Get to Know Darwin

Carl Zimmer blogged about some new resources from the Darwin Correspondence Project, “Creating Young Darwins.” Based on a university course at Harvard, “Get to Know Darwin” equips educators (and parents!) curriculum for teaching students (or children!) about Darwin’s many experiments. Through some of his papers and letters, they can learn why Darwin did them, how they were conducted, his results, and the context of their connection to his theoretical work.

Integrating Darwin’s correspondence with exercises in experimental science and study of his published work has been a great success. For students in the course, reading the letters enriched their understanding of Darwin’s life and work. The letters provided “a glimpse of his thought process” and “brought the other works we were looking at to life, and gave much context to who Darwin was from childhood to old age, as a father and a husband, and ultimately as a scientist.” They showed students “what excited him, what his hobbies were, and what went on in his daily life.” This kind of historical texture was not merely incidental to students’ learning. As one student in the course put it, “These details may not be present in On the Origin of Species, but they are, in my opinion, an integral part of the full comprehension of it. Knowing that Darwin was a devoted family man, meticulous observer, and a charming individual is more than just interesting – it gives his published work more purpose.”

Here’s the list of available topics: Early Days, Barnacles, Biogeography, Variation Under Domestication, Orchids, Instinct and the Evolution of Mind, Insectivorous Plants, Climbing Plants, Floral Dimorphism, Power of Movement in Plants, and Earthworms.

Bringing the history of science alive for education. I love it!

BOOK REVIEW: The Humblebee Hunter

In books for children, Charles Darwin is generally depicted as an old man, a wise and respected gentleman. In more recent years, there have been many books that focus on Darwin during the voyage of HMS Beagle, and they show him as a curious young man, an explorer and collector, traversing exotic locales. For those wishing for a book about Darwin as he was in between young and old, as a middle-aged man at the time he wrote On the Origin of Species, then you must check out The Humblebee Hunter, Inspired by the Life & Experiments of Charles Darwin and his Children, written by Deborah Hopkinson and illustrated by Jen Corace.

This is not just a book about Charles Darwin, however. He is a peripheral figure in the story, for the main character is his daughter Henrietta, or Etty for short. The story is told from her perspective.

We are to take this story as a typical day in the life of Darwin and his children. Darwin, however, was not a typical father for his time. He is involved in the affairs of his children. The historical record captures this aspect of his character. In this story, Darwin calls on his children for help in a scientific experiment, as he did in real life. Although this story is fictional, Darwin did indeed receive help from his children in his experimental endeavours. Most important, they did this science at home.

This book shows Darwin as a diligent worker and as nature lover, Darwin as a devoted father and Darwin as a curious mind. Also, Darwin as storyteller; he recounts his beetle-collecting days and his time on the Galapagos. Etty describes some of the many researches she and her siblings helped their father with. But today, her father is interested in bees: “I am wondering… just how many flowers a humblebee might visit in a minute.” And thus we have our story, simply told and warmly illustrated.

The Humblebee Hunter is a wonderful addition to children’s books not only about Darwin and the history of science, but about curiosity and the love of nature, and of getting children outside (Etty remarks toward the beginning as she helps her mother in the kitchen, “More than anything, I wanted to be outside”). It is always great to see strong female characters interested in science and nature.

Note: all images except the book cover image were taken from the illustrator’s website, here. For an interesting take on children’s books about Darwin, read this post by historian of science Katherine Pandora. I received a copy of this book from the author herself, and she inscribed the book to my son, “To Patrick, Ask questions!” Wonderful!

The Humblebee Hunter

Linnaeus apostles book project

If you’re interested in Linnaeus, or even the history of natural history generally, you should now about this project, which is nearing completion. It’s an eight volume (11 book) publication called The Linnaeus Apostles: Global Science and Adventure:

THE GREATEST RESEARCH AND PUBLISHING PROJECT EVER – on the chosen few who came to be known as the LINNAEUS APOSTLES. During the 18th century, the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) was to inspire 17 of his scholars to travel to distant corners of the world to document local nature and culture. They travelled on their own or with expeditions across land and sea – their travels covered every continent between the years 1745 and 1799.

Although Linnaeus and some of his apostles are known internationally, several of the apostles are relatively unknown despite their global pioneering work in the service of science and mankind. The publication of their journals – several of them now made available for the very first time – will for a long time to come stimulate fresh research, new thinking and not least provide exciting reading about cultures, landscapes and people of a bygone era.

The publication of a major international series of eight volumes – in all 11 books and over 5,500 pages – which has been in preparation since the late 1990s under the overall title of The Linnaeus Apostles – Global Science & Adventure. All the accounts of the apostles’ journeys to every continent have been published for the first time in English; those of the apostles who left no travel journals are described through their correspondence or other sources. In the introductory and concluding volumes world experts in various subject fields will provide accounts of the 18th century, of Linnaeus, of travelling and the hardships of field work, together with biographies and a index to volumes One to Eight, which contains more than 125,000 classified search terms.

All the 17 apostles’ complete texts, illustrations and maps have been published in the oeuvre mainly based on the original journals and, as an alternative where no such exist, previously printed old material or correspondence is used. This is the very first time this interesting and important material – about bygone horizons – is made public in its entirety; to the joy not only of interdisciplinary researchers into natural and cultural history, but also of everybody with a general interest in these subjects.

Even though the main authors of the six volumes of this oeuvre (Vol. 2-7) are THE 17 APOSTLES (C. F. Adler, A. Afzelius, A. Berlin, J. P. Falck, P. Forsskål, F. Hasselquist, P. Kalm, P. Osbeck, P. Löfling, D. Rolander, A. Rolandsson Martin, G. Rothman, D. Solander, A. Sparrman , C. P. Thunberg, O. Torén and C. Tärnström) we also present a number of leading scientific writers (G. Broberg, R. Edberg, U. Ehrensvärd, A. Ericsson, G. Eriksson, K. Grandin, V. Hansen, S. Helmfrid, C. Linnaeus, B. Nordenstam, H. Smethman, P. Sörbom and S. Sörlin) in the introductory (Vol. 1) and concluding (Vol. 8) volumes. Volume 1 (INTRODUCTION) will be the descriptive volume. Here the reader will get a deeper understanding of the world in which Linnaeus and his apostles lived. The 18th century was both like and unlike our world today. It was during this era that the modern world first saw the light of day.

The concluding volume 8 (ENCYCLOPÆDIA) will include maps, a categorised index for all the volumes, biographical fact files of each apostle and a list of the most important collections of scientific material in museums, archives and libraries connected to the apostles. Finally, an introduction to “iLINNAEUS” the global workshop to promote natural & cultural history inspired by the Linnaeus Apostles.

Much more detail about this series in this PDF. A purchase you should suggest to your university library…

ARTICLE: The secret life of plants: Visualizing vegetative movement, 1880–1903

In the journal Early Popular Visual Culture (10:1, 2012):

The secret life of plants: Visualizing vegetative movement, 1880–1903

Oliver Gaycken

Abstract As devices of motion analysis were introduced into botanical research in the late nineteenth century, Charles and Francis Darwin, Wilhelm Pfeffer, and investigators at the Marey Institute used a variety of techniques to visualize plant movements whose slowness rendered them otherwise imperceptible. These ‘time-lapse’ images provided novel visual records that initially were seen as providing evidence of an evolutionary link between the plant and animal kingdoms. While time-lapse plant growth images ultimately could not provide proof that plants are evolutionarily related to animals, time-lapse images did remain useful as a means to demonstrate the remarkable vitality of plants to students and lay audiences, and Oskar Messter’s exhibition of a time-lapse plant growth film was the first of a long tradition of time-lapse plant growth films that circulated in popular culture.

ARTICLE: Inspiration in the Harness of Daily Labor: Darwin, Botany, and the Triumph of Evolution, 1859–1868

From the journal Isis (September 2011):

Inspiration in the Harness of Daily Labor: Darwin, Botany, and the Triumph of Evolution, 1859–1868

Richard Bellon

Abstract Charles Darwin hoped that a large body of working naturalists would embrace evolution after the Origin of Species appeared in late 1859. He was disappointed. His evolutionary ideas at first made painfully little progress in the scientific community. But by 1863 the tide had turned dramatically, and within five years evolution became scientific orthodoxy in Britain. The Origin‘s reception followed this peculiar trajectory because Darwin had not initially tied its theory to productive original scientific investigation, which left him vulnerable to charges of reckless speculation. The debate changed with his successful application of evolution to original problems, most notably orchid fertilization, the subject of a well‐received book in 1862. Most of Darwin’s colleagues found the argument of the Origin convincing when they realized that it functioned productively in the day‐to‐day work of science—and not before. The conceptual force of the Origin, however outwardly persuasive, acquired full scientific legitimacy only when placed “in the harness of daily labour.”

Did Darwin respond to Wallace regarding pitcher plants?

UPDATE (9/14): It dawned on me yesterday that while I have provided here at The Dispersal of Darwin many examples of anti-evolutionists claiming Darwin said something when he did not (quote-mining), this post is an example of Darwin having written something and then it being claimed that he did not. Interesting.


In 1875 Darwin published his book about plants that eat insects, Insectivorous Plants. It was rather technical in nature, so did not receive the popular readership as did his Journal of Researches (1839, later The Voyage of the Beagle), On the Origin Of Species (1859), or the later (and last book) The Formation of Vegetable Mould, through the Action of Worms (1881). Like many of his books, Insectivorous Plants was a continuation of Darwin’s theory of transmutation project. Specifically, the book is a study of the adaptations of such plants to impoverished conditions. Darwin wrote of it in his autobiography:

During subsequent years, whenever I had leisure, I pursued my experiments, and my book on Insectivorous Plants was published July 1875,—that is sixteen years after my first observations. The delay in this case, as with all my other books, has been a great advantage to me; for a man after a long interval can criticise his own work, almost as well as if it were that of another person. The fact that a plant should secrete, when properly excited, a fluid containing an acid and ferment, closely analogous to the digestive fluid of an animal, was certainly a remarkable discovery.

A remarkable discovery indeed, but a fellow naturalist, whom Darwin shared the discovery of the theory of natural selection with, was concerned that some would not find natural selection a suitable explanation for the adaptations of carnivorous plants. In a letter to Darwin on July 21, 1875, Alfred Russel Wallace wrote:

Dear Darwin,–Many thanks for your kindness in sending me a copy of your new book [Insectivorous Plants]. Being very busy I have only had time to dip into it yet. The account of Utricularia is most marvellous, and quite new to me. I’m rather surprised that you do not make any remarks on the origin of these extraordinary contrivances for capturing insects. Did you think they were too obvious? I daresay there is no difficulty, but I feel sure they will be seized on as inexplicable by Natural Selection, and your silence on the point will be held to show that you consider them so! The contrivance in Utricularia and Dionaea, and in fact in Drosera too, seems fully as great and complex as in Orchids, but there is not the same motive force. Fertilisation and cross-fertilisation are important ends enough to lead to any modification, but can we suppose mere nourishment to be so important, seeing that it is so easily and almost universally obtained by extrusion of roots and leaves? Here are plants which lose their roots and leaves to acquire the same results by infinitely complex modes! What a wonderful and long-continued series of variations must have led up to the perfect “trap” in Utricularia, while at any stage of the process the same end might have been gained by a little more development of roots and leaves, as in 9,999 plants out of 10,000!

Is this an imaginary difficulty, or do you mean to deal with it in future editions of the “Origin”?–Believe me yours very faithfully,

Letters to and from Darwin of 1875 are not yet available through the Darwin Correspondence Project, but this letter can be found on pages 233-34 of Alfred Russel Wallace: Letters and Reminiscences (edited by James Marchant, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1916). Wallace’s words in this letter have been taken up by intelligent design proponents as a way to criticize Darwin. Remember, Wallace is the new poster boy for the Discovery Institute. In “Carnivorous plants eat Darwin” (August 18, 2011), Denyse O’Leary (also blogging about this at The ID Report) writes for Uncommon Descent:

University of Bonn geneticist Wolf-Ekkehard Lönnig will soon have a new book out, on the 200-year-old headache that carnivorous plants pose for Darwinism. Briefly, how does a plant evolve in slow, Darwinian steps, toward making insects part of its normal diet? Like the pitcher plant, for example.

O’Leary quotes Granville Sewall in the post:

In every family of the plant and animal kingdoms there are species whose sudden appearances and whose irreducibly complex features pose problems for neo-Darwinism. But certain carnivorous plants pose these problems in such a spectacular way that they are a focal point of the Darwinism debate, ever since Alfred Wallace warned Darwin about the problems posed by Utricularia, saying “I feel sure they will be seized on as inexplicable by Natural Selection” and implored him to address these difficulties in a future edition of his book “On the Origin of Species.”

These words are indeed from Wallace, in the letter to Darwin above. The way they are being used, however, seems to imply that Wallace finds natural selection an unconvincing explanation, whereas he is only stating that others might criticize Darwin for this (Wallace remarked, “I daresay there is no difficulty”). Moreoever, O’Leary writes in her post, in response to Wallace imploring Darwin “to deal with it in future editions of the Origin,” that “Darwin never did.” To state that Darwin never responded to Wallace’s question in a later edition is to imply that Darwin gave no response at all.

If one were to look in the historical record more deeply, they would find that Darwin did indeed respond to Wallace. On July 22, 1875, one day after Wallace’s letter about Utricularia, Darwin wrote to Wallace that he had “thrown some light on the acquirement of the power of digestion in Droseraceae,” another group of carnivorous plants (unfortunately there is no full text of the letter available until the DCP publishes the 1875 letters; they are currently readying 1871 for print). Darwin is referring to pages 361-63 of Insectivorous Plants:

The six genera of the Droseraceae very probably inherited this power from a common progenitor, but this cannot apply to
Pinguicula or Nepenthes, for these plants are not at all closely related to the Droseraceae. But the difficulty is not nearly so great as it at first appears. Firstly, the juices of many plants contain an acid, and, apparently, any acid serves for digestion. Secondly, as Dr. Hooker has remarked in relation to the present subject in his address at Belfast (1874), and as Sachs repeatedly insists, the embryos of some plants secrete a fluid which dissolves albuminous substances out of the endosperm; although the endosperm is not actually united with, only in contact with, the embryo. All plants, moreover, have the power of dissolving albuminous or proteid substances, such as protoplasm, chlorophyll, gluten, aleurone, and of carrying them from one part to other parts of their tissues. This must be effected by a solvent, probably consisting of a ferment together with an acid.† Now, in the case of plants which are able to absorb already soluble matter from captured insects, though not capable of true digestion, the solvent just referred to, which must be occasionally present in the glands, would be apt to exude from the glands together with the viscid secretion, inasmuch as endosmose is accompanied by exosmose. If such exudation did ever occur, the solvent would act on the animal matter contained within the captured insects, and this would be an act of true digestion. As it cannot be doubted that this process would be of high service to plants growing in very poor soil, it would tend to be perfected through natural selection. Therefore, any ordinary plant having viscid glands, which occasionally caught insects, might thus be converted under favourable circumstances into a species capable of true digestion. It ceases, therefore, to be any great mystery how several genera of plants, in no way closely related together, have independently acquired this same power.

So when asked by Wallace how to account for the evolution of one particular group of carnivorous plants, Darwin responded that his thoughts about another group should answer the question, it is understandable that Darwin need not have addressed this issue in a future edition of On the Origin of Species.

In his book, available as a PDF here, Lönnig quotes Wallace on page 145, and states (this is a Google translation from German), “I am not aware that Darwin has replied…” Well, to set the record straight, he did reply.

As I am not one to go into the actual biology of this issue, see Nick Matzke’s comments on O’Leary’s post and two others about carnivorous plants. The Darwin Correspondence Project has many letters to and from Darwin on carnivorous plants (Drosera and Utricularia), and some from Mary Treat about Utricularia have been published online ahead of print as part of the project’s Darwin and Gender initiative.

Darlingtonia californica

Darlingtonia californica

Photo: Darlingtonia State Natural Site, north of Florence, Oregon, August 7, 2011
Illustrations: Francis Ernest Lloyd, The Carnivorous Plants (New York: Dover, 1976 [1942]), plate 5.

We went camping last weekend on the Oregon coast and made a quick stop to see these pitcher plants. When we got home I pulled out this copy of The Carnivorous Plants that my grandfather owned and found some neat illustrations of Darlingtonia. So I thought I’d put a photo with the illustrations. You can view more photos here.

Darwin made just one mention of Darlingtonia in his Insectivorous Plants (1875, p. 453), when summarizing in the very last paragraph the three classes of such plants:

There is a second class of plants which, as we have just seen, cannot digest, but absorb the products of the decay of the animals which they capture, namely, Utricularia and its close allies; and from the excellent observations of Dr. Mellichamp and Dr. Canby, there can scarcely be a doubt that Sarracenia and Darlingtonia may be added to this class, though the fact can hardly be considered as yet fully proved.

Darlingtonia was described by John Torrey (1796-1873) in 1853 and named after William Darlington (1782–1863), a botanist in Philadelphia.

Darlingtonia State Natural Site