ARTICLE: Diagramming Evolution: The Case of Darwin’s Trees

A new article in the journal Endeavour:

Diagramming Evolution: The Case of Darwin’s Trees

Greg Priest

Abstract From his earliest student days through the writing of his last book, Charles Darwin drew diagrams. In developing his evolutionary ideas, his preferred form of diagram was the tree. An examination of several of Darwin’s trees—from sketches in a private notebook from the late 1830s through the diagram published in the Origin—opens a window onto the role of diagramming in Darwin’s scientific practice. In his diagrams, Darwin simultaneously represented both observable patterns in nature and conjectural narratives of evolutionary history. He then brought these natural patterns and narratives into dialogue, allowing him to explore whether the narratives could explain the patterns. But Darwin’s diagrams did not reveal their meaning directly to passive readers; they required readers to engage dynamically with them in order to understand the connections they disclosed between patterns and narratives. Moreover, the narratives Darwin depicted in his diagrams did not represent past sequences of events that he claimed had actually occurred; the narratives were conjectural, schematic, and probabilistic. Instead of depicting actual histories in all their particularity, Darwin depicted narratives in his diagrams in order to make general claims about how nature works. The conjunction of these features of Darwin’s diagrams is central to how they do their epistemic work.


BOOK: Darwin: The Man, His Great Voyage, and His Theory of Evolution

In 2011 I reviewed the The Darwin Experience: The Story of the Man and His Theory
of Evolution by John van Wyhe (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Press, 2008) for the Reports of the National Center for Science Education (PDF), calling the book a “wonderful window into the life and work of Charles Darwin, suitable for newcomers to the topic as well as those already familiar because of its display-like presentation and the illustrations and facsimile documents.” It was a large format book and came in a sleeve, its 64 pages and removable documents meant to be touched and poured over in a different manner than just reading a traditional book. While I still enjoy occasionally perusing that book, I am finding the newly published version for the Natural History Museum in London – Darwin: The Man, His Great Voyage, and His Theory of Evolution (London: Carlton/André Deutsch, 2018, 160 pp.) – to be a more rewarding reading experience.


While van Wyhe’s text is the same, I find the the new publisher’s presentation of images and documents to be more pleasant. The scans of the primary documents are placed on the pages, and are reproduced much better than those of the first version of the book. I highly recommend this new version for Darwin aficionados, and it would have been the perfect book for me when I first became interested in Darwin as a teenager.* Here are a few photos from inside the book:

* If I recall correctly, the first book I read about Darwin (around 1995), was Roy Gallant’s Charles Darwin: The Making of a Scientist (1972), because this was available in my high school library.



BOOK: Louis Agassiz’s Introduction to the Study of Natural History (Classic Texts in the Sciences)

A new series of books from Springer aims to publish important papers/lectures from the history of science, with supplemental information about the original author and their work. Of the five titles so far, one may be of interest to readers here: naturalist Louis Agassiz’s series of lectures given in Boston in the fall of 1846. It is edited and annotated by Agassiz biographer Christoph Irmscher, who published Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science in 2013.


Louis Agassiz,  Introduction to the Study of Natural History (Classic Texts in the Sciences). Edited and annotated by Christoph Irmscher (Basel, Switzerland: Birkhäuser Basel/Springer, 2017), 135 pp.

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Publisher’s description This book features Louis Agassiz’s seminal lecture course in which the Swiss-American scientist, a self-styled “American Humboldt,” summarized the state of zoological knowledge in his time. Though Darwin’s theory of evolution would soon dismantle his idealist science, Agassiz’s lectures are nonetheless modern in their insistence on the social and cultural importance of the scientific enterprise. An extensive, well-illustrated introduction by Agassiz’s biographer, Christoph Irmscher, situates Agassiz’s lectures in the context of his life and nineteenth-century science, while also confronting the deeply problematic aspects of his legacy. Profusely annotated, this edition offers fascinating insights into the history of science and appeals to anyone with an interest in zoology and natural history.

Given the high cost of this volume ($150), it is surely a title intended for libraries, so do indeed request your library purchase it if it will be useful to you or history of science students at your university.

ARTICLE: Charles Darwin, Richard Owen, and Natural Selection: A Question of Priority

In the the Journal of the History of Biology:

Charles Darwin, Richard Owen, and Natural Selection: A Question of Priority

Curtis N. Johnson (author of Darwin’s Dice)

Abstract No single author presented Darwin with a more difficult question about his priority in discovering natural selection than the British comparative anatomist and paleontologist Richard Owen. Owen was arguably the most influential biologist in Great Britain in Darwin’s time. Darwin wanted his approbation for what he believed to be his own theory of natural selection. Unfortunately for Darwin, when Owen first commented in publication about Darwin’s theory of descent he was openly hostile (Edinb. Rev. vol. 111, Article VIII, 1860, pp. 487–533, anonymous). Darwin was taken off-guard. In private meetings and correspondence prior to 1860 Owen had been nothing but polite and friendly, even helping Darwin in cataloguing and analyzing Darwin’s zoological specimens from the Beagle voyage. Every early indication predicted a life-long friendship and collaboration. But that was not to be. Owen followed his slashing review with a mounting campaign in the 1860s to denounce and discredit both Darwin and his small but ascendant circle of friends and supporters. But that was not enough for Owen. Starting in 1866, perhaps by now realizing Darwin had landed the big fish, Owen launched a new campaign, to claim the discovery of “Darwin’s theory” for himself. Darwin naturally fought back, mainly in the “Historical Sketch” that he prefaced to Origin starting in 1861. But when we peel back the layers of personal animus and escalating vituperation we discover in fact their quarrel was generated more by mutual misunderstanding than scientific disagreement. The battle ended only when Darwin finally penetrated to the crux of the matter and put an end to the rivalry in 1872, in the final version of the Sketch.