ARTICLE: Exploration and exploitation of Victorian science in Darwin’s reading notebooks

From the journal Cognition:

Exploration and exploitation of Victorian science in Darwin’s reading notebooks

Jaimie Murdock, Colin Allen, and Simon DeDeoa

Abstract Search in an environment with an uncertain distribution of resources involves a trade-off between exploitation of past discoveries and further exploration. This extends to information foraging, where a knowledge-seeker shifts between reading in depth and studying new domains. To study this decision-making process, we examine the reading choices made by one of the most celebrated scientists of the modern era: Charles Darwin. From the full-text of books listed in his chronologically-organized reading journals, we generate topic models to quantify his local (text-to-text) and global (text-to-past) reading decisions using Kullback-Liebler Divergence, a cognitively-validated, information-theoretic measure of relative surprise. Rather than a pattern of surprise-minimization, corresponding to a pure exploitation strategy, Darwin’s behavior shifts from early exploitation to later exploration, seeking unusually high levels of cognitive surprise relative to previous eras. These shifts, detected by an unsupervised Bayesian model, correlate with major intellectual epochs of his career as identified both by qualitative scholarship and Darwin’s own self-commentary. Our methods allow us to compare his consumption of texts with their publication order. We find Darwin’s consumption more exploratory than the culture’s production, suggesting that underneath gradual societal changes are the explorations of individual synthesis and discovery. Our quantitative methods advance the study of cognitive search through a framework for testing interactions between individual and collective behavior and between short- and long-term consumption choices. This novel application of topic modeling to characterize individual reading complements widespread studies of collective scientific behavior.

ARTICLE: Darwin’s body-snatchers?

This short article in the journal Endeavour takes a creationist claim about Darwin to task:

Darwin’s body-snatchers?

John van Wyhe

Abstract For decades creationists have claimed that Charles Darwin sought the skulls of full-blooded Aboriginal Tasmanian people when only four were left alive. It is said that Darwin letters survive which reveal this startling and distasteful truth. Tracing these claims back to their origins, however, reveals a different, if not unfamiliar story.

BOOK: The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World

The winner of this year’s Royal Society Insight Investment science book prize, which is awarded annually to a work of science writing intended for a non-specialist audience, went to Andrea Wulf for her fantastic biography of Prussian naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt. Humboldt has long been a character of interest to me: not only is “Humboldtian science” a standard topic one learns about in history of science courses (especially Michael Dettelbach’s chapter in Cultures of Natural History), but, as readers here may know, Humboldt was an important influence on Darwin.


Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World (New York: Vintage Books, 2015), 552 pp.

Publisher’s description Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) was the most famous scientist of his age, a visionary German naturalist and polymath whose discoveries forever changed the way we understand the natural world. Among his most revolutionary ideas was a radical conception of nature as a complex and interconnected global force that does not exist for the use of humankind alone. In North America, Humboldt’s name still graces towns, counties, parks, bays, lakes, mountains, and a river. And yet the man has been all but forgotten. In this illuminating biography, Andrea Wulf brings Humboldt’s extraordinary life back into focus: his prediction of human-induced climate change; his daring expeditions to the highest peaks of South America and to the anthrax-infected steppes of Siberia; his relationships with iconic figures, including Simón Bolívar and Thomas Jefferson; and the lasting influence of his writings on Darwin, Wordsworth, Goethe, Muir, Thoreau, and many others. Brilliantly researched and stunningly written, The Invention of Nature reveals the myriad ways in which Humboldt’s ideas form the foundation of modern environmentalism—and reminds us why they are as prescient and vital as ever.

In October I had the pleasure of attending a talk that Wulf gave about Humboldt for the Oregon Hardy Plant Society:


For similar talks, check out the recording below…

Purchase The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World through the independent Powell’s City of Books [hardcover/paperback] or Amazon [hardcover/paperback] (affiliate links).


Origins Card Game

Origins: An Evolutionary Journey is a new card game from the Cleveland Museum of Natural History that provides an overview of core concepts in biological anthropology broader topics in evolution at the introductory level for college courses.


Created by a curator at the CMNH and an anthropology professor at St. Lawrence University (Canton, NY), with illustrations by Holly Hunhold, Origins covers a wide variety of topics that are color-coded: Fundamentals (Pink); Genetics (Blue); Evolution and Variation (Green); Primates (Orange); Origins and Transitions (Red); and Being Human (Purple). The cards are then divided among nine different types of questions, from labeling images and identifying incorrect statements to identifying a subject (like a famous person or species) and telling fact from fiction. The deck also includes Forces of Evolution cards which offer specific actions for play (Bottleneck, Founder Effect, Extinction, and Natural Selection).


The game is designed for in-class use between groups of students, but the card deck can also be used individually for study. My son enjoyed going through the deck with me, answering some questions, guessing at others, or simply stating, “I’m only ten dad, how would I know that?” Instructions for play are provided online here (in PDF form here).

Here’s a video from the CMNH about Origins:

You can order a deck of Origin: An Evolutionary Journey from the publisher or from Amazon.