Browne on Darwin and friends

This is an excellent short article by Janet Browne (the Janet Browne who wrote the best biography of Darwin I’ve read, Voyaging(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll) and The Power of Place(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), both well worth reading) that discusses the reception of the theory of evolution by his contemporaries, and acknowledges the invaluable assistance of Huxley, Hooker, Gray, and Lyell. One important point is that opposition to his ideas was not driven by the crude Biblical literalism that we encounter so much today, but a more general conflict with a more enlightened religion that found no place for a personal god in a world where life was the product of rather callous and impersonal forces, and of course, with a religion that was a force for controlling people’s minds.

Scholars nowadays agree that The Descent of Man offered a far-reaching naturalistic account of human evolution but did not change many minds. The people who already accepted evolution continued to believe. Those who did not continued to disbelieve. Few readers wished to shrink the gap between mankind and animals quite so dramatically, however. If these ideas were accepted, wrote the Edinburgh Review, the constitution of society would be destroyed.

A lot of people seem to want to argue that it’s just fundamentalism that’s a problem—but that’s only one narrow aspect of the problem that’s common in the US. It was not a major issue in 19th century Britain.

(via Thoughts in a Haystack)

Folk genetics

Carel Brest van Kempen has extracted a few fascinating quotes from an old book he has. It’s titled Creative and Sexual Science, by a phrenologist and physiologist from 1870, and it contains some wonderful old examples of folk genetics.

President Bush would be pleased:

“Human and animal hybrids are denounced most terribly in the Bible; obviously because the mixing up of man with beast, or one beast species with another, deteriorates. Universal amalgamation would be disastrous.”

Although, unfortunately, he then goes on to use this as an argument against miscegenation.

Another lesson is that you shouldn’t deny pregnant women anything, or their longing will mark their child.

“A woman, some months before the birth of her child, longed for strawberries, which she could not obtain. Fearing that this might mark her child, and having heard that it would be marked where she then touched herself, she touched her hip. Before the child was born she predicted that it would have a mark resembling a strawberry, and be found on its hip, all of which proved to be true.”

Don’t let them see horrible things, either.

“Mrs. Lee, of London, Ont., saw Burly executed from her window; who, in swinging off, broke the rope, and fell with his face all black and blue from being choked. This horrid sight caused her to feel awfully; and her son, born three months afterwards, whenever anything occurs to excite his fears, becomes black and blue in the face, an instance of which the Author witnessed.”

And…uh-oh. Maybe George W. Bush won’t be so thrilled with this part.

“A child in Boston bears so striking a resemblance to a monkey, as to be observed by all. Its mother visited a menagerie while pregnant with it, when a monkey jumped on her shoulders.”

I think Carel needs to get busy and transcribe the whole thing onto the web. I know I’ll find these examples useful when I teach genetics this spring.

The Eternal Fishmonger

I’ve been told that there is a drop of old Dutch blood in my ancestry—that way back in the 17th century, an intrepid few Dutch immigrants mingled their seed with the mongrel mess of my father’s line. I think now I sense a kindred spirit. Adriaen Coenensz, a fisherman and fish seller from Scheveningen in Holland wrote and illustrated a book between 1577 and 1580 titled Het Visboek (“The Fishbook“). It’s an amazing browse. Apparently, Coenensz was interested in adventure and exotic dining experiences…


…he was an early devotee of science fiction…


…and most of all, he was obsessed with squid and fish. There’s page after page of aquatic organisms.


It suits my fancy to imagine that Old Adriaen had a few grandchildren who emigrated to the New World, intermarried with English and Scots and German settlers, had families that drifted west with the frontier, ended up on the Pacific coast where they blended with Swedes and Norwegians, and the end result is me, here to carry on the long-hallowed family tradition. Frater, ave atque vale!

Clocks and creationists

Lisa Jardine is a historian who clearly understands how science works:

The thought uppermost in my mind was how odd it is that non-scientists think of science as being about certainties and absolute truth. Whereas scientists are actually quite tentative—they simply try to arrive at the best fit between the experimental findings so far and a general principle.

Read the rest. She ties together the ideals of how science should be carried out with a story from Pepys and an unscrupulous sea captain and modern day creationists—excellent stuff!

Young Darwin

On this fine Darwin Day, I thought I’d just include an excerpt from Janet Browne’s excellent biography of the man, Voyaging(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). It does a fine job of telling us a little bit about the human being behind the famous and infamous scientist.

Charles Robert Darwin was born on 12 February 1809, the fifth child of Susanna and Robert Waring Darwin of The Mount, a large Georgian house overlooking the bend in the river with gardens running down to water meadows and the town beyond. In one of those odd coincidences of history, Abraham Lincoln was born on the same day; Tennyson and Gladstone were born a few months later. His father was a prosperous physician, one of three practicing in Shrewsbury, his mother a daughter of Josiah Wedgwood, the founder of the china company and an influential Staffordshire entrepreneur. They called their infant son “Bobby.”

Into this affluent, forward looking household came Charles Darwin, a dreamy, grey-eyed, thickset child, intent on his own thoughts behind a shock of brown hair, but warm-hearted and loving for all that. He was not good-looking in the conventional sense, for the square boyish face was blighted by a nose inherited from the doctot, almost too adult—”like a farmer,” someone said—for a young boy. Darwin did not grow into his nose until he was much older and was always slightly embarrassed about it, his later jokes revealing a shaky self-image and a lack of confidence in the outer man that made his manners particularly retiring. It was a nose “as big as your fist,” he plaintively wrote to a schoolfriend. Few portraits show him in profile for that reason.

Like his father, and Grandfather Darwin as well, he tended to stammer, having special difficulties with the letter w. There was a prize of sixpence waiting for the day he could manage to say “white wine”: an odd requirement in a teetotal household.

Charles and his son William in 1842

He was so quiet that relatives found it difficult to say anything about his character beyond an appreciative nod towards an exceedingly placid temperament. To them he was a self-sufficient younger, content to wander the country paths around Shrewsbury searching for birds, watching a fishing float for hours from the banks of the Severn, or trailing helpfully after Abberley, the elderly gardner at The Mount, in his well-regulated cycle of horticultural duties.

Both the boy and his childhood appear to have been unremarkable, a point often commented on by friends and relations after he became famous. William Allport Leighton, an early schoolfriend, thought the nine-year-old Darwin entirely ordinary: no obvious candidate for subsequent achievement.

In figure he was bulky and heavy-looking, and did not then manifest any particular powers of mind. He was reserved in manner, & we thought him proud inasmuch as he did not join in any play with the other boys but went directly home from school…. Though reserved in manner he was of a kindly disposition & seemed pleased to do little acts to gratify his fellows—one instance of which was bringing plants from his father’s garden for our little gardens.

Olduvai George has another portrait of young Mr Darwin.