A new article in the Journal of Victorian Culture:
Liberal Evolutionism and the Satirical Ape
Abstract This article considers intersections between the doctrines of mid-Victorian liberalism and biological evolution using 1860s caricatures and satires from Punch. In the years following the 1859 publication of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty and Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, caricatures featuring satirical apes illustrated mutually supportive cultural attitudes about politics and science. Ideas of character united the discourses of mid-Victorian evolutionism with liberalism, and the confluence of these ideas, or what I term liberal evolutionism, dramatized this overlap for Victorian culture. My project shows that the apes depicted in Punch were often intended as not only whimsical responses to the theories put forward by Darwin and Mill, they also point to the formation of the British subject.
A new article of interest in the Journal of the History of Biology:
Darwin’s “Mr. Arthrobalanus”: Sexual Differentiation, Evolutionary Destiny and the Expert Eye of the Beholder
Roderick D. Buchanan
Abstract Darwin’s Cirripedia project was an exacting exercise in systematics, as well as an encrypted study of evolution in action. Darwin had a long-standing interest and expertise in marine invertebrates and their sexual arrangements. The surprising and revealing sexual differentiation he would uncover amongst barnacles represented an important step in his understanding of the origins of sexual reproduction. But it would prove difficult to reconcile these findings with his later theorizing. Moreover, the road to discovery was hardly straightforward. Darwin was both helped and hindered by the tacit expectations generated by his transformist theorizing, and had to overcome culturally-embedded assumptions about gender and reproductive roles. Significant observational backtracking was required to correct several oversights and misapprehensions, none more so than those relating to the chronically misunderstood “Mr. Arthrobalanus.” With careful attention to chronology, this paper highlights some curious and overlooked aspects of Darwin’s epic project.
From the Archives of Natural History:
Emily Lawless and Charles Darwin: an Irish mystery
E. Charles Nelson
Abstract While no original autograph letters between the Hon. Miss Emily Lawless and Charles Darwin are known, Darwin was impressed by her observations and encouraged her to submit to Nature a manuscript account of fertilization of plants. This manuscript cannot be traced, nor can her note hypothesizing about the role of the transparent burnet moth in pollination in The Burren, County Clare, which apparently prompted Darwin to make contact with her.
A new article from the journal Endeavour:
The challenge of instinctive behaviour and Darwin’s theory of evolution
Abstract In the Origin of Species (1859), Darwin argued that his revolutionary theory of evolution by natural selection represented a significant breakthrough in the understanding of instinctive behaviour. However, many aspects in the development of his thinking on behavioural phenomena indicate that the explanation of this particular organic feature was by no means an easy one, but that it posed an authentic challenge – something that Darwin himself always recognized. This paper explores Darwin’s treatment of instincts within his theory of natural selection. Particular attention is given to elucidate how he tackled the difficulties of explaining instincts as evolving mental features. He had to explain and demonstrate its inheritance, variation, and gradual accumulation within populations. The historical and philosophical aspects of his theory are highlighted, as well as his study of the case in which the explanation of instincts represented a ‘special difficulty’; that is, the sterile castes of social insects.
A new article in the journal History of Science (March 2016):
Darwin and Deep Time: Temporal Scales and the Naturalist’s Imagination
Abstract Charles Darwin built a world around an implied metaphysics of time that treated deep time as something qualitatively different from ordinary, experienced time. He did not simply require a vast amount of time within which his primary evolutionary mechanism of natural selection could operate; in practice, he required a deep time that functioned according to different rules from those of ordinary, “shallow” time. The experience of the naturalist occupied shallow time, but it was from that experience that Darwin necessarily had to build his arguments concerning a transformism that took place on an entirely different temporal scale. Much of his reconstruction of what took place in deep time relied on inferences drawn from taxonomic classification, and those inferences in turn depended to a large degree on conclusions reached through the already-established practices of his fellow non-transformist naturalists. By bootstrapping his transformist arguments, focused on both natural and sexual selection, with non-transformist classificatory judgments, Darwin attempted to convince his fellow naturalists of the truth of evolution in deep time. In other words, while Darwin argued for the existence of selectionist processes themselves in contemporary shallow time, their transformist consequences could only be traced out in deep time, being evidenced by both contemporary and paleontological slices, or laminae, of shallow time. This served to protect transformism from the dangers of unorthodoxy by preserving uniformity within shallow time.
The first title in a new book series for kids called Tiny Thinkers – where real life scientists are depicted as kids – is about Charles Darwin.
In Tiny Thinkers: Charlie and the Tortoise (Garland, TX: Secular Media Group, 2015, 40 pp.), written by M.J. Mouton and illustrated by Jezreel S. Cuevas, a Beagle named Hitch (perhaps a reference to atheist Christoper Hitchens, given the name of the publisher) accompanies a young Darwin on his famous voyage around the world. They land in the Galapagos Islands, and Darwin of course loves all the plants and animals there are to study. The illustrations are cute and the text given in rhyming form.
Charlie and the Tortoise unfortunately continues the notion that Darwin recognized a group of birds with varying beak sizes and shapes and eating habits as all different species of finches. He did not know they were all finches until an ornithologist in London examined specimens following the Beagle‘s return. Also, another group of birds were more instrumental in his thinking about variation and adaptation, the archipelago’s mockingbirds. Scientific myths remain hard to abandon. (See Frank Sulloway’s 1982 paper on Darwin’s finches and this essay from John van Wyhe.) As an historian of science, such details are important. I am not sure if this new book series has any history consultants. If not, they should. Not only should science books for kids get the science right, they should get the history right, too. I do give credit to the author, however, for not writing that Darwin had a Eureka moment about evolution on the Galapagos – that’s what usually follows his apparent observation of the different species of finches.
Every time I see the above image passed around on Facebook, I chuckle. But the other day I wondered just where young-earth creationist and Creation Museum founder Ken Ham said or wrote these words. A Google search for “The eye is a perfect design by a perfect creator” results in a single entry: this same image on someone’s Google+ page. So I don’t know where the quote comes from, and it seems to me to have been fabricated. Which is, as it is with creationists messing with the words of supporters of evolution (“quote-mining”), dishonest. The sentiment, however, makes a point: creationists insist on things having been designed by God or the intelligent designer, yet the human body is full of absolutely ridiculous design (disregard the easy way out: the entry of sin into the world is what has caused anatomical changes which mimic poor design – that’s simply throwing science out the door). Whether Ham said those words trapped between the quote marks or not, the many anatomical problems with the human body speak to it being a product of evolution.
And that topic is marvelously laid out by zoologist and human anatomy and physiology professor Abby Hafer in a new book:
Abby Hafer, The Not-So-Intelligent Designer: Why Evolution Explains the Human Body and Intelligent Design Does Not (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2015), 244 pp.
Publisher’s description: Why do men’s testicles hang outside the body? Why does our appendix sometimes explode and kill us? And who does the Designer like better, anyway-us or squid? These and other questions are addressed in The Not-So-Intelligent Designer: Why Evolution Explains the Human Body and Intelligent Design Does Not. Dr. Abby Hafer argues that the human body has many faulty design features that would never have been the choice of an intelligent creator. She also points out that there are other animals that got better body parts, which makes the Designer look a bit strange; discusses the history and politics of Intelligent Design and creationism; reveals animals that shouldn’t exist according to Intelligent Design; and disposes of the idea of irreducible complexity. Her points are illustrated with pictures, wit, and erudition.
Beyond the straight-to-the-point examination of human anatomical issues in light of intelligent design (such as the birth canal in women, human teeth, and, of course, the human eye), The Not-So-Intelligent Designer also provides thoughts about intelligent design as a whole – its origins, lack of progress, and continued efforts to push forward an ideological agenda by combating a scientific theory. Hafer’s writing is light-hearted, humorous, and full of common sense. I am enjoying reading through the book at night before bed.