At last! Every every known photograph of Darwin on one wonderful site

February 12, 2023 • 9:15 am

John van Wyhe is a historian of science at the University of Singapore, specializing in Darwin and Wallace. Beside his many books he’s known for creating the ultimate Darwin source: Darwin Online, with all of CD’s manuscripts, publications, biographical data—everything but his correspondence, which you can find at Cambridge’s Darwin Correspondence Project. van Wyhe is also known for research that dispelled two persistent myths about Darwin: that he delayed publishing On the Origin of Species because of his fear of public reaction, and that he delayed telling people about A. R. Wallace’s 1858 letter detailing Wallace’s independent discovery of evolution via natural selection—supposedly because Darwin wanted to withhold credit from Wallace (van Wyhe debunked this by tracing the mailboats on which the letter would have traveled.) Both of those claims are bunk but are still repeated, especially by creationists and Darwin-bashers.

van Wyhe’s own bio is online at the site; and about two days ago, just in time for Darwin Day, he announced the creation of a page that brings together in one place every known photograph of Darwin (there aren’t many, but there are some I hadn’t seen). Here’s van Wyhe’s announcement on FB:

If you click on the headline below, you’ll go to the page, and take a few minutes to peruse the Great Man’s visage on his birthday.  John’s site is a goldmine for teachers preparing lectures on Darwin and evolution, an the captions of the photos (which I’ve truncated) and all the variants show meticulous scholarship.

I’ll put up a few photos from the page in chronological order; indented captions are by van Wyhe. A few bits from the introductory section:

This is by far the most complete and accurate catalogue of photographs of Darwin ever published. It includes a dozen discovered during the many years of research for this study. The list includes more details about each photograph than previously published, such as dates, prices, the photographers and comments by Darwin or others on how the photographs were originally received. And, unprecedentedly, it includes details of all known variants produced to the early 20th century—more than 300. This is how Darwin’s appearance become so well known to the public during the 19th century and after.

It is well known that Darwin declined a request to be photographed with A.R. Wallace to illustrate a German translation of the 1858 Linnean papers (F365). (A.B. Meyer to Darwin 24 Nov. 1869 CCD17:497.) Darwin replied that Meyer was welcome to include a photograph “But I am not willing to sit on purpose; it is what I hate doing & wastes a whole day owing to my weak health; and to sit with another person would cause still more trouble & delay …

Despite Darwin’s oft-expressed aversion to sitting for photographs, this catalogue reveals that from 1865 he would be photographed every year or alternate year for the remainder of his life except for perhaps 1875-77. It was common practice at the time to sit for a more up-to-date photograph to send to friends and correspondents. In comparison, Emma Darwin was photographed much less. A list of all known photographs and portraits of her are listed in a separate iconography in Darwin: A Companion, 2021.

. . . His personal appearance was also very consistent after the 1860s with a mostly bald head and full, bushy white beard. A 30 May 1935 letter from his son Leonard Darwin in the Robert M. Stecher Collection at Case Western Reserve University accompanying an autographed copy of Rejlander 1871d.1 states: “I think [the photo] was taken somewhere about 1870; but this is a mere guess. He always looked old for his age. It might be rather later.” Louisa A’hmuty Nash, a neighbour (1873-9) and friend of the Darwins at Down, recalled: “Those eyebrows used to trouble his wife when his photograph was taken: she used to say the photographers gave him no eyes at all.” (A223) Some of the dates adopted here might be further revised in future. And there are probably further exposures from sittings already known.

The photos (captions excerpted from site:

1842 Aug. 23 Seated half-length three-quarter right profile daguerreotype with first child William Erasmus on his lap by Antoine-François-Jean Claudet (1797-1867), 18 King William Street, Strand and Coliseum, called The Royal Adelaide Gallery. Only known daguerreotype of Darwin and the only ‘photographic’ image of him with another person.

It’s curious that this is the only photograph of Darwin with anybody else; there are no “family photos” besides this, nor any photos of Darwin with his wife Emma.

1855 Seated half-length, full face in embroidered waistcoat, by Maull & Polyblank for the Literary and Scientific Portrait Club. The Club was “instituted for the purpose of attaining a uniform set of portraits of the literary and scientific men of the present age at a moderate cost.”


[Same photo] Photogravure (slightly cropped on all sides) image considerably ‘cleaned up’ and edited, looking very fine.

1857 Almost full-length seated left profile, checked trousers, waistcoat and cravat, by Maull & Polyblank whose partnership was 1854-65.

Maull & Polyblank 1857. (Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia)

1864 Three photographs by William Erasmus Darwin. The first photographs with beard.

Three-quarter left profile.

He’d aged considerably in seven years; this was around the time The Origin was published.

1865 Nov. Three photographs by Ernest Edwards. Taken in London. There was presumably a fourth. The first photograph was extremely widely reproduced. Darwin paid £1 for “E. Edwards Photo” on 2 Mar. 1866.

c.1866 Darwin on his cob Tommy in front of Down House, by Leonard Darwin. Sometimes dated to 1866 (when Tommy was acquired) or 1867 and very often to 1868, based on the annotation on the verso of the copy in CUL.

I hadn’t seen this photo of Darwin on a horse!

1866 Apr. 24 [One of] Four photographs by Ernest Edwards. Taken in London. Darwin paid Edwards £3 8s. 6d. on 5 Sept. 1866. Classed account book, Down House. Janet Browne, Power of place, 2002, p. 363, noted that during 1866 Darwin “paid out a total of £14 in small sums for photographs, nearly doubling his overall costs for “Science” that year”.

1868 Jul.-Aug. Four photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron; taken at Freshwater, Isle of Wight in two sittings.

1871a-b Two photographs by Oscar Gustav Rejlander. 1 Albert Mansions, Victoria Street, London. These two have almost never been reproduced.

1878a Three-quarter right profile, seated in a Down House chair (according to some sources), by Leonard Darwin. W.E. Darwin wrote in 1909 that the photograph was taken in Basset, Southampton, which is where he, W.E. Darwin, lived. Darwin stayed there from Apr. 27-May 13 1878.

1878b Full-length left profile, seated in a basket chair on the verandah at Down House by Leonard Darwin.

c.1880 Two photographs by Elliott & Fry. Some modern works claim 1879, 1880 or 1881 or that these are the last photographs of Darwin. No contemporary datings have been found.

1881 Four photographs by Elliott & Fry. This well-known sitting includes the only known photographs of Darwin standing. The BMNH exhibition of 1909 included all four photographs, dating them 1882. Sometimes dated by modern writers to 1880.

1881 (one of the above). One of the two images published as a cabinet card of Emma Darwin by Barraud, possibly done on the same day, is dated 1881

I believe the four above are the last photos of Darwin taken when he was alive; he died at home in Downe on April 19, 1882. He was only 73, but, as you see, looked much older. Hard work and an unknown ailment that plagued him much of his life had taken its toll. Wikipedia’s account of his death:

In 1882 he was diagnosed with what was called “angina pectoris” which then meant coronary thrombosis and disease of the heart. At the time of his death, the physicians diagnosed “anginal attacks”, and “heart-failure”; there has since been scholarly speculation about his life-long health issues.

He died at Down House on 19 April 1882. His last words were to his family, telling Emma “I am not the least afraid of death—Remember what a good wife you have been to me—Tell all my children to remember how good they have been to me”. While she rested, he repeatedly told Henrietta and Francis “It’s almost worth while to be sick to be nursed by you”.

He had expected to be buried in St Mary’s churchyard at Downe, but at the request of Darwin’s colleagues, after public and parliamentary petitioning, William Spottiswoode (President of the Royal Society) arranged for Darwin to be honoured by burial in Westminster Abbey, close to John Herschel and Isaac Newton. The funeral, held on Wednesday 26 April, was attended by thousands of people, including family, friends, scientists, philosophers and dignitaries.

A tweet from Adam Rutherford showing Darwin’s memorial stone in Westminster Abbey; he’s buried beneath it. It’s easy to miss, so if you go looking for the stone, look carefully:

From van Wyhe’s site: Darwin’s beloved wife Emma:

1881. One of the two images published as a cabinet card of Emma Darwin by Barraud, possibly done on the same day, is dated 1881.

[Addendum by Greg Mayer: Jerry alerted me to this valuable addition to Darwin Online yesterday, and I had a chance to look though it then. It is wonderful– in the original meaning of being full of wonders! It has the incredibly precise attention to detail and context that characterizes all of John’s work, but also reveals, even in a catalog of photos, his grasp of the big picture of why Darwin is worth studying and how we can still learn so much about him.

The news of the site came at an opportune time. I had been attempting to track down the date of a photo that I show to students in my evolution class, and Google image search wasn’t working properly. But with The Complete Photographs of Darwin, I quickly determined that it’s 1878a, taken by Leonard Darwin!

Once again Darwin scholarship in particular, and evolutionary biology and the history of science in general, are in debt to John van Wyhe. Darwin Online is now more indispensable than ever.

(Jerry mentioned two of John’s more notable contributions, concerning Darwin’s “delay” and the receipt of Wallace’s initial manuscript on natural selection. Here are his original papers on those two topics– both well worth reading.

van Wyhe, J. 2007. Mind the gap: did Darwin avoid publishing his theory for many years? Notes and Records of the Royal Society 61:177-205. full text

van Wyhe, J., and K. Rookmaker. 2012. A new theory to explain the receipt of Wallace’s Ternate Essay by Darwin in 1858. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 106:249-252. pdf )]

Readers’ wildlife photos

August 19, 2022 • 8:00 am

Much of Darwin’s work and thought was on plants, and today’s submission, by Philip Griffiths, has a Darwinian theme. His notes are indented, and you can enlarge the photos by clicking on them.

I enclose some pictures of Purple loosestrife, Lythrum salicaria, which is plentiful in my local park in central Newcastle upon Tyne (UK) at this time of year. Not only is it a beautiful flower with rumpled purple purple petals that look as though somebody forget to iron them, but it should be significant to readers of Why Evolution is True.

Charles Darwin wrote to Asa Gray  I am stark staring mad over over Lythrum. For the love of heaven have a look at some of your species and if you can get me some seed, do!  He wrote this after voyages to the Galápagos Islands and after his major work on orchids, so it must have been something that really caught his attention. Also, Purple loosestrife is pretty ubiquitous now, so I wonder if that was not the case in Darwin’s day.

What caught Darwin’s attention was the presence of three morphs, with each flower having one:

1) A short styled morph that has medium length stamens with yellow anthers and long stamens with greenish anthers. [Stamens are the pollen-produce male parts of a flower.]
2) A medium styled morph which has short stamens with yellow anthers and long stamens with greenish anthers.
3) A long styled morph with short and medium stamens.

The short-styled morph:

Medium-styled morph:

Long-styled morph:

To sum up, there are three different lengths of style [the female organ that receives the pollen for ferilization], and each is accompanied by two sets of five stamens that are of different length, so you never see a flower whose style and stamens are of the same length.

Darwin realised that this was a mechanism to encourage outcrossing. Each style is preferentially fertilised by stamens of the same length as itself and they are not to be found in the same plant. Thus a seed must be produced by pollen from a different flower.

Perhaps the three morphs (rather than two as in Primroses) increase the probability of successful outcrossing because two out of three morphs can pollinate a given flower rather than simply one out of two.

I am conscious I am ‘teaching my my grandmother to suck eggs’ here and I know the story is more complicated than I have outlined. Anyway, the flowers are beautiful this time of year and it is worth looking closely with magnification.

Darwin’s modernity in “The Origin”: anticipating the neutral theory and punctuated equilibrium

July 1, 2022 • 9:15 am

Two days ago I wrote a critique of a new article in the Guardian, an article claiming that the modern theory of evolution is obsolete. To support this claim, author Stephen Buranyi asserted  that there are new areas of research—areas like the “neutral theory”, the importance of epigenetics and niche construction, and Gould and Eldredge’s theory of “punctuated equilibrium” that proposed a novel mechanism for a “jerky” fossil record—that have made the modern theory of evolution outdated and, in fact, pretty much obsolete.

Although these ideas were novel and expanded the ambit of evolutionary research, with the neutral theory gaining prominence in the Sixties and punctuated equilibrium in the Seventies and Eighties (culminating with Gould’s big 2002 book, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory), I want to show here that both of these ideas had at least been considered by Darwin.

That is, in the first edition of On the Origin of Species in 1859, Darwin mentioned that some “variations” (he meant what we called “the result of mutations”) could have no effect on survival or reproduction, and therefore whose fate would be determined by the vagaries of chance. This is what the neutral theory, made prominent by Tomoko Ohta and Motoo Kimura, and now by people like Mike Lynch, really asserts, and we have a sophisticated mathematical theory about the fate and effect of neutral mutations.

Further, in The Origin Darwin not only mentions the possibility of a “punctuated” fossil record—in which nothing changes for a long time and then there are bouts of rapid change—but also floats a theory that bears a striking similarity to Gould’s mechanism for that pattern.  Mind you, Darwin’s thoughts on these issues were not the inspiration for either the neutral theory or punctuated equilibrium, but they were already in Darwin’s mind before 1859. This shows that there’s nothing totally new under the evolutionary sun, but also how smart Darwin was.

Here’s my beat-up copy of the first edition of The Origin, which I believe I bought in graduate school. As you see, it’s been well read and mended with tape. I still go through the first edition, though in a different physical book, once every few years.

Over the years, as I reread that copy, I noted on the back cover where Darwin had anticipated modern ideas. Here I’ll talk about just two: “neutral characters” and “punctuated equilibrium”. But you see that there are other “modern” ideas that Darwin discussed in 1859, like allopatric speciation and kin selection. If you have this book, which is probably out of print, you can use the page numbers below to see what he said.

So, on to the two topics.


Here’s what the Guardian says about neutral theory:

Doolittle and his allies, such as the computational biologist Arlin Stoltzfus, are descendants of the scientists who challenged the modern synthesis from the late 60s onwards by emphasising the importance of randomness and mutation.

And below are two bits from The Origin about variations that are “neutral”, i.e.m “are of no service or disservice to the species” (he means “individual”). I’ve put Darwin’s musing on neutral variations in bold.

Chapter II (2)

There is one point connected with individual differences, which seems to me extremely perplexing: I refer to those genera which have sometimes been called “protean” or “polymorphic,” in which the species present an inordinate amount of variation; and hardly two naturalists can agree which forms to rank as species and which as varieties. We may instance Rubus, Rosa, and Hieracium amongst plants, several genera of insects, and several genera of Brachiopod shells. In most polymorphic genera some of the species have fixed and definite characters. Genera which are polymorphic in one country seem to be, with some few exceptions, polymorphic in other countries, and likewise, judging from Brachiopod shells, at former periods of time. These facts seem to be very perplexing, for they seem to show that this kind of variability is independent of the conditions of life. I am inclined to suspect that we see in these polymorphic genera variations in points of structure which are of no service or disservice to the species, and which consequently have not been seized on and rendered definite by natural selection, as hereafter will be explained.

Chapter IV

HOW will the struggle for existence, discussed too briefly in the last chapter, act in regard to variation? Can the principle of selection, which we have seen is so potent in the hands of man, apply in nature? I think we shall see that it can act most effectually. Let it be borne in mind in what an endless number of strange peculiarities our domestic productions, and, in a lesser degree, those under nature, vary; and how strong the hereditary tendency is. Under domestication, it may be truly said that the whole organisation becomes in some degree plastic. Let it be borne in mind how infinitely complex and close-fitting are the mutual relations of all organic beings to each other and to their physical conditions of life. Can it, then, be thought improbable, seeing that variations useful to man have undoubtedly occurred, that other variations useful in some bering that many more individuals are born than can possibly survive) that individuals having any advantage, however slight, over others, would have the best chance of surviving and of procreating their kind? On the other hand, we may feel sure that any variation in the least degree injurious would be rigidly destroyed. This preservation of favourable variations and the rejection of injurious variations, I call Natural Selection. Variations neither useful nor injurious would not be affected by natural selection, and would be left a fluctuating element, as perhaps we see in the species called polymorphic.



Here’s what the Guardian article says about punctuated equilibrium:

Other assaults on evolutionary orthodoxy followed. The influential palaeontologists Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge argued that the fossil record showed evolution often happened in short, concentrated bursts; it didn’t have to be slow and gradual.

But as I emphasized in my critique, Gould and Eldredge’s pattern of a “jerky” fossil record was really supplemented, extended, and publicized by Gould in later writings. The theory got a lot of attention not just because a fossil record of stasis and episodic change (if real and ubiquitous) shows that evolution isn’t as gradual as Darwin or others thought, but because Gould posited a novel, almost non-Darwinian mechanism for that change. If you don’t want to read about this complex mechanism, just skip down to the bold part labeled RESUME READING. 

The mechanism, in short, is this.  Populations of a species become geographically isolated and thus diverge genetically. (This is the first step of the process of speciation that we call “allopatric speciation”, thought by most to be the main way new species arise.) According to Gould, the divergence isn’t really due to natural selection, but to a process of either neutral or maladaptive variants coming to predominate via genetic drift in different populations. (He also posited that many of these variants are “macromutations”: mutations of very large effect, but we’ll leave that erroneous assumption aside.)

Maladaptive mutations are important because they require, to be “fixed” in a group, a small population as well as very strong genetic drift. Such drift can in fact lead maladaptive mutations to predominate in populations, overcoming natural selection that would normally eliminate them. When these mutations predominate—Gould used the example of “Galton’s polyhedron”, a solid that can be pushed and pushed, and suddenly falls on another face that represents a new species—they can then cause reproductive isolation when the new populations hybridizes with others. That reproductive isolation is the most important aspect of speciation.

This is complicated, but take my word for it.

Finally, the new, small population that has new traits and is reproductively isolated from related populations, simply expands and takes over the whole group, a form of “species selection”.  This is not Darwinian “individual or genic selection” because the traits of the expanding population itself (and their underlying genes) are not fitter than the traits of other populations. Instead, the expanding small population has for other reasons either an increased chance of producing new species or a reduced probability of extinction.

This process, said Gould, explains the jerky fossil record. The evolutionary change in the small population isn’t seen in the fossil record because a small population has a small chance of being seen in the fossil record. But when it supplanted all the other populations, it did so rapidly, and that’s why the fossil record is jerky.  Most of the time all the populations of a species are changing in different ways, which average out to “no big change overall” seen in fossils, but when the newly isolated population takes over, then we see big change in the fossil record.

I argued with Gould about this in the literature; one problem is that Gould often denied what he’d said before in print, and never specified a unified, coherent mechanism for punctuated change in a single place. (To see one exchange we had in the literature, go here.)

As I said, there are huge problems with this mechanism, as both the “valley crossing” and “species selection” are very unlikely to happen often, much less often enough to explain ubiquitous jerky patterns. Gould’s mechanistic speculations haven’t stood the test of time, and I haven’t heard them discussed for many years in evolutionary biology (for critiques, see here). Further, there are two other and more parsimonious explanations for a jerky fossil record. The first is that the deposition of sediments itself, which is where we can find fossils, is episodic, with some periods of rapid sedimentation alternating with periods of little sediment formation. Even if evolution were continuous and gradual, this would make it look jerky.

Second—and nobody doubts this, either—natural selection itself varies in strength and direction, and that can cause a jerky patten, too. The classic example is the 1977 drought in the Galápagos islands in  that caused evolutionary change by actually killing the smaller individuals of the medium ground finch by making them unable to eat big seeds. This form of natural selection, documented by Peter and Rosemary Grant and their colleagues, was the subject of the Pulitzer-Prize-winning book The Beak of the Finch (1994) by Jon Weiner.  But after one year the rains came again, the small plants with smaller seeds grew, and finch beak size returned to normal. Here we see an episodic example of natural selection that caused a rapid change (an increase of 10% in beak size in a single generation!) followed by a reversal of that selection.

Even if the fossil record shows an episodic pattern, then, this does not buttress Gould’s convoluted and unlikely mechanism of evolutionary change. People often forget that it is Gould’s novel mechanism, involving macromutations, genetic drift, maladaptive evolution, and species selection, that gave punctuated equilibrium much of its cachet. But evolutionists have no problem with a fossil pattern showing fast evolution during some periods and not much change during others. That does not conflict with the modern theory of evolution.


I was struck when reading The Origin that Darwin gives not only the “episodic sedimentation” explanation for an uneven fossil record, but also comes close to Gould’s “spread of an isolated population” explanation. Here are two excerpts from the latter part of the book showing this. I’ve put the relevant parts in bold.

Chapter IX

One other consideration is worth notice: with animals and plants that can propagate rapidly and are not highly locomotive, there is reason to suspect, as we have formerly seen, that their varieties are generally at first local; and that such local varieties do not spread widely and supplant their parent-forms until they have been modified and perfected in some considerable degree. According to this view, the chance of discovering in a formation in any one country all the early stages of transition between any two forms, is small, for the successive changes are supposed to have been local or confined to some one spot. Most marine animals have a wide range; and we have seen that with plants it is those which have the widest range, that oftenest present varieties; so that with shells and other marine animals, it is probably those which have had the widest range, far exceeding the limits of the known geological formations of Europe, which have oftenest given rise, first to local varieties and ultimately to new species; and this again would greatly lessen the chance of our being able to trace the stages of transition in any one geological formation.

It should not be forgotten, that at the present day, with perfect specimens for examination, two forms can seldom be connected by intermediate varieties and thus proved to be the same species, until many specimens have been collected from many places; and in the case of fossil species this could rarely be effected by palæontologists. We shall, perhaps, best perceive the improbability of our being enabled to connect species by numerous, fine, intermediate, fossil links, by asking ourselves whether, for instance, geologists at some future period will be able to prove, that our different breeds of cattle, sheep, horses, and dogs have descended from a single stock or from several aboriginal stocks; or, again, whether certain sea-shells inhabiting the shores of North America, which are ranked by some conchologists as distinct species from their European representatives, and by other conchologists as only varieties, are really varieties or are, as it is called, specifically distinct. This could be effected only by the future geologist discovering in a fossil state numerous intermediate gradations; and such success seems to me improbable in the highest degree.

Chapter XIV

Only organic beings of certain classes can be preserved in a fossil condition, at least in any great number. Widely ranging species vary most, and varieties are often at first local,—both causes rendering the discovery of intermediate links less likely. Local varieties will not spread into other and distant regions until they are considerably modified and improved; and when they do spread, if discovered in a geological formation, they will appear as if suddenly created there, and will be simply classed as new species. Most formations have been intermittent in their accumulation; and their duration, I am inclined to believe, has been shorter than the average duration of specific forms. Successive formations are separated from each other by enormous blank intervals of time; for fossiliferous formations, thick enough to resist future degradation, can be accumulated only where much sediment is deposited on the subsiding bed of the sea. During the alternate periods of elevation and of stationary level the record will be blank. During these latter periods there will probably be more variability in the forms of life; during periods of subsidence, more extinction.

With respect to the absence of fossiliferous formations beneath the lowest Silurian strata, I can only recur to the hypothesis given in the ninth chapter. That the geological record is imperfect all will admit; but that it is imperfect to the degree which I require, few will be inclined to admit. If we look to long enough intervals of time, geology plainly declares that all species have changed; and they have changed in the manner which my theory requires, for they have changed slowly and in a graduated manner. We clearly see this in the fossil remains from consecutive formations invariably being much more closely related to each other, than are the fossils from formations distant from each other in time.

In the last paragraph Darwin hews to the well-known “gradualism”, to which he admitted no exception. The jerky patterns in the fossil record he ascribes to either an incomplete fossil record or to straight natural selection, with the spread throughout a species of adaptive variants arising in isolated populations.

As I said, these musings didn’t have any influence on Kimura or Gould, but they do show that Darwin was already thinking about neutral variations and about a punctuated fossil record well before he published this stuff in 1859.

The breadth and originality of Darwin’s thinking is one reason why everyone should read The Origin,  even if its Victorian prose is sometimes daunting. (The chapter on “hybridism”, for example, is a real slog.) But I hope I don’t sound pretentious if I say that a person cannot be considered properly educated if they haven’t read Darwin’s great work—ideally the first edition so you can get a full flavor of how revolutionary it was.


Condolence letters to Darwin’s family released on the 140th anniversary of his death

April 21, 2022 • 2:00 pm

April 19 was the 140th anniversary of Darwin’s death, and the wonderful “Darwin Online” project, which presents virtually everything the man ever wrote, has released a bunch of messages received by the Darwin family after his death.  Kudos to John van Wyhe, who curates this project and sent out a notice that this material has been released.

Below is the site’s introduction to the many letters, of which I reproduce but a few (via links) below:

2022, 04.19

On the occasion of the 140th anniversary of Darwin’s death, we are providing the Darwin family’s collection of letters and telegrams from his relatives, friends, contemporaries and institutions at home and abroad upon the news of his death in 1882. The messages, addressed to the Darwin family, expressed grief and sorrow, offered condolences, reminiscences and tributes to the scientific figure who had transformed our understanding of the world forever. Over ninety of these letters reveal intimate and personal sentiments felt by the sender. These have been transcribed for the first time, only on Darwin Online.

Click on the link below to access them all.

Here are some notable letters from Darwin’s friends and colleagues, as well as people whom he influenced (with links):

Galton, Francis. 1882.04.20. Letter to George Howard Darwin. Text & image CUL-DAR215.7h

Haeckel, Ernst. 1882.04.24. Letter to Francis Darwin. Text & image CUL-DAR215.8a

Huxley Thomas Henry. 1882.04.21. Letter to Francis Darwin. Text & image CUL-DAR215.10k

Huxley, T. H. 1882.04.22. Letter to George Howard Darwin. Text & image CUL-DAR215.6c

Hooker, Joseph Dalton. 1882.04.21. Letter to Francis Darwin. Text & image CUL-DAR215.10i

Hooker, Joseph Dalton. 1882.04.29. Letter to William Erasmus and George Howard Darwin. Text & image CUL-DAR215.10j

Murray, John. [1882].04.24. Letter to William Erasmus Darwin. Text & image CUL-DAR215.10p

Murray was Darwin’s publisher, which included the various editions of On the Origin of Species

Papé, Charlotte. 1882.04.21. Letter to [Francis] Darwin. Text & image CUL-DAR215.7k

Romanes, George John. 1882.04.22. Letter to Francis Darwin. Text & image CUL-DAR215.8e

Gray, Asa. 1882.04.23. Letter to Francis Darwin. Text & image CUL-DAR215.10h 

Students, Agricultural Academy in Petrovsky, Moscow. 1882.04.24. Telegram to Francis Darwin. Text & image CUL-DAR215.12l

Vries, Hugo de. 1882.04.25. Letter to Francis Darwin. Text & image CUL-DAR215.9i

Moscow University Geological Department. 1882.04.28. Letter to George Howard Darwin. Text & image CUL-DAR215.11o


Tuesday: Hili dialogue

April 5, 2022 • 6:03 am

Jerry is in transit so his British amanuensis is filling in. Normal service will soon be resumed.

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili is pondering the fundamental question of cat existence.
A: What are you waiting for?
Hili: I’m thinking whether to go in or out.
Ja: Na co czekasz?
Hili: Zastanawiam się, czy wejść, czy wyjść.


Apart from the horror of the war, the big news of the day is that two of Darwin’s notebooks, including one with the famous ‘I think’ diagram in it, have been mysteriously returned safe and sound to Cambridge University library, together with this enigmatic note:


Here’s Dr Jessica Gardner, one of the librarians, with one of the notebooks:
No one knows who the culprit is. Adam Rutherford denies all knowledge:

On the origin of the specious: Jesuit magazine says that Darwin was both an evolutionist and an advocate of “intelligent design”

February 23, 2022 • 10:45 am

The article below (click on screenshot), is from the magazine America, a “Jesuit Review”. and it’s by Christopher Sandford, a writer who, while he may be religious, is certainly no padre. Here’s his bio from MacMillan:

Christopher Sandford has published acclaimed biographies of Kurt Cobain, Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, Imran Khan, Harold Macmillan, John F. Kennedy, Steve McQueen, and Roman Polanski. He is also the author of Masters of Mystery: The Strange Friendship of Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini. He has worked as a film and music writer and reviewer for over 20 years, and frequently contributes to newspapers and magazines on both sides of the Atlantic. Rolling Stone has called him “the pre-eminent author in his field today.” Sandford divides his time between Seattle and London.

But the article below, with its provocative title, suggests expertise in the history of science. Sadly, little is evident in the piece, as Sandford is setting up a straw man and then burning it down.

Click on the screenshot to read:

What he means by saying that we’re reading Darwin “all wrong” is that we read Darwin as an icon of atheism, a man who had no truck with any species of the divine, and deliberately designed his works to demolish the idea of God. As I’ll show below, that’s not true. Darwin simply didn’t care much about God so long as he could explain biological design by a theory that didn’t invoke God.

Sandford also states that, after writing the Origin, Darwin had two ideas in his head at the same time: a materialistic evolution but also one mixed with some intelligent design.  This is not true. Insofar as Darwin thought of “intelligent design,” he merely suggested in passing that perhaps the “laws of the universe” were designed. He rejected the idea of God held by his contemporaries (see below). We know this because Darwin told us this. He was at best an agnostic.

But he was also canny: he knew very well the implications of evolution for the religious—the implications of giving a purely materialistic explanation for phenomena that for several millennia had been seen as the strongest evidence for God: design in nature. This is why Darwin devoted only a single weaselly sentence to human evolution in The Origin: “Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history”.

But then he put his cards on the table in 1871 with the publication of The Descent of Man.  But his continuing reluctance to discuss the theological implications of his theory is simply because he wanted his theory to be accepted, and accepted by people who were Bible-believing Christians. This reluctance has been interpreted by some as equivocation, but is seen by Sandford is seen as Darwin believing both in evolution and “intelligent design.”

Sandford’s thesis is summed up in a paragraph near the end (my bolding):

For many people today, Darwin has become a sort of secular deity, an icon for atheism who at a stroke swept away the antediluvian superstitions of his age and ushered in an invigorating new era of scientific logic and rationalism. A close reading of On the Origin of Species, however, strongly suggests that the work was not only an argument against the concept of miraculous creation but also a theist’s case for the presence of intelligent design, broadly in keeping with Albert Einstein’s subsequent aphorism that “God does not play dice with the universe.”

Well, those who see Darwin as an icon for atheism have some justification, for he is an icon for atheism by having replaced divine explanations with materialistic ones. But the last sentence, implying that there was intelligent design in the universe, is not justified by Darwin’s writings. He rejected the idea of a personal God, and as for a Higher Power who created the laws of Nature, Darwin was pretty mute. This letter to Asa Gray in 1860 shows that while Darwin rejected a beneficent God, he just didn’t know if there was any higher power. Bolding in the quote below is mine:

With respect to the theological view of the question; this is always painful to me.— I am bewildered.— I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I shd wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice. Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed. On the other hand I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe & especially the nature of man, & to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance. Not that this notion at all satisfies me. I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton.—   Let each man hope & believe what he can.—

Now one could, as Sandford apparently does, take the words “designed laws” as evidence for a higher power who designed those laws. I’m not so sure, for in the next sentence Darwin famously punts, saying that he gives up on the whole subject as “too profound for the human intellect”—”a dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton   . . ”  (That’s an excellent sentence!) I think Darwin just didn’t want to discuss the theological underpinnings of his theory because he wasn’t interested in theology and couldn’t come to any answers about gods.  In that sense, he was a true agnostic, and it’s proper to read him as such.

And, as we see below, while Darwin still believed in “laws” towards the end of his life, the idea that they were “designed” laws seems to have disappeared.

Yet Sandford makes several game tries to show that Darwin was more than just a straight-up agnostic. For example, Sandford says this:

To take another example: Charles Darwin himself would almost certainly not have endorsed the views of many of his spiritual heirs today that the biblical story of creation and the evolution of the physical universe are mutually exclusive rather than twin manifestations of a divine act of self-revelation.

Note Sandford’s claim that Darwin wouldn’t have seen “the biblical story of creation” and the “evolution of the physical universe” as mutually exclusive. That’s almost certainly wrong: Darwin’s Origin was “one long argument” against the biblical story of creation. Time after time he compares what one would expect to see in the biological world if biblical creationism be true, and he shows that you don’t see that: you see what you’d expect if evolution be true.

As for “twin manifestations of a divine act of self-revelation,” I don’t know what that means. Either the Biblical story is true or it’s not. It’s not, and, as far as we know, Darwin’s theory of evolution was true. And how did “a possibly divine origin of the laws of physics” suddenly turn into an acceptance of “the biblical story of creation”?

Sandford also, for some reason, lays at Darwin’s feet the use of his theory by eugenicists, particularly Hitler:

“With savages,” Darwin wrote, in perhaps the most striking passage in the text,

the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated. We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination. We build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed. The aid we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy.

This passage is not perhaps what most modern adherents of Darwinian thought have in mind when extolling their hero’s rigorously materialist approach to evolutionary biology. Nor, to be fair, is it entirely representative of 1871’s The Descent of Man as a whole. Even so, this was the partial reading of Darwin’s theory seized upon by Adolf Hitler and his like-minded crew of genocidal fanatics in their quasi-scientific musings on the evolutionary process.

Here is Hitler, for instance, speaking at Nuremberg in 1933: “The gulf between the lowest creature which can still be styled man and our highest races is greater than that between the lowest type of man and the highest ape.”

Nope. Hitler rejected Darwinism, and his views on Jews, genocide, and the superiority of Aryans were derived from elsewhere—certainly not from Darwin! To see an expert refutation of this claim, read my colleague Bob Richards’s definitive article, “Was Hitler a Darwinian?” And here’s Richards’s answer:

In order to sustain the thesis that Hitler was a Darwinian one would have to ignore all the explicit statements of Hitler rejecting any theory like Darwin’s and draw fanciful implications from vague words, errant phrases, and ambiguous sentences, neglecting altogether more straight-forward, contextual interpretations of such utterances. Only the ideologically blinded would still try to sustain the thesis in the face of the contrary, manifest evidence. Yet, as I suggested at the beginning of this essay, there is an obvious sense in which my own claims must be moot. Even if Hitler could recite the Origin of Species by heart and referred to Darwin as his scientific hero, that would not have the slightest bearing on the validity of Darwinian theory or the moral standing of its author. The only reasonable answer to the question that gives this essay its title is a very loud and unequivocal No!

Sanford mentions that Darwin had a quote in the frontispiece of The Origin that was sympathetic to religion. Well, actually, there are two quotes in that frontispiece that are both sympathetic to religion:

. . . [Darwin] acknowledged the intellectual debt himself by opening On the Origin of Species with a quote from Whewell’s Bridgewater Treatise about the consistency of scientific evolutionary theory with a natural theology of a supreme creator establishing laws:

But with regard to the material world, we can at least go so far as this—we can perceive that events are brought about not by insulated interpositions of Divine power, exerted in each particular case, but by the establishment of general laws.

Indeed. And there’s another religion-friendly quote there, too!:

“To conclude, therefore, let no man out of a weak conceit of sobriety, or an ill-applied moderation, think or maintain, that a man can search too far or be too well studied in the book of God’s word, or in the book of God’s works; divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endeavour an endless progress or proficience in both.”

BACONAdvancement of Learning.

Knowing Darwin’s own views at this time, it’s nearly impossible to believe that these quotes are there because Darwin really thought there was not only a divine creator establishing laws—that’s a dog speculating on the mind of Newton—but that one should also diligently study “the book of God’s word” or “the book of God’s works” (does he mean biological works?).  I suspect, and I’m not alone in this, that Darwin knew perfectly well that the book following these opening quotes would hit Christians in the solar plexus, and these quotes are there to leaven his arguments—to make people think that Darwin saw the Bible was the word of God, and that world showed the Works of the Word.

Here’s one last passage from Darwin’s Autobiography showing, over his life, how his disbelief in the conventional idea of God increased (again, my bolding):

By further reflecting that the clearest evidence would be requisite to make any sane man believe in the miracles by which Christianity is supported,—that the more we know of the fixed laws of nature the more incredible do miracles become,—that the men at that time were ignorant and credulous to a degree almost incomprehensible by us,—that the Gospels cannot be proved to have been written simultaneously with the events,—that they differ in many important details, far too important as it seemed to me to be admitted as the usual inaccuracies of eye-witnesses;—by such reflections as these, which I give not as having the least novelty or value, but as they influenced me, I gradually came to disbelieve in Christianity as a divine revelation. The fact that many false religions have spread over large portions of the earth like wild-fire had some weight with me. Beautiful as is the morality of the New Testament, it can hardly be denied that its perfection depends in part on the interpretation which we now put on metaphors and allegories.

But I was very unwilling to give up my belief;—I feel sure of this for I can well remember often and often inventing day-dreams of old letters between distinguished Romans and manuscripts being discovered at Pompeii or elsewhere which confirmed in the most striking manner all that was written in the Gospels. But I found it more and more difficult, with free scope given to my imagination, to invent evidence which would suffice to convince me. Thus disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress, and have never since doubted even for a single second that my conclusion was correct. I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished.

And this is a damnable doctrine.1

Although I did not think much about the existence of a personal God until a considerably later period of my life, I will here give the vague conclusions to which I have been driven. The old argument of design in nature, as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered. We can no longer argue that, for instance, the beautiful hinge of a bivalve shell must have been made by an intelligent being, like the hinge of a door by man. There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings and in the action of natural selection, than in the course which the wind blows. Everything in nature is the result of fixed laws. 

1 Mrs. Darwin annotated this passage (from “and have never since doubted”…. to “damnable doctrine”) in her own handwriting. She writes:—”I should dislike the passage in brackets to be published. It seems to me raw. Nothing can be said too severe upon the doctrine of everlasting punishment for disbelief—but very few now wd. call that ‘Christianity,’ (tho’ the words are there.) There is the question of verbal inspiration comes in too. E. D.” Oct. 1882. This was written six months after her husband’s death, in a second copy of the Autobiography in Francis’s handwriting. The passage was not published. See Introduction.—N. B. [Nora Barlow, the editor]

Note that in the last sentence the “fixed laws” are NOT imputed to God. So, at the end, we have no indication that even the “fixed laws” were of God’s devising. Note as well that the Autobiography was published five years after Darwin’s death. We can take it, then, as the cumulation of his views.

In the end, we are reading Darwin right so long as we realize that:

a.) He did not believe in the Christian personal God, a good God, that was prevalent in his day.

b.) He did not accept the Biblical story of creation. The “design” he saw in nature, which his predecessor Paley thought was strong evidence for God, came instead from evolution by natural selection.

c.) He was not an antitheist, nor an atheist in the sense of one who says “the evidence for a divine being is almost nonexistent”.  He was an agnostic who thought, “I don’t know if there’s a divine power and it’s beyond my ken to figure this out.” (Some people would call this atheism, but I don’t.


d.) Darwin’s views may have been coopted by eugenicists, but not by Hitler, and few people fault Darwin for eugenics laws and acts after his time. Darwin, of course, wasn’t responsible for the misuse of his ideas.

Sandford’s claim that “we’ve been reading Darwin all wrong” is, in the end, a strawman argument. It depends, of course, on who “we” represents. Most people have never read a word of Darwin, and get what they know about him from rumor, so they can’t have been “reading Darwin all wrong.”They might have been getting Darwin wrong, but that’s not Sandford’s argument, which seems to be directed at scientifically-minded laypeople.

For those who do read Darwin, those familiar with his books and letters could never conclude that he saw harmony between his theory of evolution and any form of “intelligent design”. For even if you accept (and I don’t) that Darwin thought that only the laws of nature were designed, he still saw the evolution of life as the result of deterministic processes operating on material protoplasm. By and large, the views that most modern people have about Darwin, and I refer to people who have read Darwin, are correct.


h/t: Karl, Andrew Berry

Two books on Darwin

February 12, 2022 • 5:00 pm

by Greg Mayer

For Darwin’s birthday, I thought I’d mention two books about Darwin, both by the noted Darwin scholar John van Wyhe, whom Jerry and I have both had the pleasure of meeting, and who we’ve had occasion to mention here on WEIT a number of times. As anyone with more than a passing interest in Darwin should know, John is the editor of the indispensable Darwin Online.

The first is Darwin: The Man, His Great Voyage, and His Theory of Evolution (Andre Deutsch, London, 2018). Although I hadn’t planned it that way, very fittingly I finished reading it this morning. This is a reissue of a book first published in 2008 in anticipation of the Darwin bicentennial. The first issue was published in the US and the UK with different subtitles, and slightly later (2009) in the US.

I can highly recommend this as a very well-illustrated capsule summary of Darwin’s life. It begins with one of the best summaries of the state of knowledge and inquiry into natural history in the early 19th century I’ve ever read, then takes up Darwin’s life from birth, to university, to the four corners of the Earth in the Beagle, then to his return to England. Succeeding sections (there are no numbered chapters) are mostly structured around Darwin’s major works, tracing his life and contributions through a chronological sequence of those works.

The text covers at most half of the pages of this 160 page book, the rest being given over to illustrations. Almost all are contemporary, either illustrations from scientific papers and monographs, or of people and places in Darwin’s life. There are also quite a few reproductions of pages from Darwin’s published works and manuscripts. (Pages 120-123, a reproduction of several pages from the Darwin-Wallace Linnean Society paper of 1858, is labeled, incorrectly, as an extract from one of Darwin’s unpublished MS from 1857.) The illustrations are a great plus. In the original issue of 2008, the selection of illustrations was somewhat different (there were more of them), and they were larger, some being fold out; in the current issue the size may be a bit of a problem in seeing detail in some of them.

My own copy is the UK issue of 2018. A US reissue has a 2022 copyright date, but the UK one of 2018 is available in the US. (The larger format issue of 2008 [2009 in the US] can also still be found.) To learn all about Darwin’s life, read Janet Browne’s 2-volume masterpiece. But until you do, read this book, and have it alongside for the illustrations when you read Browne.

The other book, Darwin: A Companion, by Paul van Helvert and van Wyhe (World Scientific, Singapore, 2021) came out last year. I have not seen it yet, though I have seen the earlier edition (1978) by Robert Freeman on which it is based.

Unlike the previous book, which is a great entry point for the tyro, this book is for the more serious student of Darwin. The Companion is an encyclopedic collection of virtually everything known to be connected to Darwin the man. The new edition is 50% again as large as the first, and has added several dozen illustrations. This is not really a book to be read, but rather consulted or browsed (in the nutritive sense); Darwin completists will need a copy. As Janet Browne wrote in her blurb for the new edition, “There is more here than even Darwin would have known about himself.”

Bob Richards answers Agustin Fuentes

July 8, 2021 • 2:00 pm

A few weeks back, Agustín Fuentes, a biological anthropologist and primatologist at Princeton, wrote an op-ed in Science about Darwin’s racism and sexism as Fuentes’s way of “celebrating” the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s pair of books The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. What Fuentes did was treat Darwin as if he were living at the present time, and then indict him for his retrograde Victorian views on different races and on women—though Darwin was far more enlightened than most Victorian gentlemen of the era (he was, for one thing, an active abolitionist). I suspect that Fuentes himself, had he lived in the mid-nineteenth century, would have been at least as “bad” as Darwin in that respect. Or would Fuentes have been the single Wokest person in Victorian England?

But it’s a mistake to call out people for failing to conform to morality that evolved 150 years after their time. That is a Whiggish view of science, and Fuentes’s Darwin-dissing kicked up a bit of a tempest (see here), prompting multiple letters to Science, including one that I signed. The letters are here, and you can see other squabbling by going here.

One letter just appeared from my Chicago colleague Robert Richards, a historian of science with expertise in biology and evolutionary biology. Bob and I organized the 200th anniversary celebration of Darwin’s birth (and the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin) here at the U of C. He knows a ton about Darwin and evolution (I highly recommend his essay “Was Hitler a Darwinian?“), and appears to have been really put off by Fuentes’s Darwin-dissing.

Here’s a letter from Richards that just appeared in Science. I think it’s remarkably level-headed, but of course I agree with him.

The last three sentences are especially good.

Our letter to Science about Agustín Fuentes’s Darwin-bashing

June 21, 2021 • 1:30 pm

On May 21, Princeton anthropologist Agustín Fuentes published a takedown of Darwin in a Science op-ed on the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. Asserting that Darwin was a racist, a white supremacist, and a man whose ideas justified “colonialism” as well as “genocide,” Fuentes’s piece was over the top: a typical and execrable specimen of holding someone living decades ago responsible for adhering to the moral norms of his time. (Actually, Darwin, an abolitionist, was a far sight better than many of his contemporaries.) In other words, according to Fuentes, Darwin should have known better. But I bet you ten to one that Fuentes, had he been Darwin’s contemporary, would have been even more of a moral reprobate than Charles himself.

I criticized Fuentes’s piece here (and Robert Wright did elsewhere), though Jonathan Marks, a well known anthropological firebrand, sprang to Fuentes’s defense. Several weeks ago, a bunch of us evolutionary biologists got together and wrote a joint letter to Science criticizing Fuentes’s piece.  The journal sat on it, said it wouldn’t appear in print, but have at last put it online. You can see the link to our letter below, but I’ve posted the whole thing, along with our names, addresses, and the references we use.

Click on the screenshot to see our letter (and Marks’s):

What we wrote:

RE: “The Descent of Man”, 150 years on

“The Descent of Man” 150 years on

In this 150th anniversary year of Darwin’s “The Descent of Man” (1), Science published one article celebrating the progress in human evolutionary science built on Darwin’s foundations (2), along with a second, Editorial article, three quarters of which instead pilloried Darwin for his “racist and sexist view of humanity” (3). Fuentes argues that students should be “taught Darwin as [a] man with injurious and unfounded prejudices that warped his view of data and experience”. We fear that Fuentes’ vituperative exposition will encourage a spectrum of anti-evolution voices and damage prospects for an expanded, more gender and ethnically diverse new generation of evolutionary scientists.

What Darwin wrote was of course shaped by Victorian realities and perspectives on sex and racial differences, some still extant today, but this is not a new revelation [4]. Rather than calmly noting these influences, Fuentes repeatedly puts Darwin in the dock for the Victorian sexist and racist norms within which he presented his explosive thesis that humanity evolved. Fuentes incorrectly suggests that Darwin justified genocide. Darwin was frequently and notably more modern in his thinking than most Victorians. In The Descent he demolished the slavery-justifying view of different races as separate species, so inspiring the anti-racist perspectives of later anthropologists like Boaz (5). On sexism, Darwin suggested that education of “reason and imagination” would erase mental sex differences (1, p. 329). His theory of sexual selection gave female animals a central role in mate choice and evolution (1).

Students taught about the historical context for Darwin’s writing should appreciate how revolutionary Darwin’s ideas were, challenging many (but not all) prevailing Victorian perspectives (6). We lament the failure to celebrate the vast impact of those ideas at the expense of the distorting treatment Fuentes offers.

Andrew Whiten1, Walter Bodmer2, Brian Charlesworth3, Deborah Charlesworth3, Jerry Coyne4, Frans de Waal5, Sergey Gavrilets6, Debra Lieberman7, Ruth Mace8, Andrea Bamberg Migliano9, Boguslaw Pawlowski10 and Peter Richerson1

1School of Psychology and Neuroscience, University of St Andrews, St Andrews, KY16 9PE, UK. 2Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine, University of Oxford, Oxford OX3 9DS, UK. 3School of Biological Sciences, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh EH9 3FL, UK, 4Department of Ecology and Evolution, University of Chicago, 1101 E. 57th St., Chicago, IL60637, USA. 5Psychology Department (PAIS Bldg), Suite 270, 36 Eagle Row, Emory University, Atlanta, GA 30322, USA. 6Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Univ of Tennessee Knoxville, TN 37922, USA. 7Department of Psychology, University of Miami, Coral Gables, FL 33146, USA. 8(Editor in Chief, Evolutionary Human Science) Department of Anthropology, University College London, London, UK. 9Department of Anthropology, University of Zurich, 190 Winterthurerstrasse, Zurich 8057, Switzerland. 10(President, European Human Behaviour and Evolution Association) Department of Human Biology, University of Wroclaw, ul. S. Przybyszewskiego 63, 51-148 Wrocław, Poland. 11Department of Environmental Science and Policy, University of California, Davis, CA 95616, USA.
Corresponding author. Email:

1. C. Darwin. The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. With an introduction by J. T. Bonner and R. M. May. (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1871/1981).
2. P. J. Richerson, S. Gavrilets, F. B. M. de Waal. Modern theories of human evolution foreshadowed by Darwin’s the Descent of Man. Science 372, 806.
3. A. Fuentes. “The Descent of Man” 150 years on. Science 372, 769.
4. A. J. Desmond, J. R. Moore. Darwin. (Penguin, London, 1992).
5. P. J. Richerson, R. Hames. Busting myths about evolutionary anthropology. Anthropology News, July 18 (2017) doi: 10.1111/AN.510
6. H. E. Gruber. Darwin on Man. (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1974).

We could have said a lot more, but there is a strict word limit for Science letters.

Robert Wright takes apart Agustín Fuentes’s critique of Darwin

May 26, 2021 • 9:30 am

On May 22 I discussed, or rather criticized sharply, a takedown of Darwin published in Science by by Agustín Fuentes, a primatologist and biological anthropologist at Princeton University. This year is the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s two-part book: The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. And while there was a good article in the same issue of Science by three other researchers , Fuentes’s short takedown, while it did at least note Darwin’s book had some merit, wound up being a misguided and highly woke critique calling out Darwin for racism, sexism and misogyny. My article pointed out some of Fuentes’s errors; I’ll mention just two of them.

First, Fuentes claimed that Darwin’s view of sexual selection in animals and humans involved female passivity and male choice, ergo it was misogynistic, denying females a role in evolution. (There may, however, indeed be cases where females are passive, as when males compete with each other—e.g., elephant seals or deer—and females are constrained to mate with the winner. Is it really useful to say that male-male competition for females is a misogynistic view? But most theories of sexual selection, including Darwin’s, involve both male traits and behaviors and female preferences for those traits and behaviors, so Fuentes didn’t even get his biology right.

The second involves Fuentes’s ridiculous assertion that Darwin’s views justified genocide and colonialism. As I wrote, quoting Fuentes:

Here’s a Fuentes whopper about “survival of the fittest,” a term that Darwin didn’t invent and generally avoided, using it only a handful of times in his writings:

[Darwin] went beyond simple racial rankings, offering justification of empire and colonialism, and genocide, through “survival of the fittest.” This too is confounding given Darwin’s robust stance against slavery.

This is wrong on two counts. First, Darwin never justified genocide, though he did think that by virtue of (inherited) superiority, the white race would come to dominate others by higher relative success. But never did he advocate the killing or extirpation of different ethnic groups. Second, the use of “social Darwinism” by others to justify such mistreatment of other groups was always rejected by Darwin. Darwin simply cannot be blamed for the misuse or misconstrual of his theory by others.

Again, Fuentes didn’t do his homework, for he was eager to convince the world that Darwin, who was far more liberal in his views than most of his Victorian peers (he was, for one thing, an abolitionist), was riddled with moral failings.

Here’s one more beef I had before we move on to Robert Wright’s critique. I wrote this:

Frankly, I’m tired of people who say things like “Darwin was bad because he should have known and done better.” Neither he nor his contemporaries did or could have: morality evolves, and in 150 years our own generation may be seen as just as morally deficient as was Darwin.

As a friend wrote me:

This kind of anachronistic moralization has been neatly exposed by the philosopher Robbie George – way, way, to the religious right of us, but clever and broad-minded (he’s joined with Cornel West in defending academic freedom). George asked his class whether if they had been antebellum Southerners they would have opposed slavery, and of course all of them—preposterously—claim they would have been abolitionists. A moral version of the Fundamental Attribution Error – people think that people who hold bad beliefs must be bad people.

Likewise, I’m sure that had Fuentes been a contemporary of Darwin, his views would have been at least as misogynistic, racist, and colonialist as Darwin’s. So where does he get off using today’s morality to go after a man of the nineteenth century?

But I digress. Another person who offers a thorough critique of Fuentes’s Darwin-bashing is author Robert Wright. I have often disagreed with Wright, but I’m with him 100% in this article from his Substack site (click on the screenshot):

Like Fuentes did towards Darwin, Wright offers some tepid praise for Fuentes’s hit job:

There are things about this essay I like. For example: I understood it, which distinguishes it from many things written by contemporary anthropologists. Also, it’s hard to argue with its claim that Darwin said things about race and gender that would get a guy canceled today. (As one person put it on Twitter, Darwin, “was 19th century euro upper class. It’d be stranger if he WASN’T ‘problematic’ by today’s standards.”)

That is, Fuentes’s piece is laudable because one can understand it. Not high praise! Also, Darwin’s views on race and gender have been well known for years to clash with modern sensibilities, so that’s not new.

But then Wright swings his hammer, and his concern is pretty much the same as mine: Darwin’s supposed justification of genocide. Wright correctly sees a logical error here:

Here’s the confusion: In reading Darwin, Fuentes fails to distinguish between an explanation of something and a justification of something.

The error:

Here’s the assertion by Fuentes that, so far as I can tell, is flat-out wrong. After (accurately) writing that Darwin “asserted evolutionary differences between races,” he adds: “He went beyond simple racial rankings, offering justification of empire and colonialism, and genocide, through ‘survival of the fittest.’ ”

I’ve read a fair amount of Darwin, and I don’t remember him defending imperialism or genocide. So I asked Fuentes on Twitter if he could back up that claim by providing actual quotes from The Descent of Man. He didn’t oblige me, but he did direct me to chapter 7. So I pulled my copy of Descent off my bookshelf and took a look.

So Wright contacted Fuentes and asks for evidence that Darwin justified imperialism and genocide. Fuentes doesn’t respond properly, but just points to a chapter in Darwin’s book. Unfortunately for Fuentes, Wright read that chapter and found that while Darwin explains why races supplant each other, he never justifies it. Wright gives several quotes about how tribes drive each other to extinction, but there is nothing even close to the view that Darwin is “justifying genocide” or approving of mass killing.

Wright then goes on to give the well-known evidence that Darwin was often horrified by the damage and pain wrought by natural selection as it eliminates ill-adapted individuals. And, as we know, that Darwin correctly believed in monogenesis: that all “races” and groups of human descended from a single common ancestor.  Here’s a bit from Wright with a very famous quote from Darwin:

Anyone who wants to join Fuentes in arguing that Darwin is trying to justify genocide runs into a couple of problems.

First: Wouldn’t it be odd if, in the very chapter of Descent which argues that all groups of humans have an equal claim to being human, Darwin’s intended message was that wiping some of them out is a good thing?

Second, and more important: Fuentes’s interpretation of chapter 7 is at odds with other evidence about Darwin’s sensibilities. In The Origin of Species, Darwin goes on and on about why some kinds of animals flourish and others don’t and why some animals succeed in killing other animals and how such lethal skills are favored by natural selection. He maintains an air of clinical detachment throughout, as he does in chapter 7 of Descent. Yet we know from his personal correspondence that he was so horrified by the cruelty of nature—the cruelty that is both a product of and an engine of natural selection—that he found it hard to reconcile with religious faith.

He wrote to the American botanist Asa Gray: “I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I should wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ [parasitic wasps] with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.”

Does that sound like a man who would want to justify the mass suffering of human beings?

On Twitter, I pressed Fuentes on what exactly he meant when he said Darwin had offered a “justification” for imperialism and genocide. He said, “by justification i mean ‘the action of showing something to be right or reasonable.’ ”

I suppose Fuentes could try to wiggle out of my indictment by underscoring the “or” in “right or reasonable” and then insisting he meant “reasonable” in some value-free way. Such as: Darwin was trying to give explanations for group extinction that are “reasonable” just in the sense of being “plausible.” But if that’s what Fuentes meant, then he’s basically saying that by “justify” he didn’t mean “justify.”

Indeed!  Fuentes is conflating what Darwin thought was true in nature (and he may have been wrong) with Darwin’s approval of nature. In other words, Fuentes committed the classic “naturalistic fallacy”: equating what happens in the wild with what is good or worthy of approval.

Wright winds up with one more zinger leveled at Fuentes:

. . . if we don’t understand why bad things happen, it will be harder to prevent their recurrence. So if you’re against imperialism and genocide, maybe you should be careful about casually accusing people of being in favor of them when your only evidence is that they want to understand them.

Good job, Robert!

Although some of us predicted that the Pecksniffs would eventually come after Darwin, other readers said that wouldn’t happen. Well, it did, and perhaps more is in store. But if the best job that can be done is one like Fuentes’s, it’s not a convincing indictment of Darwin as an immoral racist, sexist, and colonialist.

For sure Darwin wasn’t perfect by modern moral lights. But he was more liberal, and more kind, than most Brits in his position, and why should we worry so much about Darwin’s morality when what’s important is his science? The morality of Victorian days is largely gone, but the science remains.

I’d like to think that, in the future, instead of being known as “The man who took down Darwin,” Fuentes will be known as “The Pecksniff who went after Darwin but failed to score a hit.”  The man’s scholarship is shoddy, and his piece looks like an excuse to flaunt Fuentes’s own moral superiority—or the moral superiority of moderns over Victorians. But if you want to hear about moral improvement without the snark and finger-pointing, it’s better to read Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. 

h/t: Justin