My letter to Darwin

Nine years ago, Radio 4 in England invited several of us to write a letter to Charles Darwin, telling the old guy what we think he’d like to know 200 years after his birth in 1809 and 150 years after he published On the Origin of Species.  We read these “Dear Darwin” letters on the air (you can hear them here; the other participants were Craig Venter, Sir Jonathan Miller, Peter Bentley, and Baruch Blumberg). Later, Oxford University Press, the British publisher of Why Evolution is True, published my letter on its website. In honor of the publication of The Origin on this day in 1859, I’ll put that letter below.

My Dear Mr. Darwin,

Happy 200th birthday! I hope you are as well as can expected for someone who has been dead for nearly 130 years. I suppose that your final book, the one about earthworms, has a special significance for you these days. Are the worms of Westminster Abbey superior to the ones you studied so carefully in the grounds of your home at Downe in Kent? They’ve certainly mulched some distinguished people over the years!

But enough of the personal questions: let me introduce myself. I am one of thousands – maybe tens of thousands – of professional biologists who work full time on your scientific legacy. You’ll be happy to know that Britain remains a powerhouse in what we nowadays call evolutionary biology, and your ideas now have wide currency across the entire planet. I work in Chicago, in the United States of America. But even the French have finally reluctantly relinquished their embrace of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, whose misguided evolutionary ideas you did so much to discredit.

Your Origin of Species turns 150 this year. I just re-read it in your honour and must say that, though you did not always have the snappiest turn of phrase, it really is a wonderfully comprehensive and insightful work. It is remarkable, considering what you did not know when you wrote it, how robust the book has proved over the years. The findings of modern biology, many of them inconceivable to you as you beavered away in your Down House study, have provided ever more evidence in support of your ideas, and none that contradicts them. We have learned a huge amount in the past 150 years, but nearly all of it still fits comfortably into the framework you outlined in The Origin. Take DNA, for example. This is what we call the hereditary material that is passed down from generation to generation. You knew nothing about it – remember how you wished you understood more about how heredity works? Now we have full DNA sequences from dozens of species, each one a string of billions of the four DNA letters—A, T, G and C—each a different chemical compound. What do we find when we compare these sequences, say between a mouse and a human? We see the DNA equivalent of the anatomical similarities – as mammals – that you noted mice and humans share because they are descended from a common ancestor, an early mammal. Strings of As, Gs, Cs, and Ts tell precisely the same evolutionary story as traits like lactation and warm-bloodedness. It is absolutely marvelous that your 150 year old insight on common ancestry should be so relevant to the very latest discoveries of the new field we call molecular biology.

In The Origin, you gave very little evidence for evolution from the fossil record, wringing your hands instead about the incompleteness of the geological record. But since then, the labors of fossil-hunters throughout the world have turned up plenty of evidence of evolutionary change, and many amazing “transitional” forms that connect major groups of animals, proving your idea of common ancestry. You predicted that these forms would exist; we have found them. These include fossils that show transitions between mammals and reptiles, fish and amphibians, and even dinosaurs with feathers—the ancestors of birds! Just in the past few years, paleontologists have unearthed an astonishing fossil, called Tiktaalik, that is intermediate between fish and amphibians. It has the flat head and neck of an amphibian, but a fishy tail and body, while its fins are sturdy, easily able, with slight modification, to give them a leg up when they left the water. The fossil record has given us a direct glimpse of an event of great moment in the history of the planet: the colonization of land by vertebrates. And we have evidence just as convincing for the recolonization of the sea by mammals: the group that gave rise to whales. In The Origin, you were correct in suggesting that whales arose from land animals, but you got it wrong on one point. You thought they may have come from carnivores like bears, but we now know this is not true. Instead, the ancestral whale came from a small hooved animal rather like a deer. And in the last thirty years we have discovered a whole series of intermediate fossils spanning the gap from those ancient deer to modern whales, showing them losing their hind legs, evolving flippers, and moving their breathing hole to the top of their head. Both Tiktaalik and these ancestral whales put paid to the objection, which you yourself encountered, that no transitional form between land and water could possibly have existed.

Perhaps the most remarkable set of intermediate fossils, however, come from an evolutionary transition rather closer to home. In 1871, you more predicted that, since humans seem most related to African great apes, gorillas and chimpanzees, we would find human fossils on that continent. And now we have them—in profusion! It turns out that our lineage separated from that of chimpanzees, our closest living relatives, nearly 7 million years ago, and we have a superb series of fossils documenting our transition from early apelike creatures to more modern human forms. Our own species has become an exemplar of evolution. And we know even more: evidence from our hereditary DNA material has told us that all modern humans came from a relatively recent migration event—about 100,000 years ago—when our ancestors left Africa and spread throughout the world.

The idea you were proudest of was natural selection. That too has had a good 150 years, holding up well as the main cause of evolution and the only known cause of adaptation. Perhaps the most dramatic modern example involves bacteria that are now known to cause disease, including the scarlet fever that was such a plague upon your family. Chemists have developed drugs to cure diseases like this, but now, as you might well predict, the microbes are becoming resistant to those drugs—precisely in accord with the principles of natural selection—for the most drug-resistant microbes are the ones that survive to breed. There are hundreds of other cases. One that will especially please you is the observation of natural selection in the Galápagos finches you collected in the Beagle voyage—now called “Darwin’s finches” in your honor. A few decades ago, zoologists observed a great drought on the islands that reduced the number of small seeds available for the birds to eat. And, just as predicted, natural selection caused the evolution of larger-beaked birds within only a few years. These examples would surely be a centerpiece of The Origin were you to rewrite it today.

All told, the resilience of your ideas is remarkable. But that is not to say that you got everything right. On The Origin of Species was, admit it, a misnomer. You described correctly how a single species changes through time, but you came a cropper trying to explain how one species splits into two. Speciation is a significant problem, because it underpins the branching process that has yielded the tree of life – that extraordinary vision you bequeathed us of the natural world as one vast genealogy. Speciation is the key to understanding how, starting with the very first species on earth, evolution has resulted in the 50 million species that are thought to inhabit our planet today.

You once called speciation the “mystery of mysteries,” but it’s a lot less mysterious these days. We recognize now that species are separated one from another by barriers to reproduction. That is, we recognize different species, like humans and chimpanzees, because they cannot successfully interbreed. To modern evolutionary biologists, studying “the origin of species” means studying how these barriers to reproduction arise. And now that we have a concrete phenomenon to investigate, we are making remarkable progress in understanding the genetic details of how one species splits into two. This is in fact the problem to which I’ve devoted my entire career

I wish I could end this letter by telling you that your theory of evolution has achieved universal acceptance. As you well knew, evolution has proved a bitter pill for religious people to swallow. For example, a large proportion of the American public, despite access to education, clings to a belief in the literal truth of Genesis. You will find this hard to believe, but more Americans believe in the existence of heavenly angels than accept the fact of evolution. Unfortunately, I must often put aside my research to fight the attempts of these “creationists” to have their Biblical views taught in the public schools. Humans have evolved extraordinary intellectual abilities, but sadly these are not always given a free rein by their owners. But this probably won’t surprise you – remember the Bishop of Oxford and his attempt to put your friend Thomas H. Huxley in his place?

You wrote in your introduction to The Origin of Species that

“No one can feel more sensible than I do of the necessity of hereafter publishing in detail all the facts, with references, on which my conclusions have been grounded; and I hope in a future work to do this.”

It seems that, distracted by other projects, you never got around to it, but my own effort along these lines is represented in a book (which I enclose) called Why Evolution is True. It goes further to describe the evidence supporting you than a letter this size ever could, but it’s just one book at just one moment in the history of biology. When I myself am as long gone as you are, somebody else will certainly need to write an update, for the facts supporting your theories continue to roll in, and I wager they will continue to do so.

So, rest in peace, Mr. Darwin, and here’s hoping that the next hundred years will see a steady evolution of rationality in a troubled world.

Your most humble servant,
Jerry Coyne

39 Comments

  1. Historian
    Posted November 24, 2018 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    You wrote a beautiful summary of how our understanding of evolution has advanced since Darwin’s day while giving him all due credit for his remarkable groundbreaking work.

    I wonder if there is anything you would add or amend since writing this document nine years ago.

    • rickflick
      Posted November 24, 2018 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

      I’m just now reading Who We Are and How We Got Here – Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past, by David Reich. It details the “whole genome” DNA analysis now being done on hundreds of fossils of humans and there several cousins. I think Darwin would be delighted to hear about all the developments, especially with regard to our Neanderthal cousins who had just been discovered during Darwin’s time.

  2. yazikus
    Posted November 24, 2018 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    Beautifully written.

  3. Blue
    Posted November 24, 2018 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    This is mahvewous, PCC( E ) ! Because of
    Dawhlingk Mr Darwin and because of reason and reality,
    I have years ago gone to celebrating as
    my endo’December – holiday, i n s t e a d,
    12 Februarys … … also of y1809,
    Mr Lincoln’s birthing day upon this side
    o’th’ Pond as well.

    Lovely.

    Blue

  4. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted November 24, 2018 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    Sub

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted November 24, 2018 at 10:30 am | Permalink

      Sub

      This means something!

  5. Carl S
    Posted November 24, 2018 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    Nicely done.

  6. Larry Smith
    Posted November 24, 2018 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    This was really very lovely and well done. I actually found myself tearing up in parts! Thank you for sharing.

  7. Randall Schenck
    Posted November 24, 2018 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    A great letter to the man responsible for our understanding. I must tell a short story still related to Darwin in a strange way. This weekend is the last formula one race of the season and the best driver and best car are on the poll. The driver, from England, said he was lucky to be on the evolutionary road with this car. To hear a race car driver use this term was a bit surprising but not really if you know the sport.

    The specific car that a driver uses this year will not be used again. A new car will be created for the new season as technology marches on. So in a way, it is an evolutionary experience, this formula one.

  8. Posted November 24, 2018 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    Such a fun read. I quite like the idea of updating the development in evolution science to Darwin post his work!

  9. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted November 24, 2018 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    A wonderful letter! I had wished to meet Gregor Mendel, and my fantasy for that meeting would be to show him any introductory biology text. There he would see his picture and his pea plants and the results of his crosses. I would like him to know that he had done good. Very good.

    • Don Mackay
      Posted November 24, 2018 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

      I am right with you on Mendel, my hero among the early biologists. I taught his work to my biology classes for nearly 40 years and never failed to be amazed by his insights and how he tested his hypotheses so assiduously with his breeding and crossing programs; genius and action working in harmony.

  10. mikeb
    Posted November 24, 2018 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    Them worms. Nice touch.

    I sometimes fantasize about explaining to Darwin the phenomenon of continental drift/ plate tectonics and its role in explaining the mysteries of geographical distribution.

    Wouldn’t the old boy smile!

  11. David Coxill
    Posted November 24, 2018 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    You had to tell him about the RNJs who don’t believe in evolution ,you could not let him lie in peace .Just joking ,a beautifully written letter .

    I think the discovery of the Hawkmoth with the long proboscis would have pleased him the most.

  12. Steve Kern
    Posted November 24, 2018 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    Lovely. Thank you.
    I passed along a copy of Jerry’s message to two faculty members of the Anthropology Department at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis with the following lead in…
    The story that you, Jerry, and others share with the world is an amazing one with vast and fascinating implications.
    Thank you!
    Steve Kern

  13. Debbie Coplan
    Posted November 24, 2018 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    BEAUTIFUL!

  14. Ken Kukec
    Posted November 24, 2018 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    That’s a nice piece of prose, boss. The hopefulness expressed in the penultimate paragraph is an especial source of jouissance (as that s.o.b. Lamarck’s countrymen might put it).

  15. Posted November 24, 2018 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Obscurum per obscurius and commented:
    Just Amazing!

  16. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted November 24, 2018 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    I wonder how much Darwin would want to know about his literary legacy.

    He is wonderfully played in the 2009 film “Creation” by Paul Bettany (with Darwin’s wife being played by PB’s real wife Jennifer Connelly). He is the subject of a literary biography “This Thing of Darkness” by Harry Thomspson (2005), and an earlier one by Irving Stone (who also wrote fictional bios of Van Gogh, Michelangelo, Freud, Mary Lincoln, etc.)

    Darwin lived long enough to see “Soapy” Samuel Wilberforce lampooned in Anthony Trollope’s “The Warden” but not enough to see him show up as a character in “he Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists” (2004) and the hilarious stage play “Darwin in Malibu” in which the ghosts of Darwin, Thomas Huxley, and Wilberforce are still arguing it out on a Malibu beach in California.

  17. Posted November 24, 2018 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    Great letter! It would be fun to read Darwin’s reply, as imagined by a modern evolutionary biologist of course.

  18. Mark R.
    Posted November 24, 2018 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    A beautifully written summary of Darwin’s original triumph and its continued validity and vigor. Thanks for sharing this.

  19. Posted November 24, 2018 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    Lovely letter. Thank you.

  20. Posted November 24, 2018 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    Excellent! I join the hope in the closing sentence.

  21. John J. Fitzgerald
    Posted November 24, 2018 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

    An excellent summary of Darwin’s main ideas. It would be quite useful to hand it to a defender of the mythological story as found in Genesis. It offers a critical and authoritative defense of what Darwin sought to do. Thanks for writing it.

    John J. Fitzgerald

  22. Posted November 24, 2018 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    A marvellous letter to Mr Darwin! I have the 1968 Pelican edition of the second and slightly revised printing of Origin of the Species (just a few months after the first). It’s a landmark work – all the more so when you consider he always thought of it as merely a summary of his thinking, pushed out in a hurry after he discovered Wallace was thinking along the same lines.

  23. Barbara Radcliffe
    Posted November 24, 2018 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    A great letter, thank you. I have just bought a book entitled ‘Darwin’s most wonderful plants’ by Ken Thompson which seeks to draw attention to Darwin’s botanical studies. I was mostly aware only of his work with worms, barnacles, birds and other animals so am looking forward to learning more about his studies.

  24. Claudia Baker
    Posted November 24, 2018 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

    Loved this! Thanks for sharing with us.

  25. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted November 24, 2018 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

    This is such a delightful format – writing a letter. And such a great way to capture only some of the strongest and what would be most exciting pieces of knowledge.

    I thought the Lenski experiment would have been crammed into the letter – I think that is a pretty amazing piece of work…

  26. Posted November 24, 2018 at 11:11 pm | Permalink

    Very good letter. Although Gregor Mendel sadly never got to see the response to his work, Darwin did. His book was reprinted numerous times and in numerous languages, he lived to see most biologists accept common descent, and he had a very large and active correspondence with biologists in many countries.

    • rickflick
      Posted November 24, 2018 at 11:30 pm | Permalink

      It’s satisfying to know he came to see the great success of his ideas.

  27. Graham
    Posted November 25, 2018 at 5:34 am | Permalink

    “remember the Bishop of Oxford and his attempt to put your friend Thomas H. Huxley in his place?”

    I regularly visit Oxford’s Natural History Museum. There is a plaque next to a private door declaring the room beyond to be the place where the Soapy Sam v Huxley debate took place.

    Last year I went on a guided tour of the museum, which ended on the other side of that private door. Finally a glimpse of that famous room, a chance to sit in contemplation and picture the rows of enthralled Victorians sitting there. What a let down, on entering to discover that the room had long ago been partitioned into mean little office and storage spaces. No chance at all to get a sense of what that space must have been like ‘back in the day’.

    • rickflick
      Posted November 25, 2018 at 6:19 am | Permalink

      Fear not the loss of the great room. It has been faithfully(I hope) reconstructed in a recent film:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cXq8LZ3b2YQ

      • Posted November 25, 2018 at 8:57 am | Permalink

        There is considerable doubt that Huxley made the famous retort. Or that the whole thing went on for only 5 minutes. Or that most everyone was seated — the session was packed. Joseph Hooker is described as giving the most effective response to Bishop Wilberforce, and both men spoke for more than a few sentences. See the Wikipedia page for “1860 Oxford Evolution Debate”. The video clip is apparently from a 2009 BBC show “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea”, inspired by Dan Dennett’s book.

        • rickflick
          Posted November 25, 2018 at 10:32 am | Permalink

          You should never let the truth stand between us and a good story. 😎

  28. Nicolaas Stempels
    Posted November 25, 2018 at 6:12 am | Permalink

    An excellent letter, summarising it so mnicely for Darwin.
    If he could rise from the grave (in a parallel universe?) he would be greatly pleased, I think.
    A little bit predictable though, but that shows you taught us well.

  29. Posted November 25, 2018 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    What a charming letter! I love the way you start it out with a bit of humor before comparing current knowledge to what was known it Darwin’s time, and I agree with your wish at the end.

  30. Posted November 26, 2018 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    Galileo says somewhere that the wonder of books is that they communicate across time and space. Darwin’s stuff too is for the ages, and adding to that “world of letters” (literally in this case) is wonderful.


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