Tag Archives: Evolution

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).

References:

  • Hermann von Meyer, “Archaeopteryx lithographica”, Neues Jahrbuch für Mineralogie, Geologie und Paläontologie (1861), 678-9.
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September 28, 1698

Maupertuis

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.

References:

  • 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.

References:

September 19, 1864 (a Monday)

Carl Erich Correns

On this date, the German botanist and geneticist Carl Erich Correns was born. He is famous for rediscovering, independently of but simultaneously with the biologists Erich Tschermak von Seysenegg and Hugo De Vries, Gregor Mendel’s historic paper outlining the principles of heredity.

In 1892, while at the University of Tübingen, Correns began to experiment with trait inheritance in plants. On January 25, 1900, he published his first paper, “G. Mendel’s Law Concerning the Behavior of the Progeny of Racial Hybrids”, in which he restated Mendel’s results and his law of segregation and law of independent assortment. Although the paper cited both Charles Darwin and Mendel, Correns did not fully recognise the relevance of genetics to Darwin’s ideas.

In attempting to determine the extent to which Mendel’s laws are valid, Correns undertook a classic study on heredity in the four-o’clock plant (Mirabilis jalapa). The blotchy leaves of these variegated plants show patches of green and white tissue, but some branches carry only green leaves and others carry only white leaves. Whether a tissue is green or white depends on whether there are green or white chloroplasts in the cytoplasm of its cells. Flowers appear on all types of branches, and Correns performed a variety of crosses.

Two features of his results were surprising. First, unlike what Mendel had observed, Correns found that there was a difference between reciprocal crosses, that is, leaf color depended greatly on which parent (i.e., flower’s branch) had which trait. Such results are normally encountered only for sex-linked genes, but Correns’ results cannot be explained by sex linkage. Secondly, the phenotype of the maternal parent was solely responsible for determining the phenotype of all progeny, that is, the phenotype of the male parent appeared to be irrelevant, making no contribution to the progeny at all! Although the white progeny plants did not live long because they lacked chlorophyll, the other types of progeny did survive and could be used in further generations of crosses. The same patterns of maternal inheritance always appeared in these subsequent generations.

Maternal inheritance can be explained if the chloroplasts are somehow genetically autonomous and furthermore, are never transmitted via the sperm. This is reasonable since the chloroplasts come exclusively from the mother in most angiosperms. In his 1909 paper, Correns established variegated leaf color as the first conclusive example of cytoplasmic inheritance (cases in which certain characteristics of the progeny are determined by factors in the cytoplasm of the female sex cell), also known as extrachromosomal or non-Mendelian inheritance.

Unfortunately, most of Correns’ work went unpublished and was destroyed in the Berlin bombings of 1945.

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 10, 1788 (a Wednesday)

Jacques Boucher de Crèvecœur de Perthes

On this date, the French geologist and archaeologist Jacques Boucher de Crèvecœur de Perthes was born. His discovery in 1846 of whole handaxes, tools, and fragments embedded in and scattered about the fossilized bones of extinct mammals in the Somme River valley showed that man existed at least as early as the ancient creatures. He announced his discovery in the first volume of a work he published in 1847, Antiquites Celtiques Et Antediluviennes (Celtic and pre-Flood Antiquities).

The very title of his book showed that Boucher de Perthes at first regarded these implements and weapons as having belonged to men overwhelmed at the Deluge of Noah; but it was soon seen that they were something very different. Being found in terraces at great heights above the Somme River indicated that they must have been deposited there at a time when the river system of northern France was vastly different from anything known within the historic period. This would have required a series of great geological changes since the time when these implements were made, disproving the prevailing theologically-based idea that 4004 B.C. was the year of the creation of man.

The type of handaxe discovered by Boucher de Perthes.

Although Boucher de Perthes was the first to establish that Europe had been populated by early man in the Pleistocene or early Quaternary period, he himself was not able to pinpoint the precise period because the scientific frame of reference did not then exist. Today, the handaxes of the Somme River district are widely accepted to be at least 500,000 years old and thus the product of Neandertal populations, while some authorities think they may be as old as one million years and therefore associated with Homo erectus.

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.

September 7, 1829 (a Monday)

Lithograph of dino fossils, Leidy (1860)

On this date, the American geologist Ferdinand Vandiveer Hayden was born. It is generally accepted that the first discovery of dinosaur remains in North America was made in 1854 by Hayden during his exploration of the upper Missouri River. At that time, the area was the hunting ground of the Lakota, Blackfeet, Atsina, and River Crow Indians. A lone white man in Indian Country was often fair game to the tribes, but Hayden’s passion for rocks and fossils earned him the name “He Who Picks Up Stones While Running” and a reputation for madness. The Indians left him alone.

Hayden explored what would later become known as the Judith River Formation, a large area of sedimentary materials deposited in the lowland areas bordering the Colorado Sea during the Late Cretaceous Period 78 to 74 million years ago. Here, Hayden’s party recovered a small collection of teeth which were later described (in 1856) by Joseph Leidy at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. Three of the specimens described were dinosaurs – Trachodon, Troodon (now known as Stegosaurus), and Deinodon (notice the use of ‘don’ meaning ‘tooth’). This was the first published description of dinosaur remains in the United States. Leidy recognised that Trachodon was a creature similar to Iguanodon.

Interestingly, for centuries the Blackfeet have inhabited the high plains of Montana and Alberta – the same area in which the dinosaur-rich, Late Cretaceous Hell Creek and Oldman Formations occur. Dinosaur fossils were known to the Blackfeet, who considered them to be the remains of giant, ancestral buffalo. The Blackfeet used dinosaur bones in rituals intended to insure good hunting. Notwithstanding the religious significance dinosaur bones had for the Blackfeet, they were quite enlightened in their view toward dinosaurs. They hit on the antiquity, and the organic nature of dinosaur remains, and in comparing them to buffalo showed their sophisticated knowledge of vertebrate anatomy. Referring to dinosaurs as large buffalo was thus good scientific practice in the context of their perception of the natural world. In doing this, they were as close to the truth as was the Rev. Dr. Plot back in England, or any other European of the time.

September 5, 1831 (a Monday)

Charles Darwin by G Richmond.

On this date, after having spent the weekend in Cambridge, Charles Darwin rode to London and went to the Whitehall Admiralty building to speak with Robert FitzRoy. FitzRoy told Darwin that the person to whom he had offered the position of naturalist on board HMS Beagle had just turned it down five minutes ago (this might have been Harry Chester, a close friend of FitzRoy, and at the time a clerk in the Privy Council office across the street). He wanted to know if Darwin was still interested in the position. Interestingly, Darwin wrote in his autobiography:

Afterwards on becoming very intimate with Fitz-Roy, I heard that I had run a very narrow risk of being rejected, on account of the shape of my nose! He was an ardent disciple of Lavater, and was convinced that he could judge a man’s character by the outline of his features; and he doubted whether anyone with my nose could possess sufficient energy and determination for the voyage. But I think he was afterwards well-satisfied that my nose had spoken falsely.

Of course, Charles enthusiastically accepted the offer and both men spent the next few hours going over the details of the voyage. Darwin learned that the sail date had been postponed until October 10, and that the voyage might extend longer than two years. Later that afternoon, Darwin took up lodgings at 17 Spring Gardens, just around the corner from Whitehall.

September 3, 1907 (a Tuesday)

Loren Corey Eiseley

On this date, the highly respected anthropologist, ecologist, science writer, and poet Loren Corey Eiseley was born. He published books of essays, biography, and general science in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s.

Eiseley is best known for the poetic essay style called the “hidden essay”. He used this to explain complex scientific ideas, such as human evolution, to the general public. He is also known for his writings about humanity’s relationship with the natural world. These helped inspire the environmental movement.

Eiseley’s first book, The Immense Journey: An Imaginative Naturalist Explores the Mysteries of Man and Nature (1946), a collection of writings about the history of humanity, established him as a writer with the unique ability to combine science and humanism. In the essay from it entitled “The Snout”, he wrote:

The door to the past is a strange door. It swings open and things pass through it, but they pass in one direction only. No man can return across that threshold, though he can look down still and see the green light waver in the water weeds.

Eiseley’s book, Darwin’s Century (1958), focuses on the development of the theory of evolution and was awarded the Phi Beta Kappa Science prize in 1959. His other books include The Unexpected Universe (1969), The Night Country (1971), the memoir All The Strange Hours: The Excavation of a Life (1975), and Darwin and the Mysterious Mr. X: New Light on the Evolutionists (1979).

When Loren Eiseley was 3 his father held him up to watch Halley’s Comet blaze across the sky and told his son to look for its return in 75 years. But Loren Eiseley did not live that long. He died July 9, 1977, having used his brief seventy years to leave behind a heritage that continues to enrich the lives of all who come to know his work.

September 2, 1831 (a Friday)

Charles Darwin by G Richmond.

Early in the morning on this date, Charles Darwin rode out to Cambridge to speak with Revd. Henslow about his father’s approval of his voyage on the HMS Beagle. When he arrived, Darwin learned that Capt. FitzRoy might have already selected another person as naturalist for the voyage.

September 1, 1831 (a Thursday)

Charles Darwin by G Richmond.

Early in the morning on this date, Charles Darwin woke up and, while out shooting pheasants on the Wedgwood estate, received word that his uncle Josiah wanted the two of them to return to Shrewsbury at once. Upon arriving at The Mount (home of the Darwins’), Charles found that his uncle’s letter had done the trick: his father would allow him to go on the voyage of the HMS Beagle and would support him in any way necessary.

August 30, 1831 (a Tuesday)

Charles Darwin by G Richmond.

On this date, Charles Darwin wrote to Revd. Henslow that his father would not allow him to go on the voyage of the HMS Beagle. At the same time, Darwin’s father wrote a letter to his brother-in-law, Josiah Wedgwood II, about the offer Darwin had been given, listing all the reasons why Darwin should not go on the voyage. Later that afternoon, Darwin rode out to Maer Hall (home of the Wedgwood’s) with his father’s letter for the start of the bird shooting season on September 1. Upon his arrival at Maer Hall, Darwin spoke to his uncle Josiah about the voyage and presented his father’s objections to it. After much discussion, Josiah sent a letter off to Darwin’s father, expressing his view that the voyage was a good idea.

August 30, 1909 (a Monday)

Canadia is a polychaete, a segmented marine worm, from the Burgess Shale of British Columbia, Canada.

On this date, Charles Doolittle Walcott discovered interesting fossils while traveling alone along a horse trail near Burgess Pass in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Legend has it that his horse stopped in front of a rock which he then cracked open, discovering fossils. He returned the next day accompanied by his wife Helena and his son Stuart. Together they found several other remarkable fossils that Walcott immediately sketched in his field notebook. Obviously impressed by this discovery, Walcott’s entry for Aug. 31st – Sept 1st reads:

Out with Helena, Stuart collecting fossils from the Stephen Formation. We found a remarkable group of Phyllopod crustaceans – Took a large number of fine specimens to camp. [The next day:] We continued collecting found a fine group of sponges on slope (in-situ) – Beautiful warm days

Charles and Stuart Walcott at the fossil bed, August 1910.

The fossils discovered by the Walcotts represented types of animals that had never been seen before.

The Walcotts spent a total of five days that year collecting fossils in the area, mostly from loose slabs of rock found near the trail and on slopes.

Walcott quickly realized the importance of his finds. In a letter sent later that year to William Arthur Parks (his colleague and long-term correspondent at the University of Toronto) Walcott wrote: “…I had a few days collecting in the Stephen Formation [today’s Burgess Shale] in the vicinity of Field in September, and found some very interesting things.”

The following season, he located the source of the fossils higher up on Fossil Ridge, and began excavating.

*Pikaia* is the earliest known representative of the phylum Chordata, to which humans belong, although it was not a vertebrate.

The fossils, with their exquisite preservation, were unlike anything he had seen before. Walcott named the site the Burgess Shale, after nearby Mt. Burgess, but they received little attention until fifty years later. The Burgess Shale fossils, as they have come to be known, provide a glimpse of what life was like on Earth 505 million years ago. Over 60,000 unique fossils have been found, dominated by arthropods, although other fossils are found in great abundance, including worms, crinoids, sea cucumbers, chordates, and other organisms with no mineralized shell.

August 29, 1831 (a Monday)

Charles Darwin by G Richmond.

On the evening of this date, upon returning from Northern Wales where Adam Sedgwick had given him a crash course in field geology, Charles Darwin found letters waiting for him from Revd. John Henslow and George Peacock. Darwin had been invited to be a naturalist for the unpaid position of gentleman’s companion to Robert FitzRoy, the captain of HMS Beagle. The ship was to set sail on September 25 on a two-year expedition (later extended to five years) to chart the coastline of South America. Darwin wanted to go but his father and sisters were totally against the idea, seeing it as a continuation of his long line of idle pursuits.

Darwin’s father objected to his proposed journey on several grounds:

  • Such a voyage would reflect badly on his future prospects as a member of the clergy.
  • The entire plan seemed adventurous and wild.
  • Why was a naturalist still being considered so close to the start of the voyage? Other people must have been considered. Why had they refused the offer?
  • Going on the voyage would prevent Charles from settling down to a real life.
  • The accommodations on the ship would be very poor.
  • The voyage would offer Charles another excuse to change his focus in life.
  • It would be a complete waste of his time.

However, his father’s refusal was not absolute; he told his son that if he could find a man with common sense who thought it was a good idea, then he would allow him to go.

August 28, 1963 (a Wednesday)

Martin Luther King, Jr. delivering *I Have a Dream* speech.

On this date, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have A Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D. C.

Dr. King was a clergyman and civil rights leader but, as Jeff Nall pointed out in 2005, his wisdom has too often been forgotten:

Today it’s fashionable to recall Martin Luther King Jr. as a civil rights hero and passionate reverend. But sadly, amidst his legacy the entirety of his intellectual prowess and vast philosophical wisdom often goes unrecognized. Particularly troubling, King has become a tool for a variety of causes wrongly associated with him, including the attack on the separation of church and state.

In 2003 George W. Bush said, “There’s still a need for us to hear the words of Martin Luther King to make sure the hope of America extends its reach into every neighborhood across this land.” But considering the president’s efforts to combine God and government, it seems that Bush himself is ignorant of King’s words and at least two of his salient ideas. King was a proponent of the separation of church and state and also one of religion’s most ardent critics.

In a 1965 interview with Playboy magazine, Dr. King was asked how he felt about the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision ruling school prayer unconstitutional. In response he said:

I endorse it. I think it was correct. Contrary to what many have said, it sought to outlaw neither prayer nor belief in God. In a pluralistic society such as ours, who is to determine what prayer shall be spoken, and by whom? Legally, constitutionally, or otherwise, the state certainly has no such right. I am strongly opposed to the efforts that have been made to nullify the decision.

Church/State sign.

In another clear endorsement of church-state separation, King stated that the church “is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool.”

Dr. King also blamed organized religion for its support of contemporary dogma — the kind that insists on favoring creationism over evolution — at the expense of truth.  He berated what he called softmindedness. “Softminded individuals,” he said, “are prone to embrace all kinds of superstitions. . . . The soft-minded man always fears change.” More specifically, King wrote in his book entitled Strength to Love (1963):

Softmindedness often invades religion. This is why religion has sometimes rejected new truth with a dogmatic passion. Through edicts and bulls, inquisitions and excommunications, the church has attempted to prorogue truth and place an impenetrable stone wall in the path of the truth-seeker….

Softminded persons have revised the Beautitudes to read ‘Blessed are the pure in ignorance: for they shall see God.’ This has led to a widespread belief that there is a conflict between science and religion. But this is not true. There may be a conflict between softminded religionists and toughminded scientists, but not between science and religion….

Science investigates; religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge which is power; religion gives man wisdom which is control. Science deals mainly with facts; religion deals mainly with values. The two are not rivals. They are complementary. Science keeps religion from sinking into the valley of crippling irrationalism and paralyzing obscurantism.

His appreciation of science, though hardly acknowledged by most admirers of Dr. King, isn’t surprising. In arguing against notions of black racial inferiority, he frequently cited current anthropological research. In the same book cited above, King wrote:

Softmindedness is one of the basic causes of race prejudice. The toughminded person always examines the facts before he reaches conclusions; in short, he post judges. The tenderminded person reaches a conclusion before he has examined the first fact; in short, he prejudges and is prejudiced. Race prejudice is based on groundless fears, suspicions and misunderstandings. There are those who are sufficiently softminded to belief in the superiority of the white race and the inferiority of the Negro race in spite of the toughmindedness research of anthropologists who reveal the falsity of such a notion.

In his article on Dr. King, Jeff Nall concluded:

Yes, Martin Luther King Jr. was much more than just a reverend or just a civil rights champion; he was a learned philosopher who understood the importance of reason and balance in society. Unlike some of the Christian extremists who use his name for their cause and political gains, King valued the pluralism of American society, respected the U.S. Constitution, and never would have supported the corrupt motivation behind efforts to unite church and state.

Suggested reading:

  • Martin Luther King, Jr.,  Strength to Love (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1963).
  • Jeff Nall, “Will the real Martin Luther King please stand up?” The Humanist (May/June 2005).

August 26, 1909 (a Thursday)

Otto Hauser

On this date, an almost perfectly preserved Cro-Magnon male skeleton, about 34,000 years old, was discovered by Swiss-German antiquities dealer and historian Otto Hauser. He was a member of a party hunting fossils in the Combe-Capelle rockshelter, France. The following year, Hauser sold this and an earlier discovery of Neandertal skeletal remains from Le Moustier (1908) to the Berlin Völkerkunde-Museum. Most of the skeleton itself is believed to have been destroyed during WW II by allied bombing raids.

The Cro-Magnons are the earliest known European examples of Homo sapiens, living between 35,000 and 10,000 years ago, whose skeletons were first discovered in March, 1868. They were anatomically identical to tall and muscular modern humans, but slightly more robust on average. Finely crafted stone and bone tools, shell and ivory jewelry, and polychrome paintings found on cave walls all testify to the cultural advancement of Cro-Magnon man.

August 23, 1769 (a Wednesday)

Georges Cuvier

On this date, Georges Cuvier was born at Montbéliard, France (then Mömpelgard in the duchy of Württemberg). Cuvier, who possessed one of the finest minds in history, was instrumental in establishing the fields of comparative anatomy and paleontology by comparing living animals with fossils.

At the opening of the National Institute of France in April in 1796, he read his first palaeontological paper. At the time, it was still widely believed that no species of animal had ever become extinct, because God’s creation had been perfect. In his paper, Cuvier analyzed skeletal remains of Indian and African elephants as well as mammoth fossils, demonstrating that African and Indian elephants were different species and that mammoths were not the same species as either African or Indian elephants and therefore must be extinct.

In the second paper he presented in 1796, Cuvier demonstrated that a large skeleton found in Paraguay, which he named “megatherium,” represented yet another extinct animal and, by comparing its skull with living species of tree dwelling sloths, that it was a kind of ground dwelling giant sloth. Together these two 1796 papers essentially ended what had been a long running debate about the reality of extinction.

Figure of the jaw of an Indian elephant and the fossil Jaw of a mammoth from Cuvier's 1798–99 paper on living and fossil elephants

Cuvier believed that organisms were functional wholes; their functional integration meant that each part of an organism, no matter how small, bore signs of the whole. In a 1798 paper on the fossil remains of an animal found in some plaster quarries near Paris, he wrote:

Today comparative anatomy has reached such a point of perfection that, after inspecting a single bone, one can often determine the class, and sometimes even the genus of the animal to which it belonged, above all if that bone belonged to the head or the limbs. … This is because the number, direction, and shape of the bones that compose each part of an animal’s body are always in a necessary relation to all the other parts, in such a way that – up to a point – one can infer the whole from any one of them and vice versa.

This idea is sometimes referred to as “Cuvier’s principle of correlation of parts.” Thus, Cuvier was able to use his deep knowledge of the comparative anatomy of living organisms to produce reconstructions of organisms from fragmentary fossils, many of which turned out to be strikingly accurate.

Ironically, Cuvier’s insistence on the functional integration of organisms prevented him from accepting biological evolution, for he believed that any change in an organism’s anatomy would have rendered it unable to survive. Since organisms were functional wholes, any change in one part would destroy their delicate balance. He also pointed out that Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt had retrieved animals mummified thousands of years previously that seemed no different from their modern counterparts.

To explain the discontinuities seen in the fossil record, Cuvier hypothesized that a vast number of species was originally created in the beginning and that, although the Earth was immensely old and for most of its history conditions had been more or less like those of the present, periodic “revolutions” had occurred, each causing the extinction of many species of animals. This view came to be known as “catastrophism.” Cuvier regarded these “revolutions” as events with natural causes, and considered their causes and natures to be an important geological problem. Although he was a lifelong Protestant, Cuvier did not explicitly identify any of these “revolutions” with Biblical or historical events. The species we see today, according to his hypothesis, are the species that were present at the beginning and whose unmodified descendants have survived all the later catastrophes. (Unfortunately for Cuvier, the lowest and oldest layers of sedimentary rock do not contain any fossils of present-day species that would be expected if his hypothesis was correct.)

The harshness of his criticism and the strength of his reputation continued to discourage naturalists from speculating about the transmutation of species, right up until Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species more than two decades after Cuvier’s death.

August 21, 1826 (a Monday)

Hand homology (1870)

On this date, Karl Gegenbaur was born in Wurzburg, Germany. As a professor of anatomy at the University of Jena (1855-1873) and at the University of Heidelberg (1873-1903), Karl Gegenbaur was a strong supporter of Charles Darwin’s theory of organic evolution, having taught and worked, beginning in 1858, with Ernst Haeckel, eight years his junior. Gegenbaur is best known for his work entitled Grundriss der vergleichenden Anatomie (Leipzig, 1874; 2nd edition, 1878), translated into English by W. F. Jeffrey Bell (as Elements of Comparative Anatomy, 1878), with additions by E. Ray Lankester. While recognizing the importance of comparative embryology in the study of descent, Gegenbaur stressed the greater value of comparative anatomy as the basis of the study of homologies, i.e., of the relations between corresponding parts in different animals, such as the bones in the arm of a human, the foreleg of a horse, and the wing of a bird.