—although I’m sure some of the council members must also privately have borne Darwin’s evolutionary work in mind when casting their votes.
Some Darwin- and evolution-related stories that caught my eye recently:
- A new fossil discovery may add hundreds of millions of years to the evolutionary history of animals
A recently discovered sponge fossil may be the oldest known animal fossil, extending the evolutionary timeline by hundreds of millions of years.
- Charles Darwin’s dwarf kidney beans cleaned and catalogued
The ‘weird and wonderful’ items collected by Charles Darwin are being made available online.
- DNA shows Japanese wolf closest relative of domestic dogs
A team of researchers has found evidence that the Japanese wolf is the closest known relative of domestic dogs.
- Experts name new species of human ancestor
An international team of researchers has announced the naming of a new species of human ancestor, Homo bodoensis.
- Flies like yellow, bees like blue: how flower colours cater to the taste of pollinating insects
Plants use their flower colours for ‘brand recognition’ among insects—but also work together to attract more pollinators.
- Fossils and ancient DNA paint a vibrant picture of human origins
Paleoanthropologists have sketched a rough timeline of how human evolution played out, centring the early action in Africa.
- Going up: birds and mammals evolve faster if their home is rising
The rise and fall of Earth’s land surface over the last three million years shaped the evolution of birds and mammals, a new study has found, with new species evolving at higher rates where the land has risen most.
- Heels: a new account of the Double Helix
Nathaniel Comfort reviews Howard Markel’s new book about Rosalind Franklin, The Secret of Life.
- Ivory poaching has led to evolution of tuskless elephants, study finds
Researchers say findings in Mozambique demonstrate the impact of human interference on nature.
- An indigenous people in the Philippines have the most Denisovan DNA
Genetic comparisons crown the Indigenous Ayta Magbukon people as having the most DNA, 5 percent, from the mysterious ancient hominids.
- How venomous snakes got their fangs
How have snakes evolved venom fangs so many times in their evolutionary history? Research suggests it’s due to a structure called ‘plicidentine’ in their teeth that can evolve into venom grooves.
- Mammals’ noses come from reptiles’ jaws: evolutionary development of facial bones
New examinations of skeletons and animal embryos have allowed researchers to discover how mammals developed protruding, flexible noses.
- The former slave-turned-Edinburgh taxidermist who trained Charles Darwin
John Edmonstone came to Edinburgh from a timber plantation in Demerara in 1817 and became one of the city’s most celebrated taxidermists.
For regular links like these, please like and follow the Friends of Charles Darwin Facebook page.
Some book recommendations for you:
Journal of Researches
At the latest count, the first draft of my Darwin book had reached 79,000 words, with several chapters still to go. But editing is like natural selection: many unfit words will no doubt be culled, once I finally get round to the second draft. With any luck, the analogy will not end there, and something more fit for purpose will slowly evolve.
I recently completed a chapter about Alfred Russel Wallace’s 1858 bombshell letter to Darwin, and Darwin’s subsequent rush to publish his theory of evolution by means of natural selection alongside Wallace’s version. One interesting snippet I uncovered during my research answered a minor question I’d never got round to investigating: why did Alfred Russel Wallace’s middle name have only one ‘L’? It turns out the name was misspelt on his birth certificate.
Expression of Emotions
With the social media in general, and Facebook in particular, making it harder and harder for people to see the stuff they’ve actually asked to see, thanks once again for cutting out the media-magnate middlemen by subscribing to this newsletter. As always, please feel free to forward it to any friends you think might like to subscribe.
See you next time!