ARTICLE: The letters between James Lamont and Charles Darwin on Arctic fauna

A 2015 article from Polar Record might be of interest to some readers, espeically since it’s freely available as a PDF:

The letters between James Lamont and Charles Darwin on Arctic fauna

C. Leah Devlin

Abstract In the summers of 1858 and 1859, the Scot Sir James Lamont of Knockdow embarked on two cruises to Svalbard (referred to by Lamont as Spitzbergen [sic]) to hunt, make geographical surveys, and collect geological and biological specimens. Lamont’s return from these voyages coincided with the publication of the joint Charles Darwin-Alfred Russel Wallace paper, ‘On the tendency of species to form varieties; on the perpetuation of varieties and species by natural means of selection’ by the Linnean Society in August 1858 and, a year later, the publication of Darwin’s On the origin of species. Profoundly influenced by Darwin’s ideas, Lamont initiated a correspondence with the naturalist, relating examples of what he considered to be natural selection, observed during his hunting expeditions. In his Svalbard travelogue, Seasons with the sea-horses, Lamont expounded specifically upon walrus and polar bear evolution, ideas inspired by sporadic yet encouraging letters from the renowned naturalist.

ARTICLE: “rolls up like Armadillo”: Darwin’s forgotten encounters with ceratocanthine beetles (Coleoptera: Hybosoridae)

A recent “short note” in Archives of Natural History:

“rolls up like Armadillo”: Darwin’s forgotten encounters with ceratocanthine beetles (Coleoptera: Hybosoridae) 

Alberto Ballerio and Andrew B. T. Smith

No Abstract

ARTICLE: Darwin, Hume, Morgan, and the verae causae of psychology

A Darwin article in the new issue of Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences:

Darwin, Hume, Morgan, and the verae causae of psychology

Hayley Clatterbuck

Abstract Charles Darwin and C. Lloyd Morgan forward two influential principles of cognitive ethological inference that yield conflicting results about the extent of continuity in the cognitive traits of humans and other animals. While these principles have been interpreted as reflecting commitments to different senses of parsimony, in fact, both principles result from the same vera causa inferential strategy, according to which “We ought to admit no more causes of natural things, than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances”. Instead, the conflict stems from Darwin’s and Morgan’s views about the true causes of human psychology. Darwin holds a thoroughly Humean philosophy of the human mind, from which he infers significant continuity between human and animal minds. In contrast, Morgan argues that Humean cognitive mechanisms cannot account for a class of uniquely human behaviors, and therefore, he concludes that there is a significant discontinuity between human and animal cognition. This historical debate is informative for current controversies in comparative psychology.

GUEST POST: Darwin’s Polar Bear

The following guest post is from writer and wilderness guide Michael Engelhard, whose new book Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon is soon-to-be published by the University of Washington Press. Interested in doing a guest post about Darwin? Drop me an email at michaeldavidbarton AT gmail DOT com.




Darwin’s Polar Bear

by Michael Engelhard

Any high school student knows (or should know) how the beaks of Galápagos “finches” (it was in fact the islands’ mockingbirds that were influential) – of species confined to different islands – helped Darwin to develop his ideas about evolution. But few people realize that the polar bear too, informed his grand theory.

Letting his fancy run wild, in On the Origin of Species, the man used to thinking in eons hypothesized “a race of bears being rendered, by natural selection, more and more aquatic in their structure and habits, with larger and larger mouths, till a creature was produced as monstrous as a whale.” Darwin based this speculation on a black bear the fur trader-explorer Samuel Hearne had observed swimming for hours, its mouth wide open, catching insects in the water. If the supply of insects were constant, Darwin thought, and no better-adapted competitors present, such a species could well take shape over time.

Systematic approaches to animals and their respective niches had long fertilized the intellectual landscape. Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, in his Histoire Naturelle (published serially between 1749 and 1788) clearly distinguished a “land-bear” from a “sea-bear.” But his land-bear category was still muddled: it included a “white bear of the forest” as well as a white sea-bear. The count would have likely become aware of polar bears in the boreal forests of Hudson Bay by 1782, when France occupied Prince of Wales Fort at the mouth of the Churchill River. In a 1785 German edition of the Histoire Naturelle, Buffon’s white land-bear looks different from his sea-bear, clearly showing the shorter neck and snout characteristic of brown bears and black bears. Perhaps the count knew about British Columbia’s white black bears or “spirit bears,” which could have confused him. (Other contributions by Buffon were significant. He discovered the first principle of biogeography, noticing that despite similar environments, different regions have distinct plants and animals.)

Buffon’s classifying of animals by region or habitat – as in the case of the two “different” white bears – prompted later naturalists to try to explain their origins and distribution as resulting from the characteristics of a place. Long before the idea of “habitat” began to infiltrate scientific discourse, the polar bear’s range and that of its prey had been linked to environmental conditions. Synthesizing the work of the Comte de Buffon and other naturalists, the Anglo-Irish Romantic writer Oliver Goldsmith thought the “Greenland bear” exceptional, because it is “the only animal that, by being placed in the coldest climate, grows larger than those that live in the temperate zones. All other species of animated nature diminish as they approach the poles, and seem contracted in their size by the rigours of the ambient atmosphere… In short, all the variations of its figure and its colour seem to proceed from the coldness of the climate where it resides and the nature of the food it is supplied with.” Food availability does play a role in body mass, as does a region’s mean annual temperature, and while polar bears are not the only compact animal thriving in the Arctic such biogeographic observations anticipated the theory of evolution and principles of ecology.

On Svalbard expeditions in the summers of 1858 and 1859, the Scottish nobleman-explorer James Lamont watched polar bears frolic and dive. Intuiting that the animal had become what it is by living on seals, he deduced that the seal and the walrus must have originated first. Lamont assumed that polar bears had evolved from brown bears, “who, finding their means of subsistence running short, and pressed by hunger, ventured on the ice and caught some seals… so there is no impossibility in supposing that the brown bears, who by my theory were the progenitors of the present white bears, were accidently driven over to Greenland and Spitzbergen by storms or currents.” The palest brown bears with the greatest amount of external fat, Lamont thought, would have had the best chance to survive and therefore, reproduce. Upon his return, he wrote to Darwin, whose On the Origin of Species had been published in 1859. Encouraged by Darwin’s response, Lamont elaborated upon walrus and polar bear evolution in his 1861 travelogue, Seasons with the Sea-horses. Darwin approved of Lamont’s hypothesis and because Lamont’s thinking on the subject predated the publication of On the Origin of Species, he later credited Lamont (as he did Alfred Russell Wallace) with independently conceiving the theory of natural selection.

The oldest polar bear fossils found are from Svalbard and northern Norway and have been dated at 115,000–130,000 years old, before the beginning of the last Ice Age. But some biologists think that polar bears diverged from brown bears as early as 600,000 years ago. According to current research, polar bears evolved from brown bears that ventured onto the frozen ocean to stalk marine mammals, possibly after climate separated them from the main population descended from a common ancestor. This was not a single, clean-cut departure, and repeated pairings between both species have turned the family tree into a thicket. Shrinking sea ice could force polar bears to mingle with their southern cousins again, particularly as the latter now travel farther north. In coastal Arctic Alaska, grizzlies have been observed feasting on bowhead whale carcasses, sometimes in the company of polar bears and interbreeding has been documented.

After he had been ridiculed for his musings on a future, insect-eating cetacean bear, Darwin altered that passage in the second edition of Origin and removed it from subsequent ones. “The Bear case has been well laughed at, & disingenuously distorted by some into my saying that a bear could be converted into a whale,” he responded to the Irish algae specialist William Henry Harvey. Still, Darwin insisted that “there is no especial difficulty in a Bear’s mouth being enlarged to any degree useful to its changing habits,—no more difficulty than man has found in increasing the crop of the pigeon, by continued selection, until it is literally as big as whole rest of body.” Lamont’s observations and theorizing as well as the later findings about polar bear evolution vindicated the eminent naturalist and his thought experiment.

Image: L’ours de mer, the Comte de Buffon’s “sea-bear,” from his Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière, 1776. The French polymath paved the way for theories about speciation. (Université de Bordeaux)

Michael Engelhard is the author of Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon (University of Washington Press). Trained as an anthropologist, he now lives in Fairbanks, Alaska and works as a wilderness guide in the Arctic.



BOOK: Spare the Birds! George Bird Grinnell and the First Audubon Society

As a lover of history and nature, my eye was immediately attracted to the cover of this new book of environmental history. Where was I when I saw it? In the nature store at the Audubon Society of Portland. Of course. I look forward to learning about Grinnell and the first Audubon Society.


Carolyn Merchant, Spare the Birds! George Bird Grinnell and the First Audubon Society (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016), 344 pp. 

Publisher’s description In 1887, a year after founding the Audubon Society, explorer and conservationist George Bird Grinnell launched Audubon Magazine. The magazine constituted one of the first efforts to preserve bird species decimated by the women’s hat trade, hunting, and loss of habitat. Within two years, however, for practical reasons, Grinnell dissolved both the magazine and the society. Remarkably, Grinnell’s mission was soon revived by women and men who believed in it, and the work continues today. In this, the only comprehensive history of the first Audubon Society (1886–1889), Carolyn Merchant presents the exceptional story of George Bird Grinnell and his writings and legacy. The book features Grinnell’s biographies of ornithologists John James Audubon and Alexander Wilson and his editorials and descriptions of Audubon’s bird paintings. This primary documentation combined with Carolyn Merchant’s insightful analysis casts new light on Grinnell, the origins of the first Audubon Society, and the conservation of avifauna.

BOOK: How Evolution Shapes Our Lives: Essays on Biology and Society

A couple of years ago, Princeton University Press published the huge volume, The Princeton Guide to Evolution (out in paperback in February 2017), which provides a large overview of evolutionary biology, as a science and its relationship to human society (you can read the introduction here). Now the press has condensed a variety of chapters that address evolution as it relates to human society into a shorter book.


Jonathan B. Losos and Richard E. Lenski, eds., How Evolution Shapes Our Lives: Essays on Biology and Society (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), 416 pp.

Publisher’s description It is easy to think of evolution as something that happened long ago, or that occurs only in “nature,” or that is so slow that its ongoing impact is virtually nonexistent when viewed from the perspective of a single human lifetime. But we now know that when natural selection is strong, evolutionary change can be very rapid. In this book, some of the world’s leading scientists explore the implications of this reality for human life and society. With some twenty-three essays, this volume provides authoritative yet accessible explorations of why understanding evolution is crucial to human life—from dealing with climate change and ensuring our food supply, health, and economic survival to developing a richer and more accurate comprehension of society, culture, and even what it means to be human itself. Combining new essays with essays revised and updated from the acclaimed Princeton Guide to Evolution, this collection addresses the role of evolution in aging, cognition, cooperation, religion, the media, engineering, computer science, and many other areas. The result is a compelling and important book about how evolution matters to humans today. The contributors are Dan I. Andersson, Francisco J. Ayala, Amy Cavanaugh, Cameron R. Currie, Dieter Ebert, Andrew D. Ellington, Elizabeth Hannon, John Hawks, Paul Keim, Richard E. Lenski, Tim Lewens, Jonathan B. Losos, Virpi Lummaa, Jacob A. Moorad, Craig Moritz, Martha M. Muñoz, Mark Pagel, Talima Pearson, Robert T. Pennock, Daniel E. L. Promislow, Erik M. Quandt, David C. Queller, Robert C. Richardson, Eugenie C. Scott, H. Bradley Shaffer, Joan E. Strassmann, Alan R. Templeton, Paul E. Turner, and Carl Zimmer.

You can read the first chapter here.

ARTICLE: The power of islands and of discipleship: Francisco de Arruda Furtado (1854–1887) and the making of a disciple of Darwin

A recent article from the journal History of Science:

The power of islands and of discipleship: Francisco de Arruda Furtado (1854–1887) and the making of a disciple of Darwin

David Felismino and Conceição Tavares

Abstract This paper focuses on the biography of the Portuguese naturalist Francisco de Arruda Furtado, born on São Miguel Island, in the Azorean archipelago, in 1854, who became part of an international network of naturalists. Despite his short life, he produced original research on malacology (the study of molluscs), and from his youth Furtado claimed to be a disciple of Darwin. Informed by recent literature reflecting on the resurgence of biography in the history of science, the narrative of Furtado’s life will take into consideration what it meant to be, and the implications of considering oneself, a disciple of Darwin in the nineteenth-century natural sciences. In the history of science, the concept of disciple has often been associated with research schools, but Darwin did not create one and never surrounded himself with young apprentices. In this paper we argue that in Furtado’s case, and in all probability in many others, in addition to being a scientific theory, evolution had the status of a doctrine. As such, Darwinian evolution had a strong ideological and political dimension. By propagating it among lay people it had the potential of changing attitudes individually and socially, while at the same time it provided the scientific foundations for social and political transformation. Consequently, in addition to scientific research based on Darwin’s theory, Furtado deeply engaged in proselytizing the natural sciences and Darwinian evolution, becoming representative of the importance of Darwin’s disciples in Furtado’s sense, in the reception and endorsement of evolution around the world, with repercussions beyond natural history.