The Darwin Correspondence Project has put up a timeline tool for exploring Darwin’s letters. This is something that I have wanted for a while!
A new series of books from Springer aims to publish important papers/lectures from the history of science, with supplemental information about the original author and their work. Of the five titles so far, one may be of interest to readers here: naturalist Louis Agassiz’s series of lectures given in Boston in the fall of 1846. It is edited and annotated by Agassiz biographer Christoph Irmscher, who published Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science in 2013.
Louis Agassiz, Introduction to the Study of Natural History (Classic Texts in the Sciences). Edited and annotated by Christoph Irmscher (Basel, Switzerland: Birkhäuser Basel/Springer, 2017), 135 pp.
Publisher’s description This book features Louis Agassiz’s seminal lecture course in which the Swiss-American scientist, a self-styled “American Humboldt,” summarized the state of zoological knowledge in his time. Though Darwin’s theory of evolution would soon dismantle his idealist science, Agassiz’s lectures are nonetheless modern in their insistence on the social and cultural importance of the scientific enterprise. An extensive, well-illustrated introduction by Agassiz’s biographer, Christoph Irmscher, situates Agassiz’s lectures in the context of his life and nineteenth-century science, while also confronting the deeply problematic aspects of his legacy. Profusely annotated, this edition offers fascinating insights into the history of science and appeals to anyone with an interest in zoology and natural history.
Given the high cost of this volume ($150), it is surely a title intended for libraries, so do indeed request your library purchase it if it will be useful to you or history of science students at your university.
In the the Journal of the History of Biology:
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.
In the latest issue of the Journal of Modern Greek Studies:
Abstract Studies of Victorian appropriations of the ancient world have allowed us to appreciate the pervasive influence of classical Greece on aesthetics and education, as well as religious, moral, and philosophical discourses. Celebrations of ancient Greek genius also prompted scientific interpretations of the past, present, and future of human society. For Charles Darwin (1809–1882), along with his correspondents Charles Lyell (1797–1875), Francis Galton (1822–1911), and William Rathbone Greg (1809–1881), the ancient Greeks were a race that had never been intellectually surpassed. Classical Athens therefore served as a precautionary tale of the multiple biological, sociopolitical, and geographical factors that may inhibit social progress. Their complementary, or even conflicting, understandings of the causes that prevented humankind from surpassing the ancient Greeks demonstrate subtle differences in their evolutionary perspectives. Against the Enlightenment faith in moral and intellectual improvement, Darwin’s thesis that evolutionary progress was “no invariable rule” was used to explain why empires of the past had declined, serving also as a guide for how Victorian Britain should address concerns such as migration, morality, and social order.
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.
Menno Schiltuizen, Darwin Comes to Town: How the Urban Jungle Drives Evolution (New York: Picador/Macmillan, 2018), 304 pp.
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.
In the Journal of the History of Biology:
Abstract Darwin’s first two, relatively complete, explicit articulations of his theorizing on evolution were his Essay of 1844 and On the Origin of Species published in 1859. A comparative analysis concludes that they espoused radically different theories despite exhibiting a continuity of strategy, much common structure and the same key idea. Both were theories of evolution by means of natural selection. In 1844, organic adaptation was confined to occasional intervals initiated and controlled by de-stabilization events. The modified descendants rebalanced the particular “plant and animal forms … unsettled by some alteration in their circumstances.” But by 1859, organic adaptation occurred continuously, potentially modifying the descendants of all organisms. Even natural selection, the persistent core of Darwin’s theorizing, does not prove to be a significant basis for theory similarity. Consequently, Darwin’s Origin theory cannot reasonably be considered as a mature version of the Essay. It is not a modification based on adjustments, further justifications and the integration of a Principle of Divergence. The Origin announced a new “scientific paradigm” while the Essay did little more than seemingly misconfigure the operation of a novel mechanism to extend varieties beyond their accepted bounds, and into the realm of possible new species. Two other collections of Darwin’s theorizing are briefly considered: his extensive notes of the late 1830s and his contributions to the famous meeting of 1 July 1858. For very different reasons, neither constitutes a challenge to the basis for this comparative study. It is concluded that, in addition to the much-debated social pressures, an unacknowledged further reason why Darwin did not publish his theorizing until 1859, could have been down to his perceptive technical judgement: wisely, he held back from rushing to publish demonstrably flawed theorizing.
In the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society:
Joachim L Dagg
Abstract A comparison of the evolutionary mechanisms of Patrick Matthew, Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace highlights their differences. In Matthew’s scheme, catastrophes initiate periods of radiation and speciation until a fully stocked environment enters into stasis. Catastrophes first need to exterminate competing species before the survivors can radiate into free niches and diversify into new species. In Darwin’s early theory, conditions of life, such as those prevailing under domestication, first need to increase the variability of a species before natural selection can transform it. In Darwin’s mature theory, competition replaces conditions as the main drive behind evolutionary change, and sympatric speciation becomes possible. Wallace’s theory differs from both Matthew’s and Darwin’s. Interspecific competition is not a brake halting transmutation (as in Matthew’s theory) nor is intraspecific competition a sufficient drive for it. Although each theory integrated natural selection with variability, competition and changed conditions in distinct ways, each allowed for species transmutation somehow. The result was similar (transmutation), but the mechanisms yielding that result (the integration of natural selection with variability, competition and change in conditions) differed significantly.
Additional thoughts from the author of the above article here.
And in Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences, an essay review by Richard Bellon of the books Darwin and the Making of Sexual Selection by Evelleen Richards, Darwinism and Religion: What Literature Tells Us About Evolution by Michael Ruse, Masculinity and Science in Britain, 1830-1918 by Heather Ellis, and Orchids: A Cultural History by Jim Endersby.
Back in 2009, the Darwin bicentenary, I briefly shared a link to Ben Fry’s cool project to display online all the various edits Darwin made through the six editions of his On the Origin of Species (from 1859 to 1872), called The Preservation of Favoured Traces.
Users could look through and see where Darwin had made changes in his text, and focusing more, could follow along with his evolving thoughts. The project now has available a poster and a book for the serious Darwin aficionado:
Charles Darwin first published On the Origin of Species in 1859, and continued revising it for several years. As a result, his final work reads as a composite, containing more than a decade’s worth of shifting approaches to his theory of evolution. In fact, it wasn’t until his fifth edition that he introduced the concept of “survival of the fittest,” a phrase that actually came from philosopher Herbert Spencer. By color-coding each word of Darwin’s final text by the edition in which it first appeared, our latest book and poster of his work trace his thoughts and revisions, demonstrating how scientific theories undergo adaptation before their widespread acceptance. The original interactive version was built in tandem with exploratory and teaching tools, enabling users to see changes at both the macro level, and word-by-word. The printed poster allows you to see the patterns where edits and additions were made and—for those with good vision—you can read all 190,000 words on one page. For those interested in curling up and reading at a more reasonable type size, we’ve also created a book.
The book itself is an interesting object – simple, intriguing to flip through, and aesthetically pleasing. While the changes in text of all editions of Darwin’s Origin was first made available by Morse Peckham in 1959 in his The Origin of Species: Variorum Text (republished by University of Pennsylvania Press in 2006) and intended for serious scholars, this new one from Fathom is meant for anyone with an interest in Darwin to enjoy.
It’s a little spendy at just under $50, but a unique edition of Origin for one’s bookshelf. So how serious of a Darwin fan are you?
On the heels of two 2017 books about sexual selection – Darwin and the Making of Sexual Selection by Evelleen Richards and The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World – and Us by Richard O. Prum – comes another that looks at how “scientists have taken up where Darwin left off and transformed our understanding of sexual selection.”
Michael J. Ryan, A Taste for the Beautiful: The Evolution of Attraction (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018), 208 pp.
Publisher’s description Darwin developed the theory of sexual selection to explain why the animal world abounds in stunning beauty, from the brilliant colors of butterflies and fishes to the songs of birds and frogs. He argued that animals have “a taste for the beautiful” that drives their potential mates to evolve features that make them more sexually attractive and reproductively successful. But if Darwin explained why sexual beauty evolved in animals, he struggled to understand how. In A Taste for the Beautiful, Michael Ryan, one of the world’s leading authorities on animal behavior, tells the remarkable story of how he and other scientists have taken up where Darwin left off and transformed our understanding of sexual selection, shedding new light on human behavior in the process. Drawing on cutting-edge work in neuroscience and evolutionary biology, as well as his own important studies of the tiny Túngara frog deep in the jungles of Panama, Ryan explores the key questions: Why do animals perceive certain traits as beautiful and others not? Do animals have an inherent sexual aesthetic and, if so, where is it rooted? Ryan argues that the answers to these questions lie in the brain—particularly of females, who act as biological puppeteers, spurring the development of beautiful traits in males. This theory of how sexual beauty evolves explains its astonishing diversity and provides new insights about the degree to which our own perception of beauty resembles that of other animals. Vividly written and filled with fascinating stories, A Taste for the Beautiful will change how you think about beauty and attraction.
From the publisher, there’s a book trailer and you can read chapter 1 online. Read reviews from Times Higher Education, Kirkus Reviews, Publisher’s Weekly, Ars Technica, and a Psychology Today interview with Ryan. Ryan also appeared on the PRI program Living On Earth to discuss his research and book.
I am a few chapters into Reading the Rocks, a new book about the history of geology in the nineteenth century. I am enjoying Maddox’s writing style, and so far think this book would serve great as a good overview of the topic for those who don’t wish to delve into the much lengthier works of Martin Rudwick (that the author is much familiar with). I did spot two errors in the first chapter, which I hope is not indicative of pages to come – it’s a shame it wasn’t spotted!*
Brenda Maddox, Reading the Rocks: How Victorian Geologists Discovered the Secret of Life (New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2017), 272 pp.
Publisher’s description The birth of geology was fostered initially by gentlemen whose wealth supported their interests, but in the nineteenth century, it was advanced by clergymen, academics, and women whose findings expanded the field. Reading the Rocks brings to life this eclectic cast of characters who brought passion, eccentricity, and towering intellect to the discovery of how Earth was formed. Geology opened a window on the planet’s ancient past. Contrary to the Book of Genesis, the rocks and fossils dug up showed that Earth was immeasurably old. Moreover, fossil evidence revealed progressive changes in life forms. It is no coincidence that Charles Darwin was a keen geologist. Acclaimed biographer and science writer Brenda Maddox’s story goes beyond William Smith, the father of English geology; Charles Lyell, the father of modern geology; and James Hutton, whose analysis of rock layers unveiled what is now called “deep time.” She also explores the lives of fossil hunter Mary Anning, the Reverend William Buckland, Darwin, and many others–their triumphs and disappointments, and the theological, philosophical, and scientific debates their findings provoked. Reading the Rocks illustrates in absorbing and revelatory details how this group of early geologists changed irrevocably our understanding of the world.
* In the first chapter (pp. 14-15) is the following passage: “… scientists estimate the age of the earth at roughly 4.6 billion years. The encompassing solar system is believed to have emerged around 13.7 billion years ago as a result of the ‘Big Bang’ – the collapse of a fragment of a giant molecular cloud.” The encompassing solar system would have been formed roughly the same time as did earth, 4.6 billion years ago. Our solar system did not form as a direct result of the Big Bang. Further, on p. 15, Maddox states incorrectly that life first emerged an estimated 540 million years ago, “first as single cells deep in the ocean, then as creatures with head, tails and segments.” It was the Cambrian explosion that occurred roughly 540 million years ago, not when life first evolved – the earliest fossils of life are from about 3.5 billion years ago.
Here’s a new Darwin title that takes a very focused view on his life, just a single year…
Louis B. Rosenblatt, Buckets from an English Sea: 1832 and the Making of Charles Darwin (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 216 pp.
Publisher’s description Darwin did not discover evolution. He didn’t trip over it on the way to somewhere else the way Columbus discovered the New World. Like the atom, planetary orbits, and so many other scientific constructs, evolution was invented in order to explain striking phenomena. And it has been most successful. A century and a half has not simply confirmed Darwin’s work, it has linked evolution to the mechanisms of life on the molecular scale. It is what life does. Where Darwin had drawn his theories from forest and field, we now set them in the coiling and uncoiling of twists of DNA, linking where they might, with a host of molecular bits and pieces scurrying about. Darwin, himself, however, has been a closed story. A century and a half of study of the man and his work, including close readings of his books, his notebooks and letters, and even the books he read, has led to a working appreciation of his genius. The ‘success’ of this account has, however, kept us from seeing several important issues: most notably, why did he pursue evolution in the first place? Buckets from an English Sea offers a new view of what inspired Darwin and provoked his work. Stunning events early in the voyage of the Beagle challenged his deeply held conviction that people are innately good. This study of 1832 highlights the resources available to the young Darwin as he worked to secure humanity’s innate goodness.
February 12th is International Darwin Day.
Whether you are a parent, a teacher, or in some other capacity given responsibility over the education or raising of children, there is a lesson to be learned from the naturalist Charles Darwin (February 12, 1809 – April 19, 1882).
Darwin was a devoted father, and in certain ways his attachment to his children was uncharacteristic for the Victorian period. Darwin and Emma married in 1842 and had ten children, seven of whom survived into adulthood. His own poor health meant that he did most of his scientific work from his home Down House: reading, observing, experimenting, corresponding, and writing. Thus, his family life and his scientific work intertwined throughout each day, and when his children were sick – which was quite often – his work would be delayed. But he also sought his children’s help, whether physically in experiments or for tossing thoughts back and forth. He included his children in the development of his ideas, and even thought of his children as scientific subjects themselves.
The lack of original posts on this blog over the last couple of years is due to my raising my own children. As a parent, I appreciate the Darwin that allowed his children to pursue their interests, that introduced his children to nature and scientific subjects, and that sought to understand his own children biologically.
Darwin biographer and historian James Moore referred to Down House, its grounds, and the “menagerie” of animals there as “a childhood paradise – an adventure playground, summer camp, and petting farm all rolled into one.” Darwin surely saw the value in exposing his children to nature at home and at places nearby, especially Orchis Bank (now “Downe Bank”), the patch of land that inspired the words about “an entangled bank” in his conclusion to On the Origin of Species (1859).
I strive to both teach my children about evolution and to ensure their childhoods are full of plenty of time in nature. With constant challenges to evolution education in public schools and the always present yet increasing threats to the environment, there is no more important time than now to instill in our children a love for science and reason, and an appreciation for the natural world we depend on as a species. For us, and every living thing we share this planet with. Charles Darwin cared for his own family while learning about and sharing with the rest of the world about his larger family – the tree of life. We should allow our children to climb the tree of life, both metaphorically in learning about evolution and biodiversity, and in the real world through nature play.
In an 1852 letter to his cousin William Darwin Fox, Darwin wrote, reflecting on his duties as a father regarding their educations and whether or not they were to inherit his health problems, “How paramount the future is to the present, when one is surrounded by children.” Our future depends on having citizens that are well-informed in science and that have reasons to vote in favor of the environment. So, let us celebrate Darwin Day – and every day – by taking our kids outside and teaching them about evolution.
Darwin Correspondence Project: Darwin and Fatherhood
Darwin Correspondence Project: Darwin’s observations on his children
Jim Endersby: “Sympathetic science: Charles Darwin, Joseph Hooker, and the passions of Victorian naturalists,” in the journal Victorian Studies. Endersby discusses Darwin’s role as a father in relation to his botanical work.
James T. Costa: Darwin’s Backyard: How Small Experiments Led to a Big Theory, from W.W. Norton (Amazon). This book recounts Darwin’s many experiments and shows how involved his children were; also, each chapter includes activity instructions for educators.
Carolyn J. Boulter, Michael J. Reiss, and Dawn L. Sanders (eds.): Darwin-Inspired Learning, from Sense Publishers (Amazon). For educators. Particularly the seventh chapter by James Moore, “Getting the Kids Involved – Darwin’s Paternal Example.”
The Bug Chicks blog: a guest post I wrote a few years back about Darwin, nature education, and parenting.
Kristan Lawson: Darwin and Evolution for Kids: His Life and Ideas with 21 Activities, from Chicago Review Press (Amazon)
Deborah Hopkinson: The Humbleebee Hunter: Inspired by the Life and Experiments of Charles Darwin and His Children, from Hyperion (Amazon). One of my personal favorite books about Darwin, or in this case, his children. My post about this book from 2012 is here.
A new article in the journal Annals of Science:
Abstract In 1912, Julian Huxley published his first book The Individual in the Animal Kingdom which he dedicated to the then world-famous French philosopher Henri Bergson. Historians have generally adopted one of two attitudes towards Huxley’s early encounter with Bergson. They either dismiss it entirely as unimportant or minimize it, deeming it a youthful indiscretion preceding Huxley’s full conversion to Fisherian Darwinism. Close biographical study and archive materials demonstrate, however, that neither position is tenable. The study of the Bergsonian elements in play in Julian Huxley’s early works fed into Huxley’s first ideas about progress in evolution and even his celebrated theories of bird courtship. Furthermore, the view that Huxley rejected Bergson in his later years needs to be revised. Although Huxley ended up claiming that Bergson’s theory of evolution had no explanatory power, he never repudiated the descriptive power of Bergson’s controversial notion of the élan vital. Even into the Modern Synthesis period, Huxley represented his own synthesis as drawing decisively on Bergson’s philosophy.
February 18, 2009, at The Library of Congress, Washington DC
New article of interest in HOPOS: The Journal of the International Society for the History of Philosophy of Science:
Charles H. Pence
Abstract There are a bewildering variety of claims connecting Darwin to nineteenth-century philosophy of science—including to Herschel, Whewell, Lyell, German Romanticism, Comte, and others. I argue here that Herschel’s influence on Darwin is undeniable. The form of this influence, however, is often misunderstood. Darwin was not merely taking the concept of “analogy” from Herschel, nor was he combining such an analogy with a consilience as argued for by Whewell. On the contrary, Darwin’s Origin is written in precisely the manner that one would expect were Darwin attempting to model his work on the precepts found in Herschel’s Preliminary Discourse on Natural Science. While Hodge has worked out a careful interpretation of both Darwin and Herschel, drawing similar conclusions, his interpretation misreads Herschel’s use of the vera causa principle and the verification of hypotheses. The new reading that I present here resolves this trouble, combining Hodge’s careful treatment of the structure of the Origin with a more cautious understanding of Herschel’s philosophy of science. This interpretation lets us understand why Darwin laid out the Origin in the way that he did and also why Herschel so strongly disagreed, including in Herschel’s heretofore unanalyzed marginalia in his copy of Darwin’s book.
Operation Wallacea has the poster “Wallace and Darwin – Voyages to Evolution Map” available for free for educational use:
To mark the 100th anniversary of Alfred Russel Wallace’s death Operation Wallcea produced a poster showing the voyages of Wallace and Darwin and how they both developed the idea of evolution by natural selection. This map was produced in association with the Wallace Memorial Fund and forms part of the Wallace100 celebrations.
An email to send a request is at this link.
In the current issue of the Bulletin of the British Ornithologists’ Club (Dec. 2017):
On Temminck’s tailless Ceylon Junglefowl, and how Darwin denied their existence
Hein van Grouw, Wim Dekkers, and Kees Rookmaaker
Abstract Ceylon Junglefowl was described in 1807 by the Dutch ornithologist Coenraad Jacob Temminck. The specimens he examined were tailless (‘rumpless’) and therefore he named them Gallus ecaudatus. In 1831 the French naturalist René Primevère Lesson described a Ceylon Junglefowl with a tail as Gallus lafayetii (=
lafayetii), apparently unaware of Temminck’s ecaudatus. Subsequently, ecaudatus
and lafayetii were realised to be the same species, of which G. stanleyi and G.
lineatus are junior synonyms. However, Charles Darwin tried to disprove the existence of wild tailless junglefowl on Ceylon in favour of his theory on the origin of the domestic chicken.
Thank you to the second author for bringing this article – which is freely available as a PDF here – to my attention. Enjoy!
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.
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.
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.
Here are three books which I think any Darwin aficionado would appreciate receiving as a gift.*
First, I have been reading with great interest the new book by biologist James T. Costa (The Annotated Origin; On the Organic Law of Change: A Facsimile Edition and Annotated Transcription of Alfred Russel Wallace’s Species Notebook of 1855-1859; and Wallace, Darwin, and the Origin of Species). Titled Darwin’s Backyard: How Small Experiments Led to a Big Theory (W.W. Norton, 2017; order from Amazon.com or Powell’s City of Books), Costa describes in stunning detail experiments that seem to me to be rather large in scope. The dedication that Darwin put into seeking answers for a wide variety of questions that related to his theory of natural selection, all while writing and publishing other books, keeping up a vast correspondence, and devoting time to being a husband and father, is simply astounding. Granted many of our modern distractions were not around, I sometimes find it difficult to comprehend just how much he accomplished.
Darwin’s Backyard explores nine avenues of experimental research that Darwin carried out, from barnacles and bees to orchids and earthworms. Many of the experiments occurred simultaneously, with some extending through the years (Darwin would sometimes begin an experiment, have to put it on hold because of family life, publishing, or some other distraction, and get back to it a year or more later – on p. 128, Costa refers to Darwin’s “stick-to-itiveness”). Throughout the chapters, he reiterates the importance of Darwin’s reliance on other people for his research, especially for specimen collection (including children, his own and others), and crowd-sourcing for information through queries in various publications, such as the Gardener’s Chronicle. I particular enjoyed the chapter titled “A Grand Game of Chess,” on Darwin’s seed dispersal experiments to determine if plants could spread across great distances around the globe via ocean currents. Readers in education will find value in each chapter’s suggested activities, recreating some of Darwin’s own or conducting similar ones. While many Darwin books discuss aspects of his various experiments, Darwin’s Backyard will find a place on my bookshelf for its incredible detail on the experiments themselves, analysis of what the experiments were accomplishing (or not) for Darwin’s theory, his use of primary sources such as Darwin’s letters and notebooks, and the way in which Costa intertwines Darwin’s scientific work with his family life. You can listen to Costa discuss his book in this program from North Carolina Public Radio, his talk for Google in September, and on the podcast In Defense of Plants.
The second book is written by a friend, Richard Carter of The Friends of Charles Darwin, whom I met on a 2009 trip to Cambridge, England. Richard campaigned for Darwin to be depicted on a Bank of England bank note (which he was, until just recently that is). Richard’s first book, On the Moor: Science, History and Nature on a Country Walk (2017; , order from Amazon.com), “shows how a routine walk in the countryside is enhanced by an appreciation of science, history, and natural history.”
I look forward to delving into his writing, which includes plenty to think about regarding Darwin, and a little on my favorite Darwin supporter, John Tyndall (I am currently co-editing volume 6 of Tyndall’s correspondence with Janet Browne and Ken Corbett; and next summer will begin work on volume 10 with Roland Jackson).
Third, several years ago I half-reviewed a book of Darwin quotations that unfortunately missed the mark. I commented that such a book would be best tackled by an historian of science, and since then one has indeed been produced by not just a stellar historian of science, but Darwin’s most delightful biographer, Janet Browne. In the style of their successful quotation book for Albert Einstein, Princeton University Press has published The Quotable Darwin (2017; order from Amazon.com or Powell’s City of Books).
Browne’s expertise from her years working on the Darwin Correspondence Project followed by her two-volume biography (Voyaging and The Power of Place) lends to a properly compiled selection of words. Browne writes in her preface, “This volume of quotations from Darwin’s writings digs into the historical records to show the remarkable contrasts of his life and times in his own words and in the words of his friends, contemporaries, and family. In print, Darwin was not much given to aphoristic turns of phrase, and he was cautious in the way he expressed his scientific ideas… However, his private letters and notebooks reveal his thoughts as bold and incisive.” The collection is organized by theme, which is also roughly chronological, the main sections being Early Life and the Voyage of the Beagle, Marriage and Scientific Work, Origin of Species, Mankind, On Himself, and Friends and Family. Each quotation includes a citation for the book, notebook, letter, etc. from where it comes. A chronology of his life at the beginning of the book is useful, as are a variety of portraits of Darwin interspersed throughout, providing a visual of his own transformation. An extensive index makes finding quotations on a particular topic an easy task. The final quotation in the collection – “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is most adaptable to change” – is rightly cited as “Misattributed to Darwin.” You can view of selection of quotes here, and enjoy these images from Princeton University Press’s Twitter feed (click each image to enlarge):
Finally, here some other recent Darwin and evolution titles I suggest for holiday gift giving:
- Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters (2nd ed.) by Donald Prothero (Powell’s/Amazon)
- Collecting Evolution: The Galapagos Expedition that Vindicated Darwin by Matthew J. James (Powell’s/Amazon)
- How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog): Visionary Scientists and a Siberian Tale of Jump-Started Evolution by Lee Alan Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut (Powell’s/Amazon)
- The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World – and Us by Richard O. Prum (Powell’s/Amazon)
- Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of Evolution by Jonathan B. Losos (Powell’s/Amazon)
- Darwin and Women: A Selection of Letters edited by Samantha Evans (Powell’s/Amazon)
- Darwin’s First Theory: Exploring Darwin’s Quest for a Theory of Earth by Rob Wesson (Powell’s/Amazon)
- Origins of Darwin’s Evolution: Solving the Species Puzzle Through Time and Place by J. David Archibald (Powell’s/Amazon)
- Charles Darwin’s Life With Birds: His Complete Ornithology by Clifford B. Frith (Powell’s/Amazon)
- Debating Darwin by Robert J. Richards and Michael Ruse (Powell’s/Amazon)
- Darwin and the Making of Sexual Selection by Evelleen Richards (Powell’s/Amazon)
- God’s Word or Human Reason?: An Inside Perspective on Creationism
by Jonathan Kane, Emily Willoughby, and T. Michael Keesey (Amazon)
- Discovering the Mammoth: A Tale of Giants, Unicorns, Ivory, and the Birth of a New Science by John J. McKay (Powell’s/Amazon)
- Grandmother Fish: A Child’s First Book of Evolution by Jonathan Tweet (Powell’s/Amazon)
- Charles Darwin’s Around-the-World Adventure by Jennifer Thermes (Powell’s/Amazon)
* Links to Amazon and Powell’s Books are affiliate links.
My friend Catherine L. Cummins, a life science instructor at LSU Laboratory School in Baton Rouge, has shared some photos of her visit to the Rhea County Courthouse in Dayton, TN, location of the 1925 Scopes “Monkey” Trial. She was kind to let me share with my readers. Has anyone else ever visited this historic site?
In the Journal of the History of Ideas for October 2017:
Abstract When we read the Origin, we cannot help but hear echoes of the Wealth of Nations. Darwin’s “economy of nature” features a “division of labour” that leads to complexity and productivity. We should not, however, analyze Darwin’s ethics through this lens. Darwin did not draw his economic ideas from Smith, nor did he base his ethics on an economic foundation. Darwin’s ethics rest on Smith’s notion from the Theory of Moral Sentiments of an innate human faculty of sympathy. Darwin gave this faculty an evolutionary interpretation and built on this foundation an ethics far removed from what is commonly supposed.
In the Royal Society’s journal Notes and Records for December 2017:
Abstract Contemporaries of Charles Darwin were divided on reconciling his theory of natural selection with religion and morality. Although Alfred Russel Wallace stands out as a spiritualist advocate of natural selection who rejected a natural origin of morality, the science popularizer and spiritualist Arabella Buckley (1840–1929) offers a more representative example of how theists, whether spiritualist or more orthodox in their religion, found reconciliation. Unlike Wallace, Buckley emphasized the lawful evolution of morality and of the soul, drawing from the theological tradition of traducianism. Significantly, Buckley argued for a mutualistic and deeply theistic interpretation of Darwinian evolution, particularly the evolution of morals, without sacrificing the uniformity of natural law. Though Buckley’s understanding of the evolutionary epic has been represented as emphasizing mutualism and spiritualist theology, here I demonstrate that her distinctive addition to the debate lies in her unifying theory of traducianism. In contrast to other authors, I argue that through Buckley we better understand Victorian spiritualism as more of a religion than an occult science. However, it was a conception of religion that, through her evolutionary traducianism, bridged science and spiritualism. This offers historians a more complex but satisfying image of the Victorian worldview after Darwin.
A few years ago biologist J. David Archibald wrote a book about trees of life, Aristotle’s Ladder, Darwin’s Tree: The Evolution of Visual Metaphors for Biological Order. His newest book is a detailed look at the often downplayed role of geographical distribution (or biogeography) in the development of Darwin’s theory of evolution. I look forward to this read, as an undergraduate paper I wrote dealt with an aspect of this topic (and was the origin of this blog’s name).
J. David Archibald, Origins of Darwin’s Evolution: Solving the Species Puzzle Through Time and Space (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), 208 pp.
Publisher’s description Historical biogeography—the study of the history of species through both time and place—first convinced Charles Darwin of evolution. This field was so important to Darwin’s initial theories and line of thinking that he said as much in the very first paragraph of On the Origin of Species (1859) and later in his autobiography. His methods included collecting mammalian fossils in South America clearly related to living forms, tracing the geographical distributions of living species across South America, and sampling peculiar fauna of the geologically young Galápagos Archipelago that showed evident affinities to South American forms. Over the years, Darwin collected other evidence in support of evolution, but his historical biogeographical arguments remained paramount, so much so that he devotes three full chapters to this topic in On the Origin of Species. Discussions of Darwin’s landmark book too often give scant attention to this wealth of evidence, and we still do not fully appreciate its significance in Darwin’s thinking. In Origins of Darwin’s Evolution, J. David Archibald explores this lapse, showing how Darwin first came to the conclusion that, instead of various centers of creation, species had evolved in different regions throughout the world. He also shows that Darwin’s other early passion—geology—proved a more elusive corroboration of evolution. On the Origin of Species has only one chapter dedicated to the rock and fossil record, as it then appeared too incomplete for Darwin’s evidentiary standards. Carefully retracing Darwin’s gathering of evidence and the evolution of his thinking, Origins of Darwin’s Evolution achieves a new understanding of how Darwin crafted his transformative theory.
A new book by historian of science Jim Endersby (A Guinea Pig’s History of Biology, Imperial Nature: Joseph Hooker and the Practices of Victorian Science) will interest not only historians, but plant enthusiasts, anyone with a general interest in natural history, and, although he is just part but not the focus of this book, Darwin aficionados. I am in the midst of reading it now, and enjoying its fluid narrative and wide range of content all centered on one type of plant, the orchid. Chapter 5 deals specifically with Darwin’s experiments on orchids and his 1862 book On the Various Contrivances by which British and Foreign Orchids are fertilised by insects, and on the good effects of intercrossing.
Jim Endersby, Orchid: A Cultural History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 288 pp.
Publisher’s description At once delicate, exotic, and elegant, orchids are beloved for their singular, instantly recognizable beauty. Found in nearly every climate, the many species of orchid have carried symbolic weight in countless cultures over time. The ancient Greeks associated them with fertility and thought that parents who ingested orchid root tubers could control the sex of their child. During the Victorian era, orchids became deeply associated with romance and seduction. And in twentieth-century hard-boiled detective stories, they transformed into symbols of decadence, secrecy, and cunning. What is it about the orchid that has enthralled the imagination for so many centuries? And why do they still provoke so much wonder? Following the stories of orchids throughout history, Jim Endersby divides our attraction to them into four key themes: science, empire, sex, and death. When it comes to empire, for instance, orchids are a prime example of the exotic riches sought by Europeans as they shaped their plans for colonization. He also reveals how Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution became intimately entangled with the story of the orchid as he investigated their methods of cross-pollination. As he shows, orchids—perhaps because of their extraordinarily diverse colors, shapes, and sizes—have also bloomed repeatedly in films, novels, plays, and poems, from Shakespeare to science fiction, from thrillers to elaborate modernist novels. Featuring many gorgeous illustrations from the collection of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Orchid: A Cultural History tells, for the first time, the extraordinary story of orchids and our prolific interest in them. It is an enchanting tale not only for gardeners and plant collectors, but anyone curious about the flower’s obsessive hold on the imagination in history, cinema, literature, and more.
My way into learning about Darwin and evolution was through dinosaurs. Specifically, that 1993 movie where genetically-engineered dinosaurs run amok on a tropical island. I read book after book about paleontology following seeing that movie when I was 15, and then eventually started coming across books that offered a different view as to what those fossils in the ground meant (including What Is Creation Science? by Henry M. Morris and Gary E. Parker, gifted to me from a friend in my high school chemistry class). I’ve long followed the conflict between supporters of evolution (ya know, science!) and those who supplant their religious-based perspective on the fossil record: creationists of the young earth variety (you know, pseudoscience!). There are some good books out there that give an overview of why the fossil record supports an evolutionary interpretation (for example, Donald Prothero’s Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters and two chapters in Richard Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution). Where this new book differs is that the evidence is shown in favor of the evolutionary perspective by five former young earth creationists. Chapters cover creationist arguments in the topics of the fossil record in relation to a worldwide flood, the age of the Earth through radiometric dating, the evolution of birds from dinosaurs, human anatomy, and perspectives on reconciling an old earth and evolution with an acceptance of the Bible. The book also features wonderful dinosaur art from Emily Willoughby.
Jonathan Kane, Emily Willoughby, and T. Michael Keesey, God’s Word or Human Reason?: An Inside Perspective on Creationism (Portland, OR : Inkwater Press, 2016), 424 pp.
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Publisher’s description God gave humans the ability to reason, but the Bible commands that we have faith in Him. According to Answers in Genesis, the largest and most influential creationist organization in the United States, the conclusions of human reason must be rejected if they contradict our understanding of the Bible. What are the implications of this worldview, and is it the best one for a Christian to live by?
In God’s Word or Human Reason?, five former young-Earth creationists explore the topics of science and Biblical exegesis with the goal of showing that the scientific method does more to glorify God than to denigrate Him. Instead of providing a broad-level overview of the evidence for evolution and an old Earth, this book takes a new approach that considers the detailed expanse of creationist technical literature. The six main chapters provide an in depth examination of these arguments in a few key areas, including stratigraphy, radiometric dating, the origins of birds and of humans, and the meaning of the book of Genesis.
Although all five authors once were young-Earth creationists, today they represent a diversity of beliefs: two atheists, two Christians, and one deist. Each has included a personal account of their experiences growing up or participating in the creationist community, as well as the factors that played into their eventually leaving. As an interfaith project, God’s Word or Human Reason? represents the common ground that people of many religious affiliations can find in their appreciation of reason as a means to understand the world.