22 DECEMBER, 2023
Dear Friend of Darwin,
The winter solstice in the northern hemisphere might seem an odd day on which to bring this newsletter out of extended hibernation, but the end of one year and the start of the next is traditionally a time associated with fresh starts—so let’s go for it! (Apologies for the extended radio-silence, which was largely due to circumstances beyond my control.)
2023 saw a major landmark in Darwin studies: the official completion of the Darwin Correspondence Project. This was a 49-year initiative to collate, transcribe, research, annotate, and publish all of the over 15,000 surviving letters both from and to Charles Darwin. All of the correspondence is now available free online, although, being a total Darwin nerd, I have, over many years, gradually acquired a full set of the 30 printed volumes of this magnificent monument to Darwin’s life and work.
Having previously only read the first eight volumes of Darwin’s correspondence, this year I decided it was about time I started to work my way through the rest. So I set myself the challenge of reading at least ten pages of the correspondence every day that I was at home. I soon started thinking of this as my Daily Darwin routine. I’m astonished to say, I’ve stuck with it, not having missed a single day, and am currently nearing the end of volume 19. It has been an absolute delight.
Reading Darwin’s letters is by far the best way of getting to know the man behind the mythology. You read stuff that would never make it into biographies, and form your own opinions of his character based on what he himself wrote in private to friends, family and colleagues. You become familiar with Darwin’s gentle, self-deprecating humour, his modesty, and his ability to turn on the charm when making huge impositions on people for information—but only, of course, if it would be ‘without much trouble’. As you continue to read, obscure recurring themes begin to emerge; you pick up some nice quotes, and strange snippets of Darwinian trivia; and, increasingly, you just can’t help liking the chap.
You can expect plenty of select morsels from Darwin’s correspondence in future newsletters. In the meantime, here are a couple of articles I wrote this year informed by some of his letters:
- Charles Darwin’s book-writing process
A description of the four key stages Darwin went through when writing books.
- Modesty and candour: the Darwin-Wallace friendship
An exploration of the friendship between Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace—the man who famously arrived independently at the idea of natural selection. The article was written to mark Wallace’s 200th birthday earlier this year.
Also published to mark Alfred Russel Wallace’s bicentenary…
Radical By Nature by James T. Costa
Recommended to anyone wanting to know more about a justifiably celebrated, fascinating figure from the history of science.
Some Darwin-related articles that pinged on my radar…
- Natural history: Thoreau’s debt to Darwin
How American naturalist and essayist David Thoreau reined in his romantic transcendentalism and became more scientific after reading On the Origin of Species.
- The drafts of Origin of species
Darwin Online has managed to track down some rare manuscript pages of the first edition of On the Origin of Species. Here, they present scans and transcriptions of every available surviving page.
- Reindeers’ blue eyes act as night vision goggles to help them find food in winter
A new study suggests reindeer’s eyes change colour as colder months approach to enhance ultraviolet vision, helping them spot lichen vital for their survival. (If you can stomach the titular pun, see also the cited paper: Reindeer and the quest for Scottish enlichenment.)
- On a related topic… Humans may have influenced evolution of dogs’ eye colour, researchers say
The suggestion is humans distrust dogs with blue eyes, so have selected against them. A new paper’s leads author says, “I speculate that lighter irises have some evolutionary advantage for wolves, but domestication has lost this selective pressure and darker eyes have emerged in some primitive dogs.” Might I perhaps suggest blue eyes might be advantageous to wolves in the same way it’s claimed they are for reindeer (see above): to help them see better in winter? (Cited paper: Are dark-eyed dogs favoured by humans? Domestication as a potential driver of iris colour difference between dogs and wolves.)
- Genetic analysis shows head lice evolution mirrors human migration and colonization in the Americas
The parallel evolutionary histories of parasites and their hosts can be reflected in their genes. A new analysis of human lice genetic diversity suggests they came to the Americas twice—once during the first wave of human migration across the Bering Strait, and again during European colonisation. (Cited paper: Nuclear genetic diversity of head lice sheds light on human dispersal around the world.)
- How animal traits have shaped the journey of species across the globe
Species dispersal was a subject of immense interest to Darwin. New research looks into how different species have managed to cross geographic barriers throughout history, and whether their individual traits played a crucial role in these journeys.
- How snails cross vast oceans
More on species dispersal, exploring how land snails dispersed over salty oceans.
- How butterflies conquered the world: a new ‘family tree’ traces their 100-million-year journey across the globe
The most detailed evolutionary tree of butterfly species ever created reveals their geographical origins.
- How the tongue shaped life on Earth
Specialised organs for catching, ingesting, and swallowing different types of food, tongues had a dramatic impact on animal evolution.
- All the hominins made tools
A study of associations between stone tool evidence and fossil hominin remains shows that a wide range of species made stone artefacts.
- 4.5 billion years in 1 hour (YouTube video)
A mesmerising, hour-long animation taking us through Earth’s 4.5-billion-year history, each second representing 1.5-million years. Watch and chill-out.
Journal of researches
Due to previously mentioned circumstances beyond my control, progress on my book Through Darwin’s Eyes was extremely sporadic this year. But things have picked up, and I’m currently half-way through a chapter inspired by one or two visits over the last few years to a gannet colony on the East Yorkshire coast. I’m looking forward to getting fully back into the flow in 2024!
Expression of Emotions
Thanks as always for subscribing, and taking time to read this newsletter. Apologies once again for the extended hiatus: I think I can guarantee it won’t be anywhere near as long until the next newsletter
Have a great year-end, and I’ll be in touch again in 2024.