Darwin: A Companion, and other recent Darwin offerings


Darwin: A Companion by Paul van Helvert and John van Wyhe (World Scientific, 2021) ~ Publisher’s description: “This is the ultimate guide to the life and work of Charles Darwin. The result of decades of research through a vast and daunting literature which is hard for beginners and experts alike to navigate, it brings together widely scattered facts including very many unknown to even the most ardent Darwin aficionados. It includes hundreds of new discoveries and corrections to the existing literature. It provides the most complete summaries of his publications, manuscripts, lifetime itinerary, finances, personal library, friends and colleagues, opponents, visitors to his home, anniversaries, hundreds of flora, fauna, monuments and places named after him and a host of other topics. Also included are the most complete lists (iconographies) ever created of illustrations of the Beagle, over 1000 portraits of Darwin, his wife and home as well as all known Darwin photographs, stamps and caricatures. The book is richly illustrated with 350 images, most previously unknown.”

A Most Interesting Problem: What Darwin’s Descent of Man Got Right and Wrong about Human Evolution, edited by Jeremy DeSilva (Princeton University Press, 2021) ~ Publisher’s description: “In 1871, Charles Darwin published The Descent of Man, a companion to Origin of Species in which he attempted to explain human evolution, a topic he called ‘the highest and most interesting problem for the naturalist.’ A Most Interesting Problem brings together twelve world-class scholars and science communicators to investigate what Darwin got right―and what he got wrong―about the origin, history, and biological variation of humans. Edited by Jeremy DeSilva and with an introduction by acclaimed Darwin biographer Janet Browne, A Most Interesting Problem draws on the latest discoveries in fields such as genetics, paleontology, bioarchaeology, anthropology, and primatology. This compelling and accessible book tackles the very subjects Darwin explores in Descent, including the evidence for human evolution, our place in the family tree, the origins of civilization, human races, and sex differences. A Most Interesting Problem is a testament to how scientific ideas are tested and how evidence helps to structure our narratives about human origins, showing how some of Darwin’s ideas have withstood more than a century of scrutiny while others have not.”


In the journal Notes and Records (from the Royal Society):

Mind the step: did Hooker’s judgement clinch Darwin’s disenchantment? by Derek Partridge

Abstract The decade from 1844 to 1854 in which Charles Darwin first published two books and then studied barnacles for the final eight years has long been a puzzling digression from the development of his theory of evolution. This essay proposes that it was a conjunction of two quite different activities: a three-year pause initiated to assess and hopefully finalize the editorial completion of his 1844 Essay for publication, followed by a step-change decision to redirect his primary research activity in late 1847. A disenchantment hypothesis is proposed; it presents the step-change decision as a consequence of weighing up the accumulated unencouraging prospects for species-theory development in competition with the emergence of promising projections associated with a broad study of marine invertebrates. Recognition of the triumph, as Darwin initially saw it, of his Essay, followed by years of hostile inputs, opens this new route to understanding this decade. Within it Joseph Hooker emerges as a significant causal force. Many of the customary ‘postponement’ explanations of this digression can be integrated with this pause-and-step-change explanation, whereas explanation of the interval as a gap due to a pre-planned activity cannot, and is revealed to be seriously faulty.

In BJHS Themes:

The meaning of absence: the primate tree that did not make it into Darwin’s The Descent of Man by Marianne Sommer

Abstract This paper engages with a specific image: Darwin’s tree of the primates. Although this diagram was sketched in ink on paper in 1868, it did not make it into the publication of The Descent of Man (1871). This may seem all the more in need of an explanation because, as Adrian Desmond and James Moore have shown, Darwin strongly relied on the notion of familial genealogy in the development of his theory of organismic evolution, or rather descent. However, Darwin expressed scepticism towards visualizations of phylogenies in correspondence with Ernst Haeckel and in fact also in Descent, considering such representations at once too speculative and too concrete. An abstraction such as a tree diagram left little room to ponder possibilities or demarcate hypotheses from evidence. I thus bring Darwin’s primate tree into communication with his view on primate and human phylogeny as formulated in Descent, including his rejection of polygenism. I argue that considering the tree’s inherent teleology, as well as its power to suggest species status of human populations and to reify ‘racial’ hierarchies, the absence of the diagram in The Descent of Man may be a significant statement.

In Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A:

The tree and the table: Darwin, Mendeleev and the meaning of ‘theory’ by David Reznick

Abstract Darwin and Mendeleev revolutionized their respective disciplines by organizing diverse facts into simple, pictorial representations—a tree and a table. Each representation provides a foundation for a scientific theory for two reasons. First, a successful theory unites diverse phenomena under a single explanatory framework. Second, it does so in a way that defines paths for future inquiry that extends its reach and tests its limits. For Mendeleev, this meant creating a table that accommodated the current understanding of the elements but also contained blanks that predicted the discovery of previously unknown elements. More importantly, the structure of the table helped shape future research to define the structure of matter. For Darwin, envisioning life as a tree meant defining the rules that govern the origin of adaptations, species and shape the constantly shifting diversity of life. At the same time, his theory inspired research into the laws of inheritance and created diverse new areas of research, like behaviour, sexual selection and biogeography. The shared property of Darwin and Mendeleev’s contributions was to provide a unifying rational explanation for natural phenomena.

In Perspectives on Science:

Interpreting the History of Evolutionary Biology through a Kuhnian Prism: Sense or Nonsense? by Koen B. Tanghe , Lieven Pauwels , Alexis De Tiège , and Johan Braeckman

Abstract Traditionally, Thomas S. Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) is largely identified with his analysis of the structure of scientific revolutions. Here, we contribute to a minority tradition in the Kuhn literature by interpreting the history of evolutionary biology through the prism of the entire historical developmental model of sciences that he elaborates in The Structure. This research not only reveals a certain match between this model and the history of evolutionary biology but, more importantly, also sheds new light on several episodes in that history, and particularly on the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859), the construction of the modern evolutionary synthesis, the chronic discontent with it, and the latest expression of that discontent, called the extended evolutionary synthesis. Lastly, we also explain why this kind of analysis hasn’t been done before.


George Beccaloni of the Wallace Correspondence Project on “Alfred Russel Wallace, Charles Darwin and Natural Selection: the Real Story”:

“Join The Leakey Foundation for a free virtual celebration of Darwin’s birthday and the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Descent of Man. A Most Interesting Problem [see above for the book] brings together seven world-class scholars and science communicators to explore what Darwin got right and what he got wrong about the origin, history, and biological variation of humans. A Most Interesting Problem features presentations by Janet Browne, Jeremy DeSilva, Holly Dunsworth, Agustín Fuentes, Ann Gibbons, Yohannes Haile-Selassie, and Brian Hare.”

“Charles Darwin as Apical Freethought Ancestor” with David Orenstein of the American Humanist Association:

“Charles Darwin and the Fossil Record” with paleontologist Thomas R. Holtz:

Finally, like my Facebook page The Dispersal of Darwin or follow on Twitter @darwinsbulldog for more Darwin and evolution-related links. One particular Twitter thread shares items about The Descent of Man (1871), of which this year is the 150th anniversary of its publication.

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