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

From the Journal of the History of Biology (March 2019):

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

Curtis N. Johnson

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.


Darwin, evolution & science books for holiday gift giving (2018)

‘Tis the season for holiday gift giving (to others or to yourself, no shame there), so I thought I’d share about some recent books about evolution and related topics that might strike in you a desire to spread the good news (of science!).



Rebecca Stefoff and Teagan White (illustrator), Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species: Young Readers Edition (New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2018, 176. pp.) ~ As she has done for other books (Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee, and Charles C. Mann’s 1493), Stefoff has taken an important book and adapted it for a younger audience, using more accessible language and including copious illustrations and photographs, and while remaining true to Darwin’s chapter structure, has provided updated information on topics that have, well, evolved since Darwin’s time. If On the Origin of Species continues to be a book that everyone has an opinion about yet have never actually read (it can be a challenging read), perhaps they can start with this handsome large format edition. It surely deserves a place on the shelves of middle and high school libraries. Order Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species: Young Readers Edition: Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

Grandmother Fish

Jonathan Tweet and Karen Lewis (illustrator), Grandmother Fish (New York: Feiwel & Friends, 2016, 32 pp.) ~ This fantastic book about evolution for preschool-aged kids is not new, but I shared about it previously and it is worth mentioning again! Order Grandmother Fish: Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

One Iguana, Two Iguanas

Sneed B. Collard III, One Iguana, Two Iguanas: A Story of Accident, Natural Selection, and Evolution (Thomaston, ME: Tilbury House, 2018, 48 pp.) ~ I have not looked at a copy of this book myself, but Greg Laden has. Here’s the publisher’s description: “Natural selection and speciation are all but ignored in children’s nonfiction. To help address this glaring deficiency, award-winning children’s science writer Sneed Collard traveled to the Galapagos Islands to see for himself, where Charles Darwin saw, how new species form. The result is this fascinating story of two species of iguana, one land-based and one marine, both of which developed from a single ancestor that reached the islands millions of years ago. The animals evolved in different directions while living within sight of one another. How is that possible?” Geared toward upper elementary and middle grade readers. Order One Iguana, Two Iguanas: A Story of Accident, Natural Selection, and Evolution: Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

Stuff of Stars, The.jpeg

Marion Dane Bauer and Ekua Holmes, Ekua (illustrator), The Stuff of Stars (Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press, 2018, 40 pp.) ~ Going further back that biological evolution, this book puts the Sagan-esque notion of everything being made of “star stuff” – that all the matter that makes up every organism, including humans, was first created in the furnaces of stars billions of years ago – into a beautiful presentation of words and art. For some science-minded people who live without religion, appreciating our elemental connection to the universe can serve as a secular spirituality, and The Stuff of Stars serves as a perfect introduction of this idea. Order The Stuff of Stars: Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.


Ince, Martin, Continental Drift: The Evolution of Our World from the Origins of Life to the Future (Blueprint Editions, 80 pp.; titled Drift in the UK for WeldonOwen Publishing) ~ It is difficult to discuss the evolution of animals on Earth without bringing in geology: how plates of earth’s crusts moving around the globe over millions of years has had a major effect on the evolutionary lineages of organisms. Continental Drift by science writer Martin Ince, begins with the formation of Earth 4.5 billions years ago and the formation of land around 3.4 bya, and then passes through periods of geologic time (Cambrian, Devonian, Permian, Jurassic, Cretaceous, Paleogene, Anthropocene, etc.), describing the movement of plates and evolution of organisms during those periods. Copiously illustrated with drawings and photographs, as well as large maps showing how the earth’s land appeared in each period, this book is perfect for upper elementary and middle grade students wishing to learn more about the history of our planet and its life. In fact, curious adults will find value in pouring through its pages. Order Drift: Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

When the Whales Walked

Dougal Dixon and Hannah Bailey (illustrator), When the Whales Walked: And Other Incredible Evolutionary Journeys (London: words & pictures, 2018, 64 pp.) ~ I have not seen a copy of this book yet, but it looks like an important one to teach readers about transitional fossils. The publisher’s description: “Step back in time and discover a world where whales once walked, crocodiles were warm-blooded and snakes had legs! Meet terrifying giant birds, and tiny elephants living on islands in this fascinating creature guide like no other. Learn how whales once walked on four legs before taking to the oceans; how dinosaurs evolved into birds; and how the first cats were small and lived in trees. Featuring a stunning mix of annotated illustrations, illustrated scenes and family trees, evolution is explained here in a captivating and novel style that will make children look at animals in a whole new way.” Order When the Whales Walked: Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

Galapagos Girl

Marsha Diane Arnold and Angela Dominguez (illustrator), Galápagos Girl/Galapagueña (New York: Lee & Low Books, 2018, 40 pp.) ~ This is a charming picture book about a young girl born and raised on Floreana island in the Galápagos, who grew up among its unique animals and has made a life of researching, protecting, and educating about the Galápagos and its wildlife. Her name is Valentina Cruz, and through her story readers will learn about what it means to spend time in nature and value protecting it. The publisher’s description: “For Valentina, living on the Galápagos islands means spending her days outside, observing the natural world around her. She greets sea lions splashing on the shore, scampers over lava rocks with Sally-lightfoot crabs, and swims with manta rays. She is a Galápagos girl, and there is no other place she’d rather be! But this wondrous world is fragile, and when Valentina learns her wild companions are under threat, she vows to help protect them and the islands. Whimsical illustrations by Pura Belpré Honoree Angela Dominguez transport readers to the unique Galápagos islands, which shelter a number of diverse plant and animal species that can be found nowhere else on the planet. Come discover this beautiful world with Valentina and her animal friends!” The book is presented in both English and Spanish, and Mr. Darwin only receives a single mention, in a note at the end of the book about finches. This book is, after all, about Valentina, not Charles, as there are many persons connected to the history of these islands. Order Galápagos Girl/Galapagueña: Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.



Unnatural Selection

Katrina von Grouw, Unnatural Selection (Princeton University Press, 2013, 304 pp.) ~ This book came out in the summer, but I shared about it previously and it is worth mentioning again! Order Unnatural Selection: Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

Life on Earth (1)

David Attenborough, Life on Earth: The Greatest Story Ever Told (London: William Collins, 2018, 352 pp.) ~ A classic, updated. From the publisher: “David Attenborough’s unforgettable meeting with gorillas became an iconic moment for millions of television viewers. Life on Earth, the series and accompanying book, fundamentally changed the way we view and interact with the natural world setting a new benchmark of quality, influencing a generation of nature lovers. Told through an examination of animal and plant life, this is an astonishing celebration of the evolution of life on earth, with a cast of characters drawn from the whole range of organisms that have ever lived on this planet. Attenborough’s perceptive, dynamic approach to the evolution of millions of species of living organisms takes the reader on an unforgettable journey of discovery from the very first spark of life to the blue and green wonder we know today. Now, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the book’s first publication, David Attenborough has revisited Life on Earth, completely updating and adding to the original text, taking account of modern scientific discoveries from around the globe. He has chosen beautiful, completely new photography, helping to illustrate the book in a much greater way than was possible forty years ago. This special anniversary edition provides a fitting tribute to an enduring wildlife classic, destined to enthral the generation who saw it when first published and bring it alive for a whole new generation.” Order Life on Earth: Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

Darwin's Most Wonderful Plants

Ken Thompson, Darwin’s Most Wonderful Plants: Darwin’s Botany Today (London: Profile Books, 2018, 256 pp.) ~  In five chapters Thompson takes a look at Darwin’s seven books that cover botanical topics, from his first on orchids in 1862 to The Power of Movement in Plants in 1880. From the publisher: “Ken Thompson sees Darwin as a brilliant and revolutionary botanist, whose observations and theories were far ahead of his time – and are often only now being confirmed and extended by high-tech modern research. Like Darwin, he is fascinated and amazed by the powers of plants – particularly their Triffid-like aspects of movement, hunting and ‘plant intelligence’. This is a much needed book that re-establishes Darwin as a pioneering botanist, whose close observations of plants were crucial to his theories of evolution.” Order Darwin’s Most Wonderful Plants: Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

Tangled Tree, The.JPG

David Quammen, The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018, 480 pp.) ~ Currently making my way through this new offering from one of the best science writers we have. Quammen tells the intriguing story of how molecular biologists rewrote the tree of life, centering on the work of Carl Woese (billed as one of the most important biologists of the 20th century that you’ve never heard of) but including Lynn Margulis and a great many others. Quammen blends science with storytelling in such a fashion that one feels as if they are witnessing science at work as it is happening – it’s ups and downs, its triumphs and lesser moments. With plenty of Darwin to start the narrative off. Highly recommended. Order The Tangled Tree: Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

Wall of Birds, The

Jane Kim and Thayer Walker, The Wall of Birds: One Planet, 243 Families, 375 Million Years – A Visual Journey (New York: Harper Design, 2018, 224 pp.) ~ Ever since I first saw social media posts showing the work in progress for a mural on a wall at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology‘s office, I have been in awe of Jane Kim’s bird and other scientific illustrations. They are absolutely gorgeous, and this new book by Kim shares her experience doing the mural and about all the birds presented, including dinosaurs! Order The Wall of Birds: Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound. More info about the wall here, and Jane’s website here.

Cruisin' the Fossil Coastline

Kirk Johnson and Ray Troll (artist), Cruisin’ the Fossil Coastline: The Travels of an Artist and a Scientist along the Shores of the Prehistoric Pacific (Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing, 2018, 290 pp.) ~ A follow up to Johnson and Troll’s Cruisin’ the Fossil Freeway: An Epoch Tale of a Scientist and an Artist on the Ultimate 5,000-mile Paleo Road Trip (2007), which followed the author and artist through the American West in search of fossils and paleontologists, Cruisin’ the Fossil Coastline does the same for the stretch of coastline from southern California up north into Alaska. Johnson is a fine writer, and Troll’s unique art style never disappoints. Order Cruisin’ the Fossil Coastline: Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

Galapagos Life in Motion.jpeg

Walter Perez and Michael Weisberg, Galápagos: Life in Motion (Princeton University Press, 2018, 208 pp.) ~ For someone who hopes to visit the Galápagos in their lifetime but is not sure if it will happen, this book of photographs by Walter Perez is an antidote to waiting for such an opportunity. From the publisher: “The Galápagos Islands are home to an amazing variety of iconic creatures, from Giant Tortoises, Galápagos Sea Lions, Galápagos Penguins, and Ghost Crabs to Darwin’s finches, the Blue-footed Booby, and Hummingbird Moths. But how precisely do these animals manage to survive on―and in the waters around―their desert-like volcanic islands, where fresh water is always scarce, food is often hard to come by, and finding a good mate is a challenge because animal populations are so small? In this stunning large-format book, Galápagos experts Walter Perez and Michael Weisberg present an unprecedented photographic account of the remarkable survival behaviors of these beautiful and unique animals. With more than 200 detailed, close-up photographs, the book captures Galápagos animals in action as they feed, play, fight, court, mate, build nests, give birth, raise their young, and cooperate and clash with other species.” Order Galápagos: Life in Motion: Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

Charles Darwin - A Reference Guide to His Life and Works

J. David Archibald, Charles Darwin: A Reference Guide to His Life and Works (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2018, 232 pp.) ~ I have yet to view a copy of this book, but I have liked Archibald’s other books about Darwin and evolution so I expect this to serve as a useful resource. Here is the publisher’s description: “Charles Darwin: A Reference Guide to His Life and Works provides an important new compendium presenting a detailed chronology of all aspects Darwin’s life. The extensive encyclopedia section includes many hundreds of entries of various kinds related to Darwin – people, places, institutions, concepts, and his publications. The bibliography provides a comprehensive listing of the vast majority of Darwin’s works published during and after his lifetime. It also provides a more selective list of publications concerning his life and work.” Order Charles Darwin: A Reference Guide to His Life and Works: Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

On the bookshelf: Evolution, anthropology, geology, philosophy of paleontology, and early 20th century activism for birds


The following titles are some of the books I have been reading or have recently obtained that readers here are likely to find of interest. Ordering links follow the descriptions of each book, but I recommend also checking your local bookstore or library!

Efram, Sera-Shriar (ed.), Historicizing Humans: Deep Time, Evolution, and Race in Nineteenth-Century British Sciences (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018, 320 pp.) ~ The publiher’s description reads: “A number of important developments and discoveries across the British Empire’s imperial landscape during the nineteenth century invited new questions about human ancestry. The rise of secularism and scientific naturalism; new evidence, such as skeletal and archaeological remains; and European encounters with different people all over the world challenged the existing harmony between science and religion and threatened traditional biblical ideas about special creation and the timeline of human history. Advances in print culture and voyages of exploration also provided researchers with a wealth of material that contributed to their investigations into humanity’s past. Historicizing Humans takes a critical approach to nineteenth-century human history, as the contributors consider how these histories were shaped by the colonial world, and for various scientific, religious, and sociopolitical purposes. This volume highlights the underlying questions and shared assumptions that emerged as various human developmental theories competed for dominance throughout the British Empire.” Readers interested in Darwin specifically will want to check out chapter 6 – Gregory Radick on “How and Why Darwin Got Emotional about Race.” Radick delves into Darwin’s writing in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) as a means to understand Darwin’s thoughts on human evolution and suggests that Expression provides more evidence in Darwin’s mind of man’s animal ancestry than what he offered in On the Origin of Species (1859) or The Descent of Man (1871). Order Historicizing Humans: Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

Kieran D. O’Hara, A Brief History of Geology (Cambridge University Press, 2018, 274 pp.) ~ “Geology as a science has a fascinating and controversial history. Kieran D. O’Hara’s book provides a brief and accessible account of the major events in the history of geology over the last two hundred years, from early theories of Earth structure during the Reformation, through major controversies over the age of the Earth during the Industrial Revolution, to the more recent twentieth-century development of plate tectonic theory, and on to current ideas concerning the Anthropocene. Most chapters include a short ‘text box’ providing more technical and detailed elaborations on selected topics. The book also includes a history of the geology of the Moon, a topic not normally included in books on the history of geology. The book will appeal to students of Earth science, researchers in geology who wish to learn more about the history of their subject, and general readers interested in the history of science.” Order A Brief History of GeologyAmazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

Peter R. Grant and B. Rosemary Grant, 40 Years of Evolution: Darwin’s Finches on Daphne Major Island (Princeton University Press, 2014, 432 pp.) ~ One of the very first books I read about evolution when the topic grabbed me as a teenager was The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner (1995), which told the story of the Grants’ lengthy study of finches on the Galapagos islands. Jump two decades later and their research in the field continues, as they describe in this newer book. From the publisher: “Renowned evolutionary biologists Peter and Rosemary Grant have produced landmark studies of the Galápagos finches first made famous by Charles Darwin. In How and Why Species Multiply [2008], they offered a complete evolutionary history of Darwin’s finches since their origin almost three million years ago. Now, in their richly illustrated new book, 40 Years of Evolution, the authors turn their attention to events taking place on a contemporary scale. By continuously tracking finch populations over a period of four decades, they uncover the causes and consequences of significant events leading to evolutionary changes in species. The authors used a vast and unparalleled range of ecological, behavioral, and genetic data–including song recordings, DNA analyses, and feeding and breeding behavior–to measure changes in finch populations on the small island of Daphne Major in the Galápagos archipelago. They find that natural selection happens repeatedly, that finches hybridize and exchange genes rarely, and that they compete for scarce food in times of drought, with the remarkable result that the finch populations today differ significantly in average beak size and shape from those of forty years ago. The authors’ most spectacular discovery is the initiation and establishment of a new lineage that now behaves as a new species, differing from others in size, song, and other characteristics. The authors emphasize the immeasurable value of continuous long-term studies of natural populations and of critical opportunities for detecting and understanding rare but significant events. By following the fates of finches for several generations, 40 Years of Evolution offers unparalleled insights into ecological and evolutionary changes in natural environments.” Order 40 Years of EvolutionAmazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

Tessa Boase, Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather: Fashion, Fury and Feminism – Women’s Fight for Change (Aurum Press, 2018, 336 pp.) ~ Women’s suffrage in Britain began in 1918, when certain woman over the age of 30 were granted the right to vote, but the effort to reach such a point had begun decades earlier. Social historian Tessa Boase tells the story of how the women’s suffrage movement was intertwined with the movement to protect British birds. The publisher’s description: “When Mrs Pankhurst stormed the House of Commons with her crack squad of militant suffragettes in 1908, she wore on her hat a voluptuous purple feather. This is the intriguing story behind that feather. Twelve years before the suffragette movement began dominating headlines, a very different women’s campaign captured the public imagination. Its aim was radical: to stamp out the fashion for feathers in hats. Leading the fight was a character just as heroic as Emmeline Pankhurst, but with opposite beliefs. Her name was Etta Lemon, and she was anti-fashion, anti-feminist – and anti-suffrage. Mrs Lemon has been forgotten by history, but her mighty society lives on. Few, today, are aware that Britain’s biggest conservation charity, the RSPB, was born through the determined efforts of a handful of women, led by the indomitable Mrs Lemon. While the suffragettes were slashing paintings and smashing shop windows, Etta Lemon and her local secretaries were challenging ‘murderous millinery’ all the way up to Parliament. This gripping narrative explores two singular heroines – one lionised, the other forgotten – and their rival, overlapping campaigns. Moving from the feather workers’ slums to the highest courtly circles, from the first female political rally to the first forcible feeding, Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather is a unique journey through a society in transformation. This is a highly original story of women stepping into the public sphere, agitating for change – and finally finding a voice.” Order Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple FeatherAmazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

Peter Ward, Lamarck’s Revenge: How Epigenetics Is Revolutionizing Our Understanding of Evolution’s Past and Present (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018, 288 pp.) ~ “In the 1700s, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck first described epigenetics to explain the inheritance of acquired characteristics; however, his theory was supplanted in the 1800s by Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection through heritable genetic mutations. But natural selection could not adequately explain how rapidly species re-diversified and repopulated after mass extinctions. Now advances in the study of DNA and RNA have resurrected epigenetics, which can create radical physical and physiological changes in subsequent generations by the simple addition of a single small molecule, thus passing along a propensity for molecules to attach in the same places in the next generation! Epigenetics is a complex process, but paleontologist and astrobiologist Peter Ward breaks it down for general readers, using the epigenetic paradigm to reexamine how the history of our species–from deep time to the outbreak of the Black Plague and into the present–has left its mark on our physiology, behavior, and intelligence. Most alarming are chapters about epigenetic changes we are undergoing now triggered by toxins, environmental pollutants, famine, poor nutrition, and overexposure to violence. Lamarck’s Revenge is an eye-opening and controversial exploration of how traits are inherited, and how outside influences drive what we pass along to our progeny.” Order Lamarck’s RevengeAmazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

Adrian Currie, Rock, Bone, and Ruin: An Optimist’s Guide to the Historical Sciences (MIT Press, 2018, 376 pp.) ~ I’ve read lots of books about dinosaurs and paleontology over the years, but this one suggests to not necessarily take everything a paleontologist says for granted. From the publisher: “The ‘historical sciences’—geology, paleontology, and archaeology—have made extraordinary progress in advancing our understanding of the deep past. How has this been possible, given that the evidence they have to work with offers mere traces of the past? In Rock, Bone, and Ruin, Adrian Currie explains that these scientists are ‘methodological omnivores,’ with a variety of strategies and techniques at their disposal, and that this gives us every reason to be optimistic about their capacity to uncover truths about prehistory. Creative and opportunistic paleontologists, for example, discovered and described a new species of prehistoric duck-billed platypus from a single fossilized tooth. Examining the complex reasoning processes of historical science, Currie also considers philosophical and scientific reflection on the relationship between past and present, the nature of evidence, contingency, and scientific progress. Currie draws on varied examples from across the historical sciences, from Mayan ritual sacrifice to giant Mesozoic fleas to Mars’s mysterious watery past, to develop an account of the nature of, and resources available to, historical science. He presents two major case studies: the emerging explanation of sauropod size, and the ‘snowball earth’ hypothesis that accounts for signs of glaciation in Neoproterozoic tropics. He develops the Ripple Model of Evidence to analyze ‘unlucky circumstances’ in scientific investigation; examines and refutes arguments for pessimism about the capacity of the historical sciences, defending the role of analogy and arguing that simulations have an experiment-like function. Currie argues for a creative, open-ended approach, ’empirically grounded’ speculation.” Order Rock, Bone, and Ruin: AmazonPowell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

BOOK: Unnatural Selection by Katrina van Grouw

This summer, I – and a theater full of lovers of science – were treated to a talk from natural history illustrator, scientist, and author Katrina van Grow. At one of Portland’s Science on Tap evenings, the author of the popular Unfeathered Bird (Princeton University Press, 2013) shared all about her new book Unnatural Selection (also from Princeton University Press), and she did so enthusiastically. Illustrating and discussing animal skeletons is obviously a passion of hers, and it showed wonderfully in her presentation. I was delighted to buy a copy of Unnatural Selection from her. For others, this would make a great gift for the Darwin aficionado in your life!

Unnatural Selection (1)

The subject of Unnatural Selection, opposite that of Darwin’s “natural selection,” is the human-initiated selective breeding of domestic animals: the dogs, pigeons, chickens and geese, and livestock that grace the pages of this beautiful, large-format book. The publisher’s description:

Unnatural Selection is a stunningly illustrated book about selective breeding–the ongoing transformation of animals at the hand of man. More important, it’s a book about selective breeding on a far, far grander scale—a scale that encompasses all life on Earth. We’d call it evolution. A unique fusion of art, science, and history, this book celebrates the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s monumental work The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication, and is intended as a tribute to what Darwin might have achieved had he possessed that elusive missing piece to the evolutionary puzzle—the knowledge of how individual traits are passed from one generation to the next. With the benefit of a century and a half of hindsight, Katrina van Grouw explains evolution by building on the analogy that Darwin himself used—comparing the selective breeding process with natural selection in the wild, and, like Darwin, featuring a multitude of fascinating examples. This is more than just a book about pets and livestock, however. The revelation of Unnatural Selection is that identical traits can occur in all animals, wild and domesticated, and both are governed by the same evolutionary principles. As van Grouw shows, animals are plastic things, constantly changing. In wild animals the changes are usually too slow to see—species appear to stay the same. When it comes to domesticated animals, however, change happens fast, making them the perfect model of evolution in action. Suitable for the lay reader and student, as well as the more seasoned biologist, and featuring more than four hundred breathtaking illustrations of living animals, skeletons, and historical specimens, Unnatural Selection will be enjoyed by anyone with an interest in natural history and the history of evolutionary thinking.

I’ve poured over the fantastic illustrations and look forward to diving into the text!

Princeton UP Blog: Katrina van Grouw on the 150th Anniversary of Darwin’s Classic Work
The Friends of Charles Darwin: Book review: ‘Unnatural Selection’ by Katrina van Grouw
Tetrapod Zoology: Coming Soon in 2018: Katrina Van Grouw’s Unnatural Selection
Linnean Society of London lecture on YouTube: Unnatural Selection: Evolution at the Hand of Man (and one from 2017 for The Unfeathered Bird)
Darwin Online: The variation of animals and plants under domestication (1868)

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.

BOOK: Darwin Comes to Town: How the Urban Jungle Drives Evolution

In February I came across an article about a letter written to Darwin in 1878 that discussed the color variation in a species of moth in response to industrial pollution. Turns out this was from the author of a new book all about how the evolution of animal species can be observed within urban areas.

Darwin Comes to Town

Menno Schiltuizen, Darwin Comes to Town: How the Urban Jungle Drives Evolution (New York: Picador/Macmillan, 2018), 304 pp.

Order through Powell’s City of BooksOrder through

Publisher’s description Menno Schilthuizen is one of a growing number of “urban ecologists” studying how our manmade environments are accelerating and changing the evolution of the animals and plants around us. In Darwin Comes to Town, he takes us around the world for an up-close look at just how stunningly flexible and swift-moving natural selection can be. With human populations growing, we’re having an increasing impact on global ecosystems, and nowhere do these impacts overlap as much as they do in cities. The urban environment is about as extreme as it gets, and the wild animals and plants that live side-by-side with us need to adapt to a whole suite of challenging conditions: they must manage in the city’s hotter climate (the “urban heat island”); they need to be able to live either in the semidesert of the tall, rocky, and cavernous structures we call buildings or in the pocket-like oases of city parks (which pose their own dangers, including smog and free-ranging dogs and cats); traffic causes continuous noise, a mist of fine dust particles, and barriers to movement for any animal that cannot fly or burrow; food sources are mainly human-derived. And yet, as Schilthuizen shows, the wildlife sharing these spaces with us is not just surviving, but evolving ways of thriving. Darwin Comes to Town draws on eye-popping examples of adaptation to share a stunning vision of urban evolution in which humans and wildlife co-exist in a unique harmony. It reveals that evolution can happen far more rapidly than Darwin dreamed, while providing a glimmer of hope that our race toward over population might not take the rest of nature down with us.

Read reviews from NPR Books, Kirkus Reviews, Publisher’s Weekly, Financial Times, and interviews with the author from Scientific Inquirer and Chicago Book Review. Schilthuizen also appeared on CBS This Morning and in conversation with Isabella Rossellini.

Two new books centered on evolution and the human species

Here are two new books centered on evolution and the human species that readers here may be interested in:


Philip Lieberman, The Theory that Changed Everything: “On the Origin of Species” as a Work in Progress (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), 232 pp.

Order through Powell’s City of BooksOrder through

Publisher’s description Few people have done as much to change how we view the world as Charles Darwin. Yet On the Origin of Species is more cited than read, and parts of it are even considered outdated. In some ways, it has been consigned to the nineteenth century. In The Theory That Changed Everything, the renowned cognitive scientist Philip Lieberman demonstrates that there is no better guide to the world’s living—and still evolving—things than Darwin and that the phenomena he observed are still being explored at the frontiers of science. In an exploration that ranges from Darwin’s transformative trip aboard the Beagle to Lieberman’s own sojourns in the remotest regions of the Himalayas, this book relates fresh, contemporary findings to the major concepts of Darwinian theory, which transcends natural selection. Drawing on his own research into the evolution of human linguistic and cognitive abilities, Lieberman explains the paths that adapted human anatomy to language. He demystifies the role of recently identified transcriptional and epigenetic factors encoded in DNA, explaining how nineteenth-century Swedish famines alternating with years of plenty caused survivors’ grandchildren to die many years short of their life expectancy. Lieberman is equally at home decoding supermarket shelves and climbing with the Sherpas as he discusses how natural selection explains features from lactose tolerance to ease of breathing at Himalayan altitudes. With conversational clarity and memorable examples, Lieberman relates the insights that led to groundbreaking discoveries in both Darwin’s time and our own while asking provocative questions about what Darwin would have made of controversial issues today, such as GMOs, endangered species, and the God question.

This book is reviewed, along with three other new titles about Darwin, in the Times Literary Supplement, and the author of said review discusses it for the TLS podcast.  And a so-so review from Publisher’s Weekly.


Kostas Kampourakis, Turning Points: How Critical Events Have Driven Human Evolution, Life, and Development (New York: Prometheus Books, February 2018), 384 pp. 

Order through Powell’s City of BooksOrder through

Publisher’s description Critical historical events–or “turning points”–have shaped evolution and continue to have a decisive effect on individual lives. This theme is explored and explained in this lucid, accessible book for lay readers. The author argues that, although evolution is the result of unpredictable events, these events have profound influences on subsequent developments. Life is thus a continuous interplay between unforeseeable events and their decisive consequences. As one example, the author cites the fusing of two chromosomes, which differentiated the human species from our closest animal relatives about 4 to 5 million years ago. This event was not predictable, but it had a profound effect on the evolution of our species thereafter. By the same token, certain unpredictable circumstances in the past enabled only Homo sapiens to survive to the present day, though we now know that other human-like species also once existed. The author contrasts such scientific concepts grounded in solid evidence with prevalent misconceptions about life: specifically, the religious notion that there is a plan and purpose behind life, the widespread perception that intelligent design governs the workings of nature, the persistent belief in destiny and fate, and the attribution of an overly deterministic role to genes. This excellent introduction for laypersons to core ideas in biology goes a long way toward dispelling such misconceptions and presents current scientific research in clearly understandable, jargon-free terms.

Again, this book is reviewed in Publisher’s Weekly.

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

ARTICLE: Modelling with words: Narrative and natural selection

In the April 2017 issue of Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences:

Modelling with words: Narrative and natural selection

Dominic K. Dimech

Abstract I argue that verbal models should be included in a philosophical account of the scientific practice of modelling. Weisberg (2013) has directly opposed this thesis on the grounds that verbal structures, if they are used in science, only merely describe models. I look at examples from Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) of verbally constructed narratives that I claim model the general phenomenon of evolution by natural selection. In each of the cases I look at, a particular scenario is described that involves at least some fictitious elements but represents the salient causal components of natural selection. I pronounce the importance of prioritising observation of scientific practice for the philosophy of modelling and I suggest that there are other likely model types that are excluded from philosophical accounts.

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

GUEST POST: Darwin’s Polar Bear

The following guest post is from writer and wilderness guide Michael Engelhard, whose new book Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon is soon-to-be published by the University of Washington Press. Interested in doing a guest post about Darwin? Drop me an email at michaeldavidbarton AT gmail DOT com.




Darwin’s Polar Bear

by Michael Engelhard

Any high school student knows (or should know) how the beaks of Galápagos “finches” (it was in fact the islands’ mockingbirds that were influential) – of species confined to different islands – helped Darwin to develop his ideas about evolution. But few people realize that the polar bear too, informed his grand theory.

Letting his fancy run wild, in On the Origin of Species, the man used to thinking in eons hypothesized “a race of bears being rendered, by natural selection, more and more aquatic in their structure and habits, with larger and larger mouths, till a creature was produced as monstrous as a whale.” Darwin based this speculation on a black bear the fur trader-explorer Samuel Hearne had observed swimming for hours, its mouth wide open, catching insects in the water. If the supply of insects were constant, Darwin thought, and no better-adapted competitors present, such a species could well take shape over time.

Systematic approaches to animals and their respective niches had long fertilized the intellectual landscape. Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, in his Histoire Naturelle (published serially between 1749 and 1788) clearly distinguished a “land-bear” from a “sea-bear.” But his land-bear category was still muddled: it included a “white bear of the forest” as well as a white sea-bear. The count would have likely become aware of polar bears in the boreal forests of Hudson Bay by 1782, when France occupied Prince of Wales Fort at the mouth of the Churchill River. In a 1785 German edition of the Histoire Naturelle, Buffon’s white land-bear looks different from his sea-bear, clearly showing the shorter neck and snout characteristic of brown bears and black bears. Perhaps the count knew about British Columbia’s white black bears or “spirit bears,” which could have confused him. (Other contributions by Buffon were significant. He discovered the first principle of biogeography, noticing that despite similar environments, different regions have distinct plants and animals.)

Buffon’s classifying of animals by region or habitat – as in the case of the two “different” white bears – prompted later naturalists to try to explain their origins and distribution as resulting from the characteristics of a place. Long before the idea of “habitat” began to infiltrate scientific discourse, the polar bear’s range and that of its prey had been linked to environmental conditions. Synthesizing the work of the Comte de Buffon and other naturalists, the Anglo-Irish Romantic writer Oliver Goldsmith thought the “Greenland bear” exceptional, because it is “the only animal that, by being placed in the coldest climate, grows larger than those that live in the temperate zones. All other species of animated nature diminish as they approach the poles, and seem contracted in their size by the rigours of the ambient atmosphere… In short, all the variations of its figure and its colour seem to proceed from the coldness of the climate where it resides and the nature of the food it is supplied with.” Food availability does play a role in body mass, as does a region’s mean annual temperature, and while polar bears are not the only compact animal thriving in the Arctic such biogeographic observations anticipated the theory of evolution and principles of ecology.

On Svalbard expeditions in the summers of 1858 and 1859, the Scottish nobleman-explorer James Lamont watched polar bears frolic and dive. Intuiting that the animal had become what it is by living on seals, he deduced that the seal and the walrus must have originated first. Lamont assumed that polar bears had evolved from brown bears, “who, finding their means of subsistence running short, and pressed by hunger, ventured on the ice and caught some seals… so there is no impossibility in supposing that the brown bears, who by my theory were the progenitors of the present white bears, were accidently driven over to Greenland and Spitzbergen by storms or currents.” The palest brown bears with the greatest amount of external fat, Lamont thought, would have had the best chance to survive and therefore, reproduce. Upon his return, he wrote to Darwin, whose On the Origin of Species had been published in 1859. Encouraged by Darwin’s response, Lamont elaborated upon walrus and polar bear evolution in his 1861 travelogue, Seasons with the Sea-horses. Darwin approved of Lamont’s hypothesis and because Lamont’s thinking on the subject predated the publication of On the Origin of Species, he later credited Lamont (as he did Alfred Russell Wallace) with independently conceiving the theory of natural selection.

The oldest polar bear fossils found are from Svalbard and northern Norway and have been dated at 115,000–130,000 years old, before the beginning of the last Ice Age. But some biologists think that polar bears diverged from brown bears as early as 600,000 years ago. According to current research, polar bears evolved from brown bears that ventured onto the frozen ocean to stalk marine mammals, possibly after climate separated them from the main population descended from a common ancestor. This was not a single, clean-cut departure, and repeated pairings between both species have turned the family tree into a thicket. Shrinking sea ice could force polar bears to mingle with their southern cousins again, particularly as the latter now travel farther north. In coastal Arctic Alaska, grizzlies have been observed feasting on bowhead whale carcasses, sometimes in the company of polar bears and interbreeding has been documented.

After he had been ridiculed for his musings on a future, insect-eating cetacean bear, Darwin altered that passage in the second edition of Origin and removed it from subsequent ones. “The Bear case has been well laughed at, & disingenuously distorted by some into my saying that a bear could be converted into a whale,” he responded to the Irish algae specialist William Henry Harvey. Still, Darwin insisted that “there is no especial difficulty in a Bear’s mouth being enlarged to any degree useful to its changing habits,—no more difficulty than man has found in increasing the crop of the pigeon, by continued selection, until it is literally as big as whole rest of body.” Lamont’s observations and theorizing as well as the later findings about polar bear evolution vindicated the eminent naturalist and his thought experiment.

Image: L’ours de mer, the Comte de Buffon’s “sea-bear,” from his Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière, 1776. The French polymath paved the way for theories about speciation. (Université de Bordeaux)

Michael Engelhard is the author of Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon (University of Washington Press). Trained as an anthropologist, he now lives in Fairbanks, Alaska and works as a wilderness guide in the Arctic.



ARTICLE: The challenge of instinctive behaviour and Darwin’s theory of evolution

A new article from the journal Endeavour:

The challenge of instinctive behaviour and Darwin’s theory of evolution

Alejandro Gordillo-García

Abstract In the Origin of Species (1859), Darwin argued that his revolutionary theory of evolution by natural selection represented a significant breakthrough in the understanding of instinctive behaviour. However, many aspects in the development of his thinking on behavioural phenomena indicate that the explanation of this particular organic feature was by no means an easy one, but that it posed an authentic challenge – something that Darwin himself always recognized. This paper explores Darwin’s treatment of instincts within his theory of natural selection. Particular attention is given to elucidate how he tackled the difficulties of explaining instincts as evolving mental features. He had to explain and demonstrate its inheritance, variation, and gradual accumulation within populations. The historical and philosophical aspects of his theory are highlighted, as well as his study of the case in which the explanation of instincts represented a ‘special difficulty’; that is, the sterile castes of social insects.

ARTICLE: Darwin and Deep Time: Temporal Scales and the Naturalist’s Imagination

A new article in the journal History of Science (March 2016):

Darwin and Deep Time: Temporal Scales and the Naturalist’s Imagination

Peter Dear

Abstract Charles Darwin built a world around an implied metaphysics of time that treated deep time as something qualitatively different from ordinary, experienced time. He did not simply require a vast amount of time within which his primary evolutionary mechanism of natural selection could operate; in practice, he required a deep time that functioned according to different rules from those of ordinary, “shallow” time. The experience of the naturalist occupied shallow time, but it was from that experience that Darwin necessarily had to build his arguments concerning a transformism that took place on an entirely different temporal scale. Much of his reconstruction of what took place in deep time relied on inferences drawn from taxonomic classification, and those inferences in turn depended to a large degree on conclusions reached through the already-established practices of his fellow non-transformist naturalists. By bootstrapping his transformist arguments, focused on both natural and sexual selection, with non-transformist classificatory judgments, Darwin attempted to convince his fellow naturalists of the truth of evolution in deep time. In other words, while Darwin argued for the existence of selectionist processes themselves in contemporary shallow time, their transformist consequences could only be traced out in deep time, being evidenced by both contemporary and paleontological slices, or laminae, of shallow time. This served to protect transformism from the dangers of unorthodoxy by preserving uniformity within shallow time.

BOOK: The Paradox of Evolution: The Strange Relationship Between Natural Selection and Reproduction

Stephen Rothman, The Paradox of Evolution: The Strange Relationship between Natural Selection and Reproduction (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2015), 248 pp.

Publisher’s description In The Paradox of Evolution, physiologist Stephen Rothman exposes a major, though remarkably almost completely neglected problem with Darwin’s theory of evolution. Its two essential elements, natural selection and reproduction, are in important respects contradictory. In considering their relationship, he makes the revolutionary claim that the evolution of life’s complex and diverse reproductive mechanisms is not the consequence of natural selection. In so doing, he exposes the deepest question possible about life’s nature—its reason for being. In meticulously detailed but accessible terms he lays out the crux of the paradox and offers an intriguing solution within a naturalistic framework. In an ostensibly purposeless universe, somehow purposeful life has evolved. For all living things there are two overarching purposes: survival and the creation of new life. Natural selection is about the survival of existing life but has no interest in life’s future, whether it persists or perishes. By contrast, reproduction is only about the future of life and has no interest in existing life except as a means to that end. Where do these purposes come from? As Rothman demonstrates, at every level life is wired to react to danger. Counterintuitively, without danger life would neither have come into being nor evolved. In the same way, death drives the creation of new life and has propelled the evolution of the mechanisms of reproduction. Written with great clarity and informed by deep learning, this elegant, thoughtful work tackles some of the most challenging questions raised by the theory of evolution.

Recent Darwin/evolution articles from the Journal of the History of Biology

The following articles have been published in the Journal of the History of Biology in the last year or so, and one from 2013:

Radim Kočandrle, Karel Kleisner, “Evolution Born of Moisture: Analogies and Parallels Between Anaximander’s Ideas on Origin of Life and Man and Later Pre-Darwinian and Darwinian Evolutionary Concepts”

Abstract This study focuses on the origin of life as presented in the thought of Anaximander of Miletus but also points to some parallel motifs found in much later conceptions of both the pre-Darwinian German romantic science and post-Darwinian biology. According to Anaximander, life originated in the moisture associated with earth (mud). This moist environment hosted the first living creatures that later populated the dry land. In these descriptions, one can trace the earliest hints of the notion of environmental adaptation. The origin of humans was seen as connected in some way with fish: ancient humans were supposed to have developed inside fish-like animals. Anaximander took into account changes in the development of living creatures (adaptations) and speculated on the origins of humans. Similar ideas are found also in the writings of much later, eighteenth and nineteenth century authors who were close to the tradition of German romantic science. We do not argue that these later concepts are in any way directly linked with those of the pre-Socratics, but they show surprising parallels in, e.g., the hypothesis that life originated in a moist environment or the supposition that human developed from fish-like ancestors. These transformations are seen as a consequence of timeless logic rather than as evolution in historical terms. Despite the accent on the origin of living things, both Anaximander and the later Naturphilosophen lack in their notions the element most characteristic of Darwin’s thought, that is, the emphasis on historicity and uniqueness of all that comes into being.

Dominic Klyve, “Darwin, Malthus, Süssmilch, and Euler: The Ultimate Origin of the Motivation for the Theory of Natural Selection”

Abstract It is fairly well known that Darwin was inspired to formulate his theory of natural selection by reading Thomas Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population. In fact, by reading Darwin’s notebooks, we can even locate one particular sentence which started Darwin thinking about population and selection. What has not been done before is to explain exactly where this sentence – essentially Malthus’s ideas about geometric population growth – came from. In this essay we show that eighteenth century mathematician Leonhard Euler is responsible for this sentence, and in fact forms the beginning of the logical chain which leads to the creation of the theory of natural selection. We shall examine the fascinating path taken by a mathematical calculation, the many different lenses through which it was viewed, and the path through which it eventually influenced Darwin.

Matthew Morris, “We Know in Part: James McCosh on Evolution and Christian Faith”

Abstract James McCosh (1811–1894), president of Princeton College from 1868 to 1888, played a significant role in the American reception of evolution in the late 1800s – he was one of the more prominent clergyman to assuage the public’s fears of evolution while incorporating evolution into a conservative Christian worldview. McCosh was a prolific writer, whose books document his intellectual journey from hostility to acceptance of evolution. Three things will stand out in this overview that have not been emphasized in detail in other works: (1) James McCosh’s perspective on evolution dramatically changed over time; (2) McCosh’s motivations for engaging in the evolution-religion debate serve to clear up confusion regarding McCosh’s final position on evolution; and (3) the theological and philosophical basis for McCosh’s acceptance of evolution was established while McCosh was still hostile to evolution. His theological background therefore ‘pre-adapted’ him for evolution, and he was able to preach theology and evolution without substantially altering his theology.

Kate Holterhoff, “The History and Reception of Charles Darwin’s Hypothesis of Pangenesis”

Abstract This paper explores Charles Darwin’s hypothesis of pangenesis through a popular and professional reception history. First published in The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication (1868), pangenesis stated that inheritance can be explained by sub-cellular “gemmules” which aggregated in the sexual organs during intercourse. Pangenesis thereby accounted for the seemingly arbitrary absence and presence of traits in offspring while also clarifying some botanical and invertebrates’ limb regeneration abilities. I argue that critics largely interpreted Variation as an extension of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859), while pangenesis was an extension of natural selection. Contrary to claims that pangenesis was divorced from natural selection by its reliance on the inheritance of acquired characters, pangenesis’s mid nineteenth-century reception suggests that Darwin’s hypothesis responded directly to selection’s critics. Using Variation’s several editions, periodical reviews, and personal correspondence I assess pangenesis popularly, professionally, and biographically to better understand Variation’s impact on 1860s and 70s British evolutionism and inheritance.

Hand-printed, hand-bound book about Wallace, Darwin, and natural selection

The Alfred Russel Wallace Memorial Fund notes this new unique book:

“The Letter from Ternate” has just been published by Tim Preston of The TimPress. It focuses on the curious and dramatic events surrounding the publication of one of the most important scientific articles in the history of science – Darwin and Wallace’s groundbreaking 1858 paper which first proposed the theory of evolution by natural selection. It features new and highly accurate transcriptions of letters to and from Wallace, Darwin, Hooker and Lyell, plus the text of the famous ‘joint paper,’ and Wallace’s Acceptance Speech given after receiving the gold Darwin-Wallace Medal of the Linnean Society of London in 1908.

The book is special because it is hand printed, hand bound and limited to only 100 copies. Many of the copies were pre-ordered so this is probably your last chance to buy what is a unique memento of the 2013 Wallace centenary. You won’t find it in any shop or on Amazon!

Details of the book are as follows: 12.5 x 18.75cm, 96pp, printed in Caslon by hand on a Crown Folio Albion press, on Somerset Book mould-made paper from St Cuthbert’s Mill, with an introduction by Dr George Beccaloni, tipped-in wood engravings, map, pictures etc. 100 copies only have been printed, of which 95 are quarter bound in leather with decorated paper covers. The cost is £80 and it can be ordered from Tim Preston – email

BOOK: The Origin Then and Now: An Interpretive Guide to the Origin of Species

Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, more than 150 years ago. It is a book that should be understood in the context of the science of its time, and one that requires reflecting on its merits when compared to the current state of biology. The following book does both:

The “Origin” Then and Now: An Interpretive Guide to the “Origin of Species”, by David N. Reznick (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010), 432 pp.

Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species is one of the most widely cited books in modern science. Yet tackling this classic can be daunting for students and general readers alike because of Darwin’s Victorian prose and the complexity and scope of his ideas. The “Origin” Then and Now is a unique guide to Darwin’s masterwork, making it accessible to a much wider audience by deconstructing and reorganizing the Origin in a way that allows for a clear explanation of its key concepts. The Origin is examined within the historical context in which it was written, and modern examples are used to reveal how this work remains a relevant and living document for today.

In this eye-opening and accessible guide, David Reznick shows how many peculiarities of the Origin can be explained by the state of science in 1859, helping readers to grasp the true scope of Darwin’s departure from the mainstream thinking of his day. He reconciles Darwin’s concept of species with our current concept, which has advanced in important ways since Darwin first wrote theOrigin, and he demonstrates why Darwin’s theory unifies the biological sciences under a single conceptual framework much as Newton did for physics. Drawing liberally from the facsimile of the first edition of the Origin, Reznick enables readers to follow along as Darwin develops his ideas.

The “Origin” Then and Now is an indispensable primer for anyone seeking to understand Darwin’s Origin of Species and the ways it has shaped the modern study of evolution.

Two new evolution books for kids: “Pepper’s Special Wings” and “Little Changes”

Two new books about evolution are available, but not as traditional books. The first is an ebook: Pepper’s Special Wings: A Story About Natural Selection by Mary Anne Farah with art by Megan Stiver (Humanist Press, 2012):

Children have the right to know the truth about how life evolved on earth. Pepper’s Special Wings shows children aged 4-7 how Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory of natural selection works, using easy words and colorful pictures they can understand, but based on an actual scientific case study. Children will also identify with Pepper’s social struggle, since self-esteem, self-image, bullying, and being teased are recurring childhood themes. Children will see that sometimes being different is what makes them amazing! A special section for parents gives background information and suggestions for research to share with their children as they mature.

Also available through Amazon: Pepper’s Special Wings: A Story about Natural Selection. You can read more about it in EVOLUTION MADE CLEAR FOR KIDS IN “PEPPER’S SPECIAL WINGS” from the American Humanist Association. Or like its Facebook page.

The second is a book which can be read online or downloaded as a PDF: Little Changes by Tiffany Taylor (@CelltoSelf), an evolutionary biologist, with illustrations by James Munro:

It tells the story of the Rinkidinks, who have to change and adapt after the home is flooded and they were split into two groups.

Always great to have new titles to add to a child’s science library!

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.

Did Darwin respond to Wallace regarding pitcher plants?

UPDATE (9/14): It dawned on me yesterday that while I have provided here at The Dispersal of Darwin many examples of anti-evolutionists claiming Darwin said something when he did not (quote-mining), this post is an example of Darwin having written something and then it being claimed that he did not. Interesting.


In 1875 Darwin published his book about plants that eat insects, Insectivorous Plants. It was rather technical in nature, so did not receive the popular readership as did his Journal of Researches (1839, later The Voyage of the Beagle), On the Origin Of Species (1859), or the later (and last book) The Formation of Vegetable Mould, through the Action of Worms (1881). Like many of his books, Insectivorous Plants was a continuation of Darwin’s theory of transmutation project. Specifically, the book is a study of the adaptations of such plants to impoverished conditions. Darwin wrote of it in his autobiography:

During subsequent years, whenever I had leisure, I pursued my experiments, and my book on Insectivorous Plants was published July 1875,—that is sixteen years after my first observations. The delay in this case, as with all my other books, has been a great advantage to me; for a man after a long interval can criticise his own work, almost as well as if it were that of another person. The fact that a plant should secrete, when properly excited, a fluid containing an acid and ferment, closely analogous to the digestive fluid of an animal, was certainly a remarkable discovery.

A remarkable discovery indeed, but a fellow naturalist, whom Darwin shared the discovery of the theory of natural selection with, was concerned that some would not find natural selection a suitable explanation for the adaptations of carnivorous plants. In a letter to Darwin on July 21, 1875, Alfred Russel Wallace wrote:

Dear Darwin,–Many thanks for your kindness in sending me a copy of your new book [Insectivorous Plants]. Being very busy I have only had time to dip into it yet. The account of Utricularia is most marvellous, and quite new to me. I’m rather surprised that you do not make any remarks on the origin of these extraordinary contrivances for capturing insects. Did you think they were too obvious? I daresay there is no difficulty, but I feel sure they will be seized on as inexplicable by Natural Selection, and your silence on the point will be held to show that you consider them so! The contrivance in Utricularia and Dionaea, and in fact in Drosera too, seems fully as great and complex as in Orchids, but there is not the same motive force. Fertilisation and cross-fertilisation are important ends enough to lead to any modification, but can we suppose mere nourishment to be so important, seeing that it is so easily and almost universally obtained by extrusion of roots and leaves? Here are plants which lose their roots and leaves to acquire the same results by infinitely complex modes! What a wonderful and long-continued series of variations must have led up to the perfect “trap” in Utricularia, while at any stage of the process the same end might have been gained by a little more development of roots and leaves, as in 9,999 plants out of 10,000!

Is this an imaginary difficulty, or do you mean to deal with it in future editions of the “Origin”?–Believe me yours very faithfully,

Letters to and from Darwin of 1875 are not yet available through the Darwin Correspondence Project, but this letter can be found on pages 233-34 of Alfred Russel Wallace: Letters and Reminiscences (edited by James Marchant, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1916). Wallace’s words in this letter have been taken up by intelligent design proponents as a way to criticize Darwin. Remember, Wallace is the new poster boy for the Discovery Institute. In “Carnivorous plants eat Darwin” (August 18, 2011), Denyse O’Leary (also blogging about this at The ID Report) writes for Uncommon Descent:

University of Bonn geneticist Wolf-Ekkehard Lönnig will soon have a new book out, on the 200-year-old headache that carnivorous plants pose for Darwinism. Briefly, how does a plant evolve in slow, Darwinian steps, toward making insects part of its normal diet? Like the pitcher plant, for example.

O’Leary quotes Granville Sewall in the post:

In every family of the plant and animal kingdoms there are species whose sudden appearances and whose irreducibly complex features pose problems for neo-Darwinism. But certain carnivorous plants pose these problems in such a spectacular way that they are a focal point of the Darwinism debate, ever since Alfred Wallace warned Darwin about the problems posed by Utricularia, saying “I feel sure they will be seized on as inexplicable by Natural Selection” and implored him to address these difficulties in a future edition of his book “On the Origin of Species.”

These words are indeed from Wallace, in the letter to Darwin above. The way they are being used, however, seems to imply that Wallace finds natural selection an unconvincing explanation, whereas he is only stating that others might criticize Darwin for this (Wallace remarked, “I daresay there is no difficulty”). Moreoever, O’Leary writes in her post, in response to Wallace imploring Darwin “to deal with it in future editions of the Origin,” that “Darwin never did.” To state that Darwin never responded to Wallace’s question in a later edition is to imply that Darwin gave no response at all.

If one were to look in the historical record more deeply, they would find that Darwin did indeed respond to Wallace. On July 22, 1875, one day after Wallace’s letter about Utricularia, Darwin wrote to Wallace that he had “thrown some light on the acquirement of the power of digestion in Droseraceae,” another group of carnivorous plants (unfortunately there is no full text of the letter available until the DCP publishes the 1875 letters; they are currently readying 1871 for print). Darwin is referring to pages 361-63 of Insectivorous Plants:

The six genera of the Droseraceae very probably inherited this power from a common progenitor, but this cannot apply to
Pinguicula or Nepenthes, for these plants are not at all closely related to the Droseraceae. But the difficulty is not nearly so great as it at first appears. Firstly, the juices of many plants contain an acid, and, apparently, any acid serves for digestion. Secondly, as Dr. Hooker has remarked in relation to the present subject in his address at Belfast (1874), and as Sachs repeatedly insists, the embryos of some plants secrete a fluid which dissolves albuminous substances out of the endosperm; although the endosperm is not actually united with, only in contact with, the embryo. All plants, moreover, have the power of dissolving albuminous or proteid substances, such as protoplasm, chlorophyll, gluten, aleurone, and of carrying them from one part to other parts of their tissues. This must be effected by a solvent, probably consisting of a ferment together with an acid.† Now, in the case of plants which are able to absorb already soluble matter from captured insects, though not capable of true digestion, the solvent just referred to, which must be occasionally present in the glands, would be apt to exude from the glands together with the viscid secretion, inasmuch as endosmose is accompanied by exosmose. If such exudation did ever occur, the solvent would act on the animal matter contained within the captured insects, and this would be an act of true digestion. As it cannot be doubted that this process would be of high service to plants growing in very poor soil, it would tend to be perfected through natural selection. Therefore, any ordinary plant having viscid glands, which occasionally caught insects, might thus be converted under favourable circumstances into a species capable of true digestion. It ceases, therefore, to be any great mystery how several genera of plants, in no way closely related together, have independently acquired this same power.

So when asked by Wallace how to account for the evolution of one particular group of carnivorous plants, Darwin responded that his thoughts about another group should answer the question, it is understandable that Darwin need not have addressed this issue in a future edition of On the Origin of Species.

In his book, available as a PDF here, Lönnig quotes Wallace on page 145, and states (this is a Google translation from German), “I am not aware that Darwin has replied…” Well, to set the record straight, he did reply.

As I am not one to go into the actual biology of this issue, see Nick Matzke’s comments on O’Leary’s post and two others about carnivorous plants. The Darwin Correspondence Project has many letters to and from Darwin on carnivorous plants (Drosera and Utricularia), and some from Mary Treat about Utricularia have been published online ahead of print as part of the project’s Darwin and Gender initiative.