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.


ARTICLE: “This Wonderful People”: Darwin, the Victorians, and the Greeks

In the latest issue of the Journal of Modern Greek Studies:

“This Wonderful People”: Darwin, the Victorians, and the Greeks

Ageliki Lefkaditou

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.

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.

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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.

Recent journal articles about Darwin

In the Journal of the History of Biology:

Darwin’s two theories, 1844 and 1859

Derek Partridge

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:

Comparing the respective transmutation mechanisms of Patrick Matthew, Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace

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.


New book edition of Ben Fry’s The Preservation of Favoured Traces

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.

Screenshot 2018-03-28 10.34.04

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?

While Darwin Online supplied data for Fry’s project, the website has its own interactive variorum edition of On the Origin of Species on Darwin Online, created by Barbara Bordalejo in 2009.


BOOK: A Taste for the Beautiful: The Evolution of Attraction

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.”

a taste for the beautiful

Michael J. Ryan, A Taste for the Beautiful: The Evolution of Attraction (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018), 208 pp.

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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.

BOOK: Reading the Rocks: How Victorian Geologists Discovered the Secret of Life

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!*

Reading the Rocks

Brenda Maddox, Reading the Rocks: How Victorian Geologists Discovered the Secret of Life (New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2017), 272 pp. 

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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.

Check out reviews of Reading the Rocks from Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, Wall Street Journal (paywall), Washington Post, and