Sunday, February 15, 2009

Darwin: An Apology

After getting harangued by various people over one of my earlier posts, I feel the need for a mea culpa. So here goes:

1) I may have given the impression that I attach little value to the letter from Darwin to O.C. Marsh which is housed in YPM’s archives and that this is an item of limited significance. Not so, points out one of my colleagues. Darwin’s letter was written at a time when critics of his theory were questioning to apparent absence of evolutionary intermediates. Far from being “yet another” piece of supporting evidence, the timing of Marsh’s discovery of fossil birds with teeth was actually very important to the growing acceptance of the existence of evolution. As for the letter itself, the fact that Darwin was a prodigious correspondent who wrote tens of thousands of letters in his lifetime does not diminish the value of any individual letter. There are lots of gold nuggets in the world but this does not mean you shouldn’t be excited about owning one yourself.

2) In quoting a joking comment from a fellow British paleontologist about an apparent Darwin “personality cult” among American evolutionary biologists, I may have given the impression that we “cynical Brits” aren’t as excited about the Darwin Bicentenary as our American cousins. Not so, points out Carl Zimmer, who reminds me that Britain is in the midst of a massive “Darwin 200” celebration, involving heavy press coverage, books, exhibitions, lecture series, and a wealth of other public activities to celebrate the birth of a genuine British genius. Also, I was reminded by others, Darwin’s birthday provides an annual rallying point for scientists in a country where a surprising number of people still do not accept the existence of evolution and where it’s teaching in public schools is repeatedly challenged.

3) In commenting, shortly before midnight on February 11, that I was “off to bed” rather than staying up to drink a toast to Darwin, I may have given the impression that I was a curmudgeon and a “Darwin-hater.” Not so, say I. I happened to be at a Darwin Birthday Party last night, one which I attend every year and greatly enjoy. I will, however, confess to being more of a Wallace man myself. This is mostly because much of my early research was done on the evolution and biogeography of mammals from New Guinea and the Moluccas, which was Wallace’s old stamping ground. I think the Malay Archipelago is a great book, which too few people read (it has a picture of a cuscus in it, which should make anyone want to rush out and buy a copy), and I would highly recommend anyone who’s enjoyed the Origin of Species to try Wallace’s work as well. But you can be a fan of Wallace and still appreciate the genius of Darwin, as I do.

I’ll also expand on a response that I gave to a commentator on the post to prove that I am as moved by all of this Bicentennial activity as any of you. Some years ago, I was an assistant curator in the Zoological Collections of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. The Museum housed the collections of Thomas Bell (1792-1880), a British naturalist who was given the responsibility of describing the specimens collected by Darwin during the voyage of the Beagle; Darwin’s Crustacea, which Bell never got around to publishing, ended up in the collections in Oxford. I remember sitting in the collections looking at a drawer of dried crabs, each of which had tied to one leg a small metal tag with an embossed field number on it. The realization that Darwin had tied these tags on, perhaps while sitting in his cabin on the Beagle, surrounded by the notes and observations that eventually formed the foundation of his later theories, was really quite moving. Even for a Brit.


  1. Good for you for tweaking people--don't get too defensive. Remember the saying "when you meet Buddha, kill him." The cult of personality, however justified, can stifle free inquiry.

    Did you hear about the cabinet of Wallace's specimens that recently showed up in the DC area? Some guy with a penchant for collecting furniture bought a rosewood cabinet ages and ages ago, which happened to be filled with tag ends of 19th century natural history specimens. When he finally got around to having the handwriting on the tags analyzed--yah, you guessed it. Hope some suitable repository can raise the $$ to buy it off him.

    So as a Wallace man, how do you feel about him going a bit dotty at the end, about the paranormal and spirituality? Reactions to the challenge of his science to his faith/ Ill health? A depressing lapse into superstition...

  2. All people are entitled to get a bit odd as they get older. The problem with museums is that many (most?) of their staff are odd to start off with...