3RD JULY 2020
Dear Friend of Darwin,
I hope you and your loved ones are keeping safe and well in this time of crisis.
160 years ago today, Charles Darwin wrote to his American friend Asa Gray with news of the now legendary 1860 British Association debate in Oxford, which had taken place a few days earlier.
In his absence, Darwin’s friends Thomas Henry Huxley and Joseph Dalton Hooker had crossed swords with anatomist Richard Owen and the Bishop of Oxford, ‘Soapy’ Sam Wilberforce, on the subject of Darwin’s recently published book, On the Origin of Species. Eyewitness accounts vary, and what exactly was said is now lost. Both sides seem to have come away thinking they had acquitted themselves well in the debate, although popular legend has it Darwin’s friends wiped the floor with the evolutionary naysayers.
Here’s how Darwin reported the story, second-hand, to Gray:
Yesterday I had letter from Hooker at B. Assocn at Oxford; & he tells me that there was one day a savage fight on my Book between Owen & Huxley; [… The] Bishop of Oxford, one of most eloquent men in England, ridiculed me at great length & with much spirit; & Hooker answered him, I imagine, with wonderful spirit & success.—
Owen will not prove right, when he said that the whole subject would be forgotten in 10 years. My book has stirred up the mud with a vengeance; & it will be a blessing to me if all my friends do not get to hate me. But I look at it as certain, if I had not stirred up the mud some one else would very soon; so that the sooner the battle is fought the sooner it will be settled,— not that the subject will be settled in our lives’ times.
160 years later, some people still refuse to accept Darwin’s great theory of evolution by means of natural selection, although the matter was settled long ago, as far as the scientific community is concerned.
Missing Links (part 1)
Some Darwin- and evolution-related stories that caught my eye recently. (There are a few more stories to share than usual, so I’ve split the Missing Links into two parts this time, for the sake of variety.)
Richard Fortey on Charles Lyell (video)
Brian Cox interviews geologist and palaeontologist Richard Fortey on Darwin’s great friend, Sir Charles Lyell.
Erasmus Darwin and the great slaughterhouse of nature
On Charles Darwin’s evolutionary (and genealogical) predecessor Erasmus Darwin.
Emma Darwin and the invisible heroism of the scientific caretaker
Emma Darwin represents a scientific role that has played a massive, if historically invisible part in humanity’s scientific history.
Dock for Darwin’s ship gets protected status
The remains of a rare 19th Century dock built for Charles Darwin’s ship HMS Beagle has been recognised as a site of national importance.
Ancient bird skull found in amber was tiny predator in the time of giant dinosaurs
The skull of Oculudentavis, found encased in amber, provides new clues into the transition from dinosaurs to birds, and may be smallest of either ever found.
When fish gave us the finger: this ancient four-limbed fish reveals the origins of the human hand
On the first complete specimen of Elpistostege watsoni, a tetrapod-like fish that lived more than 380-million years ago.
A crucial idea Darwin had on evolution was just confirmed, 140 years after his death
Darwin suggested an animal species with greater diversity in its line will produce more sub-species, too. Looks as if he was right.
Some book recommendations for you:
by Marlene Zuk & Leigh W. Simmons
A very short introduction to a subject brought to the world’s attention by Charles Darwin.
The Lunar Men: The Friends who Made the Future, 1730–1810
by Jenny Uglow
A collective biography of a remarkable group of friends, including both of Charles Darwin’s grandfathers.
Ever Since Darwin
by Stephen Jay Gould
Reflections in natural history. The first collection of Gould’s brilliant essays on evolution and the history of science.
The Invention of Nature
by Andrea Wulf
The adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the lost hero of science—and hero of Charles Darwin!
Journal of Researches
On a personal note, one unexpected benefit of the UK coronavirus lockdown has been that, confined mostly to the house, I’ve had far fewer excuses for not pressing on with my ‘Darwin book’.
Since the last newsletter, I’ve been researching and writing on all manner of topics, including: beards, birdsong, vestigial features, the geographical and geological succession of species, continental drift, instinct, colour vision, bats, coral reefs, and earthworms. I’ve also found out one or two new things about Charles Darwin, and continue to like him more each day.
Yes, I know, I probably should get out more. But that’s not a particularly good option at the moment.
Missing Links (part 2)
Biodiversity and climate change: size matters, and it depends on the region
Climate change is affecting our planet’s biodiversity, yet some species can find ways to adapt.
How gene flow between species influences the evolution of Darwin’s finches
Despite the traditional view that species do not exchange genes by hybridisation, recent studies show gene flow between closely related species is more common than previously thought.
The Cave Lion’s Tale
Twenty new lion genomes give fresh perspectives on relationships between extinct and living populations of the King of Beasts.
Insect wings evolved from legs, mayfly genome suggests
…and in at least one species, gills double as a nose.
Plants can camouflage odours to avoid being eaten
Complex plant communities evolve to emit similar odours, a pack mentality that keeps them alive and confuses hungry herbivores.
Fossil discoveries suggest the earliest dinosaurs laid soft-shelled eggs
Finding soft-shelled dinosaur eggs in the fossil record for the first time has scientists rethinking how dinosaur eggs evolved.
Hints at jaw evolution found in marsupials and monotremes
Infant marsupials and monotremes use a connection between their ear and jaw to enable them to suckle. This may help explain how the bones of the middle ear and jaw evolved in mammals and their predecessors.
For regular links like these, please like and follow the Friends of Charles Darwin Facebook page.
Expression of Emotions
Thanks for taking time to read this newsletter. Sorry it was later (so longer) than usual. I’ll try to make them more frequent (so shorter) in future.
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See you next time.