ARTICLE: Darwin and the Ethnologists: Liberal Racialism and the Geological Analogy

New in Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences:

Darwin and the Ethnologists: Liberal Racialism and the Geological Analogy

Suman Seth

Abstract Toward the end of The Descent of Man, Darwin made a striking assertion. “I would as soon be descended,” he claimed, from a “heroic little monkey” than from a “savage” who practiced torture and infanticide, treated “wives like slaves,” and was indecent and superstitious. These lines have been often quoted but rarely analyzed. I argue here that they provide a means for following Darwin’s thought as he grappled with contemporary ethnological evidence that seemed—if today’s “savages” were to be taken as models for primeval humans—to work against his theory of sexual selection as it applied to humankind. In addition to explicating what I suggest is a crucial element of Descent, this paper has three aims, all of which help us better understand the relationships between ethnology and Darwinian thought. First, to offer a selective intellectual history of British ethnology between 1864 and 1871, focusing on those texts that Darwin deemed most problematic for his arguments. Second, and as a result, to better specify Darwin’s views on race by comparing him not to his opponents, but to his like-minded peers, a group I term “liberal racialists.” Third, to explore the utility of what I term the “geological analogy,” a mid-nineteenth-century version of the comparative method (which substituted study of “less developed” peoples today for humans in much earlier periods). Where liberal ethnologists deployed the geological analogy consistently, Darwin would be much more selective, denying its application at times in favor of analogies to lower animals. He would thus save his theoretical suppositions by denying that contemporary “lower” races, with their depraved morality, could serve as appropriate models for our apparently more decent, yet more animalistic forebears.

ARTICLE: Darwin the geologist in southern South America

New in Earth Sciences History:

Darwin the geologist in southern South America

Robert H. Dott, Jr. and Ian W. D. Dalziel

Abstract Charles Darwin was a reputable geologist before he achieved biological fame. Most of his geological research was accomplished in southern South America during the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle (1831–1836). Afterward he published four books and several articles about geology and coral atolls and became active in the Geological Society of London. We have followed Darwin’s footsteps during our own researches and have been very impressed with his keen observations and inferences. He made some mistakes, however, such as appealing to iceberg rafting to explain erratic boulders and to inundations of the sea to carve valleys. Darwin prepared an important hand-colored geological map of southern South America, which for unknown reasons he did not publish. The distributions of seven map units are shown. These were described in his books wherein he also documented multiple elevated marine terraces on both coasts of South America. While exploring the Andean Cordillera in central Chile and Argentina, he discovered two fossil forests. Darwin developed a tectonic theory involving vertical uplift of the entire continent, which was greatest in the Andes where magma leaked up from a hypothetical subterranean sea of magma to form volcanoes and earthquakes. The theory had little impact and was soon eclipsed by theories involving lateral compression of strata. His and other contemporary theories suffered from a lack of knowledge about the earth’s interior. Finally with modern plate tectonic theory involving intense lateral compression across the Andean Cordillera we can explain satisfactorily the geology so carefully documented by Darwin.

ARTICLE: Biologist Edwin Grant Conklin and the idea of the religious direction of human evolution in the early 1920s

New in Annals of Science:

Biologist Edwin Grant Conklin and the idea of the religious direction of human evolution in the early 1920s

Alexander Pavuk

Abstract Edwin Grant Conklin, renowned US embryologist and evolutionary popularizer, publicly advocated a social vision of evolution that intertwined science and modernist Protestant theology in the early 1920s. The moral prestige of professional science in American culture — along with Conklin’s own elite scientific status — diverted attention from the frequency with which his work crossed boundaries between natural science, religion and philosophy. Writing for broad audiences, Conklin was one of the most significant of the religious and modernist biological scientists whose rhetoric went well beyond simply claiming that certain kinds of religion were amenable to evolutionary science; he instead incorporated religion itself into evolution’s broadest workings. A sampling of Conklin’s widely-resonant discourse suggests that there was substantially more to the religion-evolution story in the 1920s US than many creationist-centred narratives of the era imply.

KICKSTARTER: Darwin’s On the Origin of Species: A Picture Book Adaptation


It appears that folks really want a picture book adaptation of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (I would!), for while artist Sabina Radeva set a goal of under $3,000 for her Kickstarter campaign to produce her adaptation, at less than a day left for donating, the campaign has raised over $60,000! Check out sample images on her website and watch her video about the project:

BOOK REVIEW: Evolution: A Visual Record

A notable feature of the November 2004 National Geographic cover story about evolution is the photographs that accompany nature writer David Quammen‘s text. I’ve had this issue since it came out and it is one of the few issues of NG that I haven’t gotten rid of (one of the others being the January 1993 issue on dinosaurs that came out six months before the release of Jurassic Park in theaters).

The photographs remind us that, at least until genetics showed the relatedness between species and provided compelling evidence for common ancestry, evolution was largely a visual science. It was the physical features of present day and prehistoric animals that were a crucial aspect of Darwin’s thinking on transmutation. And it was the variety of domesticated animals and their plasticity that gave Darwin insight into natural selection. Photographer Robert Clark‘s depictions of museum specimens, some collected by Darwin himself, acted as visceral evidence of evolution to anyone reading the article (except for biased creationists, of course). Clark went on to photograph for Quammen’s 2008 article on the co-discoverer of natural selection Alfred Russel Wallace and a variety of articles since.

Clark’s photographs for National Geographic have been compiled into a wonderful book:


Joseph Wallace (text) and Robert Clark (photographs), Evolution: A Visual Record (New York: Phaidon Press, 2016), 240 pp. 

Publisher’s description Evidence of evolution is everywhere. Through 200 revelatory images, award-winning photographer Robert Clark makes one of the most important foundations of science clear and exciting to everyone. Evolution: A Visual Record transports readers from the near-mystical (human ancestors) to the historic (the famous ‘finches’ Darwin collected on the Galápagos Islands that spurred his theory); the recently understood (the link between dinosaurs and modern birds) to the simply astonishing.

The book organizes Clark’s photos into sections on ancient history (geology and early life), birds, cold-blooded vertebrates, plants, insects, mammals, human evolution, and finally extinction and the impact that humans are having on the natural world. While Quammen provides his always-engaging insight in a foreword, and Joseph Wallace’s text (at the beginning of each section, the photo captions, and a chapter on Wallace) provides important context, it is Clark’s images that really speak to the beautiful ideas of evolution and deep time.


Pitta specimens collected by Wallace in Borneo and Sumatra in 1850s (Photo: Robert Clark)

From images of rock strata, where animal remains are preserved as fossils, and human footprints preserved in lakeside sediment in Tanzania; to images of specimens of insects and birds collected by Darwin and Wallace, and portraits of a male orangutan and the human-like hands of a gorilla, the variety of life displayed in Evolution: A Visual Record captures the beauty of Darwin’s last words in On the Origin of Species (1859): “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”


A gorilla’s hands (Photo: Robert Clark)

Endless forms most beautiful, indeed – captured in photographs most beautiful by Robert Clark. You can check out some of the images included in this collection on the National Geographic website, here. And Robert Clark posts many of his stunning images on Instagram.

Looking for a gift for a friend of family member with a love for nature and science? A budding biologist in the family? Evolution: A Visual Record would be a great gift this holiday season. You can order this attractive, hardcover book through Amazon for a little under $30 (affiliate link) or from the publisher for $39.95.


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