Tag Archives: Charles Darwin

November 24, 1859 (a Thursday)

The title page of the 1859 edition of On the Origin of Species.

On this date, The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, by the British naturalist Charles Darwin, was published in England. The book was offered to booksellers at Murray’s autumn sale on November 22, and all available copies were taken up immediately. In total 1250 copies were printed, but after deducting presentation and review copies, and five for Stationers’ Hall copyright, around 1,170 copies were available for sale. In the book, Darwin detailed the scientific evidence he had collected since his voyage on H.M.S. Beagle in the 1830s. He presented his idea that species are the result of a gradual biological evolution through natural selection. Natural selection is the differential reproductive success of individuals due to advantageous heritable traits, which are also known as adaptations. The book was an immediate success and Darwin started editing it today for a second edition.

November 18, 1810 (a Sunday)

Asa Gray By John Whipple, 1864

On this date, America’s leading botanist in the mid-nineteenth century, Asa Gray, was born. On a visit to England in 1851, Gray met for lunch with Charles Darwin, and they formed a lasting connection. When Gray returned to the United States, he was able to see that North American plant life had evolved under the disruption of the ice age. In a famous letterto Gray dated September 5, 1857, Darwin wrote:

As you seem interested in subject, & as it is an immense advantage to me to write to you & to hear ever so briefly, what you think, I will enclose (copied so as to save you trouble in reading) the briefest abstract of my notions on the means by which nature makes her species. Why I think that species have really changed depends on general facts in the affinities, embryology, rudimentary organs, geological history & geographical distribution of organic beings. In regard to my abstract you must take immensely on trust; each paragraph occupying one or two chapters in my Book. You will, perhaps, think it paltry in me, when I ask you not to mention my doctrine; the reason is, if anyone, like the Author of the Vestiges, were to hear of them, he might easily work them in, & then I shd’have to quote from a work perhaps despised by naturalists & this would greatly injure any chance of my views being received by those alone whose opinion I value.—…

Gray was the third scientist Darwin told of his theory (after Hooker and Lyell). [Less than a year later, both Darwin and Wallace publicly proposed that evolution occurred by natural selection. It was Darwin’s good luck that his early correspondence with Gray showed that he had been first to articulate the idea.] The depth of their friendship was evident in a letter dated January 23, 1860 concerning the help the American botanist wished to give Darwin in presenting his book to the American public. In this letter Gray wrote:

Your candor is worth everything to your cause. It is refreshing to find a person with a new theory who frankly confesses that he finds difficulties, insurmountable at least for the present. I know some people who never have any difficulties to speak of. The moment I understood your premises I felt sure you had real foundation to hold on. Well, if one admits the premises, I do not see how it is to stop short of your conclusions, as a probable hypothesis, at least.

In 1856, Gray published a paper on the distribution of plants under the title Statistics of the Flora of the Northern United States; and this paper was followed in 1859 by a memoir on the botany of Japan and its relations to that of North America, a paper of which Sir J. D. Hooker said that “in point of originality and far-reaching results [it] was its author’s opus magnum.” Gray’s discovery of close affinities between East Asian and North American floras was a key piece of evidence in favor of evolution. He explained this disjunct distribution pattern by suggesting that New England and temperate Asia had once been geographically continuous and had had a uniform flora which only diverged after the areas were separated by later geological events. This hypothesis has not only held up, supported by the discovery of continental drift and plate tectonics, it has also proved fruitful enough to provide a basis for current and important research in vicariance biogeography.

From 1855 to 1875, Gray was both a keen critic and a sympathetic exponent of Darwin’s theory of evolution. His religious views were those of the Evangelical bodies in the Protestant Church; so that, when Darwinism was attacked as equivalent to atheism, he was in position to answer effectively the unfounded allegation that it was fatal to the doctrine of design. He openly avowed his conviction that the present species are not special creations, but rather derived from previously existing species; and he made his avowal with frank courage, when this truth was scarcely recognized by any naturalists, and when to the clerical mind evolution meant atheism. The Rev. R. W. Church, the Dean of St. Paul, had met Gray in 1853 and later wrote about his life-long friend:

His religious views were a most characteristic part of the man, and the serious and earnest conviction with which he let them be known had, I am convinced, a most wholesome effect on the development of the great scientific theory in which he was so much interested. It took off a great deal of the theological edge, which was its danger, both to those who upheld and those who opposed it. I am sure things would have gone more crossly and unreasonably if his combination of fearless religion and clearness of mind and wise love of truth had not told in the controversy.

Gray wrote numerous botanical textbooks and works on North American flora, including Flora of North America that he co-authored with his mentor John Torrey.


  • Charles Darwin, letter to Asa Gray, September 5, 1857; Reprinted in Frederick Burkhardt, ed., Charles Darwin’s Letters: A Selection 1825-1859 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996) 177-179.
  • “New Publications; Asa Gray’s Life and Letters: Letters of Asa Gray,” The New York Times (Wednesday, November 19, 1893) 23.

November 17, 1877 (a Saturday)

Charles Darwin

On this date, Charles Darwin received an honorary Doctorate of Law from Cambridge University. This was one of the proudest moments of his life.

November 14, 1797 (a Tuesday)

Sir Charles Lyell circa 1865-1870

On this date, the geologist Charles Lyell was born at Kinnordy, Forfarshire, Scotland. His first book, entitled Principles of Geology and published in three volumes in 1830-33, was also his most famous, most influential, and most important. Lyell was an important influence on Charles Darwin.

November 13, 1874 (a Friday)

Charles Darwin

On this date, the second edition of The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex by Charles Darwin was published. It was generally the edition most commonly reprinted after Darwin’s death and up to the present. In the introduction to the first edition, Darwin gave the purpose of his treatise:

The sole object of this work is to consider, firstly, whether man, like every other species, is descended from some pre-existing form; secondly, the manner of his development; and thirdly, the value of the differences between the so-called races of man.

One of the more controversial scientific questions of Darwin’s day was whether the different races of human beings were of the same species or not. Darwin was a long-time abolitionist who had been horrified by slavery when he first came into contact with it in Brazil while touring the world on the Beagle voyage many years before. [With the passage of The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, Parliament had finally ended slavery throughout the British Empire.] He reasoned that most of the visual differences between the human races were superficial – issues of skin color and hair type – and that most of the mental differences were merely cases of “civilization” or a lack of it. For example, Darwin interpreted the “savage races” he saw in South America at Tierra del Fuego as evidence of a more primitive state of human civilization. He concluded that the visual differences between races were not adaptive to any significant degree, and were more likely simply caused by sexual selection – different standards of beauty and mating among different peoples – and that all of humankind was one single species. Darwin never argued nor implied that human races had been evolved at different times or stages, nor that any of the races was inferior to the others.

November 7, 1840 (a Saturday)

Aleksandr Onufriyevich Kovalevsky

On this date, the Russian founder of comparative embryology and experimental histology Aleksandr Onufriyevich Kovalevsky was born. He was the first to establish that there was a common pattern in the embryological development of all multicellular animals.

Kovalevsky began by studying the lancelet, a fish-shaped sea animal about 2-in. (5-cm) long; he then wrote Development of Amphioxus lanceolatus (1865). In 1866, he demonstrated the similarity between Amphioxus and the larval stages of tunicates and established the chordate status of the tunicates. In 1867, Kovalevsky extended the germ layer concept of Christian Heinrich Pander and Karl Ernst von Baer to include the invertebrates, such as the ascidians, establishing an important embryologic unity in the animal kingdom. This was important evidence of the evolution of living organisms. In the Descent of Man (1871), Charles Darwin took serious note of Kovalevsky’s interpretation of the embryonic development of ascidians, writing:

M. Kovalevsky has lately observed that the larvae of the Ascidians are related to the Vertebrata in their manner of development, in the relative position of the nervous system and in possessing a structure closely like the chorda dorsalis of vertebrate animals; and in this he has since been confirmed by Prof. Kupffer. M. Kovalevsky writes to me from Naples, that he has now carried these observations further; and, should his results be well established, the whole will form a discovery of the greatest importance. Thus if we may rely on embryology, ever the safest guide in classification, it seems that we have at last gained a clew in the source whence the vertebrates were derived. I should then be justified in believing that at an extremely remote period a group of animals existed, resembling in many respects the larvae of our present ascidians, which diverged into two great branches – the one retrograding in development and producing the present class of Ascidians, the other rising to the crown and summit of the animal kingdom by giving birth to the Vertebrata.

Kovalevsky was elected to the Russian Academy of Sciences in 1890.

October 30, 1844 (a Wednesday)

Robert Chambers

On this date, George Combe wrote a congratulatory letter that he sent to the anonymous author of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation through the publisher of the book. Combe was a phrenologist, who claimed to be able to read a person’s character from the shape of his skull, and he was delighted that the unknown author shared his belief in the “truth” of phrenology.

Only two weeks earlier, while they were on a Saturday walk, Combe had told his friend, the English journalist Robert Chambers, that he should read the newly published book. Combe already had received one of the first free copies, which he had skimmed and partially read with care. Ironically, Combe had not known on that Saturday walk that he was speaking to the author of Vestiges in person, namely, Robert Chambers! Evidently, Chambers did not reveal his identity to Combe. In fact, Chambers revealed his identity to only seven people during his lifetime.

In his letter, Combe said that on turning the pages of the book, he experienced a sense of “pleasure and instruction” – that it combined “all the sublimity of a grand poem, and the sober earnestness & perspicuity of a rigidly philosophical induction.” His letter compared Vestiges to “a new sun” in the scientific firmament, which “will probably collect around it innumberable facts, until at length it shall develop itself into a Theory as perfect as a planetary system.”

This was the book that brought the notion of transmutation out into the public arena. It attempted to describe the entire evolution of the universe, from planets to people, as being driven by some kind of self developing force which acted according to natural laws.

Readers of Vestiges included Queen Victoria, Charles Darwin, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Benjamin Disraeli, and John Stuart Mill, although not all shared the same opinion of it. The politically liberal medical journal, the Lancet, said it was “like a breath of fresh air to workmen in a crowded factory.” The freethinker Abraham Lincoln read the book straight through (something he rarely did) when he got a copy and “became a warm advocate of the doctrine.” On the other hand, Thomas Henry Huxley wrote one of the most vicious book reviews of all time, describing Vestiges as a “once attractive and still notorious work of fiction” and its author as one of “those who…indulge in science at second-hand and dispense totally with logic.” Scottish journalist and geologist Hugh Miller even published an entire book, Foot-Prints of the Creator, to discredit Vestiges. Yet Vestiges sold remarkably well, one of the best-sellers of its time.

In his introduction to On the Origin of Species, published in 1859, Darwin assumed that his readers were aware of Vestiges, and wrote identifying what he felt was one of its gravest deficiencies with regards to its theory of biological evolution:

The author of the ‘Vestiges of Creation’ would, I presume, say that, after a certain unknown number of generations, some bird had given birth to a woodpecker, and some plant to the mistletoe, and that these had been produced perfect as we now see them; but this assumption seems to me to be no explanation, for it leaves the case of the coadaptations of organic beings to each other and to their physical conditions of life, untouched and unexplained.

Chambers wrote that “My sincere desire in the composition of the book was to give the true view of the history of nature, with as little disturbance as possible to existing beliefs, whether philosophical or religious.” He wanted to open up the question of evolution by natural law to serious scientific discussion. In a supplement to the Vestiges first published in 1845 and entitled Explanations, he wrote, “I said to myself: Let [Vestiges] go forth to be received as truth, or to provoke others to a controversy which may result in establishing or overthrowing it.”


  • James A. Secord, Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (Chicago, IL: University Of Chicago Press, 2003) pp. 38, 264.
  • William Henry Herndon and Jesse William Weik, Herndon’s Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life (Belford, Clarke & Company, 1889).

October 29, 1831 (a Saturday)

Othniel Charles Marsh

On this date, the American paleontologist Othniel Charles Marshwas born. He made extensive scientific explorations of the western United States and contributed greatly to knowledge of extinct North American vertebrates, although Marsh spent only four seasons in the field, between 1870 and 1873. “The Great Bone Wars” were the result of his rivalry with Edward Drinker Cope, America’s other great vertebrate paleontologist of the period. Both men hired field crews to unearth and ship back fossils as fast as possible. The rival crews were known to spy on each other, to dynamite their own and each other’s secret localities (to keep their opponents from digging there), and occasionally to steal each other’s fossils.

In contrast to Cope, Marsh was one of the first American converts to Darwin’s theory of evolution. As it turned out, he also gathered an immense amount of data to support it. Marsh’s enormous collection of fossils enabled him to fill in a number of the gaps in the fossil record that were troublesome for supporters of Darwinian evolution. One of Marsh’s most well-known finds were fossils illustrating the evolution of the horse. In an obituary written by Marsh to commemorate Thomas Henry Huxley’s life, Marsh made special mention of his horses:

One of Huxley’s lectures in New York was on the genealogy of the horse, a subject which he had already written about, based entirely upon European specimens. My own explorations had led me to conclusions quite different from his, and my specimens seemed to me to prove conclusively that the horse originated in the New World and not in the Old, and that its genealogy must be worked out here. With some hesitation, I laid the whole matter frankly before Huxley, and he spent nearly two days going over my specimens with me, and testing each point I made. He then informed me that all this was new to him, and that my facts demonstrated the evolution of the horse beyond question, and for the first time indicated the direct line of descent of an existing animal [emphasis added].

Darwin’s book Origin of Species was published in 1859, during Marsh’s senior year at Yale. In 1862 and 1865, Marsh had traveled to England, where he met scientists such as Charles Lyell, T. H. Huxley, and Charles Darwin himself. Two years after Marsh visited Darwin at Down House in 1878, Darwin wrote the following letter to Marsh on or about August 31, 1880:

I received some time ago your very kind note of July 28th, & yesterday the magnificent volume. I have looked with renewed admiration at the plates, & will soon read the text. Your work on these old birds & on the many fossil animals of N. America has afforded the best support to the theory of evolution, which has appeared within the last 20 years. The general appearance of the copy which you have sent me is worthy of its contents, and I can say nothing stronger than this. With cordial thanks, believe me yours very sincerely,

Charles Darwin


  • David Rains Wallace, The Bonehunters’ Revenge: Dinosaurs, Greed, and the Greatest Scientific Feud of the Guilded Age (Houghton Mifflin, 1999).

October 22, 1783 (a Wednesday)

Constantine Samuel Rafinesque

On this date, the naturalist Constantine Samuel Rafinesque was born in Galata, a suburb of Constantinople. Throughout his life he traveled extensively, collecting specimens wherever he went, and wrote and published constantly. He was an overly enthusiastic but accurate observer driven by a monomaniacal desire to name every object he encountered in nature. His scientific work has been gaining more and more recognition in recent years.

Rafinesque’s family moved to France the year following his birth, and at age nineteen Rafinesque became an apprentice in the mercantile house of the Clifford Brothers in Philadelphia. He returned to Europe in 1805 and spent the next decade in Sicily, where he was secretary to the U. S. consul. During this time his first scientific books were published. He returned to the United States in 1815 and remained in America the rest of his life, becoming a naturalized citizen in 1832. He was professor of botany and natural science at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky from 1819 to 1826.

The early conclusion by Rafinesque that the taxonomic categories called species and genera are man-made generalizations which have no physical existence led to his deep appreciation of variation in plants. He understood that such variation, through time, will lead to the development of what we call new species. But he had no explanation for the cause of variation, though he did consider hybridity a possible mechanism and, without calling it that, he had what appears to be some perception of mutation. Hence, he never developed a theory of evolution earlier than Darwin, as sometimes has been claimed, because Rafinesque had no inkling of natural selection and his understanding of geological time was far too shallow.

October 20, 1790 (a Wednesday)

On this date, the Scottish fruit-grower Patrick Matthew was born. He is notable for having proposed the principle of natural selection as a mechanism of evolution over a quarter-century earlier than did Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. However, Matthew failed to develop or publicize his ideas and Darwin and Wallace were unaware of Matthew’s work when they synthesized their own.

Patrick Matthew (1790)

Matthew’s work entitled, On Naval Timber and Aboriculture, which was published in 1831, presented in sufficiently recognizable detail “this natural process of selection among plants” (see pages 307 to 308). In an appendix to the book, he wrote:

There is a law universal in nature, tending to render every reproductive being the best possible suited to its condition that its kind, or organized matter, is susceptible of, which appears intended to model the physical and mental or instinctive powers to their highest perfection and to continue them so. This law sustains the lion in his strength, the hare in her swiftness, and the fox in his wiles. As nature, in all her modifications of life, has a power of increase far beyond what is needed to supply the place of what falls by Time’s decay, those individuals who possess not the requisite strength, swiftness, hardihood, or cunning, fall prematurely without reproducing—either a prey to their natural devourers, or sinking under disease, generally induced by want of nourishment, their place being occupied by the more perfect of their own kind, who are pressing on the means of subsistence . . .

There is more beauty and unity of design in this continual balancing of life to circumstance, and greater conformity to those dispositions of nature which are manifest to us, than in total destruction and new creation. It is improbable that much of this diversification is owing to commixture of species nearly allied, all change by this appears very limited, and confined within the bounds of what is called species; the progeny of the same parents, under great differences of circumstance, might, in several generations, even become distinct species, incapable of co-reproduction.

In 1860, Matthew read a review of Darwin’s Origin of Species in the Gardeners’ Chronicle, including its description of the principle of natural selection. This prompted him to write a letter to the publication, calling attention his earlier explication of the theory. Darwin then wrote a letter of his own to the Gardener’s Chronicle, stating:

I freely acknowledge that Mr. Matthew has anticipated by many years the explanation which I have offered of the origin of species, under the name of natural selection. I think that no one will feel surprised that neither I, nor apparently any other naturalist, has heard of Mr. Matthew’s views, considering how briefly they are given, and that they appeared in the Appendix to a work On Naval Timber and Arboriculture. I can do no more than offer my apologies to Mr. Matthew for my entire ignorance of his publication. If another edition of my work is called for, I will insert a notice to the foregoing effect.

Which he did. However, there are nearly as many deep differences between Matthew’s theory and Darwin’s as there are similarities. Matthew was a catastrophist; his geological theories were very close to those of Cuvier. According to Matthew, the earth had periodically been rocked by upheavals, which left an “unoccupied field. . . for new diverging ramifications of life.” Evolutionary change took place right after these upheavals; between catastrophes, species did not change,and natural selection would act to stabilize species, not alter them:

A particular conformity, each after its own kind, . . . no doubt exists to a considerable degree. This conformity has existed during the last 40 centuries [4,000 years]. Geologists discover a like particular conformity – fossil species – through the deep deposition of each great epoch, but they also discover an almost complete difference to exist between the species or stamp of life on one epoch from that of every other.

Matthew’s theory lacked Darwin’s concept of evolution as an ongoing, continuous process. Matthew did not see evolution as the gradual accumulation of favorable variations leading to adaptation, nor did he believe in extinction except by catastrophe. Matthew saw species as classes of similar organisms, not as interbreeding populations. He also never relinquished his belief in natural theology; he wrote to Darwin in 1871 that “a sentiment of beauty pervading Nature. . . affords evidence of intellect and benevolence in the scheme of Nature. This principle of beauty is clearly from design and cannot be accounted for by natural selection.”

October 15, 1825 (a Saturday)

Charles Darwin by G Richmond.

On or about this date, Charles Darwin was sent to the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, known as having one of the best medical schools in all of Europe. Charles went at the insistence of his father Robert, who, concerned that his son might otherwise “go astray,” had decided that Charles will pursue a medical career as he and his grandfather had before him. Once there, he joined his brother Erasmus, who had finished most of his medical studies at Cambridge. They took lodgings together in 11 Lothian Street, right across from the University. Darwin did not particularly like medical studies – the fear of the sight of blood being a major hindrance, but the primary reason for his aversion appears to be that he found the study of medicine incredibly boring.

October 10, 1881 (a Monday)

Charles Darwin

On this date, Charles Darwin published The Formation of Vegetable Mold Through the Action of Worms. He considered the work a more important accomplishment than his The Origin of Species (1859), which turned out to be one of the most influential and controversial books in history.

October 2, 1836 (a Sunday)

Charles Darwin by G Richmond.

On this date, HMS Beagle with Charles Darwin on board arrived back in her home port, having spent four years, nine months, and five days circumnavigating the globe. Darwin wrote in his diary:

After a tolerably short passage, but with some very heavy weather, we came to anchor at Falmouth.—To my surprise and shame I confess the first sight of the shores of England inspired me with no warmer feelings, than if it had been a miserable Portuguese settlement. The same night (and a dreadfully stormy one it was) I started by the Mail for Shrewsbury.

October 1, 1846 (a Thursday)

Charles Darwin by G Richmond.

Ten years after his voyage on HMS Beagle, Charles Darwin had finally completed his descriptions of the Beagle specimens, except for one species of barnacle. He was anxious to return to his work on transmutation (evolution), and thought he could quickly finish a description of this barnacle. Instead, the study of this barnacle exploded into one of the most intense research projects of his career, lasting nearly eight years and resulting in four volumes on living and fossil Cirripedes (barnacles). For his observations, he had a single lens microscope made to his own specifications. Intended to be more practical than the Beagle microscope, it did not have fine focusing and had a larger stage in order to take shallow dishes for aqueous dissections.

September 30, 1861 (a Monday)

Archaeopteryx lithographica, a specimen displayed at the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin. (This image shows the original fossil – not a cast.)

On this date, the German paleontologist Christian Erich Hermann von Meyer christened the fossil he had found in 1860 in the Solnhofen limestone (Upper Jurassic) near Eichstatt, Germany as Archaeopteryx lithographica. He wrote:

Additional to my writing of the fifteenth of last month, I can notify you that I have inspected the feather from Solenhofen closely from all directions, and that I have come to the conclusion that this is a veritable fossilisation in the lithographic stone that fully corresponds with a birds’ feather. Simultaneously, I heard from Mr. Obergerichtsrath Witte, that the almost complete skeleton of a feather-clad animals had been found in the lithographic stone. It is reported to show many differences with living birds. I will publish a report of the feather I inspected, along with a detailed illustration. As a denomination for the animal I consider Archaeopteryx lithographica to be a fitting name […]

Archaeopteryx lithographica, fossilized single feather found 1860. (This image shows the original fossil – not a cast.)

The discovery of Archaeopteryx did not escape the notice of Charles Darwin, of course, who had published The Origin of Species only two years earlier. In a letter to American geologist and zoologist James D. Dana dated 7 January 1863 he wrote:

The fossil Bird with the long tail & fingers to its wings (I hear from Falconer that Owen has not done the work well) is by far the greatest prodigy of recent times. It is a grand case for me; as no group was so isolated as Birds; & it shows how little we know what lived during former times. Oh how I wish a skeleton could be found in your so-called Red Sandstone footstep-beds.—

Because it exhibits both avian and reptilian characteristics, Archaeopteryx is usually considered a transitional form, most likely one of the close relatives of an ancestor of the modern bird.

The fossilized feather is currently located at the Natural History Museum in London, having been bought by Richard Owen shortly after. It is generally assigned to Archaeopteryx and was the initial holotype, but whether it actually is a feather of this species or another, as yet undiscovered, proto-bird is unknown. There are some indications it is indeed not from the same animal as most of the skeletons (the “typical” A. lithographica).


  • Hermann von Meyer, “Archaeopteryx lithographica”, Neues Jahrbuch für Mineralogie, Geologie und Paläontologie (1861), 678-9.

September 28, 1698


On this date, Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis was born at Saint-Malo, France. Maupertuis published on many topics, including mathematics, geography, moral philosophy, biology, astronomy and cosmology. In 1741, he published a book called Essai de Cosmologie, in which he introduced the concept of stronger animals in a population having more offspring, an idea that prefigured Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection a century later. Another important publication on natural history was Vénus Physique, published anonymously in 1745, in which Maupertuis wrote:

Could one not say that, in the fortuitous combinations of the productions of nature, as there must be some characterized by a certain relation of fitness which are able to subsist, it is not to be wondered at that this fitness is present in all the species that are currently in existence? Chance, one would say, produced an innumerable multitude of individuals; a small number found themselves constructed in such a manner that the parts of the animal were able to satisfy its needs; in another infinitely greater number, there was neither fitness nor order: all of these latter have perished. Animals lacking a mouth could not live; others lacking reproductive organs could not perpetuate themselves… The species we see today are but the smallest part of what blind destiny has produced…

In his book Systeme de la Nature (1751), he theorized on the nature of heredity and how new species come into being. He thought that speciation took place by chance events in nature, rather than by spontaneous generation as was believed at the time.

Some historians of science see this series of conjectures as an early version of the theory of evolution. Indeed, if Maupertuis had taken his conjectures forward and developed them into a more fully formed theory, he might now be recognised as putting forward the foundations of the theory of evolution. Darwin’s fame rests on being the first to develop and publish the concept as a well-supported scientific theory, rather than being the first to suggest the concept.

Despite his many accomplishments, Maupertuis was considered arrogant by many of his fellow countrymen. He became a target of German mathematician Samuel Koenig, who accused him of plagiarism, and of French author Voltaire, whose satirical writings about Maupertuis were so savage that Maupertuis eventually left France. In 1759, Maupertuis died in virtual exile in Basel, Switzerland, in the home of Swiss mathematician Johann Bernoulli.

September 28, 1838 (a Friday)

Charles Darwin by G Richmond.

On this date, Charles Darwin first had an insight into the mechanism of evolution in nature. He wrote in his autobiography in 1876:

In October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic enquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of new species. Here, then, I had at last got a theory by which to work.

Below is the famous passage from Darwin’s notebook where these ideas were first recorded:

[Sept] 28th.[1838] Even the energetic language of «Decandoelle» does not convey the warring of the species as inference from Malthus.— «increase of brutes, must be prevented soley by positive checks, excepting that famine may stop desire.—» in Nature production does not increase, whilst no checks prevail, but the positive check of famine & consequently death..
…—The final cause of all this wedging, must be to sort out proper structure, and adapt it to change.—to do that for form, which Malthus shows is the final effect by means however of volition of this populousness on the energy of man. One may say there is a force like a hundred thousand wedges trying [to] force every kind of adapted structure into the gaps in the economy of nature, or rather forming gaps by thrusting out weaker ones.


  • Charles Darwin, The Autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809-1882 (London: Collins, 1958).
  • Charles Darwin, Notebook D [Transmutation of species (1838.07.15-1838.10.02)] 134e-135e.

September 24, 1835 (a Thursday)

Charles Darwin by G Richmond.

HMS Beagle spent this day in the Galapagos Archipelago surveying the waters around Charles Island, which was populated by a small colony of about 250 political prisoners from the Republic of Equator (established in 1829). Darwin went on shore with Covington to collect plants and birds and climbed the highest hill — about 1,800 feet above sea level. He also examined a few curious lava chimneys. During his stay on the island, Darwin was informed by Mr. Nicholas Lawson, an Englishman in charge of the prison colony, that one can tell which island a tortoise came from by looking at its shell.

Galapagos tortoise

Later, when Darwin was completing his ornithological notes some time between mid-June and August 1836, he wrote:

When I recollect the fact, that from the form of the body, shape of scales & general size, the Spaniards can at once pronounce from which Isd. any tortoise may have been brought: — when I see these Islands in sight of each other and possessed of but a scanty stock of animals, tenanted by these birds but slightly differing in structure & filling the same place in Nature, I must suspect they are only varieties. The only fact of a similar kind of which I am aware is the constant asserted difference between the wolf-like Fox of East & West Falkland lsds. — If there is the slightest foundation for these remarks, the Zoology of Archipelagoes will be well worth examining; for such facts would undermine the stability of species.

The first stirrings of doubt about the immutability of species had evidently struck Darwin by now.


September 17, 1835 (a Thursday)

Charles Darwin by G Richmond.

In the morning on this date, HMS Beagle anchored at Chatham Island in the Galapagos Archipelago. Of this island, Charles Darwin wrote:

Nothing could be less inviting than the first appearance. A broken field of black basaltic lava, thrown into the most rugged waves, and crossed by great fissures, is everywhere covered by stunted, sunburnt brushwood, which shows little signs of life. The dry and parched surface, being heated by the noon-day sun, gave to the air a close and sultry feeling, like that from a stove: we fancied even that the bushes smelt unpleasantly.

Galapagos Archipelago

Although I diligently tried to collect as many plants as possible, I succeeded in getting very few; and such wretched-looking little weeds would have better become an arctic than an equatorial Flora. The brushwood appears, from a short distance, as leafless as our trees during winter; and it was some time before I discovered that not only almost every plant was now in full leaf, but that the greater number were in flower. The commonest bush is one of the Euphorbiaceæ: an acacia and a great odd-looking cactus are the only trees which afford any shade. After the season of heavy rains, the islands are said to appear for a short time partially green.

September 15, 1835 (a Tuesday)

Charles Darwin by G Richmond.

In the afternoon of September 15, HMS Beagle with Charles Darwin on-board sighted Mount Pitt, a large hill on the north-east end of Chatham Island, about 600 miles off the coast of South America. This was the first sighting of the Galapagos Archipelago by the Beagle. Captain Robert FitzRoy wrote in the ship’s journal:

…we were anxiously looking out for land, when what appeared to be an islet was seen from the mast-head. This seeming islet turned out to be the summit of Mount Pitt, a remarkable hill at the north-east end of Chatham Island.

On September 16, the Beagle reached Hood Island. Early in the morning Edward Chaffers (Master) and Arthur Mellersh (Midshipman) set out on a boat to survey the island’s shoreline. By noon another boat was launched to survey the central islands of the archipelago. Later in the afternoon of September 16, HMS Beagle reached Chatham Island.

September 14, 1804 (a Friday)

John Gould, from *The Illustrated London News*, June 12, 1852.

On this date, the English ornithologist John Gould was born. His identification of Charles Darwin’s finches was pivotal in the development of the theory of evolution presented in The Origin of Species.

When Charles Darwin presented his mammal and bird specimens collected during the voyage of HMS Beagle to the Geological Society of London at their meeting on January 4, 1837, the bird specimens were given to Gould for identification. He set aside his paying work and at the next meeting on January 10 reported that birds from the Galápagos Islands which Darwin had thought were blackbirds, “gross-bills”, and finches were in fact “a series of ground Finches which are so peculiar” as to form “an entirely new group, containing 12 species.” This story made the newspapers.

In March, Darwin met Gould again, learning that his Galápagos “wren” was another species of finch and the mockingbirds he had labelled by island were separate species rather than just varieties, with relatives on the South American mainland. Subsequently Gould advised that the smaller southern Rhea specimen that had been rescued from a Christmas dinner was a separate species, which he named Rhea darwinii, whose territory overlapped with the northern Rheas.

Darwin had not bothered to label his finches by island, but others on the expedition had taken more care. He now sought specimens collected by Captain Robert FitzRoy and crewmen. From them he was able to establish that the species were unique to the islands, an important step on the development of his theory of evolution. Gould’s work on the birds was published as Part 3 of The Zoology of the Voyage of HMS Beagle, under the Command of Captain FitzRoy, during the Years 1832 to 1836, edited by Charles Darwin and published in five volumes between 1838 and 1842.

During his life, Gould produced 41 lavishly illustrated volumes on birds from all over the world, containing in all about 3,000 plates, all lithographed and hand-painted. Of these, his Birds of Australia was particularly significant (1840-69) as the first comprehensive record of the continent’s birds and mammals. With its plates of the birds were descriptions and notes on their distribution and adaptation to the environment.

September 11, 1831 (a Sunday)

Charles Darwin by G Richmond.

On this date, Charles Darwin and Captain Robert FitzRoy began their trip from London to Plymouth to inspect HMS Beagle. Concerned about Darwin’s sea-worthiness, FitzRoy decided they would go by ship rather than by coach, even though it would have been much faster. Apparently, Darwin handled the three day trip very well and FitzRoy was impressed that a land-lover could take to the sea so quickly. This was Darwin’s first sight of the ship on which he would sail a voyage of discovery leading to his famous theory of evolution. However, when Darwin saw the Beagle his heart sank into his stomach. The ship was in tatters! She had no masts, half of the deck had been torn away, and the water-tightness of the hull appeared dubious. FitzRoy assured Darwin that she would be sea-worthy in short order — no expense would be spared in her refitting. As Darwin later wrote in his Autobiography:

When recommissioned in 1831 for her second voyage, she was found (as I learned from the late Admiral Sir James Sulivan) to be so rotten that she had practically to be rebuilt, and it was this that caused the long delay in refitting.

September 10, 1941 (a Wednesday)

"The main reason I write is that the world is very complicated, and when I write I learn," said Gould.

On this date, American paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and science writer Stephen Jay Gould was born. Gould, who grew up in New York City, graduated from Antioch College in 1963 and received his Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1967. He was immediately hired by Harvard University, where he worked until the end of his life. Harvard promoted him to Professor of Geology and Curator of Invertebrate Paleontology at the institution’s Museum of Comparative Zoology in 1973 and to Professor of Zoology in 1982. Gould also worked at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. He was awarded fellowship in the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1983, where he later served as president (1999-2001), and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1989. He also served as president of the Paleontological Society (1985-1986) and the Society for the Study of Evolution (1990-1991).

Gould is one of the most highly cited scientists in the field of evolutionary theory. The paper entitled “The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm” (1979) that he co-authored with Richard Lewontin has been cited more than 1,600 times. In Palaeobiology—the flagship journal of his own speciality—only Charles Darwin and George Gaylord Simpson have been cited more often. Gould was also a considerably respected historian of science. Historian Ronald Numbers has been quoted as saying: “I can’t say much about Gould’s strengths as a scientist, but for a long time I’ve regarded him as the second most influential historian of science (next to Thomas Kuhn).”

Perhaps more than any other contemporary American scientist, Stephen Jay Gould committed himself to communicating the goals, processes, and achievements of science to a wide audience. His high visibility, distinctive critical voice, and marked enthusiasm for making science accessible to the general public led him to contribute to debates surrounding creationism, evolutionary psychology, and biological determinations of race and intelligence. Gould wrote popular science essays in Natural History magazine and best-selling books on evolution. Many of his essays were reprinted in collected volumes, such as Ever Since Darwin and The Panda’s Thumb, while his popular treatises included books such as The Mismeasure of Man, Wonderful Life, Rocks of Ages, and Full House.  His work won many awards, including the National Book Award.

September 9, 1794 (a Tuesday)

On this date, the English geologist and paleontologist William Lonsdale was born in Bath. His study of coral fossils found in Devon suggested (1837) that certain of them were intermediate between those typical of the older Silurian System (408 to 438 million years old) and those of the later Carboniferous System (286 to 360 million years old). Geologists Roderick Murchison and Adam Sedgwick agreed. They named (1839) this new geologic system after its locale – the Devonian System.

Lonsdale’s early career was as an army officer (1812-15). Residing afterwards for some years at Batheaston, he collected a series of rocks and fossils which he presented to the Literary and Scientific Institution of Bath. He became the first honorary curator of the natural history department of the museum, and worked until 1829 when he was appointed assistant secretary and curator of the Geological Society of London (GSL) at Somerset House. There he held office until 1842, when ill health led him to resign. Lonsdale was awarded the prestigious Wollaston Medal of the GSL in 1846. He recognised that fossils showed how species changed over time, and more primitive organisms are found in lower strata. Charles Darwin used this to support his theory of evolution by natural selection.

September 7, 1707 (a Wednesday)

Georges-Louis Leclerc, count de Buffon

On this date, the naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, count de Buffon was born in Montbard, France. Buffon is best remembered for his great work Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière(1749-1778: in 36 volumes, 8 additional volumes published after his death by Lacépède). It included everything known about the natural world up until that time and was translated into many different languages, making him the most widely read scientific author of the day, equaling Rousseau and Voltaire. Buffon’s views influenced the next two generations of naturalists, including Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Charles Darwin.

Buffon was one of the first philosophers to grapple with the questions of evolution, both of Earth and of living creatures. At the time, church doctrine insisted that Earth was only six thousand years old and that each type of creature had been made independently by a Creator. He proposed instead around 1778 that the Earth was hot at its creation and, from the rate of cooling, calculated its age to be 75,000 years, with life emerging some 40,000 years ago.

Buffon noted that despite similar environments, different regions of the world have distinct plants and animals, a concept later known as Buffon’s Law, widely considered the first principle of biogeography. He made the radical conclusion that species must have both “improved” and “degenerated” (evolved) after dispersing away from a center of creation. He also asserted that climate change must have facilitated the worldwide spread of species from their center of origin. Buffon also proposed, in sharp contrast to his contemporary Carolus Linnaeus, that species are defined not by simple similarity of appearance but by reproductive fertility over time.