ARTICLE: ‘Darwin was Wrong.’ The International Media Coverage of the Oreopithecus’ Reinterpretation (1956–1959)

An article in a 2016 issue of the journal Centaurus looks at an interesting moment in the history of evolutionary thought:

‘Darwin was Wrong.’ The International Media Coverage of the Oreopithecus’ Reinterpretation (1956–1959)

Clara Florensa

Abstract ‘Darwin was wrong’ was a headline that made news around the world in March 1956. Johannes Hürzeler, a Swiss palaeontologist, had just made public his theory that Oreopithecus bambolii, a fossil thus far classified as an extinct Old World monkey, was in fact a 12-million-year old hominid. That was 10 million years (!) older than the oldest hominids accepted at the time. Two years later he unearthed a complete skeleton of Oreopithecus in Italy. The echo of this discovery in the media was enormous yet the newspaper coverage in different western countries followed distinctive patterns. This paper will show these differences and point out possible explanations that go far beyond scientific disagreement. It will be argued that the press is a privileged source for comparing simultaneous reactions to the same scientific fact around the globe and for helping us discover national and supranational patterns of scientific discourse while linking them to their contexts. This paper also highlights the role of the news pieces as ‘supports of knowledge.’ Just like bones or scientific articles, news items circulate prompting in turn the circulation of other ‘supports of knowledge’ such as fossil remains or scientists.

The whole issue is devoted to articles on the construction of prehistoric knowledge.

BOOK: A History of Science in Society: From Philosophy to Utility (3rd ed.)

As folks who teach the history of science think about their course offerings for the new school year in just a few months, it is perhaps worth mentioning that there is a new edition of a popular history of science textbook:


Andrew Ede and Lesley B. Cormack, A History of Science in Society: From Philosophy to Utility. 3rd ed. (Toronto: Univeristy of Toronto Press, 2017), 464 pp.

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Publisher’s description A History of Science in Society is a concise overview that introduces complex ideas in a non-technical fashion. Ede and Cormack trace the history of the changing place of science in society and explore the link between the pursuit of knowledge and the desire to make that knowledge useful. New topics in this edition include astronomy and mathematics in ancient Mayan society, science and technology in ancient India and China, and Islamic cartography. New “Connections” features provide in-depth exploration of the ways science and society interconnect. The text is accompanied by 55 colour maps and diagrams, and 8 colour plates highlighting key concepts and events. Essay questions, chapter timelines, a further readings section, and an index provide additional support for students. A companion reader edited by the authors, A History of Science in Society: A Reader, is also available.

One can also purchase this text in a first (Ancient to Scientific Revolution) and second (Scientific Revolution to Present) volume.

BOOK: Ancient Earth Journal: The Late Jurassic

In 2015 I shared about a new children’s books about dinosaurs, Ancient Earth Journal: The Early Cretaceous, which “combines two things I really love: learning about dinosaurs and natural history illustration.” As I noted, the depiction of dinosaurs is done by  praised by paleontologists, is presented by Juan Carlos Alonso in a nature journal fashion, as if the artist is encountering them as wildlife on a nature trip. This helps to see these animals as actual, living entities.

Alonso has published his second book in this series:


Juan Carlos Alonso, Ancient Earth Journal: The Late Jurassic (Lake Forest, CA: Walter Foster Jr., 2016), 112 pp. Coauthored with paleoartist Gregory S. Paul.

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Publisher’s description What would it be like to see a living, breathing dinosaur? Following in the footsteps of Ancient Earth Journal: The Early Cretaceous, this next installment, The Late Jurassic, will take readers further back in time to a period when giants ruled the land and early mammals began to secure their place alongside the dinosaurs. The Late Jurassic period was home to many species of our favorite dinosaurs, such as Apatosaurus (or Brontosaurus), Allosaurus, and Stegosaurus, to name a few. The Late Jurassic includes the latest paleontological findings to build an accurate depiction of the dinosaurs, environment, and wildlife of the period. Due to the abundance of fossils available for both plants and animals of this period, the book paints a vivid, realistic picture of the flora and fauna of the time, with more emphasis on hunting and defensive tactics, as well as early mammals and their role in the planet’s evolution, for a thrilling, thoroughly enjoyable ride through the most popular time period of prehistory. Written and illustrated in the style of a naturalist’s notebook, the reader is given a first-hand account of what it would be like to stand alongside some of the largest creatures to ever walk the earth.


BOOK: Charles Darwin’s Around the World Adventure

I always love a new children’s book about Darwin. This new one following Darwin on the HMS Beagle voyage and his land excursions is no exception.

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Jennifer Thermes, Charles Darwin’s Around the World Adventure (New York: Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2016), 48 pp.

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Publisher’s description In 1831, Charles Darwin embarked on his first voyage. Though he was a scientist by profession, he was an explorer at heart. While journeying around South America for the first time aboard a ninety-foot-long ship named the Beagle, Charles collected insets, dug up bones, galloped with gauchos, encountered volcanoes and earthquakes, and even ate armadillo for breakfast! The discoveries he made during this adventure would later inspire ideas that changed how we see the world. Complete with mesmerizing map work that charts Darwin’s thrilling five-year voyage, as well as “Fun Facts” and more, Charles Darwin’s Around-the-World Adventure captures the beauty and mystery of nature with wide-eyed wonder.

This book show beautifully the extent to which Darwin traveled, and the maps are detailed and charming. I can imagine the idea of traveling around the world for years could be a difficult thing for young kids to get their minds around – Jennifer Thermes provides a fun and informative account.

Enjoy these images from Charles Darwin’s Around the World Adventure:

BOOK: Debating Darwin

A new book pits one Darwin expert against another in their views on what had more influence on Darwin: the social context of Industrial Revolution England or the German romantics.


Robert J. Richards and Michael Ruse, Debating Darwin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 320 pp.

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Publisher’s description Charles Darwin is easily the most famous scientist of the modern age, and his theory of evolution is constantly referenced in many contexts by scientists and nonscientists alike. And yet, despite how frequently his ideas are evoked, there remains a surprising amount we don’t know about the father of modern evolutionary thinking, his intellectual roots, and the science he produced. Debating Darwin seeks to change that, bringing together two leading Darwin scholars—Robert J. Richards and Michael Ruse—to engage in a spirited and insightful dialogue, offering their interpretations of Darwin and their critiques of each other’s thinking. Examining key disagreements about Darwin that continue to confound even committed Darwinists, Richards and Ruse offer divergent views on the origins and nature of Darwin and his ideas. Ruse argues that Darwin was quintessentially British and that the roots of his thought can be traced back to the eighteenth century, particularly to the Industrial Revolution and thinkers such as Adam Smith and Thomas Robert Malthus. Ruse argues that when these influences are appreciated, we can see how Darwin’s work in biology is an extension of their theories. In contrast, Richards presents Darwin as a more cosmopolitan, self-educated man, influenced as much by French and particularly German thinkers. Above all, argues Richards, it was Alexander von Humboldt who both inspired Darwin and gave him the conceptual tools that he needed to find and formulate his evolutionary hypotheses. Together, the authors show how the reverberations of the contrasting views on Darwin’s influences can be felt in theories about the nature of natural selection, the role of metaphor in science, and the place of God in Darwin’s thought. Revealing how much there still is to investigate and interrogate about Darwin’s ideas, Debating Darwin contributes to our understanding of evolution itself. The book concludes with a jointly authored chapter that brings this debate into the present, focusing on human evolution, consciousness, religion, and morality. This will be powerful, essential reading for anyone seeking a comprehensive understanding of modern-day evolutionary science and philosophy.

BOOK: Darwin and Women: A Selection of Letters

The Darwin Correspondence Project has published their first book of letters resulting from one of their thematic research avenues, on Darwin and gender.


Samantha Evans, ed. Darwin and Women: A Selection of Letters (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 298 pp.

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Publisher’s description Darwin and Women focuses on Darwin’s correspondence with women and on the lives of the women he knew and wrote to. It includes a large number of hitherto unpublished letters between members of Darwin’s family and their friends that throw light on the lives of the women of his circle and their relationships, social and professional, with Darwin. The letters included are by turns entertaining, intriguing, and challenging, and are organised into thematic chapters, including botany and zoology as well as marriage and servants, that set them in an accessible narrative context. Darwin’s famous remarks on women’s intelligence in Descent of man provide a recurring motif, and are discussed in the foreword by Gillian Beer, and in the introduction. The immediacy and variety of these texts make this an entertaining read which will suggest avenues for further research to students.

BOOK: Collecting Evolution: The Galapagos Expedition that Vindicated Darwin

I am very excited for Matthew to see his book published! I’ve got a copy checked out from my library and hope to delve into it soon…


Matthew J. James, Collecting Evolution: The Galapagos Expedition that Vindicated Darwin (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017),  304 pp.

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Publisher’s description In 1905, eight men from the California Academy of Sciences set sail from San Francisco for a scientific collection expedition in the Galapagos Islands, and by the time they were finished in 1906, they had completed one of the most important expeditions in the history of both evolutionary and conservation science. These scientists collected over 78,000 specimens during their time on the islands, validating the work of Charles Darwin and laying the groundwork for foundational evolution texts like Darwin’s Finches. Despite its significance, almost nothing has been written on this voyage, lost amongst discussion of Darwin’s trip on the Beagle and the writing of David Lack.

In Collecting Evolution, author Matthew James finally tells the story of the 1905 Galapagos expedition. James follows these eight young men aboard the Academy to the Galapagos and back, and reveals the reasons behind the groundbreaking success they had. A current Fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, James uses his access to unpublished writings and photographs to provide unprecedented insight into the expedition. We learn the voyagers’ personal stories, and how, for all the scientific progress that was made, just as much intense personal drama unfolded on the trip. This book shares a watershed moment in scientific history, crossed with a maritime adventure. There are four tangential suicides and controversies over credit and fame. Collecting Evolution also explores the personal lives and scientific context that preceded this voyage, including what brought Darwin to the Galapagos on the Beagle voyage seventy years earlier. James discusses how these men thought of themselves as “collectors” before they thought of themselves as scientists, and the implications this had on their approach and their results.

In the end, the voyage of the Academy proved to be crucial in the development of evolutionary science as we know it. It is the longest expedition in Galapagos history, and played a critical role in cementing Darwin’s legacy. Collecting Evolution brings this extraordinary story of eight scientists and their journey to life.

Check out these radio interviews with James about his new book: The Avid Reader Show and Gulf Coast Live on WGCU