Tweets from Darwin Day

I thought I was through with Darwin Day, but I’ve got Chuck on the brain.  It may seem odd for biologists to hold him in such esteem (creationists often say, mistakenly, that we worship him and find no flaws in his work), but the fact remains that, more than any other scientist, he got things right at the outset. Yes, his genetics was wonky, and his book doesn’t really deal with the origin of new species, but it’s remarkable how well his main ideas have held up over the last 158 years. Even Newton, his rival in the “best scientist ever” category, didn’t anticipate quantum mechanics, but Darwin did allude to genes having no differential effect on fitness; i.e., the “neutral theory” that was devised only in the 1960s.

I read The Origin about once every two years, and each time I do I’m amazed at the thoroughness and novelty of Darwin’s thinking: working out the parallel between artificial and natural selection, anticipating objections to his theory, realizing that biogeography and embryology provided strong evidence for evolution, and so on.

If you haven’t read the book yet, I recommend it highly. As I always told my students, you can hardly consider yourself educated if you haven’t read The Origin, which not only tied together all areas of biology and dispelled the myths about life that had reigned forever, but also changed our view of ourselves in a way that Newton couldn’t.

At any rate, here are a few tweets from #DarwinDay and #darwinday2017:



  1. rom
    Posted February 12, 2017 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

    I am sorry The Origin is not an easy read. I am stuck about a third of the way through.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted February 12, 2017 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

      My favourite Darwin is “The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms, with Observations on their Habits” – I got a fully illustrated copy years ago & I worked my way through it rather as if it was a textbook. Good fun, but I made sure I had the tools at hand to get value out of it [dictionary & internet mostly]

      Darwin’s certainly not an easy read by modern standards – we [meaning me!] are used to a more graphic & structured presentation of information. There’s also the problem of vocabulary which has shrunk today & some words aren’t familiar to us in the context that he uses them [& also meanings shift to a degree]. His sentences are often not straightforward & his paragraphs are lengthy & often he’ll over-describe [the sign of an enthusiast!] using a lot of what seems jargon to me, but perhaps was common everyday knowledge among the literate of his day.

      I have got through Origin once [& I’m glad I did!], but I was constantly skipping back to reread paragraphs once I’d realised what the object of the para was. I also had a dictionary at hand at all times!

      Here is a paragraph from Chapter 1 to illuminate some of my points:

      “In the skeletons of the several breeds, the development of the bones of the face in length and breadth and curvature differs enormously. The shape, as well as the breadth and length of the ramus of the lower jaw, varies in a highly remarkable manner. The number of the caudal and sacral vertebrae vary; as does the number of the ribs, together with their relative breadth and the presence of processes. The size and shape of the apertures in the sternum are highly variable; so is the degree of divergence and relative size of the two arms of the furcula. The proportional width of the gape of mouth, the proportional length of the eyelids, of the orifice of the nostrils, of the tongue (not always in strict correlation with the length of beak), the size of the crop and of the upper part of the oesophagus; the development and abortion of the oil-gland; the number of the primary wing and caudal feathers; the relative length of wing and tail to each other and to the body; the relative length of leg and of the feet; the number of scutellae on the toes, the development of skin between the toes, are all points of structure which are variable. The period at which the perfect plumage is acquired varies, as does the state of the down with which the nestling birds are clothed when hatched. The shape and size of the eggs vary. The manner of flight differs remarkably; as does in some breeds the voice and disposition. Lastly, in certain breeds, the males and females have come to differ to a slight degree from each other.”

      • Henry Fitzgerald
        Posted February 13, 2017 at 3:59 am | Permalink

        My small piece of trivia about that work…

        Darwin got his (then) child relatives to help with his earthworm experiments.

        One of them was his niece’s son – later the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.

    • Posted February 12, 2017 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

      To really appreciate Darwin’s The Origin you have to have a substantial knowledge of the current state of evolutionary biology.

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted February 12, 2017 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

      If it is any consolation I hear Newton’s Principia is an impossible read. It was written so long ago that the cultural context has vanished and even history of science experts have to extrapolate on precise meanings.

      • Posted February 13, 2017 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

        It is a big challenge – I’ve tried, but I’m not good enough in Euclidean geometry to take much of it in, even with scrap paper.

        The “prose parts” are difficult, but can be understood. But just don’t expect any algebra, or, except for one place, any calculus.

    • Posted February 13, 2017 at 1:21 am | Permalink

      I agree that the Origin is not an easy read. I have heard colleagues suggest that it is beautifully written, and argue that students in elementary courses should read it. Madness. Darwin was a good writer by 19th-century standards, but he wrote as they did, with long discursive sentences with lots of clauses and subclauses. We don’t write like that anymore. He is hard reading for 21st century students, who will often lose interest and find him soporific.

      • Billy Bl.
        Posted February 13, 2017 at 8:21 am | Permalink

        Many of my classmates in our undergraduate Evolution course had the same complaint about the writing style as I did – it made us want to have a nap.

      • Posted February 13, 2017 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

        So, if US and Turkish evolution haters were more intelligent, they could make the Origin compulsory reading for all schools.

  2. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted February 12, 2017 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

    This holiday has also been an especially enjoyable day here at WEIT. Loads of great posts!

  3. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted February 12, 2017 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

    A well rounded Darwin’s Day!

    but the fact remains that, more than any other scientist, he got things right at the outset. Yes, his genetics was wonky, and his book doesn’t really deal with the origin of new species, but it’s remarkable how well his main ideas have held up over the last 158 years. Even Newton, his rival in the “best scientist ever” category, didn’t anticipate quantum mechanics,

    Not to rain on the Darwin’s Day parade but I have to oppose that since it consists of highly arguable claims. As far as I can judge, by measure of breaking with tradition Newton made the largest leap. Scientists had independently envisioned evolution in several ways (including Wallace’s natural selection) around the time of Darwin. But Newton had to invent the abstraction of space – independent of objects that filled it – all by himself. (If I understand historian of science correctly. Though I cannot say right now where I read that.)

    As for quantum mechanic it is by definition outside of classical mechanics. A possible analogy could be that, unless I am mistaken, you could still do Mendelian genetics and so a basic take on modern evolution without necessarily knowing about cell theory.

  4. Posted February 12, 2017 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

    I’ve always found brilliant how he uses artificial selection (selective breeding) to set up the case for heritable variation on which natural selection could work. Basically, we may not have a good theory of inheritance, but here is empirical evidence showing that 1) there is significant variation in real populations and 2) at least some of it is heritable – i.e. I may not know how it works, but I can prove that it does work.

  5. Mark R.
    Posted February 12, 2017 at 7:51 pm | Permalink

    FFRF’s tweet is my fave. Thanks Jerry for your exuberant Darwin posts today- much appreciated. I will try reading the tome again…I couldn’t finish it my first try many years ago.

    I’m rereading Genius, and am gleaning new Feynman knowledge that I missed when I read it in the 90’s when it was published. It’s interesting to reread books years later and discover how increased general knowledge (experience) sheds new light on what you thought you already knew, or what you couldn’t comprehend years before: live, read, and learn.

  6. Posted February 12, 2017 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

    Oooff, the “best scientist of all time” question, always challenging. I definitely think it’s Newton and Darwin #1 and #2, but it’s impossible for me to decide on the order. I do think Newton’s work was more far-reaching than Darwin’s scientifically (in terms of the number of fields affected), but Darwin’s work extends beyond science. The social and cultural effects of Darwin’s work have been massive, much more so than Newton’s.

    Regardless of how you rank them, I think it gets really interesting when you try to decide who rounds out the top 5. I think I would have Einstein and R.A. Fisher in there, but then who else? I’d probably go with one of the classists: Aristotle, Da Vinci, Galileo, or Archimedes.

    • TJR
      Posted February 13, 2017 at 5:17 am | Permalink

      Spot the statistician, mentioning Fisher!

      When teaching experimental design I often ask the class (often MSc/PhD mature students in science subjects) who has heard of RA Fisher, and almost nobody has.

      • Posted February 13, 2017 at 11:38 am | Permalink

        Saw through that one, did you? 😉

        It is an absolute crime that so few no anything about Fisher. His social/cultural effect has clearly been virtually nil. But the fact remains that we don’t have any of statistics without him, and therefore we would have no way of conducting rigorous science as we see it today. His work defines the basic methodology, and underlies much of the more advanced methods, in every scientific field, from the natural to the social sciences. We have no 20th Century (and so no 21st Century) science without Fisher.

        • Posted February 13, 2017 at 11:40 am | Permalink

          Ugh, lots of typos and ugly language up there. Sorry about that – I just woke up!

    • Richard Bond
      Posted February 13, 2017 at 6:03 am | Permalink

      James Clerk Maxwell: his electromagnetic theory alone would mark him as one of the greatest; apart from anything else, it was the first gauge theory. Add his theory of colour, prediction of the constancy of the speed of light, introduction of control theory, first treatment of stress fields in construction materials, first version of the kinetic theory of gases, other contributions to thermodynamics, calculation that Saturn’s rings were composed of small solid particles (verified over a hundred years later), and the first hint from anomalies in the specific heats of gases that something (turned out to be quantum theory) was needed beyond classical physics.

      Einstein placed him on a par with Newton.

      • Posted February 13, 2017 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

        Don’t forget Faraday, whom Maxwell praised.

        Physical chemist Keith Laidler argues that if Nobel prizes were handed out for innovation of the “earth shattering sort” (e.g., the ones given to the founders of QM), and were available at the time, Newton and Einstein would be 3 prize-winners and Faraday would have won *6*.

  7. Don Mackay
    Posted February 13, 2017 at 1:30 am | Permalink

    No-one has mentioned Gregor Mendel in the category of ‘great scientists’, certainly in the realm of Biology.

  8. David Coxill
    Posted February 13, 2017 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    CHUCK ,CHUCK .Wow didn’t know that Penguins had knees inside their bodies .CHUCK ,CHUCK ,how dare you call him CHUCK .

  9. Posted February 13, 2017 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    I do encourage everyone to read Origin. I’ve done it a few times over the years; it is quite wonderful. I first read it when I encountered a copy by chance – and I happened to be reading Nietzsche in an Existentialism class at the same time. N. mentions Darwin, which is maybe why I got primed to seeing his name in the bookstore. It started my “classics in the history of science” section.

    But be warned: sometimes Darwin does use those long Victorian sentences that (say) Dickens is famous for.

  10. Posted February 13, 2017 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    Being a newcomer to biology, I just read the Origin for the first time, in the annotated version by James Costa, which helps getting through it. Along with it, I read David Reznick’s “The origin then and now”, which is a really excellent introduction to evolution and does a good job of comparing Darwin’s evolutionary theory to that of today.

    I was impressed by Darwin’s incredible thoroughness in all he did. The man was not just a genius, he was a worker!

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