BOOK: How Evolution Shapes Our Lives: Essays on Biology and Society

A couple of years ago, Princeton University Press published the huge volume, The Princeton Guide to Evolution (out in paperback in February 2017), which provides a large overview of evolutionary biology, as a science and its relationship to human society (you can read the introduction here). Now the press has condensed a variety of chapters that address evolution as it relates to human society into a shorter book.


Jonathan B. Losos and Richard E. Lenski, eds., How Evolution Shapes Our Lives: Essays on Biology and Society (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), 416 pp.

Publisher’s description It is easy to think of evolution as something that happened long ago, or that occurs only in “nature,” or that is so slow that its ongoing impact is virtually nonexistent when viewed from the perspective of a single human lifetime. But we now know that when natural selection is strong, evolutionary change can be very rapid. In this book, some of the world’s leading scientists explore the implications of this reality for human life and society. With some twenty-three essays, this volume provides authoritative yet accessible explorations of why understanding evolution is crucial to human life—from dealing with climate change and ensuring our food supply, health, and economic survival to developing a richer and more accurate comprehension of society, culture, and even what it means to be human itself. Combining new essays with essays revised and updated from the acclaimed Princeton Guide to Evolution, this collection addresses the role of evolution in aging, cognition, cooperation, religion, the media, engineering, computer science, and many other areas. The result is a compelling and important book about how evolution matters to humans today. The contributors are Dan I. Andersson, Francisco J. Ayala, Amy Cavanaugh, Cameron R. Currie, Dieter Ebert, Andrew D. Ellington, Elizabeth Hannon, John Hawks, Paul Keim, Richard E. Lenski, Tim Lewens, Jonathan B. Losos, Virpi Lummaa, Jacob A. Moorad, Craig Moritz, Martha M. Muñoz, Mark Pagel, Talima Pearson, Robert T. Pennock, Daniel E. L. Promislow, Erik M. Quandt, David C. Queller, Robert C. Richardson, Eugenie C. Scott, H. Bradley Shaffer, Joan E. Strassmann, Alan R. Templeton, Paul E. Turner, and Carl Zimmer.

You can read the first chapter here.


ARTICLE: Darwin and His Pigeons. The Analogy Between Artificial and Natural Selection Revisited

From the Journal of the History of Biology:

Darwin and His Pigeons. The Analogy Between Artificial and Natural Selection Revisited

Bert Theunissen

Abstract The analogy between artificial selection of domestic varieties and natural selection in nature was a vital element of Darwin’s argument in his Origin of Species. Ever since, the image of breeders creating new varieties by artificial selection has served as a convincing illustration of how the theory works. In this paper I argue that we need to reconsider our understanding of Darwin’s analogy. Contrary to what is often assumed, nineteenth-century animal breeding practices constituted a highly controversial field that was fraught with difficulties. It was only with considerable effort that Darwin forged his analogy, and he only succeeded by downplaying the importance of two other breeding techniques – crossing of varieties and inbreeding – that many breeders deemed essential to obtain new varieties. Part of the explanation for Darwin’s gloss on breeding practices, I shall argue, was that the methods of his main informants, the breeders of fancy pigeons, were not representative of what went on in the breeding world at large. Darwin seems to have been eager to take the pigeon fanciers at their word, however, as it was only their methods that provided him with the perfect analogy with natural selection. Thus while his studies of domestic varieties were important for the development of the concept of natural selection, the reverse was also true: Darwin’s comprehension of breeding practices was moulded by his understanding of the working of natural selection in nature. Historical studies of domestic breeding practices in the eighteenth and nineteenth century confirm that, besides selection, the techniques of inbreeding and crossing were much more important than Darwin’s interpretation allowed for. And they still are today. This calls for a reconsideration of the pedagogic use of Darwin’s analogy too.

BOOK REVIEW: Emma Townshend’s ‘Darwin’s Dogs’

Darwin's Dogs by Emma Townshend

Darwin's Dogs by Emma Townshend

Darwin’s Dogs: How Darwin’s pets helped form a world-changing theory of evolution. By Emma Townshend. London: Francis Lincoln Limited, 2009. 144 pp. Preface, illustrations, index, acknowledgements. $14.95 (paper).

In the Darwin anniversary year, more books were published about him than probably in all the years of my life preceding 2009. More biographies, and more treatments of his work. Some books seemed to jump on the Darwin wave by connecting a topic to Darwin because, that year, it just might sell. Surely there is Darwin fatigue in publishing. In a review of new additions of Darwin’s work that appeared in 2009, historian of science Jim Endersby asked whether there can be too much of a good thing, referring to the myriad of scholarly work on Darwin, sometimes called the Darwin Industry (1). It is a reasonable question, as one can easily think that since so much has been written about a historical figure, what can possibly be written about Darwin that is new? Or what refreshing approach can be taken in looking at his life and work?

While many books seem to reiterate the standard Darwin story, what I enjoy are those that consider an unexplored or neglected topic. Such is Darwin’s Dogs, a short exposition as to the influence that the many dogs in Darwin’s life, and the group of animals dogs in general, had on Darwin’s thinking. This short book – less than 150 pages – is very readable, and provides a concise overview of Darwin and his ideas while offering a fresh perspective on the story – that “Darwin’s dogs brought evolutionary theory right to the hearth rug of the Victorian home” (9), meaning that using dogs in his writings brought something familiar to his readers.

Essentially, Darwin’s proximity to various dogs – “some of the most important characters in the story of his thinking” (9) – throughout his life taught him several things:

1. That humanity should not feel insulted by its relationship to animal ancestors,

2. That animals have emotions, morals, self-consciousness, and language, too (that human distinctiveness is a myth),

3. About variation, inheritance, and artificial selection through the practice of dog breeding (Darwin’s reliance on “practical men”),

4. The proper treatment of animals (Darwin was an antivivisectionist),

5. The similarities in behavior between dogs and humans (The Descent of Man says a lot about dogs, Townshend notes).

While the book is fun and enjoyable, and made me think differently, I feel that the way the book is presented is a bit misleading. In the Preface, Townshend invites the reader “to a rather different account of the life of Darwin, this one told from the canine point of view” (11). The description on the back of the book states “from a uniquely canine perspective.” These statements reiterate one of the purposes of Darwin’s Dogs: the consideration of other actors, even non-humans, in the history of science. I immediately thought of Bruno Latour’s microbes in The Pasteurization of France, Michael Pollan’s plants in The Botany of Desire, and the various organisms in Endersby’s A Guinea Pig’s History of Biology (one reviewer wrote “Science is a collaborative process and by looking at the roles played by unwilling collaborators, from guinea pigs to zebrafish, Endersby provides a new perspective on the history of genetics” [2]). All these works suggest that non-human actors have agency, agendas of their own. It is not simply humans that drive history.

So, reading “from the canine point of view” and “from a uniquely canine perspective,” I expected an approach (especially since Endersby is acknowledged in the book) that was lacking in Darwin’s Dogs. The book remains a story about Darwin, from his perspective in how he used dogs in his thinking. It is not told through the eyes, minds, or lives of dogs. Their actions – how they fit into the story as useful – is dependent on what Darwin is doing. Darwin’s Dogs is indeed “a rather different account of the life of Darwin,” but it is not from the “point of view” of dogs.

Furthermore, given this book is written by someone in the history of science, I was disappointed in the lack of citations (no footnotes, no endnotes) except those for the quotes that open each of the five chapters, and the lack of a bibliography or sources section. Throughout the book Townshend utilizes direct quotes from Darwin’s letters, notebooks, and publications. Yet no citations for any of them. Why? Maybe because the publisher did not want it. If I were the author of a book about history, and a publisher said they did not want citations and sources, I would find another publisher. For someone like me, familiar with Darwin’s work, I know where to find the sources (Townshend thanks the Darwin Correspondence Project and John van Wyhe/Darwin Online for “their invaluable help and resources,” [144] but no URLs are given). For a reader unfamiliar with how to track down the sources, not having those materials provided misses the opportunity to explore further than the text of the book.

Those problems aside, Darwin’s Dogs is a surprisingly rewarding little book that would be a good introduction to Darwin’s ideas. If you like dogs, all the better. The many anecdotes are informative, while the book is seeded with canine artwork. Townshend has a website for the book, Darwin’s Dogs, where you can see a little animation included within the book’s pages:


1. Jim Endersby, “Origins: Selected Letters of Charles Darwin, 1822–1859 (Anniversary edition), edited by F. Burkhardt, and other works by Charles Darwin” [essay review], History of Science 47 (Dec. 2009): 475-84.

2. Nick Rennison, Sunday Times (from the publisher’s webpage for the book).

Wallace & Darwin in the latest issue of Archives of Natural History

In the latest issue (Oct. 2008) of Archives of Natural History:

Alfred Russel Wallace, journalist
Archives of natural history. Volume 35, Page 203-208

To date little attention has been paid to how Alfred Russel Wallace’s skill as a writer helped advance his career. Here, a small discovery is reported which contributes to such an understanding: Wallace apparently had a standing arrangement with a London magazine to provide eyes-in-the-field reports when he set out for Singapore in early 1854.

Correspondence of Charles Darwin on James Torbitt’s project to breed blight-resistant potatoes
Archives of natural history. Volume 35, Page 208-222

The most prolific of Darwin’s correspondents from Ireland was James Torbitt, an enterprising grocer and wine merchant of 58 North Street, Belfast. Between February 1876 and March 1882, 141 letters were exchanged on the feasibility and ways of supporting one of Torbitt’s commercial projects, the large-scale production and distribution of true potato seeds (Solan um tuberosum) to produce plants resistant to the late blight fungus Phytophthora infestans, the cause of repeated potato crop failures and thus the Irish famines in the nineteenth century. Ninety-three of these letters were exchanged between Torbitt and Darwin, and 48 between Darwin and third parties, seeking or offering help and advice on the project. Torbitt’s project required selecting the small proportion of plants in an infested field that survived the infection, and using those as parents to produce seeds. This was a direct application of Darwin’s principle of selection. Darwin cautiously lobbied high-ranking civil servants in London to obtain government funding for the project, and also provided his own personal financial support to Torbitt.

Today in Science History

From Today in Science History:

John Gould (Born 14 Sep 1804; died 3 Feb 1881). English ornithologist whose life work produced 41 lavishly illustrated volumes on birds from all over the world, containing in all about 3,000 plates, all lithographed and hand-painted. Of these, his Birds of Australia was particularly significant (1840-69) as the first comprehensive record of the continent’s birds and mammals. With its plates of the birds were descriptions, notes on their distribution and adaptation to the environment. He assisted Charles Darwin with identification of the specimens collected during the voyage of the Beagle. By informing Darwin that the finches belonging to separate species, he provided essential information giving Darwin insight leading to his later development of the theory of evolution.

Alexander von Humboldt (Born 14 Sep 1769; died 6 May 1859). (Baron) Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt was a German natural scientist, archeologist, explorer and geographer, who made two major expeditions to Latin America (1799-1804) and to Asia (1829). During the first, equipped with the best scientific instruments, he surveyed and collected geological, zoological, botanical, and ethnographic specimens, including over 60,000 rare or new tropical plants. He charted and made observations on a cold ocean current along the Peruvian coast, now named, the Humboldt Current. In geology, he made pioneering observations of stratigraphy, structure and geomorphology; he understood the connections between volcanism and earthquakes. Humboldt named the Jurassic System.

Charles Valentine Riley (Died 14 Sep 1895; born 18 Sep 1843). British-born American entomologist who pioneered the scientific study of insects for their economic impact in agriculture. He was a keen observer of relationships in nature, and enhanced his written observations with drawings. He initiated biological control. After studying the parasites and predators of the cottony cushion scale, which was destroying the citrus industry in California, he introduced (1888) a natural enemy of the scale from Australia. The effectiveness of the Vedalia cardinalis beetle in reducing the populations of the cottony cushion scale promoted the study of biological control of pests. He helped establish the Division of Entomology of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Today in Science History

Born this day:

Luther Burbank (Born 7 Mar 1849; died 11 Apr 1926). American naturalist and horticulturist who was a pioneer of plant breeding. At age 21, he produced the the Burbank potato. Thus he began a 55 year career, prodigiously producing useful varieties of fruits, flowers, vegetables, grains, and grasses. He had an ability to detect and nurture hybrids which he made from multiple crosses of foreign and native strains under suitable growing conditions. Basing his understanding upon his own observations, he believed in the Lamarckian idea of the inheritance of acquired characteristics. It was for others to develop the modern science of plant breeding based on the genetic theory. He developed more than 800 strains and varieties of plants, including the Freestone peach, and the Burbank potato (1871).

Sir John F. W. Herschel (Born 7 Mar 1792; died 11 May 1871). (1st Baronet) Sir John (Frederick William) Herschel was an English astronomer. As successor to his father, Sir William Herschel, he discovered another 525 nebulae and clusters. John Herschel was a pioneer in celestial photography, and as a chemist contributed to the development of sensitized photographic paper (independently of Talbot). In 1819, he discovered that sodium thiosulphate dissolved silver salts, as used in developing photographs. He introduced the terms positive image and negative image. Being diverse in his research, he also studied physical and geometrical optics, birefringence of crystals, spectrum analysis, and the interference of light and sound waves. To compare the brightness of stars, he invented the astrometer.

See this post on Herschel’s influence on Darwin from the blog Mystery of Mysteries

André Michaux (Born 7 Mar 1746; died 13 Nov 1802). French explorer, botanist and silviculturist who wrote the first book on the forest trees of America. After studying under Bernard de Jussieu, beginning in 1779, he began a series of explorations searching for and classifying new species of plants in England, France and the Pyrenees. Becoming French Consul in Persia led to full-time botanical explorations there (1782-85). Next, he travelled in North America for the French government to send back tree species suitable to transplant for naval shipbuilding. Jefferson provided him with letters of introduction as a scientist. In 1796, he lost notes and specimens in a shipwreck off Egmont, Holland. In 1801, while exploring Madagascar his health failed from the exertion and he died of a tropical fever.

"What’s New" at Darwin Online

These were added to The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online on December 11 and 12, 2007:

Darwin, C. R. 1890. The expression of the emotions in man and animals. 2d edition. Edited by Francis Darwin. London: John Murray. Image PDF

Darwin, C. R. et al. 1841. Queries respecting the human race, to be addressed to travellers and others. Drawn up by a Committee of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, appointed in 1839. Report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, at the Glasgow meeting, August 1840 10: 447-458. Text

Darwin, C. R. 1879. [Extract from a letter]. In Torbitt, J., Cultivation of the potato. The Field (8 March): 272. Text Image
Lyell, Katherine Murray, ed. 1881. Life letters and journals of Sir Charles Lyell, Bart. 2 vols. London: John Murray, vol. 2 [frontispiece only]. Image
A formatting error which prevented the the full-size display of the Zoology illustrations has been corrected- the overview of illustrations in Zoology is the most beautifully illustrated page on the site. See Overview of illustrations in The Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle.