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 three more are all part of a special issue devoted to the topic. Here are the three 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

“How nationality influences Opinion”: Darwinism and palaeontology in France (1859–1914)

Claudine Cohen

Highlights Analyzes different aspects of 19th century French anti-Darwinism, their causes and effects / Describes the emergence of transformist views in French late 19th-Century palaeontology / Examines the specificity of French Neo-Lamarckian thought / Studies the reference to Darwin’s thought in 19th century French palaeontological works (Gaudry, Saporta, Deperet, F. Bernard) / Studies evolutionary concepts involved in the approach to Human evolution

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).

ARTICLE: How Fast Does Darwin’s Elephant Population Grow?

New in the Journal of the History of Biology:

How Fast Does Darwin’s Elephant Population Grow?

János Podani, Ádám Kun, and András Szilágyi

Abstract In “The Origin of Species,” Darwin describes a hypothetical example illustrating that large, slowly reproducing mammals such as the elephant can reach very large numbers if population growth is not affected by regulating factors. The elephant example has since been cited in various forms in a wide variety of books, ranging from educational material to encyclopedias. However, Darwin’s text was changed over the six editions of the book, although some errors in the mathematics persisted throughout. In addition, full details of the problem remained hidden in his correspondence with readers of the Origin. As a result, Darwin’s example is very often misinterpreted, misunderstood or presented as if it were a fact. We show that the population growth of Darwin’s elephant population can be modeled by the Leslie matrix method, which we generalize here to males as well. Darwin’s most often cited figure, about 19 million elephants after 750 years is not a typical outcome, actually a very unlikely result under more realistic, although still hypothetical situations. We provide a recursion formula suggesting that Darwin’s original model corresponds to a tribonacci series, a proof showing that sex ratio is constant over all age classes, and a derivation of a generating function of the sequence.

BOOK: A History of Science in Society: From Philosophy to Utility (3rd ed.)

As folks who teach the history of science think about their course offerings for the new school year in just a few months, it is perhaps worth mentioning that there is a new edition of a popular history of science textbook:


Andrew Ede and Lesley B. Cormack, A History of Science in Society: From Philosophy to Utility. 3rd ed. (Toronto: Univeristy of Toronto Press, 2017), 464 pp.

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Publisher’s description A History of Science in Society is a concise overview that introduces complex ideas in a non-technical fashion. Ede and Cormack trace the history of the changing place of science in society and explore the link between the pursuit of knowledge and the desire to make that knowledge useful. New topics in this edition include astronomy and mathematics in ancient Mayan society, science and technology in ancient India and China, and Islamic cartography. New “Connections” features provide in-depth exploration of the ways science and society interconnect. The text is accompanied by 55 colour maps and diagrams, and 8 colour plates highlighting key concepts and events. Essay questions, chapter timelines, a further readings section, and an index provide additional support for students. A companion reader edited by the authors, A History of Science in Society: A Reader, is also available.

One can also purchase this text in a first (Ancient to Scientific Revolution) and second (Scientific Revolution to Present) volume.

BOOK: Debating Darwin

A new book pits one Darwin expert against another in their views on what had more influence on Darwin: the social context of Industrial Revolution England or the German romantics.


Robert J. Richards and Michael Ruse, Debating Darwin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 320 pp.

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Publisher’s description Charles Darwin is easily the most famous scientist of the modern age, and his theory of evolution is constantly referenced in many contexts by scientists and nonscientists alike. And yet, despite how frequently his ideas are evoked, there remains a surprising amount we don’t know about the father of modern evolutionary thinking, his intellectual roots, and the science he produced. Debating Darwin seeks to change that, bringing together two leading Darwin scholars—Robert J. Richards and Michael Ruse—to engage in a spirited and insightful dialogue, offering their interpretations of Darwin and their critiques of each other’s thinking. Examining key disagreements about Darwin that continue to confound even committed Darwinists, Richards and Ruse offer divergent views on the origins and nature of Darwin and his ideas. Ruse argues that Darwin was quintessentially British and that the roots of his thought can be traced back to the eighteenth century, particularly to the Industrial Revolution and thinkers such as Adam Smith and Thomas Robert Malthus. Ruse argues that when these influences are appreciated, we can see how Darwin’s work in biology is an extension of their theories. In contrast, Richards presents Darwin as a more cosmopolitan, self-educated man, influenced as much by French and particularly German thinkers. Above all, argues Richards, it was Alexander von Humboldt who both inspired Darwin and gave him the conceptual tools that he needed to find and formulate his evolutionary hypotheses. Together, the authors show how the reverberations of the contrasting views on Darwin’s influences can be felt in theories about the nature of natural selection, the role of metaphor in science, and the place of God in Darwin’s thought. Revealing how much there still is to investigate and interrogate about Darwin’s ideas, Debating Darwin contributes to our understanding of evolution itself. The book concludes with a jointly authored chapter that brings this debate into the present, focusing on human evolution, consciousness, religion, and morality. This will be powerful, essential reading for anyone seeking a comprehensive understanding of modern-day evolutionary science and philosophy.

BOOK: Darwin and Women: A Selection of Letters

The Darwin Correspondence Project has published their first book of letters resulting from one of their thematic research avenues, on Darwin and gender.


Samantha Evans, ed. Darwin and Women: A Selection of Letters (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 298 pp.

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Publisher’s description Darwin and Women focuses on Darwin’s correspondence with women and on the lives of the women he knew and wrote to. It includes a large number of hitherto unpublished letters between members of Darwin’s family and their friends that throw light on the lives of the women of his circle and their relationships, social and professional, with Darwin. The letters included are by turns entertaining, intriguing, and challenging, and are organised into thematic chapters, including botany and zoology as well as marriage and servants, that set them in an accessible narrative context. Darwin’s famous remarks on women’s intelligence in Descent of man provide a recurring motif, and are discussed in the foreword by Gillian Beer, and in the introduction. The immediacy and variety of these texts make this an entertaining read which will suggest avenues for further research to students.

BOOK: Collecting Evolution: The Galapagos Expedition that Vindicated Darwin

I am very excited for Matthew to see his book published! I’ve got a copy checked out from my library and hope to delve into it soon…


Matthew J. James, Collecting Evolution: The Galapagos Expedition that Vindicated Darwin (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017),  304 pp.

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Publisher’s description In 1905, eight men from the California Academy of Sciences set sail from San Francisco for a scientific collection expedition in the Galapagos Islands, and by the time they were finished in 1906, they had completed one of the most important expeditions in the history of both evolutionary and conservation science. These scientists collected over 78,000 specimens during their time on the islands, validating the work of Charles Darwin and laying the groundwork for foundational evolution texts like Darwin’s Finches. Despite its significance, almost nothing has been written on this voyage, lost amongst discussion of Darwin’s trip on the Beagle and the writing of David Lack.

In Collecting Evolution, author Matthew James finally tells the story of the 1905 Galapagos expedition. James follows these eight young men aboard the Academy to the Galapagos and back, and reveals the reasons behind the groundbreaking success they had. A current Fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, James uses his access to unpublished writings and photographs to provide unprecedented insight into the expedition. We learn the voyagers’ personal stories, and how, for all the scientific progress that was made, just as much intense personal drama unfolded on the trip. This book shares a watershed moment in scientific history, crossed with a maritime adventure. There are four tangential suicides and controversies over credit and fame. Collecting Evolution also explores the personal lives and scientific context that preceded this voyage, including what brought Darwin to the Galapagos on the Beagle voyage seventy years earlier. James discusses how these men thought of themselves as “collectors” before they thought of themselves as scientists, and the implications this had on their approach and their results.

In the end, the voyage of the Academy proved to be crucial in the development of evolutionary science as we know it. It is the longest expedition in Galapagos history, and played a critical role in cementing Darwin’s legacy. Collecting Evolution brings this extraordinary story of eight scientists and their journey to life.

Check out these radio interviews with James about his new book: The Avid Reader Show and Gulf Coast Live on WGCU

ARTICLE: Darwin’s Influence on Mendel: Evidence from a New Translation of Mendel’s Paper

A recent article of interest in the journal Genetics:

Darwin’s Influence on Mendel: Evidence from a New Translation of Mendel’s Paper

Daniel J. Fairbanks and Scott Abbott

Abstract Gregor Mendel’s classic paper, Versuche über Pflanzen-Hybriden (Experiments on Plant Hybrids), was published in 1866, hence 2016 is its sesquicentennial. Mendel completed his experiments in 1863 and shortly thereafter began compiling the results and writing his paper, which he presented in meetings of the Natural Science Society in Brünn in February and March of 1865. Mendel owned a personal copy of Darwin’s Origin of Species, a German translation published in 1863, and it contains his marginalia. Its publication date indicates that Mendel’s study of Darwin’s book could have had no influence while he was conducting his experiments but its publication date coincided with the period of time when he was preparing his paper, making it possible that Darwin’s writings influenced Mendel’s interpretations and theory. Based on this premise, we prepared a Darwinized English translation of Mendel’s paper by comparing German terms Mendel employed with the same terms in the German translation of Origin of Species in his possession, then using Darwin’s counterpart English words and phrases as much as possible in our translation. We found a substantially higher use of these terms in the final two (10th and 11th) sections of Mendel’s paper, particularly in one key paragraph, where Mendel reflects on evolutionary issues, providing strong evidence of Darwin’s influence on Mendel.

ARTICLE: Darwin’s body-snatchers?

This short article in the journal Endeavour takes a creationist claim about Darwin to task:

Darwin’s body-snatchers?

John van Wyhe

Abstract For decades creationists have claimed that Charles Darwin sought the skulls of full-blooded Aboriginal Tasmanian people when only four were left alive. It is said that Darwin letters survive which reveal this startling and distasteful truth. Tracing these claims back to their origins, however, reveals a different, if not unfamiliar story.

ARTICLE: The impact of A. R. Wallace’s Sarawak Law paper reassessed

A new article in the journal Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences will interest readers here. Its author, the creator of Darwin Online and Wallace Online, has devoted much time and research in reevaluating the story of Wallace and Darwin.

The impact of A. R. Wallace’s Sarawak Law paper reassessed

John van Wyhe

Abstract This article examines six main elements in the modern story of the impact of Alfred Russel Wallace’s 1855 Sarawak Law paper, particularly in the many accounts of Charles Darwin’s life and work. These elements are: 1 It was Wallace’s first avowal of evolution; 2 Wallace laid out the theory of evolution minus only a “mechanism”; 3 Darwin failed to see how close Wallace was approaching; 4 Lyell did see how close Wallace was approaching; 5 Lyell urged Darwin to publish because of Wallace; 6 Darwin wrote to Wallace to warn him off his path. Each of these are very frequently repeated as straightforward facts in the popular and scholarly literature. It is here argued that each of these is erroneous and that the role of the Sarawak Law paper in the historiography of Darwin and Wallace needs to be revised.

You can read this article online or download the PDF for free.

ARTICLE: The Creativity of Natural Selection? Part I: Darwin, Darwinism, and the Mutationists

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

The Creativity of Natural Selection? Part I: Darwin, Darwinism, and the Mutationists

John Beatty

Abstract This is the first of a two-part essay on the history of debates concerning the creativity of natural selection, from Darwin through the evolutionary synthesis and up to the present. Here I focus on the mid-late nineteenth century to the early twentieth, with special emphasis on early Darwinism and its critics, the self-styled “mutationists.” The second part focuses on the evolutionary synthesis and some of its critics, especially the “neutralists” and “neo-mutationists.” Like Stephen Gould, I consider the creativity of natural selection to be a key component of what has traditionally counted as “Darwinism.” I argue that the creativity of natural selection is best understood in terms of (1) selection initiating evolutionary change, and (2) selection being responsible for the presence of the variation it acts upon, for example by directing the course of variation. I consider the respects in which both of these claims sound non-Darwinian, even though they have long been understood by supporters and critics alike to be virtually constitutive of Darwinism.

Journal special issue on “Replaying the Tape of Life: Evolution and Historical Explanation”

A whole issue of the journal Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences is devoted to the topic “Replaying the Tape of Life: Evolution and Historical Explanation.” The contents are as follows:

Introduction: Evolution and historical explanation
Peter Harrison, Ian Hesketh

What was historical about natural history? Contingency and explanation in the science of living things
Peter Harrison

The “History” of Victorian Scientific Naturalism: Huxley, Spencer and the “End” of natural history
Bernard Lightman


Theological presuppositions of the evolutionary epic: From Robert Chambers to E. O. Wilson
Allan Megill


What are narratives good for?
John Beatty


Counterfactuals and history: Contingency and convergence in histories of science and life
Ian Hesketh

The spontaneous market order and evolution
Naomi Beck

Contingency and the order of nature
Nancy Cartwright


Freedom and purpose in biology
Daniel W. McShea


“Replaying Life’s Tape”: Simulations, metaphors, and historicity in Stephen Jay Gould’s view of life
David Sepkoski

A case study in evolutionary contingency
Zachary D. Blount


Can evolution be directional without being teleological?
George R. McGhee Jr.

Evolutionary biology and the question of teleology
Michael Ruse

Contingency, convergence and hyper-astronomical numbers in biological evolution
Ard A. Louis


It all adds up …. Or does it? Numbers, mathematics and purpose
Simon Conway Morris

ARTICLE: The Ascent of Man and the Politics of Humanity’s Evolutionary Future

A new article in the history of science journal Endeavour might interest readers here:

The Ascent of Man and the Politics of Humanity’s Evolutionary Future

Erika Lorraine Milam

Abstract Throughout the twentieth century, contemporary understandings of evolutionary theory were tightly linked to visions of the future freighted with moral consequence. This essay traces the origins and legacy of this scientific commitment to a universal family of man in postwar evolutionary theory, and elaborates how evolutionary scientists sought to reframe the politics of human evolution by claiming that the principles governing the physical past of humanity differed fundamentally from those that would matter in the coming decades, centuries, or even millennia. Education and public engagement embodied the moral importance of actively participating in the creation of that better, future world.

Happy Origin Day!

Happy Origin Day! Today, November 24, 2016 marks the 157th annniversary of the publication of naturalist Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859. The book sold out on the first day to booksellers, and then quickly thereafter to the public. This photo, taken by my brother, is of a first edition on display at the The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in southern California. Learn more about the book from Darwin Online here:


BOOK: Do Elephants Have Knees? And Other Stories of Darwinian Origins

In September of this year, the National Center for Science Education (seriously, donate to them now if you value evolution and climate change education) posted on their blog about how Stephen Jay Gould’s comparison of Darwinian evolution to Kipling’s “Just So Stories” did not sit well with many a biologist. While of course Gould’s use of the phrase is nuanced, and refers to views some biologists have compared to others regarding how evolution happened, the phrase is a favorite trope of creationists.

A new book uses the idea of “Just So Stories” and children’s stories in general to show how evolution can be better understood.

Charles R. Ault Jr., Do Elephants Have Knees? And Other Stories of Darwinian Origins (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2016), 240 pp.

Publisher’s description Thinking whimsically makes serious science accessible. That’s a message that should be taken to heart by all readers who want to learn about evolution. Do Elephants Have Knees? invites readers into serious appreciation of Darwinian histories by deploying the playful thinking found in children’s books. Charles R. Ault Jr. weds children’s literature to recent research in paleontology and evolutionary biology. Inquiring into the origin of origins stories, Ault presents three portraits of Charles Darwin—curious child, twentysomething adventurer, and elderly worm scientist. Essays focusing on the origins of tetrapods, elephants, whales, and birds explain fundamental Darwinian concepts (natural selection, for example) with examples of fossil history and comparative anatomy. The imagery of the children’s story offers a way to remember and recreate scientific discoveries. By juxtaposing Darwin’s science with tales for children, Do Elephants Have Knees? underscores the importance of whimsical storytelling to the accomplishment of serious thinking. Charles Darwin mused about duck beaks and swimming bears as he imagined a pathway for the origin of baleen. A “bearduck” chimera may be a stretch, but the science linking not just cows but also whales to moose through shared ancestry has great merit. Teaching about shared ancestry may begin with attention to Bernard Wiseman’s Morris the Moose. Morris believes that cows and deer are fine examples of moose because they all have four legs and things on their heads. No whale antlers are known, but fossils of four-legged whales are. By calling attention to surprising and serendipitous echoes between children’s stories and challenging science, Ault demonstrates how playful thinking opens the doors to an understanding of evolutionary thought.

Purchase Do Elephants Have Knees? And Other Stories of Darwinian Origins through the publisher or the independent Powell’s City of Books. The author, who teaches at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, OR, will discuss his book at Powell’s Books on Hawthorne on November 28 at 7:30pm.


BOOK: Burn: Michael Faraday’s Candle

So excited to see a kid’s picture book about Michael Faraday! (I have been working my way through John Tyndall letters as co-editor of volume 6 of The Correspondence of John Tyndall [volumes 1 and 2 have been published], and there are plenty of letters between Faraday and Tyndall). It would be fantastic if this author and illustrator work together on more history of science stories.

BURN: Michael Faraday's Candle. Answer the question,

Darcy Pattison, Burn: Michael Faraday’s Candle (Little Rock, AR: Mims House, 2016), 32 pp. Illustrated by Peter Willis.

Publisher’s description WHAT MAKES A CANDLE BURN? Solid wax is somehow changed into light and heat. But how? Travel back in time to December 28, 1848 in London, England to one of the most famous juvenile science Christmas lectures at the Royal Institution. British scientist Michael Faraday (1791-1867) encouraged kids to carefully observe a candle and to try to figure out how it burned. Since Faraday’s lecture, “The Chemical History of a Candle,” was published in 1861, it’s never been out of print; however, it’s never been published as a children’s picture book – till now. Faraday originally gave seven lectures on how a candle burns. Pattison has adapted the first 6000-word lecture to about 650 words for modern elementary students, especially for the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) curriculum. Known as one of the best science experimenters ever, Faraday’s passion was always to answer the basic questions of science: “What is the cause? Why does it occur?”

Purchase Burn: Michael Faraday’s Candle through the publisher or the independent Powell’s City of Books.

ARTICLE: A Historical Taxonomy of Origin of Species Problems and Its Relevance to the Historiography of Evolutionary Thought

New in Journal of the History of Biology:

A Historical Taxonomy of Origin of Species Problems and Its Relevance to the Historiography of Evolutionary Thought

Koen B. Tanghe

Abstract Historians tend to speak of the problem of the origin of species or the species question, as if it were a monolithic problem. In reality, the phrase (or similar variants) refers to a, historically, surprisingly fluid and pluriform scientific issue. It has, in the course of the past five centuries, been used in no less than ten different ways or contexts. A clear taxonomy of these separate problems is useful or relevant in two ways. It certainly helps to disentangle confusions that have inevitably emerged in the literature in its absence. It may, secondly, also help us to gain a more thorough understanding, or sharper view, of the (pre)history of evolutionary thought. A consequent problem-centric look at that (pre)history through the lens of various origin of species problems certainly yields intriguing results, including and particularly for our understanding of the genesis of the Wallace–Darwin theory of evolution through natural selection.