BOOK: Origins of Darwin’s Evolution: Solving the Species Puzzle Through Time and Space

A few years ago biologist J. David Archibald wrote a book about trees of life, Aristotle’s Ladder, Darwin’s Tree: The Evolution of Visual Metaphors for Biological Order. His newest book is a detailed look at the often downplayed role of geographical distribution (or biogeography) in the development of Darwin’s theory of evolution. I look forward to this read, as an undergraduate paper I wrote dealt with an aspect of this topic (and was the origin of this blog’s name).


J. David Archibald, Origins of Darwin’s Evolution: Solving the Species Puzzle Through Time and Space (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), 208 pp.

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Publisher’s description Historical biogeography—the study of the history of species through both time and place—first convinced Charles Darwin of evolution. This field was so important to Darwin’s initial theories and line of thinking that he said as much in the very first paragraph of On the Origin of Species (1859) and later in his autobiography. His methods included collecting mammalian fossils in South America clearly related to living forms, tracing the geographical distributions of living species across South America, and sampling peculiar fauna of the geologically young Galápagos Archipelago that showed evident affinities to South American forms. Over the years, Darwin collected other evidence in support of evolution, but his historical biogeographical arguments remained paramount, so much so that he devotes three full chapters to this topic in On the Origin of Species. Discussions of Darwin’s landmark book too often give scant attention to this wealth of evidence, and we still do not fully appreciate its significance in Darwin’s thinking. In Origins of Darwin’s Evolution, J. David Archibald explores this lapse, showing how Darwin first came to the conclusion that, instead of various centers of creation, species had evolved in different regions throughout the world. He also shows that Darwin’s other early passion—geology—proved a more elusive corroboration of evolution. On the Origin of Species has only one chapter dedicated to the rock and fossil record, as it then appeared too incomplete for Darwin’s evidentiary standards. Carefully retracing Darwin’s gathering of evidence and the evolution of his thinking, Origins of Darwin’s Evolution achieves a new understanding of how Darwin crafted his transformative theory.


ARTICLE: “Plants that Remind Me of Home”: Collecting, Plant Geography, and a Forgotten Expedition in the Darwinian Revolution

A new article in the Journal of the History of Biology:

“Plants that Remind Me of Home”: Collecting, Plant Geography, and a Forgotten Expedition in the Darwinian Revolution

Kuang-chi Hung

Abstract In 1859, Harvard botanist Asa Gray (1810–1888) published an essay of what he called “the abstract of Japan botany.” In it, he applied Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory to explain why strong similarities could be found between the flora of Japan and that of eastern North America, which provoked his famous debate with Louis Agassiz (1807–1873) and initiated Gray’s efforts to secure a place for Darwinian biology in the American sciences. Notably, although the Gray–Agassiz debate has become one of the most thoroughly studied scientific debates, historians of science remain unable to answer one critical question: How was Gray able to acquire specimens from Japan? Making use of previously unknown archival materials, this article scrutinizes the institutional, instrumental, financial, and military settings that enabled Gray’s collector, Charles Wright (1811–1885), to travel to Japan, as well as examine Wright’s collecting practices in Japan. I argue that it is necessary to examine Gray’s diagnosis of Japan’s flora and the subsequent debate about it from the viewpoint of field sciences. The field-centered approach not only unveils an array of historical significances that have been overshadowed by the analytical framework of the Darwinian revolution and the reception of Darwinism, but also places a seemingly domestic incident in a transnational context.

BOOK: Island Life by Alfred Russel Wallace

Released this year as a new edition for the centenary of Wallace’s death:

Alfred Russel Wallace, Island Life: Or, the Phenomena and Causes of Insular Faunas and Floras, Including a Revision and Attempted Solution of the Problem of Geological Climates (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 608 pp.

Alfred Russel Wallace is best known as the codiscoverer, with Charles Darwin, of natural selection, but he was also history’s foremost tropical naturalist and the father of biogeography, the modern study of the geographical basis of biological diversity. Island Life has long been considered one of his most important works. In it he extends studies on the influence of the glacial epochs on organismal distribution patterns and the characteristics of island biogeography, a topic as vibrant and actively studied today as it was in 1880. The book includes history’s first theory of continental glaciation based on a combination of geographical and astronomical causes, a discussion of island classification, and a survey of worldwide island faunas and floras.

The year 2013 will mark the centennial of Wallace’s death and will see a host of symposia and reflections on Wallace’s contributions to evolution and natural history. This reissue of the first edition of Island Life, with a foreword by David Quammen and an extensive commentary by Lawrence R. Heaney, who has spent over three decades studying island biogeography in Southeast Asia, makes this essential and foundational reference available and accessible once again.

ARTICLE: “Evolution and Biogeography: Leading Students in Darwin’s and Wallace’s Footsteps”

The following article is from the journal Evolution: Education and Outreach:

Evolution and Biogeography: Leading Students in Darwin’s and Wallace’s Footsteps

Joshua Rosenau

Abstract Exploring life’s diversity and geography’s effect on it was central to Darwin and Wallace’s parallel discoveries of evolution. Those discoveries required the two to overcome their own misconceptions about species and biology. By helping students to see the world through the eyes of explorers and placing life’s diversity into a geographic context, teachers can help students overcome those same barriers to the acceptance of evolution and deepen students’ appreciation of biodiversity.

Darwin on Galapagos (1880)

Bake a Cake for Darwin 2011

A model of the species found in the Galapagos (at left) and South America (not to scale). Entry by the Estes Grant family for the Beaty Biodiversity Museum's Bake a Cake for Darwin 2011

A new document just posted at The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online contains a previously unpublished remark on Darwin’s feelings about the Galapagos Islands. It comes from notes Darwin took while reading Alfred Russel Wallace’s Island Life: or, The phenomena and causes of insular faunas and floras, including a revision and attempted solution of the problem of geological climates (London: Macmillan & Co., 1880):

Galapagos. — I regret that you have not discussed plants. Perhaps I overvalue these Islds for how they did interest me & how they have influenced my life, as as one main element of my attending to origin of species.

You see that I have gone on writing as I read, & on almost next page there comes discussion of Galapagos flora!

John van Wyhe writes that “[a]s in his other descriptions of the Galapagos, however, Darwin here too refers to them not as the sole influence, but one of a number of the most important influences that first convinced him that species must evolve.”

Darwin Online now has a Facebook page, and I sure do hope you’ll go like it!

“Captured by C. Darwin, Esq”

Darwin's Room, Christ's College, University of Cambridge

Darwin's Room, Christ's College, University of Cambridge

Darwin, from his autobiography, on beetles:

But no pursuit at Cambridge was followed with nearly so much eagerness or gave me so much pleasure as collecting beetles. It was the mere passion for collecting, for I did not dissect them and rarely compared their external characters with published descriptions, but got them named anyhow. I will give a proof of my zeal: one day, on tearing off some old bark, I saw two rare beetles and seized one in each hand; then I saw a third and new kind, which I could not bear to lose, so that I popped the one which I held in my right hand into my mouth. Alas it ejected some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, as well as the third one. [MB: for this passage using the names of the species he lost, go here]

I was very successful in collecting and invented two new methods; I employed a labourer to scrape during the winter, moss off old trees and place [it] in a large bag, and likewise to collect the rubbish at the bottom of the barges in which reeds are brought from the fens, and thus I got some very rare species. No poet ever felt more delight at seeing his first poem published than I did at seeing in Stephen’s Illustrations of British Insects the magic words, “captured by C. Darwin, Esq.” I was introduced to entomology by my second cousin, W. Darwin Fox, a clever and most pleasant man, who was then at Christ’s College, and with whom I became extremely intimate. Afterwards I became well acquainted with and went out collecting, with Albert Way of Trinity, who in after years became a well-known archæologist; also with H. Thompson, of the same College, afterwards a leading agriculturist, chairman of a great Railway, and Member of Parliament. It seems therefore that a taste for collecting beetles is some indication of future success in life!

I am surprised what an indelible impression many of the beetles which I caught at Cambridge have left on my mind. I can remember the exact appearance of certain posts, old trees and banks where I made a good capture. The pretty Panagæus crux-major was a treasure in those days, and here at Down I saw a beetle running across a walk, and on picking it up instantly perceived that it differed slightly from P. crux-major, and it turned out to be P. quadripunctatus, which is only a variety or closely allied species, differing from it very slightly in outline. I had never seen in those old days Licinus alive, which to an uneducated eye hardly differs from many other black Carabidous beetles; but my sons found here a specimen and I instantly recognised that it was new to me; yet I had not looked at a British beetle for the last twenty years.

The words “captured by C. Darwin, Esq.” did not really appear as such, for Darwin was probably summarizing his many mentions in Stephen’s work. Much information about Darwin and his early beetle-collecting is available at Darwin Online, including the 1987 monograph “Darwin’s insects: Charles Darwin’s entomological notes, with an introduction and comments by Kenneth G. V. Smith.”

Beetles, Finches and Barnacles, University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge

Beetles, Finches and Barnacles, University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge

The above passage reflects Darwin’s passion for insects, and for the thrill of discovery – outside, in nature. Following his time at Cambridge was of course his time on and off HMS Beagle, followed by work in London to organize and research his collections from the voyage. Once he got heavy into his transmutation ideas, Darwin focused on collecting facts and writing, writing, writing in notebooks. In 1846, he turned to a study of barnacles, for several reasons: he felt he needed to cement his status as a naturalist, and he felt that a taxonimc study of a group of marine invertebrates would give insight to his developing transmutation theory. He thought the study would take him a year. Barnacles became such a part of not only Darwin’s life, but his family’s as well that, according to Darwin’s son Francis, one of the children once inquired of a friend, about his father, when visiting their home, “Then where does he do his barnacles?” Darwin expressed in letters to his botanist friend Joseph Dalton Hooker that he saw no end to this work, “but do not flatter yourself that I shall not yet live, to finish the Barnacles & then make a fool of myself on the subject of Species.” In the end, the barnacle work took him eight years, and produced 4 volumes, which resulting in his being awarded the Copley Medal from the Royal Society. Done with barnacles, Darwin was surely tired of sitting at a table peering through a microscope. He reflected in his autobiography:

My work on the Cirripedia possesses, I think, considerable value, as besides describing several new and remarkable forms, I made out the homologies of the various parts—I discovered the cementing apparatus, though I blundered dreadfully about the cement glands—and lastly I proved the existence in certain genera of minute males complemental to and parasitic on the hermaphrodites. This latter discovery has at last been fully confirmed; though at one time a German writer was pleased to attribute the whole account to my fertile imagination. The Cirripedes form a highly varying and difficult group of species to class; and my work was of considerable use to me, when I had to discuss in the Origin of Species the principles of a natural classification. Nevertheless, I doubt whether the work was worth the consumption of so much time.

Darwin then in September 1854 moved on “to arranging my huge pile of notes, to observing, and experimenting, in relation to the transmutation of species.” One such series of experiments were on the germination ability of various seeds after their immersion of saltwater, for Darwin desired to know how plants could disperse across oceans to islands. Like the barnacles, this work was also crucial for On the Origin of Species, in the chapters on geographical distribution. Studying seeds in 1855, however, was no more exciting for Darwin than barnacles. He complained in a letter to his cousin Fox: “Seeds will sink in salt-water – all of nature is perverse & will not do as I wish it, & just at present I wish I had the old Barnacles to work at & nothing new.” To Hooker he called them “horrid seeds” and “ungrateful rascals.” Darwin tired of the whole process. “Thanks, also, for your little note with all the terrible wishes about the seeds,” he wrote to a skeptical Hooker, “in which I almost join for I begin to think they are immortal & that the seed job will be another Barnacle job.” Again, Darwin’s work became a family affair, for the children asked their father if he “should beat Dr. Hooker?!!”

Darwin worked tirelessly in his home outside of London. Down House became a “country house” laboratory for his scientific endeavors, and he utilized many areas of the house and its grounds for his experiments. Yet while he worked away on his “one long argument,” all he really wanted to do was get outside. To the entomologist John Lubbock, also Darwin’s neighbor, he wrote in 1854:

I do not know whether you care about Beetles, but for the chance I send this in a Bottle, which, I never remember having seen, though it is excessively rash to speak from a 26 year old remembrance. Whenever we meet you can tell me whether you know it.—

… I feel like an old war-horse at the sound of the trumpet, when I read about the capturing of rare beetles— is not this a magnanimous simile for a decayed entomologist. It really almost makes me long to begin collecting again.

Darwin’s move to Downe marked an event in his life that had lasting influence. This transition in physical location mirrors the transition, although in an opposite direction, of his work from stationary barnacles to mobile seeds. Darwin biographers Adrian Desmond and James Moore suggested in Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist (1992, p. 232) that thinking about transoceanic dispersal in the seed experiments allowed a solitary and confined Darwin to travel once more. “Thinking about blue seas took him back to the voyage,” they wrote. “During those years island-hopping himself, he would have given his right arm to be home. Now he was dreaming himself back to the sea again.” We return to Carson’s passage about dispersal in The Sea Around Us, and we can envision Darwin imaging himself as one of those plants “drifting on the currents” or an animal “rafting in on logs.” It seems daydreams sailing upon seeds were not enough to satiate a shut-in naturalist.

Caricature of Darwin by fellow beetle collecter Albert Way (from the Darwin Correspondence Project website: By permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library. Copyright CUL)

Darwin continued to reminisce about beetle-collecting. To Charles Lyell’s sister-in-law, Katharine, Darwin wrote in 1856: “With respect to giving your children a taste for Natural History, I will venture one remark, viz that giving them specimens, in my opinion, would tend to destroy such taste. Youngsters must be themselves collectors to acquire a taste; & if I had a collection of English Lepidoptera, I would be systematically most miserly & not give my Boys half-a-dozen butterflies in the year. Your eldest Boy has the brow of an observer, if there be the least truth in phrenology.” If he could not go back to collecting, he surely encouraged others to. In 1858, he shared with Fox, “I am reminded of old days by my third Boy having just begun collecting Beetles, & he caught the other day Brachinus crepitans of immotal Whittlesea-mere memory.— My blood boiled with old ardour, when he caught a Licinus,—a prize unknown to me.” To his caricaturist Way, in 1860: “It is a very long time since we met.— Eheu Eheu, the old Crux Major days are long past. I sincerely hope that you are well in health.” And finally, in 1862 Darwin wrote to Fox: “About two years ago I stumbled at Down on a Panagæus crux major: how it brought back to my mind Cambridge days! You did me a great service in making me an entomologist: I really hardly know anything in this life that I have more enjoyed that our beetle-hunting expeditions; Prince Albert told Lyell, that he looked back with more pleasure to collecting insects, than he had ever found in stag-shooting.”

Texas Trip Day 2

So happy that my son is curious and willing to pick things up!

Small Dispersal Event

The Darwin Correspondence Project’s “Darwin and Gender” project has a Twitter feed: @DarwinWomen, “Charles Darwin’s women correspondents speak out!”

BBC News: Charles Darwin’s ecological experiment on Ascension isle

Science, Reason and Critical Reasoning: Modern Science Map (I’m sure there’s much that could be said about the way this is set up, but I’m just going to enjoy the awesomeness of it and not try and find any mistakes, misses, etc.).

Guardian science blogs (via Noticing/Science)

Four Nails in Darwin’s Coffin, oh my!