Tag Archives: Evolution

November 29, 1974 (a Friday)

The remains of an adult female Australopithecus afarensis, known to all the world as "Lucy."

On this date, the paleoanthropologist Donald C. Johanson discovered “Lucy”, a 3.2 million-year old Australopithecus afarensis skeleton, on the slope of a desert channel at Hadar located in Ethiopia.

The discovery of Lucy was a significant development in the search for clues to understanding hominid evolution. Lucy was unique in that, as she was a very old, primitive, and small hominid (human-like species) that did not fit into the known hominid types. She was also the oldest and most complete hominid skeleton that had been found. Although only 40 percent of the skeleton was recovered, bones from both sides of the body were present, allowing paleoanthropologists to reconstruct approximately 70 percent of her skeleton by using mirror imaging. With mirror imaging, existing bones are used to determine what the missing counterpart on the other side of the body looked like. Lucy’s discovery confirmed the evolution of ape-like ancestors to human-like descendants.

When he was in high school, Donald Johanson was told by his guidance counselor to forget about going to college. The only son of a widowed Swedish immigrant mother who worked as a cleaning lady, Johanson had done so poorly on his SATs that the counselor did not believe he was capable of performing college-level work. Johanson ignored the counselor’s advice, pursued higher education, and earned his Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Chicago.

Johanson’s books include Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind and, most recently, From Lucy to Language. Dr. Johanson hosted the Emmy-nominated NOVA television series In Search of Human Origins.

November 26, 1911 (a Sunday)

Sherwood L. Washburn

On this date, the American primatologist and anthropologist Sherwood L. Washburn was born.

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 21, 1953 (a Saturday)

At the Piltdown site.

On this date, the 40-year-long hoax of the Piltdown Man ended when the British Museum revealed that it was a “perfectly executed and carefully prepared fraud.” The Piltdown forgery was conceived, planned and executed sometime between 1907 and 1911. The faux hominid skull was constructed from the remains of a recent human cranium, later shown to have been thickened by disease during the subject’s lifetime (thus giving the primitive look); half the lower jaw of an orangutan from which telltale parts had been removed and whose teeth had been filed to resemble worn human teeth; and a doctored canine tooth, probably from the same lower jaw. In all, 37 pieces of carefully selected bone and stone were involved, each altered and stained.

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 15, 1871 (a Wednesday)

Erich Tschermak von Seysenegg

On this date, the Austrian agronomist Erich Tschermak von Seysenegg was born.  He was one of the scientists, the others being Hugo De Vries and Carl Correns, who independently rediscovered the work that Gregor Mendel did in the 1860s on the laws of heredity.  Von Seysenegg published his findings in June 1900.  The priority of Mendel was acknowledged without restriction by all three researchers.  Mendel’s discovery that inheritance is particulate, and confirmation of his discovery by Von Seysenegg, De Vries, and Correns, constitutes one of the main pillars of the theory of evolution.

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 9, 1934 (a Friday)

Carl Sagan

On this date, the astronomer Carl Sagan was born in New York City. He helped define two new disciplines: planetary science and exobiology. In terms of scientific achievements, Sagan is best known for his research on the possibilities of extraterrestrial life, including experimental demonstration of the production of amino acids from basic chemicals by radiation. Sagan was also an advocate of the search for extraterrestrial life. He helped Dr. Frank Drake write the Arecibo message, a radio message beamed into space from the Arecibo radio telescope on November 16, 1974, aimed at informing extraterrestrials about Earth. Sagan also urged the scientific community to listen with radio telescopes for signals from intelligent extraterrestrial lifeforms. So persuasive was he that by 1982, he was able to get a petition advocating SETI published in the journal Science, signed by 70 scientists, including seven Nobel Prize winners. This was a tremendous turnaround in the respectability of this controversial field. Sagan believed that the Drake equation suggested that a large number of extraterrestrial civilizations would form, but that the lack of evidence of such civilizations pointed out by the Fermi paradox suggests technological civilizations tend to destroy themselves rather quickly. This stimulated his interest in identifying and publicizing ways that humanity could destroy itself, with the hope of avoiding such a cataclysm and eventually becoming a spacefaring species.

A professor of astronomy and space sciences at Cornell University after 1968, Sagan was involved with numerous NASA planetary space probes and was the creator and host of the 1980 public television science series Cosmos. His publications include the book co-authored with the Russian astronomer I. S. Shklovskii Intelligent Life in the Universe (1966); The Dragons of Eden (1977; won a Pulitzer); a novel, Contact (1985); with Richard Turco, A Path Where No Man Thought (1990), on nuclear winter; with Ann Druyan, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1992); Pale Blue Dot (1994); The Demon-Haunted World (1996); and the posthumously published Billions and Billions (1997).

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.

November 5, 1892 (a Saturday)

John Haldane

On this date, British geneticist and biometrician John Burdon Sanderson Haldane was born. He was one of the three major figures to develop the mathematical theory of population genetics. (He is usually regarded as the third of these in importance, after R. A. Fisher and Sewall Wright.) Population genetics became one of the key elements of what would be called the Modern Synthesis. It revealed how mutations arise and, if they are favored by natural selection, can spread through a population, causing evolutionary change without the help of imaginary Lamarckian forces. Haldane also worked in biochemistry, and on the effects of diving on human physiology. He was the first to suggest that membranes played a role in the origin of life in his prescient note in The Rationalist Annual (1926). He wrote that “The cell consists of numerous half-living chemical molecules suspended in water and enclosed in an oily film. When the whole sea was a vast chemical laboratory the conditions for the formation of such films must have been relatively favorable . . .” In 1954, Haldane, speaking at the Symposium on the Origin of Life, suggested that an alternative biochemistry could be conceived in which water was replaced as a solvent by liquid ammonia.

J.B.S. Haldane began studying science at the age of eight, as assistant to his father (the noted physiologist John Scott Haldane). A Marxist from the 1930s, Haldane was well known for his outspoken Marxist views. He resigned from the Communist Party around 1950 on the issue of Lysenko’s claims to have manipulated the genetic structure of plants and “Stalin’s interference with science.” He became known to a large public as a witty popularizer of science with such works as Daedalus (1924), Possible Worlds (1927), and The Causes of Evolution (1932).

Purportedly, it is Haldane who made the famous comment that all that biology tells us about the nature of God is that he has “an inordinate fondness for beetles” (reported in G. E. Hutchison, 1959, Amer. Natur. 93:145-159).


  • J.B.S. Haldane, “The Origin of Life,” The Rationalist Annual 148: 3-10 (1929).

November 4, 1855 (a Sunday)

Frederick Orpen Bower

On this date, the botanist Frederick Orpen Bower was born in Ripon, England. His study of primitive land plants, especially the ferns, contributed greatly to a modern emphasis on the study of the origins and evolutionary development of these plants. A man who did not shy away from theorizing, one of his most productive “working hypotheses” was his application of the alternation of generations model to explaining the way the land was colonized by early plants. This subject was explored most completely in his book entitled The Origin of a Land Flora: A Theory Based upon the Facts of Alternation, published in 1908.

From his many years studying liverworts, mosses, and ferns, Bower concluded that they had evolved from algal ancestors. Bower’s hypothesis states, in essence, that the sporophyte generation (the conspicuous vegetative stage in familiar vascular plants) developed de novo from a haploid alga that lacked a diploid sporophyte generation but instead had merely a diploid zygote (a cell formed by the fusion of two gametes, such as sperm and egg). Before the evolution of embryos, this zygote would have immediately undergone meiosis (to relieve the diploid condition) and produced spores, the propagules of the next haploid generation. Growth of such a spore into a gametophyte is analogous to growth of an isolated human sperm or egg cell into a hypothetical haploid generation. Thus, the sporophyte generation first appeared as an added generation that came into existence as a result of delayed zygotic meiosis – sort of a delayed plant puberty. In other words, what might otherwise have become the new haploid cells of the next generation by chromosome reduction instead retained its diploid character and thus added, aà la Bower, a new generation to the life cycle. The final step of spore production still eventually occurred, but not until after the diploid cells had grown and developed into a new sporophyte generation, in essence an overgrown zygote.

Under Brower’s hypothesis, we suppose that, from the point of view of the gametophyte, the sporophyte generation is like a giant multicellular spore factory. For example, in Coleochaete pulvinata, a modern freshwater green alga, the surface of the mature zygote is covered by a layer of haploid cells, which form ingrowths that penetrate the zygote to provide nutrition. The protected diploid zygote in Coleochaete gives the aquatic alga advantages because many more spores can be produced from a single fertilization event than would be the case if the zygote hurried straight to meiosis and the formation of one of those four spore tetrads so common in the fossil record. Bower’s hypothesis remains to be tested, but if it is correct, the sporophyte generation (diploid cells) came to develop inside (and be protected by) the gametophyte generation (haploid cells) precisely because the arrangement ultimately benefited both generations.

An older, competing hypothesis dating back to 1874 held that the algal ancestor of embryophytes already had had alternation of two generations for a long time and was thus diplobiontic, as opposed to haplobiontic. Haplobiontic organisms, such as humans, have the gametes as the only haploid cells; diplobiontic organisms develop those haploid cells into a multicellular life stage. The diplobiontic hypothesis of 1874 is less favored now because it fails to explain how the sporophytes and gametophytes, which in modern diplobiontic green algae have no long-term physical connection, could have evolved the intimate physical connection, in both nutritional and developmental respects, shared by the haploid and diploid components of all embryophytes.

Bower’s other publications included Ferns (three volumes, published 1923-28) and Primitive Land Plants (1935). Bower was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1891 and was awarded the Linnean Medal in 1909, the Royal Medal in 1910, and the Darwin Medal in 1938, the latter “In recognition of his work of acknowledged distinction in the field in which Darwin himself laboured.”

November 1, 1977 (a Tuesday)

Carl Woese

On this date, the American microbiologist and physicist Carl Woese published a report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in which he defined the Archaeabacteria (a new super-kingdom of life) by phylogenetic analysis of 16S ribosomal RNA.  This technique was pioneered by Woese and is now standard practice. By 1990 Woese shortened the name Archaebacteria to Archaea and adopted the term “domains” for the three new branches of life: Bacteria, Archaea, and Eukarya. Archaea are neither Bacteria nor Eukaryotes. In other words, they are Prokaryotes that are not Bacteria. More than twenty kingdoms exist under the domains in the tree of life, far more than the five original kingdoms suggested by R.H. Whittaker in 1969. In fact, Woese found that Archaea are more closely related to Eukarya (plants, animals, fungi, etc.) than to Bacteria. This accounted for the renaming of Archaebacteria, the original name given by Woese, to Archaea.

According to Woese:

The archaea are unique organisms. While prokaryotes in the cytological sense, they are actually more closely related to eukaryotes than to the bacteria. They are of particular interest for this reason alone-they are simple organisms whose study should provide insights into the nature and evolution of the eukaryotic cell. Their study is also central to an understanding of the nature of the ancestor common to all life. The archaea are, of course, interesting in their own right. The group contains both the methanogens and numerous organisms that grow at extremely high temperatures (in some cases above 100°C). As such, they provide potential insights into mechanisms of thermophilia and methanogenesis.

by Carl Woese

The acceptance of the validity of Woese’s classification was a slow and painful process. Famous figures, including Salvador Luria and Ernst Mayr, objected to his division of the prokaryotes. Not all criticism of him was restricted to the scientific level. Not without reason has Woese been dubbed “Microbiology’s Scarred Revolutionary” by the journal Science. The growing amount of supporting data led the scientific community in general to accept the Archaea by the mid-1980s. A shrinking minority of scientists still adhere to concepts of evolutionary radiation, but Woese appears to have been vindicated in his convictions.


October 31, 2011 (a Monday)

Train station in Mumbai.

Train station in Mumbai.

As calculated by the United Nations, the seven-billionth human being arrived on Earth on this date. The specter of too many people and not enough food has haunted scientists and philosophers since at least the time of Aristotle. The most famous is Thomas Robert Malthus, who in 1798 grimly predicted that population growth would outpace food production, resulting in human death and misery.

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.

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 16, 1923 (a Tuesday)

Cyril Ponnamperuma

On this date, the Ceylonese-American chemist and exobiologist Cyril Ponnamperuma, who was a leading authority on the chemical origins of life, was born. Ponnamperuma’s interest in prebiotic synthesis began during his undergraduate days at Birckbeck College, University of London, where he studied under J. D. Bernal, receiving his B.Sc. in 1959. He then joined Melvin Calvin’s group at the University of California, Berkeley, receiving his Ph.D. in 1962, before moving to NASA Ames Research Center as a postdoctoral associate. In 1963, he became director of the program in Chemical Evolution in the Exobiology Division at Ames. In 1971, he joined the faculty at the University of Maryland.

Ponnamperuma, along with others, regarded the evolution of life as almost inevitable given the right starting conditions. For example, in the preface to Exobiology (1972), he wrote that:

[O]ur primary objective becomes the understanding of the origin of life in the universe. This is the scientifically broader question before us. If we can understand how life began on the Earth, we can argue that the sequence of events which lead to the appearance of terrestrial life may be repeated in the staggering number of planetary systems in our universe.

He built on the work of Miller and Urey studying chemical reactions in “primordial soup” experiments. Ponnamperuma focused on producing compounds related to the nucleic acids and offered a convincing theory about series of chemical reactions that gave rise to precursors of life on earth. He demonstrated that nucleotides and dinucleotides can be formed by random processes alone. In another achievement, he showed the formation of ATP, a compound critical to the use of energy within a cell.

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 11, 1993 (a Monday)

Richard J. Roberts

On this date, the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine jointly to Richard J. Roberts and Phillip A. Sharp, who in 1977 independently discovered that individual genes could be discontinuous, that is, a given gene could exist in the genetic material not as one continuous segment of DNA but as several, well-separated segments. A gene may thus consist of several segments, usually termed exons, separated by intervening, irrelevant stretches of DNA called introns. Such “split genes” are typically found in eukaryotes but not in prokaryotes, which have very compact genomes.

Phillip A. Sharp

The discovery of split genes has radically changed our view on how the genetic material has changed during the course of evolution. Previously, it was thought that only minor alterations (mutations) occur within genes, producing gradual change in the genetic material. However, now it seems likely that higher organisms, in addition to undergoing mutations, may utilize another method that changes the genetic material: rearrangement or shuffling of exons that produces proteins with new functions. This can take place through crossing-over during gamete formation. This hypothesis was bolstered by the later finding that individual exons in several cases correspond to building modules (domains) in proteins and each domain has a specific function. An exon in the gene would thus correspond to a particular subfunction in the protein, and the shuffling of exons could result in a new combination of subfunctions in a protein. This kind of genetic recombination could accelerate evolution significantly.

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 6, 1892 (a Thursday)

Alfred Lord Tennyson

On this date, Lord Alfred Tennyson, poet laureate of England, died at 1:35 a.m. Tennyson’s life had spanned much of the nineteenth century, and he is remembered for producing one of the greatest literary expressions of the eclipse of the static and providential worldview of natural theology by the new dynamic and historical worldview of evolutionary biology, with its emphasis on the succession of types, extinction, and the “struggle for existence”:

Are God and Nature then at strife,
That Nature lends such evil dreams?
So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life;

That I, considering everywhere
Her secret meaning in her deeds,
And finding that of fifty seeds
She often brings but one to bear,

I falter where I firmly trod,
And falling with my weight of cares
Upon the great world’s altar-stairs
That slope thro’ darkness up to God,

I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope,
And gather dust and chaff, and call
To what I feel is Lord of all,
And faintly trust the larger hope.

‘So careful of the type?’ but no.
From scarpèd cliff and quarried stone
She cries, ‘A thousand types are gone:
I care for nothing: all shall go.

‘Thou makest thine appeal to me:
I bring to life, I bring to death:
The spirit does but mean the breath:
I know no more.’ And he, shall he,

Man, her last work, who seem’d so fair,
Such splendid purpose in his eyes,
Who roll’d the psalm to wintry skies,
Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law—
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed—

Who loved, who suffer’d countless ills,
Who battled for the True, the Just,
Be blown about the desert dust,
Or seal’d within the iron hills?

No more? A monster then, a dream,
A discord. Dragons of the prime,
That tare each other in their slime,
Were mellow music match’d with him.

Lord Tennyson was buried in Westminster Abbey in London.

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.