More articles on Darwin and paleontology

I’ve recently shared some notices of new articles on Darwin and paleontology (here and here), and have since learned that they and two more are all part of a special issue devoted to the topic. Here are the two others, in the journal Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences:

Introduction: Towards a global history of paleontology: The paleontological reception of Darwin’s thought

David Sepkoski and Marco Tamborini

Highlights Paleontology had an important role in the reception of Darwinian evolutionary ideas / The reception of Darwin by paleontologists varied significantly by national tradition / This special issue is a first step towards a global history of paleontology


American Palaeontology and the reception of Darwinism

Peter J. Bowler

Highlights Outlines the varying responses of American paleontologists to Darwinism / Explores the complexity of O. C. Marsh’s support for natural selection / Shows how neo-Lamarckians developed an alternative to Darwinism


Two new journal articles on the reception of Darwin in paleontology

I’ve seen notice of two new journal articles on the reception of Darwin in paleontology, both in Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences:

Chinese paleontology and the reception of Darwinism in early twentieth century

Xiaobo Yu

Abstract The paper examines the social, cultural and disciplinary factors that influenced the reception and appropriation of Darwinism by China’s first generation paleontologists. Darwinism was mixed with Social Darwinism when first introduced to China, and the co-option of Darwinian phrases for nationalistic awakening obscured the scientific essence of Darwin’s evolutionary theory. First generation Chinese paleontologists started their training in 1910s–1920s. They quickly asserted their professional identity by successfully focusing on morphology, taxonomy and biostratigraphy. Surrounded by Western paleontologists with Lamarckian or orthogenetic leanings, early Chinese paleontologists enthusiastically embraced evolution and used fossils as factual evidence; yet not enough attention was given to mechanistic evolutionary studies. The 1940s saw the beginning of a new trend for early Chinese paleontologists to incorporate more biological and biogeographical components in their work, but external events such as the dominance of Lysenkoism in the 1950s made the Modern Synthesis pass by without being publicly noticed in Chinese paleontology. Characterized by the larger goal of using science for nation building and by the utilitarian approach favoring local sciences, the reception and appropriation of Darwinism by first generation Chinese paleontologists raise important questions for studying the indigenizing efforts of early Chinese scientists to appropriate Western scientific theories.


The reception of darwin in late nineteenth-century German paleontology as a case of pyrrhic victory

Marco Tamborini

Abstract This paper investigates German-speaking paleontologists’ reception of Darwin’s thought and the ways in which they negotiated their space of knowledge production accordingly. In German-speaking regions, the majority of paleontologists welcomed Darwin’s magnum opus, since it granted paleontology an independent voice within biology, and thus a new institutional setting. However, in the process of negotiating the features of paleontology within the Darwinian framework, German paleontologists constrained their practices too narrowly, for fear of leaving open possible results at odds with the burgeoning Darwinian biological community. In doing so, they also limited the further development of German paleontology. In other words, paleontologists Karl Alfred von Zittel (1839–1904) and Melchior Neumayr (1845–1890) advocated for a handmaid’s role for paleontology, which increased biologists’ dependence on paleontologists for empirical evidence, but which limited paleontologists’ theoretical autonomy. By analyzing both the institutional strategies and the methodology of German-speaking paleontology at the end of the nineteenth century, this paper shows the importance of scientists’ ability to enter into and negotiate their place within the broader biological community.


ARTICLE: Censoring Huxley and Wilberforce: A new source for the meeting that the Athenaeum ‘wisely softened down’

The following article is recently published in Notes and Records:

Censoring Huxley and Wilberforce: A new source for the meeting that the Athenaeum ‘wisely softened down’

Richard England

Abstract In mid July 1860, the Athenaeum published a summary of the discussions about Charles Darwin’s theory that took place at the British Association meeting in Oxford. Its account omitted the famous exchange between Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford, and Thomas Huxley, the rising man of science. A fuller report of the meeting was published a week later in a local weekly, the Oxford Chronicle, but this has gone unnoticed by historians. The Oxford Chronicle supplies a new version of Wilberforce’s question to Huxley, with more material about religious objections to human evolution and the proper role of authority in popular scientific discussions. Excerpts from the Athenaeum and Oxford Chronicle accounts show that they likely had a common ancestor, and other sources corroborate details given only in the Oxford Chronicle. This discovery reveals that the Athenaeum narrative—until now the longest and best known—was censored to remove material that was considered objectionable. The Oxford Chronicle gives us a fuller story of what was said and how the audience reacted to the encounter between Huxley and Wilberforce.


BOOK: Science Museums in Transition: Cultures of Display in Nineteenth-Century Britain and America

This new edited volume will surely interest those interested in the intersection of museums and the history of science. While the topics of Darwin and evolution are only briefly mentioned, there’s enough natural history to warrant checking this book out.


Carin Berkowitz and Bernard Lightman, eds., Science Museums in Transition: Cultures of Display in Nineteenth-Century Britain and America (Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh University Press, 2017), 392 pp.

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Publisher’s description The nineteenth century witnessed a dramatic shift in the display and dissemination of natural knowledge across Britain and America, from private collections of miscellaneous artifacts and objects to public exhibitions and state-sponsored museums. The science museum as we know it—an institution of expert knowledge built to inform a lay public—was still very much in formation during this dynamic period. Science Museums in Transition provides a nuanced, comparative study of the diverse places and spaces in which science was displayed at a time when science and spectacle were still deeply intertwined; when leading naturalists, curators, and popular showmen were debating both how to display their knowledge and how and whether they should profit from scientific work; and when ideals of nationalism, class politics, and democracy were permeating the museum’s walls. Contributors examine a constellation of people, spaces, display practices, experiences, and politics that worked not only to define the museum, but to shape public science and scientific knowledge. Taken together, the chapters in this volume span the Atlantic, exploring private and public museums, short and long-term exhibitions, and museums built for entertainment, education, and research, and in turn raise a host of important questions, about expertise, and about who speaks for nature and for history.

BOOK: Discovering the Mammoth: A Tale of Giants, Unicorns, Ivory, and the Birth of a New Science

My friend John J. McKay, self-described “underemployed, grumpy, and aging liberal who lives in the Great Northwest” who blogs here and here, has recently published his first book on the history of how discoveries of mammoth bones (or what some people thought they were before the idea of a mammoth came about) influenced the developing science of paleontology.


John J. McKay, Discovering the Mammoth: A Tale of Giants, Unicorns, Ivory, and the Birth of a New Science (New York: Pegasus, 2017), 256 pp.

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Publisher’s description Today, we know that a mammoth is an extinct type of elephant that was covered with long fur and lived in the north country during the ice ages. But how do you figure out what a mammoth is if you have no concept of extinction, ice ages, or fossils? Long after the last mammoth died and was no longer part of the human diet, it still played a role in human life. Cultures around the world interpreted the remains of mammoths through the lens of their own worldview and mythology. When the ancient Greeks saw deposits of giant fossils, they knew they had discovered the battle fields where the gods had vanquished the Titans. When the Chinese discovered buried ivory, they knew they had found dragons’ teeth. But as the Age of Reason dawned, monsters and giants gave way to the scientific method. Yet the mystery of these mighty bones remained. How did Enlightenment thinkers overcome centuries of myth and misunderstanding to reconstruct an unknown animal? The journey to unravel that puzzle begins in the 1690s with the arrival of new type of ivory on the European market bearing the exotic name “mammoth.” It ends during the Napoleonic Wars with the first recovery of a frozen mammoth. The path to figuring out the mammoth was traveled by merchants, diplomats, missionaries, cranky doctors, collectors of natural wonders, Swedish POWs, Peter the Great, Ben Franklin, the inventor of hot chocolate, and even one pirate. McKay brings together dozens of original documents and illustrations, some ignored for centuries, to show how this odd assortment of characters solved the mystery of the mammoth and, in doing so, created the science of paleontology.

I am happy to see this book out, and am looking forward to reading it! In the meantime, here are some plugs/reviews online: Greg Laden’s Blog, NatureChristian Science Monitor, Twilight Beasts blog, Richard Conniff for the Wall Street Journal (paywall), Publisher’s Weekly, and Library Journal.

ARTICLE: Beating the Turkish hollow in the struggle for existence: Darwin, social Darwinism and the Turks

A new Darwin article in the journal Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences:

Beating the Turkish hollow in the struggle for existence: Darwin, social Darwinism and the Turks

Alper Bilgili

Abstract Despite the vast literature on Darwinism and race, the way in which Darwin’s opinions on race were received and used by non-Western circles has been little studied. In the case of the Turks, Darwin’s comments have been related to British-Ottoman relations, and Darwin was blamed for stoking anti-Turkish sentiment within Europe. This allegedly resulted in the British occupation of Egypt in the 19th century, the demise of the Ottoman Empire, as well as contemporary Neo-Nazi arson attacks in Germany which targeted Turkish migrants. Consequently, Turkish anti-Darwinists perceive Darwinism to be not merely a false scientific theory, but also a political-ideological instrument of Western hegemony wielded against Turkey and the Islamic World. Turkish Darwinists who responded to those claims, on the other hand, presented Darwin as an egalitarian who could overcome the prejudices of his social class. Further scrutiny, however, proves both accounts to be over-simplistic. This paper aims to throw some light on the context within which Darwin expressed his opinions on Turks and thus contribute to the broader discussion of the relationship between Darwinism and race. More importantly, it aims to familiarise Western readers with one of the cultures of creationism which is very little known, despite its great impact on Muslim masses.

BOOK: Darwin and the Making of Sexual Selection

… Darwin came to sexual selection not from his study of the sexual differences and mating behaviors or birds and other animals… but the other way around: from his very Victorian interpretation of the human practices of wife choice, courtship, and marriage, which he then extended to animals.

The word above come from the prologue of a new book I recently started reading, which should be titled The Big Book of Darwin and the Making of Sexual Selection:


Evelleen Richards, Darwin and the Making of Sexual Selection (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017), 672 pp.

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Publisher’s description Darwin’s concept of natural selection has been exhaustively studied, but his secondary evolutionary principle of sexual selection remains largely unexplored and misunderstood. Yet sexual selection was of great strategic importance to Darwin because it explained things that natural selection could not and offered a naturalistic, as opposed to divine, account of beauty and its perception.

Only now, with Darwin and the Making of Sexual Selection, do we have a comprehensive and meticulously researched account of Darwin’s path to its formulation—one that shows the man, rather than the myth, and examines both the social and intellectual roots of Darwin’s theory. Drawing on the minutiae of his unpublished notes, annotations in his personal library, and his extensive correspondence, Evelleen Richards offers a richly detailed, multilayered history. Her fine-grained analysis comprehends the extraordinarily wide range of Darwin’s sources and disentangles the complexity of theory, practice, and analogy that went into the making of sexual selection. Richards deftly explores the narrative strands of this history and vividly brings to life the chief characters involved. A true milestone in the history of science, Darwin and the Making of Sexual Selection illuminates the social and cultural contingencies of the shaping of an important—if controversial—biological concept that is back in play in current evolutionary theory.

Links: a review and interview from Times Higher Education; a review from the Guardian; a mention and article review (“Darwin and the Descent of Women,” 1983) from history of science doctoral student James Ungureanu; and a podcast of a 2016 lecture that Richards gave on her research (at this link, scroll down to find this particular one).