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.

BOOK: The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs

When I became obsessed with dinosaurs in 1993 following seeing Jurassic Park on the big screen, one of the first serious dinosaur paleontology books I read – having found it on the shelf in my local public library – was paleoartist Gregory S. Paul‘s Predatory Dinosaurs of the World: A Complete Illustrated Guide  (1988; see this three-part blog series about this book from Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs: 1 2 3). His vivid depictions of dinosaurs in action and streamlined lateral-view skeletal reconstructions became how I would imagine dinosaurs appearing as I continued to read up on the prehistoric beasts. And I credit all the reading I did on dinosaurs for introducing me to the larger subject of Darwin and evolution. So I am indeed a lover of quality books about dinosaurs.

Paul published in 2011 The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs, which included illustrations and descriptions of species beyond those that were predatory, as well as sections covering a wide range of topics in dinosaur biology and evolution, including the evolution of birds.

This year Paul published a second edition of The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs, which has been updated with the many new dinosaur species described since the first edition was published (I believe it includes those discoveries through 2015). Paleontology is an ever-changing science, and this book will most likely need to be updated again in the future.


Gregory S. Paul, The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs: Second Edition (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2016), 2016. Hardcover, $35.00

Publisher’s description The best-selling Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs remains the must-have book for anyone who loves dinosaurs, from amateur enthusiasts to professional paleontologists. Now extensively revised and expanded, this dazzlingly illustrated large-format edition features some 100 new dinosaur species and 200 new and updated illustrations, bringing readers up to the minute on the latest discoveries and research that are radically transforming what we know about dinosaurs and their world. Written and illustrated by acclaimed dinosaur expert Gregory Paul, this stunningly beautiful book includes detailed species accounts of all the major dinosaur groups as well as nearly 700 color and black-and-white images—skeletal drawings, “life” studies, scenic views, and other illustrations that depict the full range of dinosaurs, from small feathered creatures to whale-sized supersauropods. Paul’s extensively revised introduction delves into dinosaur history and biology, the extinction of nonavian dinosaurs, the origin of birds, and the history of dinosaur paleontology, as well as giving a taste of what it might be like to travel back in time to the era when dinosaurs roamed the earth.

With almost 750 species’ descriptions, this book will surely get some use when my son and I wish to look up a dinosaur. But I will, as I have already done, find myself just picking up this book and perusing its pages, enjoying the colorful, anatomy-driven depictions of dinosaurs going about their dinosaurian days. And, as a field guide, Paul includes fun but thoughtful sections on how one might expect a dinosaur safari to actually take place and what if dinosaurs had actually survived, and given that, a quick discussion of large dinosaur conservation.

A preview of the book, including a nice overview of the history of dinosaur research and discoveries, can be seen here.

Purchase The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs through the publisher or the independent Powell’s City of Books (affiliate link).

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: Evolutionary Tales

Here’s yet another book for kids about evolution:


Matt Cubberly, Evolutionary Tales (The WilderWay, 2015), 24 pp. Illustrated by May Villani.

Publisher’s description Evolutionary Tales is a children’s book that teaches evolution through 10 poems focusing on the wildest-evolved creatures of our world! Our world is full of absolutely amazing creatures that have evolved and adapted to become truly incredible! And because our world is so diverse, Evolutionary Tales isn’t just one story! Instead, the book is a compilation of TEN wildly-different stories – each focusing on one fantastic creature! Each story is told in the form of a long poem, and each takes you into a specific niche. Kids love the close-up look into the tiny worlds all around them as they learn how the animals evolved to fill those roles. Some are quite funny – like a fish walking on land! And some are a bit scary – like the toothy angler fish down in the dark depths of the ocean! But whether you’re put into the sky, into the water, or out onto the land, you and your child will no doubt have an amazing adventure while reading AND learning!

While 9 of the 10 animals depicted are not species one would encounter in everyday life, one is: the Pileated Woodpecker, which we see every once and a while while exploring in our local forested natural areas in Portland.

Here’s a video about the book:

Purchase Evolutionary Tales through the publisher.