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

A Pecksniffian anthropologist takes down Darwin for being a man of his time

May 22, 2021 • 11:30 am

It’s the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s The Descent of Man (people often forget that it’s paired with another book, Selection in Relation to Sex), and the journal Science has celebrated the year in two ways. The first is an article pointing out, tiresomely, erroneously, and not for the first time, that Darwin was a sexist, racist, colonialist, and oppressor whose theories supposedly harmed many people. That is the first note below (click on screenshot), written by Agustín Fuentes, a primatologist and biological anthropologist at Princeton University.

Click on the screenshot to read the piece:

The piece isn’t totally bad, but it’s bad enough that I want to register a few plaints. The main ones are that Fuentes is not saying anything that hasn’t been said before: Darwin indeed had some racist, sexist, colonialist, and white-supremacist views that were expressed in his works, especially in The Descent of Man (Fuentes repeatedly confuses the two books, as some of the views he criticizes appear in Selection in Relation to Sex).

To be fair, Fuentes does credit Darwin with his insight and his durable and correct theory of evolution. But as he gives with one hand, he takes with the other:

 But despite these ideal frames and some innovative inferences, “Descent” is often problematic, prejudiced, and injurious. Darwin thought he was relying on data, objectivity, and scientific thinking in describing human evolutionary outcomes. But for much of the book, he was not. “Descent,” like so many of the scientific tomes of Darwin’s day, offers a racist and sexist view of humanity.

Yes, the tired old Bucephalus of critical theory: “it’s problematic.”

And then we get the usual litany: Darwin believed that whites were superior to blacks and other non-Europeans; he thought women were inferior to men, opined that eventually the white “race” would supplant other groups, and so on. This much we’ve all known for a long time, and many of us, including me, have taught it to our students.

But, despite Fuentes’ admission of Darwin’s strong abolitionism, he seems to forget that Darwin was a man of his time, not of our time. Is it fair to judge Darwin against an enlightened modern liberal? I don’t think so: the proper judgment is to see whether Darwin was palpably morally worse than most other Victorian Englishmen.  And I don’t think he was. I’ll explain a bit more below, but I have a very hard time thinking of someone of Darwin’s stature in Europe who was much better than he on the issue of women, or, for that matter, slavery. (Read Marx and Engels on the Irish if you want real bigotry.) Yes, Darwin saw some South Americans as “savages”, but he also perceived their common humanity with us, and his theory affirmed our common ancestry. And yes, he saw women as the inferior sex; but how many Victorian men were far more enlightened than he?

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. After all, we eat meat, and in the future we may learn more about the suffering of animals in ways that would brand us moderns as horrible barbarians. The judgment of celebrating Darwin should rest on a). “is he being celebrated for the good things he did?” (answer: yes), and b). “did the good he did in his life outweigh the bad?” (answer: also yes).

Now, onto what I see as Fuentes’s missteps. Here’s one about selection and racial differentiation:

Darwin portrayed Indigenous peoples of the Americas and Australia as less than Europeans in capacity and behavior. Peoples of the African continent were consistently referred to as cognitively depauperate, less capable, and of a lower rank than other races. These assertions are confounding because in “Descent” Darwin offered refutation of natural selection as the process differentiating races, noting that traits used to characterize them appeared nonfunctional relative to capacity for success. As a scientist this should have given him pause, yet he still, baselessly, asserted evolutionary differences between races.

. . . His adamant assertions about the centrality of male agency and the passivity of the female in evolutionary processes, for humans and across the animal world, resonate with both Victorian and contemporary misogyny.

The first part of this is fine, but the second, about how “races” and sexes come to differ from one another morphologically, is not. Darwin saw sexual selection (a subset of natural selection, by the way) as the process whereby different ethnic groups come to differ in appearance. He may well have been right about this. And clearly, there are evolutionary differences between the appearance of ethnic groups. These are certainly genetic, and the morphological homogeneity within groups compared to the palpable differences between groups suggest an evolutionary origin.

What kind of evolution was it? As I said, Darwin’s view was that groups of humans (as well as males versus females) are affected by sexual selection based on either male-male competition or “choice”. The choice, according to Darwin, was made by females preferring arbitrary but aesthetically appealing male traits: song, ornaments, plumage, and so on. (For humans, Darwin sometimes intimated that the “choice” was made by males, but by females in other animal species.) This “beauty matters” hypothesis has its biggest exponent in Richard Prum, and though I am not convinced by his arguments, it’s mainly because we lack data, not because Prum is known to be wrong. Here’s Prum in a paper discussing Darwin’s views:

Darwin was explicit, repeated and adamant in maintaining that the evolution of secondary sexual characters by mate choice was an aesthetic mechanism of evolution. For example, he wrote:

With the great majority of animals, however, the taste for the beautiful is confined to the attractions of the opposite sex.* The sweet strains poured forth by many male birds during the season of love, are certainly admired by the females … If female birds had been incapable of appreciating the beautiful colours, the ornaments, and voices of their male partners, all the labour and anxiety by the latter in displaying their charms before the females would have been thrown away; and this is impossible to admit. [, p. 61]; * sentence added in second edition)

On the whole, birds appear to be the most aesthetic of all animals, excepting of course man, and they have nearly the same taste for the beautiful as we have. [, p. 466]

[Male birds] charm the female by vocal and instrumental music of the most varied kinds. [, p. 466]

It is important to establish what Darwin’s language meant in modern terms. Darwin lacked our modern sensitivity to avoiding anthropomorphizing his subjects. Rather, he was actively engaged in reducing the distinctions between humans and animals. But Darwin was not trying to shock his readers. He used these aesthetic terms as ordinary language without any special semantic or cultural implications. Darwin was specifically proposing that animals (mostly females) were making sensory and cognitive evaluations of display traits, and making mate choices based on those evaluations. Darwin used ‘taste for the beautiful’ to refer to differential behavioural response to a secondary sexual sensory stimulus. While this aspect of Darwin’s opinion was highly controversial at the time [], it is mainstream now. If that were the only issue, there would be no need for us to revive Darwin’s use of aesthetic language. Our contemporary terms cover this meaning.

While I doubt Prum’s views as a general explanation of sexual dimorphism (I’m more inclined to see differences between human ethnic groups as a “beauty matters” issue), he may be right in some cases, and at any rate note that the agency here is exercised by females, not males. In what sense, then, are Fuentes’s females “passive” if they are choosing among males competing for their attentions? Darwin makes the females quite active!

Speaking of stuff that Darwin got wrong, his biggest whopper was his erroneous theory of genetics, in which he thought that hereditary “mutations” were invoked by environmental change, a “Lamarckian” view. We know now that Darwin was wrong, but fortunately his theory didn’t depend on a correct mechanism of genetics, but only on the fact that there was genetic variation in populations that could be passed on, and affected survival and reproduction. The fact that Fuentes omits this biggest whopper in favor of moral indictments shows that he has an explicitly ideological aim, which he reveals in the last paragraph of his article (see below).

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. In fact, I cannot think of what direct harm Darwin really caused to anyone, save his buttressing the views of English men and women of his time. I always maintain that if Darwin lived today, he would likely decry misogyny, racism, and white supremacy, and would be a liberal English guy. It’s unfair, again, to tar him for adhering to the moral standards of his time—indeed, in having higher standards.

Finally, Fuentes neglects that Darwin did do some backsliding about the hegemony of natural selection as an explanation for everything. Here’s a quote from The Descent of Man: (h/t Nick Matzke)

. . . . but I now admit, after reading the essay by Nägeli on plants, and the remarks by various authors with respect to animals, more especially those recently made by Professor Broca, that in the earlier editions of my ‘Origin of Species’ I probably attributed too much to the action of natural selection or the survival of the fittest. I have altered the fifth edition of the Origin so as to confine my remarks to adaptive changes of structure. I had not formerly sufficiently considered the existence of many structures which appear to be, as far as we can judge, neither beneficial nor injurious; and this I believe to be one of the greatest oversights as yet detected in my work. I may be permitted to say as some excuse, that I had two distinct objects in view, firstly, to shew that species had not been separately created, and secondly, that natural selection had been the chief agent of change, though largely aided by the inherited effects of habit, and slightly by the direct action of the surrounding conditions. Nevertheless I was not able to annul the influence of my former belief, then widely prevalent, that each species had been purposely created; and this led to my tacitly assuming that every detail of structure, excepting rudiments, was of some special, though unrecognised, service. Any one with this assumption in his mind would naturally extend the action of natural selection, either during past or present times, too far.

Yes, Darwin went back and altered the fifth edition of The Origin to reflect this change of views.

In Fuentes’s last paragraph, he reveals his aim: to increase inclusion and diversity (presumably racial and gender diversity) among evolutionists in hope that this will it easier to catch Darwin’s moral errors as well as those of other evolutionary biologists.


Reflecting on “Descent” today one can look to data demonstrating unequivocally that race is not a valid description of human biological variation, that there is no biological coherence to “male” and “female” brains or any simplicity in biological patterns related to gender and sex, and that “survival of the fittest” does not accurately represent the dynamics of evolutionary processes. The scientific community can reject the legacy of bias and harm in the evolutionary sciences by recognizing, and acting on, the need for diverse voices and making inclusive practices central to evolutionary inquiry. In the end, learning from “Descent” illuminates the highest and most interesting problem for human evolutionary studies today: moving toward an evolutionary science of humans instead of “man.”

Re the first part: yes, scientists have long rejected the simplistic view of “races” as easily demarcated groups of people that differ genetically in profound ways, but we still recognize clustered ethnic groupings. As for “no biological coherence to male and female brains”, I believe that this is a matter of debate (see here) and, at any rate, I do believe that evolution has differentiated male and female brains in terms of the tendencies it has given the sexes to behave differently or possess different preferences (there is of course considerable overlap). One example is the male-female difference in sexual behavior, similar to that of many other animals.  This must be coded somehow in the brain. As far as “survival of the fittest” not accurately representing the dynamics of the evolutionary process, well, duhhh. For 30 years I’ve told my classes that “reproduction of the fittER” is a more accurate characterization of how natural selection works, and an even more accurate representation would be that “the genes that become more numerous over evolutionary time are those that leave more copies of themselves.” The latter idea is hard to convey to undergraduates, though!

While I do believe that some of our unrecognized prejudices can be addressed by broadening the types of people we want to attract to evolutionary biology (I think the emphasis on female preference in sexual selection was promoted to some extent by women biologists), I really don’t think that making diversity and inclusion the central focus of “evolutionary inquiry” will lead to profound breakthroughs. This presumes that there are race- or gender-based ways of thinking about evolution, and while this may be true to some extent, I don’t think it’s true to an appreciable or important extent. What we need is to start turning on kids to evolution at a young age; that is, we should “widen the pipeline”, attracting the best thinkers from all groups. It is deeply patronizing to try to hire minorities so they can help us “reject the legacy of of bias and harm in the evolutionary sciences.”

To counterbalance the tut-tutting of Fuentes, though, we have a longer article in the same issue which talks about Darwin’s book, shows its contributions, and steers well clear of morality. Click on screenshot to read the article:

And its summary:

Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man was published in 1871. Ever since, it has been the foundation stone of human evolutionary studies. Richerson et al. reviewed how modern studies of human biological and cultural evolution reflect the ideas in Darwin’s work. They emphasize how cooperation, social learning, and cumulative culture in the ancestors of modern humans were key to our evolution and were enhanced during the environmental upheavals of the Pleistocene. The evolutionary perspective has come to permeate not just human biology but also the social sciences, vindicating Darwin’s insights.

The ideology and the “I’m better than Darwin was” attitude can be left for classes in the history and philosophy of science.


h/t: Nick Matzke, Andrew Berry, Brian Charlesworth, and Matthew Cobb for discussion.

“Hooker’s Arch”: A post by Andrew Berry

May 21, 2021 • 1:00 pm

My friend Andrew Berry, a lecturer and advisor at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology and the Department of Organismal and Evolutionary Biology, sent me a nice email that I asked him to turn into a post for me. He kindly obliged. Darwin’s Arch, which recently collapsed in the Galápagos Islands, was described in a NYT article. Here’s the original landmark

. . . and after its collapse on May 17:

Andrew knew a bit of a parallel, which he describes below. Andrew’s words are indented.

by Andrew Berry

I saw your mention of the recent collapse of ‘Darwin’s Arch’ in the Galápagos.

Here’s a nice parallel.  One of Darwin’s key offsiders was Joseph Dalton Hooker (the middle name serves to distinguish him from the US Civil War general—definitely not a Darwin confidant). Hooker was one the era’s leading botanists, and was for many years the director of Kew Gardens.  In 1844, Darwin chose to confide in Hooker about his heretical ideas. This, for Darwin, was a big deal: he had been quietly and privately nurturing his evolutionary schemes more or less since the return of the Beagle in 1836 and he felt in need of a scientific sounding board.  He was still a long way from being ready to go public: it wasn’t until 1858, 14 years later, that A. R. Wallace’s intervention forced his hand on this.  Darwin’s famous letter to Hooker states, “I am almost convinced (quite contrary to opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable”.


One of the reasons Darwin picked Hooker for this role was that, like Darwin, Hooker had considerable expedition experience.  They both accordingly had a global perspective on biogeography.  Specifically, Hooker had gone on the James Clark Ross Erebus/Terror expedition (1839-43) that established a key early benchmark for the exploration of Antarctica. Roald Amundsen, the great Norwegian polar explorer (who beat Robert Falcon Scott to the South Pole in 1911) pulled no punches about the expedition’s significance:

“Few people of the present day are capable of rightly appreciating this heroic deed, this brilliant proof of human courage and energy. With two ponderous craft – regular “tubs” according to our ideas – these men sailed right into the heart of the pack [ice], which all previous explorers had regarded as certain death … These men were heroes – heroes in the highest sense of the word.”

En route to Antarctica, the expedition’s first major port of call was Kerguelen Island, which is about as far from anywhere as you can get on planet Earth — central far south Indian Ocean.

Arriving in May 1840, the expedition spent two and a half months there before heading on to Tasmania, and, from there, Antarctica.  Kerguelen was thus the first place in which the young Hooker (he was 22 at the time) got to analyze and describe a previously largely undescribed flora.  That things turned out this way is a truly remarkable coincidence.  Late in life, Hooker recalled being raised as a boy on tales from James Cook’s voyages.  In particular, little Hooker had been impressed by this image from Cook’s 1776 visit to Kerguelen (the islands were formally discovered four years previously by a Frenchman, Yves-Joseph de Kerguelen-Trémarec). Note the impressive natural arch on the horizon at the far left of the image.

Here’s what Hooker wrote:

“When still a child, I was very fond of Voyages and Travels; and my great delight was to sit on my grandfather’s knee and look at the pictures in Cook’s ‘Voyages.’ The one that took my fancy most was the plate of Christmas Harbour, Kerguelen Land, with the arched rock standing out to sea, and the sailors killing penguins; and I thought I should be the happiest boy alive if ever I would see that wonderful arched rock, and knock penguins on the head. [JAC: Hooker should be canceled for thinking that!] By a singular coincidence, Christmas Harbour, Kerguelen Land, was one of the very first places of interest visited by me, in the Antarctic Expedition under Sir James Ross.”

What is the relevance of all this? Because, some time between 1908 and 1913, the arch on Kerguelen that so thrilled Hooker went the way of Darwin’s Arch.  Happily the ideas of both Darwin and Hooker have proved more resilient than the landmarks they’re associated with.

Torygraph exaggerates Darwin’s evil in trying to smear Sheffield’s “decolonized” biology curriculum; and a bonus guest take by Andrew Berry

May 10, 2021 • 9:15 am

The article below appeared in the Torygraph two days ago, and, although there is some truth in what it says about Darwin’s views, the gap between the Torygraph’s rhetoric and the reality is substantial.  Click on the screenshot to read it; and if it’s paywalled just make a judicious inquiry. I’m not sure, not being a reader of this paper, whether they are impugning Sheffield University, Darwin’s theories, or both.

You can read for yourself the claim that Darwin’s theory justified white male superiority (yes, he believed in male superiority and in the hegemony of whites, but it was the paternalistic racism of Victorian times, and note that Darwin was also an ardent (and rare) abolitionist). At any rate, here’s a brief excerpt of the Torygraph article, which summarizes a University of Sheffield handbook on “decolonizing biology”:

Charles Darwin is among “highly celebrated scientific figures” who “held racist views” because he used his theory of natural selection to justify white male superiority, according to a new university’s handbook for teaching and research.

The renowned naturalist is on a list of 11 feted scientists whose views “influenced the type of research they carried out and how they interpreted their data”, according to Sheffield University’s guide drawn up to decolonise the biology curriculum.

This is despite Darwin’s fervent support for the abolition of slavery, which he called a “sacred cause”, unlike many of his contemporaries. He said of slavery that “it makes one’s blood boil”.

The handbook, seen by The Telegraph, tells students and lecturers that he must be historically caveated when lecturers teach his seminal theory of evolution.

Historians told The Telegraph that Sheffield’s guidelines were “unhistorical and misleading” and “authoritarian”.

The Russell Group university has also told science students and lecturers in the guidance to drop the terms “founding father”, “idols” and “geniuses” to avoid “hero worshipping” scientific figures.

This practice treats them as “white saviours” and erases less privileged scholars, it explains. Drawn up by lecturers in the Animal and Plant Sciences faculty, the guide says “whiteness and Eurocentrism of our science” must be dismantled.

“It is clear that science cannot be objective and apolitical,” it adds, and “the curriculum we teach must acknowledge how colonialism has shaped the field of evolutionary biology and how evolutionary biologists think today”.

. . . . According to Sheffield’s decolonised curriculum, Mr Darwin “believed that his renowned theory of natural selection justified the view that the white race was superior to others, and used his theory of sexual selection to justify why women were clearly inferior to men.”

It says his voyage on HMS Beagle, when he collected plant and animal samples, was to map colonies.

Some of the “colonialism” refers to the two voyages of the Beagle, but those voyages were not meant “colonize” or map nonexistent British colonies, but to map the coast of South America for trading purposes and for ship re-stocking, including making diagrams of the ports.

If you’ve read The Voyage of the Beagle and the Descent of Man, you will realize that yes, Darwin had racist tendencies that would be seen as insupportable today, but then it’s doubtful, to me at least, that Darwin would be a racist if he lived in modern times. And his fight for abolitionism must surely be taken into account. You can have racist ideas and be an abolitionist at the same time: humans are multidimensional. To impugn Darwin’s theory because of his views, as the Torygraph seems to be doing, is surely to engage in an ad hominem argument, placing Darwin in company with Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and others shown on the cover of this creationist book by the Turkish liar (and now criminal) Adnan Oktar (pseudonym Harun Yahya). (h/t: Andrew Berry)

To be sure, the article does quote real Darwin scholars who think that this “decolonization” was ridiculous:

But Prof James Moore, a biographer of Darwin and historian of science, told The Telegraph: “Almost everyone in Darwin’s day was ‘racist’ in 21st century terms, not only scientists and naturalists but even anti-slavery campaigners and abolitionists.

“What set his ‘racism’ apart – and makes him more like us today – was his profound conviction that all the human races are ‘family’, sisters and brothers.

“Darwin’s wokeness was most obvious in his maintaining the full common humanity and unity of the races in the face of a rising anthropology that insisted the races were in fact separately originated and unrelated species, thus offering justification of atrocities that Darwin is now blamed for.”

Prof Nigel Biggar, an Oxford historian, added: “During Darwin’s lifetime the British Empire was busy emancipating slaves across the world.

“The ‘decolonising’ assumption that ‘colonial mapping’ was all about oppression is false, and the judgement that Darwin should be damned by association is morally stupid.

“Before propagating this ideology, did Sheffield University secure the consent of academic staff, and does it now allow for conscientious objection? If not, its conduct is authoritarian and arguably a violation of academic freedom.”

After some effort, I managed to locate the handbook that Sheffield University uses as its “decolonization guide”. You can download it here, and yes, it does make some statements similar to what the Torygraph says.  Here are two excerpts; I won’t bother to analyze them here:

This sentence is palpably ridiculous:

Many prominent evolutionary biologists and geneticists who helped establish the field were racists and eugenists, including JBS Haldane, Francis Galton, James Watson and many more. Their theories served as justification for slavery and mass slaughter.

Haldane was not a racist, Galton, who advocated class-based eugenics (based on encouragement of breeding), had no influence in affecting eugenics or “slavery and mass slaughter”, and Watson, who is a racist, has had no influence on slavery, white supremacy, or “mass slaughter.” How cold he have? He’s still alive. He is in fact disgraced and was removed from his position at Cold Spring Harbor.

And there’s an analysis of the malefactors of evolutionary biology, like this one:

So the Torygraph doesn’t have it all wrong, but it clearly implies that Darwin’s theories, which indeed were used by others to justify oppression and white superiority, are in themselves deficient because of how they were employed. But the misuse of a theory doesn’t mean it’s wrong—only that others bent it to suit their ideology, as Adnan Oktar did. Few biologists (and those would be creationists) doubt the immense power of the theory Darwin suggested in 1858 and published in 1859.

I myself would not teach evolution along the lines of the University of Sheffield, which gives the whole thing a political slant, ignoring the tremendous advances that Darwin forged in our thinking. How relevant are Darwin’s views to teaching evolution, anyway? Was any Victorian Englishman perfect by modern lights? And must we always bring in people’s moral views which, perhaps conventional in their times, are now odious in ours? These are questions we’ve discussed before, and will discuss again—perhaps today—but rather than sling mud at Darwin, I want to give a measured take on Darwin and the Torygraph piece by my friend and colleague Andrew Berry, a lecturer and adviser in evolutionary biology at Harvard. So voilà, and many thanks to Dr. Berry for allow me to twist his arm:

Guest comments by Andrew Berry

Rather than pushing back reflexively on Sheffield University’s statements on Darwin (as reported by The Daily Telegraph), I think it’s worth taking a serious look at the suggestions being made.

  1.  Darwin 

Darwin comes up short, no question, in any retroactive 21st century assessment of his views on human race and gender.  He was, by today’s standards, a racist and a misogynist. But of course his views were a product of where and when he lived; his opinions on race and gender were derived from the upper-class white world he inhabited.   That he was actually downright progressive — he was a fervent abolitionist, for example — by the standards of this world is irrelevant. We have to ask whether his scientific ideas — his legacy — are in some way tainted by his thinking in these areas.  Is the theory of evolution by natural selection inherently racist or sexist?  In some of their attempts to characterize their objections as being based on more than religion, some creationists insist that it is.  And it’s certainly true that plenty of dubious figures have hijacked Darwin to provide a veneer of scientific respectability to their prejudices.  But the theory itself?  It’s essentially based on two observations: the capacity of populations to undergo exponential growth, and the occurrence of mutation — error — in the transmission of genetic information from generation to generation.  Exponential growth in a world of finite resources results in competition, with that competition being won by, on average, the genetically best endowed members of the population.  I for one don’t see racism or sexism embedded in these assertions.

There is no question that Darwin’s thinking was inspired by the milieu in which he lived — Malthus’s ideas were au courant, and Victorian Britain was an early experiment in laissez-faire capitalism — but Darwin’s identification of a mechanism of evolutionary change should absolutely not be taken as an endorsement on his part of the kind of social darwinism that some of his supposed heirs came to embrace.  To assume that the processes we observe in the natural world somehow offer a prescription for how we should live our lives is to commit the naturalistic fallacy. 

  1.  History of Science

Historians of science have long objected to popular simplifications of the scientific process.  Newton encounters a falling apple, and — bingo! — the theory of gravitation is born.  This tendency to embrace simplifications has two consequences: a focus on the individual (the scientific “genius” responsible for the breakthrough), and, correspondingly, a failure to take into account the underlying factors — social, or otherwise — involved in the development of innovations.  This simplified discourse is promoted by institutions like the Nobel Prize.  The lab head gets the prize.  What about all those post-docs, colleagues, grad students who contributed?  Science, in reality, is a complex, messy business that does not lend itself to handy Eureka! moment narratives.  In short, all Sheffield University’s guidelines are stating is that we should move on from the Nobel/Eureka! model of understanding the scientific process and become instead better informed historians of science.  Let’s therefore think about the unsung heroes and about the non-scientific factors that together conspired to make a previously inaccessible idea accessible.

Curiously, Darwin and evolution offer a wonderful case study.  Evolution by natural selection is a simple and powerful idea that explains features of the natural world — design in nature, biological diversity, us — that every society has sought to understand (typically through its own set of creation myths), and yet it was not until the middle of the 19th century that the idea was finally formalized.  And it was formalized by two people, not one.  A R Wallace does not get anywhere close to the air time that Darwin gets [had the Nobel Prize existed in their day, Darwin would have received the Prize, Wallace a gentlemanly shout-out in Darwin’s acceptance speech], but the original publication of the theory (1858) took the form of two separate statements of the same idea — one by Darwin and one by Wallace.  Maybe Wallace isn’t the best example of the scientific also-rans that Sheffield University is asking us to note — he was white and male, after all — but his story illustrates the point well, and some part of his eclipse by Darwin in our histories of the theory is attributable to his relative poverty and lack of connections.

The Darwin-Wallace story is an instance of London bus syndrome: you wait and wait in the rain for one to come, and then, suddenly, two arrive.  Darwin and Wallace discovered the same idea independently and (more or less) simultaneously.

How on earth did that happen?  Darwin and Wallace were subject to the same set of socio-cultural influences. These gave them special opportunities and shaped their ideas in particular ways (relative to earlier thinkers in the same area).  Some of those influences/opportunities: Malthusian thinking, which was often invoked as Victorian Britain pondered creating a societal safety net; laissez-faire economics, which enshrines the improvement-through-competition essence of natural selection; natural theology, which invited empirical scientific research (with a view to understanding the ways of the creator); the industrial revolution, which suggested that living things may be nothing more than very complex machines; British imperialism, which allowed both Darwin and Wallace to travel the world and to see biological diversity in situ.  All these factors — and more — lie behind that 1858 joint paper.  My point: to understand the development of these ideas, the focus should not be on Darwin and Wallace, but, rather, on these other factors.

I don’t think that Sheffield University’s guidelines warrant The Daily Telegraph‘s outrage.

A.) We should indeed review our scientific ideas to ensure that elements of past pernicious thinking have not been woven into the fabric of those ideas

B.) We should of course condemn corruptions of scientific ideas that are used to motivate injustice.  Social darwinism is not an inevitable corollary of the theory of evolution by natural selection

C.) We should indeed try to reduce our reliance on the ‘Great Man’ narrative in history of science.  Scientific discovery is a complex business, and, for sure, the history of science is littered with Rosalind Franklins who have received less credit than they deserve

And from PCC(E), here’s a photo of Andrew on top of Mount Darwin in California, about to place a copy of Why Evolution is True, autographed by yours truly, at the summit for future generations to find. . .

Assessing Ronald Fisher: should we take his name off everything because he espoused eugenics?

January 18, 2021 • 11:00 am

Many consider Ronald Fisher (1890-1962) one of the greatest biologists—and probably the greatest geneticist—of the 20th century, for he was a polymath who made hugely important contributions in many areas. He’s considered the father of modern statistics, developing methods like analysis of variance and chi-square tests still used widely in science and social science. His pathbreaking work on theoretical population genetics, embodied in the influential book The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection, included establishing that Mendelian genetics could explain the patterns of correlation among relatives for various traits, and helped bring about the reconciliation of genetics and natural history that constituted the “modern synthesis” of evolution. His theoretical work presaged the famous “neutral theory” of molecular evolution and established the efficacy of natural selection—the one part of Darwin’s theory that wasn’t widely accepted in the early 20th century.

Fisher also made advances important to medicine, like working out the genetics of Rh incompatibility, once an important cause of infant death. His statistical analyses are regularly used in modern medical studies, especially partitioning out the contributors to maladies and in analyzing control versus experimental groups (they were surely used in testing the efficacy of Covid vaccines).  As the authors of a new paper on Fisher say, “The widespread applications of Fisher’s statistical developments have undoubtedly contributed to the saving of many millions of lives and to improvements in the quality of life. Anyone who has done even a most elementary course in statistics will have come across many of the concepts and tests that Fisher pioneered.”

That is indeed the case, for statistical methods don’t go out of fashion very easily, especially when they’re correct!

Unfortunately, Fisher was also an exponent of eugenics, and for this he’s recently starting to get canceled. Various organizations, like the Society for the Study of Evolution and the American Statistical Association, have taken his name off awards, and Fisher’s old University of Cambridge college, Gonville and  Caius, removed their “Fisher window” (a stained glass window honoring Fisher’s statistical achievements) from their Hall last year.  Further disapprobation is in store as well.

This article in Heredity by a panoply of accomplished British statisticians and geneticists (Bodmer was one of Fisher’s last Ph.D. students) attempts an overall evaluation of Fisher’s work, balancing the positive benefits against his work and views on eugenics. If you are a biologist, or know something about Fisher, you’ll want to read it (click on the screenshot below, get the pdf here, and see the reference at the bottom.)

The authors make no attempt to gloss over Fisher’s distasteful and odious eugenics views, but do clarify what he favored. These included a form of positive eugenics, promoting the intermarriage of accomplished (high IQ) people, as well as negative eugenics: sterilization of the “feeble minded.” The latter was, however, always seen by Fisher as a voluntary measure, never forced. While one may ask how someone who is mentally deficient can give informed consent, Fisher favored “consent” of a parent or guardian (and concurrence of two physicians) before sterilization—if the patients themselves weren’t competent. But is that really “consent”? Negative eugenics on the population kind (not the selective abortion of fetuses carrying fatal disease, which people do every day) is something that’s seen today as immoral.

Further, Fisher’s views were based on his calculations that the lower classes outbred the higher ones, which, he thought, would lead to an inevitable evolutionary degeneration of society. But he was wrong: oddly, he didn’t do his sums right, as was pointed out much later by Carl Bajema. When you do them right, there’s no difference between the reproductive output of “higher” and “lower” classes.

Contrary to the statements of those who have canceled Fisher, though, he wasn’t a racist eugenist, although he did think that there were behavioral and intelligence differences between human groups, which is likely to be true on average but is a taboo topic—and irrelevant for reforming society. Fisher’s eugenics was largely based on intelligence and class, not race. Fisher was also clueless about the Nazis, though there is no evidence that he or his work contributed to the Nazi eugenics program.

In fact, none of Fisher’s recommendations or views were ever adopted by his own government, which repeatedly rejected his recommendations for positive and negative eugenics. Nor were they taken up in America, where they did practice negative eugenics, sterilizing people without their consent. But American eugenics was largely promoted by American scientists.

My go-to procedure for assessing whether someone should be “canceled”—having their statues removed or buildings renamed and so on—involves two criteria. First, was the honorific meant to honor admirable aspects of the person—the good he or she did? Statues of Confederate soldiers don’t pass even this first test. Second, did the good that a person accomplish outweigh the bad? If the answer to both questions is “yes”, then I don’t see the usefulness of trying to erase someone’s contributions.

On both counts, then, I don’t think it’s fair for scientific societies or Cambridge University to demote Fisher, cancel prizes named after him, and so on. He held views that were common in his time (and were adhered to by liberal geneticists like A. H. Sturtevant and H. J. Muller), and his views, now seen properly as bigoted and odious, were never translated into action.

Of course the spread of wokeness means that balanced assessments like this one are rare; usually just the idea that someone espoused eugenics is enough to get them canceled and their honors removed.  It saddens me, having already known about Fisher and his views, that what I considered my “own” professional society—the Society for the Study of Evolution—and a society of which I was President, is now marinated in wokeness, cancelling Fisher, hiring “diversity” experts to police the annual meeting at great cost, and making the ludicrous assertion—especially ludicrous for an evolution society—that sex in humans is not binary (read my post on this at the link). The SSE’s motivations are good; their execution is embarrassing. I am ashamed of my own intellectual home, and of the imminent name change for the Fisher Prize, for which the Society even apologized. Much of the following “explanation” is cant, especially the part about students being put off applying for the prize:

This award was originally named to highlight Fisher’s foundational contributions to evolutionary biology. However, we realize that we cannot, in recognizing and honoring these contributions, isolate them from his racist views and promotion of eugenics–which were relentless, harmful, and unsupported by scientific evidence. We further recognize and deeply regret that graduate students, who could have been recipients of this award, may have hesitated to apply given the connotations. For this, we are truly sorry.

His promotion of genetics was not relentless, wasn’t harmful (at least in being translated into eugenics, as opposed to being simply “offensive”), and of course scientific evidence shows that you could change almost every characteristic of humans by selective breeding (eugenics). But we don’t think that’s a moral thing to do. And yes, you can separate the good someone does from their reprehensible ideas. Martin Luther King was a serial adulterer and philanderer. Yet today we are celebrating his good legacy, which far outweighs his missteps.

But I digress. I’ll leave you with the assessment of a bunch of liberals who nevertheless use Fisher’s work every day: the authors of the new paper.

The Fisher Memorial Trust, of which the authors are trustees, exists because of Fisher’s foundational contributions to genetical and statistical research. It honours these and the man who made them. Recent criticism of R. A. Fisher concentrates, as we have extensively discussed, on very limited aspects of his work and focusses attention on some of his views, both in terms of science and advocacy. This is entirely appropriate, but in re-assessing his many contributions to society, it is important to consider all aspects, and to respond in a responsible way—we should not forget any negative aspects, but equally not allow the negatives to completely overshadow the substantial benefits to modern scientific research. To deny honour to an individual because they were not perfect, and more importantly were not perfect as assessed from the perspective of hindsight, must be problematic. As Bryan Stevenson (Stevenson 2014) said “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

In one of Fisher’s last papers celebrating the centenary of Darwin’s “The Origin of Species” and commenting on the early Mendelian geneticists’ refusal to accept the evidence for evolution by natural selection he said, “More attention to the History of Science is needed, as much by scientists as by historians, and especially by biologists, and this should mean a deliberate attempt to understand the thoughts of the great masters of the past, to see in what circumstances or intellectual milieu their ideas were formed, where they took the wrong turning track or stopped short of the right” (Fisher 1959). Here, then, there is a lesson for us. Rather than dishonouring Fisher for his eugenic ideas, which we believe do not outweigh his enormous contributions to science and through that to humanity, however much we might not now agree with them, it is surely more important to learn from the history of the development of ideas on race and eugenics, including Fisher’s own scientific work in this area, how we might be more effective in attacking the still widely prevalent racial biases in our society.


Below: Ronald Alymer Fisher, in India in 1937 (as the authors note, Fisher was feted by a colleague for his “incalculable contribution to the research of literally hundreds of individuals, in the ideas, guidance, ans assistance he so generously gave, irrespective of nationality, colour, class, or creed.” Unless that’s an arrant lie, that should also go toward assessing what the man actually did rather than what he thought.

Fisher in the company of Professor Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis and Mrs. Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis in India in 1940. Courtesy of the P.C. Mahalanobis Memorial Museum and Archives, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata, and Rare Books and Manuscripts, University of Adelaide Library.

h/t: Matthew Cobb for making me aware of the paper.


Bodmer, W., R. A. Bailey, B. Charlesworth, A. Eyre-Walker, V. Farewell, A. Mead, and S. Senn. 2021. The outstanding scientist, R.A. Fisher: his views on eugenics and race. Heredity.


Pre-Darwin “Darwinians”: a post by Andrew Berry

October 9, 2020 • 12:30 pm

JAC:  When I wrote my post two days ago about supposed Arab precursors to Darwin, I had some email and phone exchanges with my friend Andrew Berry, an instructor and advisor at Harvard who knows a ton about the history of evolutionary biology.  After a recent exchange in which he sent me an informative email, I asked him to flesh it out a bit, as I thought it would make a nice standalone post. Right now there seems to be a resurgence of the claim that many people before Darwin anticipated his ideas in surprising detail. My view is no, they did not: they anticipated the notion of evolution, but nowhere near in as much detail as did Darwin in The Origin; nor did they provide supporting detail to make their theory credible. Finally, nobody (save the Scot Patrick Matthew and, of course, A. R. Wallace) even came close to the mechanism of adaptive evolution—natural selection. I believe, in the essay below, Andrew agrees with that.

But I digress. Here are Andrew’s thoughts on the issue of The Harbingers of Darwinism. He begins by mentioning two errors in my earlier post, which have now been corrected.


Pre-Darwin “Darwinians”

by Andrew Berry

Jerry’s piece in response to a VICE article on several early Arab thinkers whose ideas presaged the theory of evolution raised a number of interesting points.

First off, a couple of utterly trivial things: 1. Patrick Matthew was Scottish, not English.  (Maybe an apparently minor distinction when viewed from the US side of the Atlantic, but not when viewed from the UK side, especially in this era of Brexit and Johnsonian perfidy).  2. Erasmus Darwin did not write a book about evolution.  He merely mentioned it in a number of places in his writings, often in verse (his preferred format).  In fact, he is responsible for what is surely the best statement ever made of the Descent with Modification component of his grandson’s theory (from Temple of Nature 1803):

Organic life beneath the shoreless waves
Was born and nurs’d in ocean’s pearly caves;
First forms minute, unseen by spheric glass,
Move on the mud, or pierce the watery mass;
These, as successive generations bloom,
New powers acquire and larger limbs assume;
Whence countless groups of vegetation spring,
And breathing realms of fin and feet and wing.

Put that on a T-shirt!

I just wanted to add a general observation: that the VICE piece, and the academic articles it is based on, are part of a long tradition of finding hints of evolutionary thinking in a whole range of pre-Darwin writers.  As Jerry mentioned, Rebecca Stott’s Darwin’s Ghosts (2012) is an excellent recent exploration of this area.  As scholarship shifts away from a Western focus, my prediction is that Stott will have to produce another edition, with added thinkers from traditions that have not typically been regarded as relevant to what we might call pre-Darwinan studies.

As Stott recounts, many of these thinkers, western or non-western, took significant risks in challenging the reigning orthodoxy (usually religious ideas on origins).  My favourite is a Frenchman, de Maillet, who took out a threefold insurance policy against suffering the consequences of heresy for his evolutionary thinking.  First, he published his ideas posthumously (the book appeared in 1748, ten years after he died); second, he arranged for the manuscript to be edited by a Catholic priest to make sure his ideas were not too directly antithetical to church doctrine (the problem being that the resulting publication was deprived of de Maillet’s assertiveness), and, most creatively, third, he claimed that his ideas were not his own but were imparted to missionaries by an Indian sage called Telliamed. But de Maillet wasn’t willing to write himself entirely out of the story: Telliamed is ‘de Maillet’ backwards.

Darwin himself provided, in the later editions of the Origin, what he called ‘An Historical Sketch of the Recent Progress of Opinion on the Origin of Species’, as a preface to the Origin.  This was an account of previous evolutionary ideas.  This was not included in the first edition of the Origin and is typically supposed to have been included in later editions as a response by Darwin to criticism post-First Edition that he had ignored the giants whose shoulders he was standing upon.  The Origin, remember, was rushed out in response to Alfred Russel Wallace’s 1858 letter.  Darwin had been quietly working away on what he called his “big species book” when Wallace intruded, sending a manuscript which laid out, in outline, the very idea that Darwin had been gestating over the previous 20 years.  Darwin’s response?  To rush out the Origin.

As the students who are required to read it in my courses will tell you, the Origin, at around 500 pages, is a hefty tome.  However, for Darwin, it was merely a preliminary statement—a quick and dirty synopsis of his argument.  He wanted the word “Abstract” in the title to indicate that this wasn’t his theory in its entirety, but, rather, just a summary.  It was his publisher John Murray who persuaded him that 500 pages and “abstract” don’t really go well together.  As a result of the rush to print, the Origin has a breathlessness about it: there are no references or citations.

It was not only the references that got cut from the project.  We know from Darwin’s correspondence that, as a part of the big book project, he had been working on that Historical Sketch—a review of previous ideas on evolution.  However, he chose not to include this in the first edition.  As he explained in a letter shortly after the Origin came out in November 1859, “My health was so poor, whilst I wrote the Book, that I was unwilling to add in the least to my labour; therefore I attempted no history of the subject; nor do I think that I was bound to do so.”  I think, in fact, he is being a little disingenuous here.  The rush to publish the Origin, after all, was all about establishing precedence, declaring that the theory was his (not, implicitly, Wallace’s).  I suspect that Darwin’s neglect of prior authorities was, at least in part, deliberate.  Wallace is mentioned just four times in the first edition of Origin. And, in his autobiography, Darwin downplayed the influence of his grandfather even though surely his wonderful lilting evolutionary speculations were both historically significant and a prominent part of his family’s lore.  Darwin, I suggest, wasn’t above a little modest self-promotion.

Critics, however, were quick to take Darwin to task for trying, by oversight, to suggest that all the ideas in the Origin were entirely his own.  And it was presumably in part as a response to these critics that Darwin took to adding the Historical Sketch preface in later editions.  The critic most often cited in this regard is Baden Powell (father of Robert Baden-Powell, founder of Scouting; curiously, Baden Powell’s widow, upon his death in 1860, renamed their children to have his full name, Baden Powell, be their surnames, with a hyphen).

This from: The Preface to Darwin’s Origin of Species: The Curious History of the “Historical Sketch” Author(s): Curtis N. Johnson Source: Journal of the History of Biology , Sep., 2007, Vol. 40 pp. 529-556 [JAC: free download at the link]:

“Shortly after the Origin originally appeared in November, 1859, Darwin received a letter from Baden Powell, Savilian Professor of Geometry at Oxford (1827-60), apparently suggesting (from what may be inferred from Darwin’s response – the Powell letter unfortunately has not been found) – that Darwin’s “theory” had been at minimum anticipated well prior to Darwin’s publication, and perhaps, more strongly, that Darwin had been scooped altogether, by Powell and perhaps by others. In the first letter of response to Powell Darwin asserts that not even the “most ignorant [educated person]” could possibly suppose that Darwin “meant to arrogate to myself the origination of the doctrine that species had not been independently created,” and that “if I have taken anything from you, I assure you it has been unconsciously” – words that sound very much as though directed to someone who had suggested some unacknowledged borrowing.”

From 1861, Darwin made sure that his ‘An Historical Sketch of the Recent Progress of Opinion on the Origin of Species’ prefaced every edition of the Origin.

Darwin, naturally, sees his list of precursors as evidence of longstanding interest in the topic but not as evidence of a lack of originality on his part.  Stott’s book falls in the same tradition: she is pointing out that there was a great deal of interesting pre-Darwinian thought on evolution, but she does not see this as diminishing the significance of Darwin’s contributions.

There is, however, another strand of analysis of pre-Darwinian thought that insists that, by rights, these thinkers should displace Darwin: Darwin, by implication, was either a plagiarist or, at best, willfully ignorant of other thinkers’ work.  Or, even more damning, Darwin is wrong, having misinterpreted key components of this prior thinking.  Perhaps the fullest expression of this perspective appeared shortly before Darwin died: Samuel Butler’s Evolution Old & New (1879).  In it, Butler argues that Darwin’s ideas can all be found in a careful reading of Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, of Erasmus Darwin, of Patrick Matthew, of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, and, regardless, some of these ideas are in fact superior to Darwin’s.

Appropriately enough, Alfred Russel Wallace was the one who took up the book review cudgel against Butler in the pages of the then relatively youthful science magazine, Nature: “the main object of the book is to show that all these [pre-Darwinian] authors have been right, while Mr. Charles Darwin is altogether wrong; and that the works of the former contain a more philosophical, more accurate, and altogether superior view of the nature and causes of evolution in the organic world than those of the latter.”

Reading over both Darwin’s Historical Sketch and the new Arab additions to the list of pre-Darwinian evolutionists, I am reminded of a comment by historian Peter Bowler in his Evolution, History of an Idea (2009).  In recounting the proto-evolutionary conjectures of the Greeks, he notes that, with the benefit of hindsight, we tend, anachronistically, to see ancient thought as presaging modern ideas when perhaps the connection is not really there.  Bowler writes that, “Ancient thought is cut and stretched to fit a Procrustean bed defined by our modern categories of analysis.”  In our search for pre-Darwinian hints of evolution, I think we keep Procrustes busy.

But as Jerry points out, the single lesson we learn from analyses of pre-Darwinian thought, is that, though interesting and tantalizing, these shards are just parts of something that only became fully realized in the hands of Darwin and Wallace.  After all, the very reason Darwin (perhaps reluctantly) added his Historical Sketch preface was to point out that curious evolution-related speculations do not a theory of evolution make.

Did Arabs come up with Darwinism before Darwin?

October 7, 2020 • 1:15 pm

Several people sent me the link to a VICE article (below) arguing that Arab scholars—it’s not clear that all of them were Muslims—essentially hit on the essentials of Darwin’s theory centuries before Darwin, and that their contributions have been neglected.

I have neither the time nor will to give this piece a proper critique, but let me say that yes, people don’t often know about the precursors to Darwin, and there were many who broached some of his ideas.

Evolution in particular was one of them; it would be odd if nobody before Darwin thought that organisms had transformed by one process or another over time. (The key reference here is Rebecca Stott’s book, Darwin’s Ghosts.) One such precursor was Erasmus Darwin, Charles’s grandfather, who wrote several times about the possibility of evoltuion. But, like the Arab scholars below, Erasmus lacked the key novel feature of Darwin’s theory: a mechanism for evolutionary change. And that was natural selection.

As I always say, the essence of Darwin’s theory was fivefold: evolution;  evolution being gradual rather than instantaneous, involving the change of proportion of heritable forms in a population due to differential reproduction; a branching process whereby one original species could produce the millions today, speciation; the concomitant realization that any pair of species had a common ancestor; and, what Darwin saw as his most original contribution, the process of natural selection, which resulted in the appearance of adaptation. (This fivefold contribution was first limned by Ernst Mayr.)

The reason Darwin is given almost full credit for the theory of evolution (which of course has changed a bit since 1859), is that he not only suggested these five ideas in one great work, On the Origin of Species, but also provided evidence for them. Darwin’s “theory” was more than just speculation, for he provided enough evidence to convince most educated Westerners within a decade that evolution was true. (It took another 70 or so years until natural selection was generally accepted.)

Others had thought of evolution before, and a few, most notably the Scot Patrick Matthew, had even come close to the idea of natural selection (as, of course, had Alfred Russel Wallace). But nobody put together all the pieces in as comprehensive and convincing a way as did Darwin. That’s why his theory is more or less sui generis, and owes little to those who mused about evolution before him. (It did owe a lot to geologists and natural historians.)

Yet this VICE article suggests that many people anticipated Darwin, including Arab scholars writing in the eighth century. And the article is misleading in several ways. First, yes, some Arab scholars did broach ideas that organisms transformed themselves over time. But none suggested anything close to natural selection as the mechanism for adaptive change, and a lot of the “transformation” was Lamarckian—not due to changes in the frequency of heritable variants, but to the effects of the environment. Second, none of the scholars, despite the claims of their advocates, had any influence on Darwin’s own ideas. Third, the article below appears to be more than just a corrective in the history of science, but also as a way to empower people of color by showing them that Arabs (apparently considered people of color), had come up with something pretty close to Darwin’s theories a millennium before him. And if the latter is wrong, which it is, then how much empowerment can result? Further, as I argue below, getting people resistant to evolution to come around to it doesn’t depend on scientific “identity politics”, but on overcoming religious objections, for most people oppose evolution on religious grounds.

Click below to read the VICE piece.

Shayla Love’s piece cites a number of Arabs who supposedly anticipated Darwin, but her article is woefully short on quotations that show how accurate that anticipation was. Let’s take one of the scholars she cites:  Al-Jahiz, who, suggests Love, came up with the idea of natural selection before Darwin.  I found one 1983 paper on Al-Jahiz by another scholar, who gives direct quotes, and it shows that Al-Jahiz never even came close to Darwin (the paper is from Bayrakdar, Mehmet Islamic Quarterly; Jan 1, 1983; 27, 3; Periodicals Archive Online pg. 149). One must be careful in taking the words of scholars who characterize the work of early Arabs; it’s always best to check the original quotes. The paper below is free online, so you can read Al-Jahiz’s quotes for yourself.

And here are some quotes that Mehmet Bayrakdar (the author), say show Al-Jahiz’s own theory of Darwinian natural selection. (The quotes are in quotation marks.)

Struggle for Existence: al-Jahiz placed the greatest weight on evolution by. the struggle for existence, or, in a larger sense, by natural selection. It operates in conjunction with the innate desire for conservation and permanence of the ego. According to al-Jahiz, between every individual existence, there is a natural war for life. The existence are in struggle with each other. Al-Jahiz’s theory of struggle for existence may accordingly be defined as a differential death rate between two variant class of existence, the lesser death rate characterizing the better, adapted and stronger class. And for al-Jahiz, the struggle for existence is a divine law; God makes food for some bodies out of some other bodies’ death. He says, “The rat goes out for collecting his food, and it searches and seizes them. it eats some other inferior animals, like small animals and small birds. . .  it hides its babies in disguised underground tunnels for protecting them and himself against the attack of the snakes and of the birds. Snakes like eating rats very much. As for the snakes, they defend themselves from the danger of the beavers and hyenas; which are more powerful than themselves. The hyena can frighten the fox, and the latter frightens all the animals which are inferior to it. . . This is the law that some existences are the food for others. . . All small animals eat smaller ones; and all big animals cannot eat bigger ones. Men with each other are like animals. .. God makes cause of some bodies life from some bodies’ death and vice versa. . . ”

And according to al-Jahiz, the struggle does not exist only between the members of different species, but also between the members of the same species.

From what al-Jahiz has said, we can make an assertion that God has created Nature in a prodigal reproductive character and He has also established a law, which is the biological struggle for existence in order to keep it within a limited ratio. Otherwise, the disorder could appear in Nature and it could lose some of its riches and species. We can see the germs of Darwin’s and Neo-Darwinian’s theory of Natural Selection in this remarkable passage which we have mentioned above.

The whole of natural selection is contained in the second paragraph, a single sentence that fails to quote al-Jahiz. Instead, author Bayrakdar refers back to the “remarkable passage” above which shows interspecies interactions and says nothing about natural selection operating among individuals of a species, with differential reproduction causing that species to transform over time. If al-Jahiz was close to Darwin in discerning natural selection from “a struggle between members of the same species”, why didn’t Bayrakdar quote him?

Further, Bayrakdar asserts that “Indeed, Darwin and his precursors took up the theory of al-Jahiz as the base for the essentiality of their evolutionary theories, and they formulated it in a more scientific way in the context of eighteenth and nineteenth centuries development of science.”  Everything in that assessment is wrong. Darwin was not influenced in the slightest by al-Jahiz.

In the VICE piece, Love quotes several other Arab scholars who had ideas about evolutionary change, but none of them come anywhere close to Darwin. (By the way, Love calls Darwin’s book “On the Origins of Species,” getting the title wrong.)

In the end, some of the motivations of Love’s piece becomes clear with her finale:

Including more diverse sources of evolution scholarship could make the study of evolution more accessible in places where it is currently a taboo subject, which can include Muslim countries. It might help for students to see these are ideas that people from their own cultures have been thinking about for thousands of years too.

. . .But for those who think evolution is synonymous with the “West” or atheism, then there might be a level of hesitance that is unnecessary. “If you think that these ideas are only coming from a Victorian era of noblemen, actually that is not the case,” Hameed said. [Salman Hameed is “the director of the Centre for the Study of Science in Muslim Societies at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts”].

It can have a lot of impact as well for young people of color to see themselves represented in the dialogue of scientific ideas throughout history, said Qidwai.

And even for those not of Arab descent, the inclusion fosters a view of science that is iterative and collaborative, rather than individual. “Multiple people are involved,” Qidwai said. “Different players are contributing in certain ways. It really shows that it’s much more interconnected than, you know, a brilliant person had this idea.”

Now I don’t want to be too hard on this aspiration. It may indeed help Muslims embrace evolution to see that some of their ancestors were toying with the idea centuries ago. And it is interesting to see how the idea of evolution popped up now and again through human history—and not just among Arabs.  Further, we do owe Arabs a tremendous debt of intellectual gratitude—for their work on astronomy and mathematics, for their preservation of Greek thought, which would have been lost had it not been appreciated by Arabs, and for other advances that I don’t have the expertise to describe.

But I don’t really think that recounting this history will move Muslims or people of color towards an acceptance of evolution, for the rejection of evolution is based largely on religion, not on whether science was advanced by people sharing your racial background.

And we shouldn’t imply, as the VICE article does, that although Arabs occasionally broached the idea of evolution, they are important founders of a modern scientific theory.  Darwin’s theory is, like Einstein’s, amazing because of its sui generis character—because it didn’t involve much standing on the shoulders of giants who came before. And that is why we celebrate Darwin (and, to a lesser extent, Wallace), and don’t hail Arabic scholars as unrecognized harbingers of evolutionary theory.


h/t: Andrew Berry

The colorful and erudite J.B.S. Haldane: my take and a new biography

August 15, 2020 • 10:30 am

UPDATE: Greg Mayer noted that Jonathan Weiner reviewed the new Haldane bio in the New York Times, also favorably. The link is below, and here’s one quote from Weiner’s review:

“A Dominant Character” is the best Haldane biography yet. With science so politicized in this country and abroad, the book could be an allegory for every scientist who wants to take a stand. “In the past few years,” Subramanian writes, “as we’ve witnessed deliberate assaults on fact and truth and as we’ve realized the failures of the calm weight of scientific evidence to influence government policy, the need for scientists to find their voice has grown even more urgent.” Haldane’s political principles were “unbending and forthright,” as Subramanian says, and his science illuminated all of life. In both these ways, for all his failings, he was “deeply attractive during a time of shifting, murky moralities.”


J. B. S. Haldane (1892-1964) was probably the most colorful character in the history of modern evolutionary biology. Son of a famous physiologist, he was precocious and brilliant, earning a First in both Greats (classics) and mathematics at Oxford. He went on to become one of the three people (along with R. A. Fisher and Sewall Wright) to provide the mathematical underpinnings of the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis, in particular working out how genes would behave under natural selection.

But he made other substantial contributions, suggesting possible theories for the origin of life, becoming the first person to suggest that the gene for sickle-cell anemia was (in one copy) adaptive in areas where malaria was prevalent (he was right), and was also the first to estimate the mutation rate for a human gene.

He was also the first to notice a phenomenon I worked on much of my career: “Haldane’s rule.”  That generalization, which others named after him, was the observation that in crosses between different species, if only one sex of offspring was sterile or inviable (with the other being fertile or viable), it was almost invariably the heterogametic sex: the one that had unlike sex chromosomes. So in flies and mammals, for instance, where males are XY and females XX, if there’s an asymmetry in hybrid sterility or inviability, over 95% of the time it is the males who suffer. In contrast, in birds and butterflies, in which females have unlike sex chromosome and males like ones, it’s the females who suffer among hybrids. Haldane’s explanation for this phenomenon was wrong, but I took up the issue again since it laid fallow since 1922, when Haldane published a short paper on it. It was mainly my students and collaborators, however, who worked out the complete explanation, which has an important bearing on speciation.

Haldane was famous for being a colorful character. Eager to serve in the trenches in World War I, he rode a bicycle along the line, trying to provoke enemy fire. (He apparently knew no fear his whole life.) He was a ferocious drinker, and his student, John Maynard Smith, used to tell me stories about Haldane’s bibulous episodes. One was that, after a night in the pub, the engine of Haldane’s car caught on fire. He immediately urged everyone to douse the fire by urinating on it.

Haldane is also known for his (possibly apocryphal) reply to someone who asked him what one could infer about the creator from the nature of the creation. Haldane’s supposed reply, “An inordinate fondness for beetles.” (Beetles are the most numerous of insect orders—Coleoptera—with over 350,000 species.)  My Ph.D. advisor Dick Lewontin told me that he once invited Haldane to Rochester (where Dick held his second academic job), and Haldane insisted on going shopping for underwear for his wife, Helen Spurway. Wearing his characteristic Indian clothes (Haldane had by then moved to India in protest of British policy in the Suez), Haldane embarrassed everyone by asking for black lace panties and bras in his loud, booming voice.

Haldane was also an immensely talented science writer and popularizer, erudite—remember, he had a First in Greats—with a light touch. With his terse prose, he could be considered the Hemingway of popular science. To get a flavor of his writing, read one of his famous essays, “On Being the Right Size,” which you can find free at the link.

By the way, when I graduated from Harvard, Dick gave me, as a graduation present, an aerogramme he’d received from Haldane in response to an invitation to lecture. You can read it for yourself, and see the diversity of J. B. S.’s interests:

Dick also told me that it was when Haldane was visiting Rochester that he noticed blood while defecating, the first sign of the colon cancer that eventually killed him. But even his impending death didn’t bother Haldane that much, and he wrote a really funny poem about his cancer and colostomy called “Cancer’s a funny thing.” You can read it here, but below are a few lines:

I wish I had the voice of Homer
To sing of rectal carcinoma,
Which kills a lot more chaps, in fact,
Than were bumped off when Troy was sacked.

Yet, thanks to modern surgeon’s skills,
It can be killed before it kills
Upon a scientific basis
In nineteen out of twenty cases.

I noticed I was passing blood
(Only a few drops, not a flood).
So pausing on my homeward way
From Tallahassee to Bombay
I asked a doctor, now my friend,
To peer into my hinder end,
To prove or to disprove the rumour
That I had a malignant tumour. . .

. . .So now I am like two-faced Janus
The only* god who sees his anus.

*In India there are several more
With extra faces, up to four,
But both in Brahma and in Shiva
I own myself an unbeliever.

I’ll swear, without the risk of perjury,
It was a snappy bit of surgery.
My rectum is a serious loss to me,
But I’ve a very neat colostomy. . .

Note that Haldane consulted a doctor on his return from Tallahassee, which, as he noted in the aerogramme above, he was visiting after he came to Rochester.

Finally, Haldane was an intensely political animal. He was a Communist, joined the British Communist Party (often giving speeches against the government), and even supported the charlatan Trofim Lysenko and his Lamarckian theories of crop breeding, simply because Lysenko was touted by Stalin. This was a serious misstep for a scientist—especially an evolutionary biologist—but Haldane, disenchanted, eventually left the party. He moved to India in 1956 to join the Indian Statistical Institute in Kolkata, and died in Bhubeneswar, where the aerogramme above was written. After his move, Haldane always dressed in Indian clothes, even when traveling to the West (he said “sixty years in socks is enough!”). Here’s a picture of him (left) with the famous statistician P. C. Mahalanobis:

Wikipedia gives several encomiums tendered by those who knew him or knew of his work:

Arthur C. Clarke credited him as “perhaps the most brilliant science populariser of his generation”.  Nobel laureate Peter Medawar called Haldane “the cleverest man I ever knew”. According to Theodosius Dobzhansky, “Haldane was always recognized as a singular case”; and to Michael J. D. White, “the most erudite biologist of his generation, and perhaps of the century.”

I’ve written too much already, as all I intended to do was highlight a new biography of Haldane that was favorably reviewed (by conservative Matt Ridley!), in the London Times. Reader Pyers sent me a transcript, adding, “You might be interested in a new book which is a biography of JBS Haldane. The headline in the review in the London Times sums him up perfectly: ‘The stupidity of a brilliant mind’.”

I’ll send a copy of the review if you’d like to see it.

There was an earlier biography of J. B. S. (that’s what his colleagues and students called him) by Ronald Clark, which is okay but very light on Haldane’s science. Click on the screenshot to go to its Amazon page:

And here’s the new biography (click to go to Amazon page), which came out July 28. The title is a double entendre, as in genetics “a dominant character” is a trait produced by a gene that gives full expression of the trait when the carrier has only one copy of the gene (polydactyly and attached earlobes are two such traits in humans).

Here is the evaluative part of Ridley’s review:

Subramanian does a masterly job of summarising a rich and rough life. He uses sharp analogies and arresting images. Haldane’s handwriting was like “ants somersaulting through snow”. His columns for the Daily Worker were like “razor blades in print”. He writes that in his thirties “the various streams of his experience pooled within the basin of his character”. Haldane would have approved. Look for a familiar analogy, he wrote in “How to write a popular scientific article”. But, both illustrating and contradicting the point, he also wrote “an ounce of algebra is worth a ton of verbal argument”.

. . . Subramanian summarises Haldane’s contribution as “an incandescent persona: the man who lifted the arras that hid the work of nature; the man who stepped down, into the everyday world, from his tower of ivory; the man who shrugged away convention and defied authority”. Haldane deserves a biographer who is eloquent, intelligent, fair, but unsparing and as good at explaining science as politics. Not an easy combination, but he has got one.

I’ll be reading the book, for it’s hard to get enough Haldane. I wish I’d met the man, but he died before I graduated from high school and began studying biology.

The number of species on islands

July 27, 2020 • 1:00 pm

by Greg Mayer

[The following is a trivial, and speculative, discussion about a small part of an important paper in the history of ecology and evolutionary biology.]

There are fewer species of any given group of plants or animals on an island than on an equivalent area of the mainland; and the larger the island, the more species there will be. These two general rules of natural history have been known since at least the 19th century, and are known under the rubrics that island biota are depauperate, and the species-area relationship, respectively. There have been many, not always mutually exclusive, explanations for these phenomena, and in the early 1960s they were on the minds of at least several biologists.

The most important resulting paper was Robert MacArthur and Ed Wilson‘s classic “An equilibrium theory of insular zoogeography.” This paper, together with the expansion of the ideas contained within it into a book-length monograph, The Theory of Island Biogeography (1967), were extremely influential in setting out the questions to be asked, and how to go about answering them, across many areas of ecology and evolutionary biology, not just the phenomena of island life.

MacArthur and Wilson (1963).

In the paper, MacArthur and Wilson proposed (among other things) that the number of species on an island resulted from a dynamic equilibrium between ongoing immigration and extinction of species living on the island, and that the relation of these demographic processes to various physical properties of islands led to the species-area relationship. They illustrated this relationship in two figures showing the relationship between the area of an island or island group and the number of species of land and freshwater birds occurring on that island or island group. One figure was for islands in and near the Sunda group, the other for the Moluccas, Melanesia, and Polynesia. Both figures are interesting, but the second one concerns us today.

Figure 2 of MacArthur and Wilson (1963).

For reasons relating to some research projects I’m pursuing during the pandemic, I was led to look closely at this figure, including the sources of the data as indicated in the legend of the figure: three papers by Ernst Mayr, and a book by James C. Greenway. I have a copy of Greenway’s book (both editions, actually), and Mayr’s 1943 paper is readily available online to anyone from SORA (a wonderful free repository containing vast swaths of the ornithological literature).

Neither of the two earlier papers are readily available, but the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Library scanned a copy of the earliest, and sent me a pdf (kudos to the staff of the Library there for working very hard during the pandemic to keep the scholarly literature available); and I happened to have a reprint of the other, a paper from the modestly obscure Proceedings of the Sixth Pacific Science Congress. Mayr published two papers in the proceedings, and I have reprints of both; the second is the one cited by MacArthur and Wilson.

Mayr (1940a).


Mayr (1940b).

The provenance of my copies is of interest. By looking at the stamps and annotations, you can see that the copies were originally in the library of the Bird Department of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, which stamped them, and added the author and date notation at upper left. (Departments of major museums usually maintain libraries physically separate from the main library of the institution.) Reprints were the principal way in which scientific literature circulated in the 1940s, and it is most likely that the Bird Department obtained the copies shortly after publication, not when Mayr moved to the MCZ in 1953. As duplicates (and Mayr’s arrival may be why the Department had extra copies), they then passed into the possession of my friend and colleague Bob O’Hara; we were graduate students together in the 1980s, and he worked closely with Mayr. At some point, also in the 1980s, Bob gave them to me, and I penciled my name and a correction to the date of publication on them. (See Note on the date of publication below.)

So now we come to the matter at hand. I was trying to track down the actual numbers that went into MacArthur and Wilson’s Figure 2, and some of the data came from Mayr (1940b), the second of the proceedings papers. It’s a 20 page paper, with no table of species numbers by islands, so I was reading it carefully to find what numerical data I could. It’s all on page 202– species numbers for 11 islands or island groups that were included in Figure 2. And a little later, while copying the numbers on to a data sheet, I noticed a pencil mark next to the paragraph with the data. (It is the only mark in the paper, aside from those on the first page.)

A pencil mark highlighting species number data in Mayr (1940b).

The mark was not mine; and it would not be Bob O’Hara’s, who would not have been interested in the particular questions addressed by these data. So who would have been using the MCZ Bird Department Library’s copy prior to the 1980s to highlight data included in MacArthur and Wilson (1963)? It occurred to me, could it have been Ed Wilson himself?

Wilson was at the MCZ with Mayr, and would have had access to this copy. In their paper, he and MacArthur thank Mayr (and a few others) for “material aid and advice during the course of the study.” There is thus no question that they consulted Mayr, and used data from a number of Mayr’s papers and books (in Figure 1, as well as Figure 2). If they looked up the data themselves (as opposed to Mayr directly telling them the species numbers), then this particular copy, now in my possession, is a likely copy for them to have used, and Wilson is the likely person to have made the mark highlighting the data that was used. This then, is my speculative (and trivial) suggestion: that Wilson used this copy in the preparation of his and Robert Mac Arthur’s classic and influential paper.

MacArthur and Wilson’s (1963) Figure 2 plots data for 26 islands or island groups. In the cited references, I can find data for only 21 of them; I do not know where they got the data for Tonga, Kei, Tanimbar, Buru, and Ceram. Jurgen Haffer (2007:163), Mayr’s biographer (and himself an accomplished contributor to ornithological science) records the following interesting tidbit:

Mayr (pers. comm.) had copious data on island sizes, distances from mainlands or other islands, number of species, etc. When he tried to determine relations among all these figures he got into mathematical problems and turned this material over to a graduate student with mathematical abilities. However this student got sidetracked into other problems and this material was never exploited.

This account was recalled to Haffer by Mayr decades later, and what data was compiled, when it was compiled, and who the student was, isn’t known.

Haffer (2007: 170) also states that in the 1933 and 1940b papers Mayr “clearly discussed what became later known as the equilibrium theory of insular biogeography”, a claim that has been echoed by other authors. This is not quite correct. Mayr discussed a number of relevant factors contributing to the characteristics of island faunas in 1940b, and the paper is well worth reading and studying today. But he did not formulate in any clear way, even verbally, MacArthur and Wilson’s later theory.  (My very limited German does not allow me to properly assess the 1933 paper, but Mayr’s two 1940 papers in English seem to parallel closely the earlier paper in German.)

For example, Mayr (1940b:215) does note that on a smaller island a species will have a smaller “effective breeding population” and thus be vulnerable to extinction; this is a striking formulation, obviously influenced by theoretical population genetics (likely gotten from Theodosius Dobzhansky). But in discussing extinction on New Caledonia he is clearly discussing evolutionary events stretching over much of the Tertiary (i.e. tens of millions of years), and not the turnover in ecological time of insular populations contemplated by MacArthur and Wilson’s equilibrium theory. The latter has been demonstrated to occur over annual and decadal scales on, for example, smaller islands in the British Isles.

While not excluding the possibility of a MacArthur and Wilson style ecological equilibrium (because he does not consider the situation), Mayr is clearly discussing the origin and persistence (or not) of endemic forms (species, genera, even families) over evolutionary time. Mayr himself (quoted in Haffer, 2007: 163) offers a much more nearly accurate appreciation of his views, stating that his own ideas embraced the “basic thesis” of MacArthur and Wilson; he did not “clearly discuss” the equilibrium theory.

Note on the date of publication. The Sixth Pacific Science Congress was held in 1939, but the Proceedings were published later, from 1940-1943.  Greenway (1958), who knew Mayr well, cited them as 1941, and this may have been the source of my handwritten correction, but I cannot now recall. Haffer’s (2007) definitive list, based on Mayr’s own lists, cites them as 1940.

Greenway, J.C. 1958. Extinct and Vanishing Birds of the World. American Committee for International Wild Life Protection, New York.

Haffer, J. 2007. Ornithology, Evolution, and Philosophy: The Life and Science of Ernst Mayr 1904–2005. Springer, Berlin.

MacArthur, R.H. and E.O. Wilson. 1963. An equilibrium theory of insular zoogeography. Evolution 17:373-387.  pdf

MacArthur, R.H. and E.O. Wilson. 1967. The Theory of Island Biogeography. Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J.

Mayr, E. 1933. Die Vogelwelt Polynesiens. Mitteilungen aus dem Zoologischen Museum in Berlin 19:306-323.

Mayr, E. 1940a. Borders and subdivisions of the Polynesian Region as based on our knowledge of the distribution of birds. Proceedings of the Sixth Pacific Science Congress 4:191-195.

Mayr, E. 1940b. The origin and history of the bird fauna of Polynesia. Proceedings of the Sixth Pacific Science Congress 4:197-216. (This paper was reprinted in Mayr (1976) but Mayr sometimes updated papers in that collection, and for my purposes I needed to see the original.)

Mayr, E. 1976. Evolution and the Diversity of Life. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.

Mayr, E. 1943. The zoogeographic position of the Hawaiian Islands. Condor 45:45-48. pdf

Happy Birthday, Rosalind Franklin!

July 25, 2020 • 10:45 am

by Matthew Cobb

Franklin on holiday in Tuscany, 1950.

The chemist and X-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin was born 100 years ago today. Although she was never in the public eye in her lifetime, in the last quarter century she has become a figure of renown, with her name attached to a university, a medical school, several buildings and student dorms, lecture theatres, as well as various prestigious medals and fellowships and – most recently – a future Mars Rover and a commemorative UK coin. She died in London, of ovarian cancer, on 16 April 1958.

Franklin’s gravestone, in the Jewish cemetery in Willesden, north London, concludes: ‘Her research and discoveries on viruses remain of lasting benefit to mankind’.

Franklin’s work on RNA viruses, carried out from 1953-58 at Birkbeck College, London – first the tobacco mosaic virus, then, briefly, on the polio virus – was of such significance that her PhD student, Aaron Klug, won the 1982 Nobel Prize for this research. Had she lived, she would have had a good case for winning two Nobel Prizes, one for the virus work, and the other for her contribution to the resolution of the double helix structure of DNA, which she made in 1951 and 1952 at King’s College London.

By any standards, therefore, Franklin was a remarkable scientist whose skill and insights created a great legacy of work. As her Nature obituary put it:

The news of the death of Rosalind Franklin on April 16 came as a shock to many workers in the field of biochemistry and virus studies. It is a special tragedy when a brilliant research worker is cut off at the height of her powers and when exciting new discoveries are expected from her.

She was of international renown, collaborating with leading researchers at Berkeley, Tubingen and Yale. Those scientists valued her because, according to the Nature obituary, her work:

was distinguished by extreme clarity and perfection in everything she undertook. Her photographs are among the most beautiful X-ray photographs of any substance ever taken. Their excellence was the fruit of extreme care in preparation and mounting of the specimens as well as in the taking of the photographs. She did nearly all this work with her own hands. At the same time, she proved to be an admirable director of a research team and inspired those who worked with her to reach the same high standard.

It is striking that few of the commemorations you will see today will present this side of her work.* Instead, they will be focused on her contribution to the most significant biological discovery of the 20th century, the structure of DNA, and in particular the suggestion that James Watson stole a key part of her research—an X-ray photograph taken in 1952—known as photograph 51.

There are two problems with this – firstly, her contribution to science was so much more than ‘simply’ contributing to the structure of DNA, and secondly, in highlighting the supposed role of a single image, we are inadvertently doing her a great injustice.

Most people came to hear about Franklin through Jim Watson’s racy, novelised account of the discovery of the structure of DNA, The Double Helix, which came out in 1968. Written with a verve that contrasts with the plodding prose of his other biographical writings, The Double Helix describes how Maurice Wilkins at King’s showed Watson the famous photograph 51 and, in a flash, Watson realised its significance for the structure of DNA.

This moment, so vivid in the book, is the starting point for the modern emphasis on photograph 51 and on Franklin’s status as a wronged woman (this view is amply justified by Watson’s unsettlingly frank description of his scornful, sexist, contemporary views of Franklin in his book).

In reality, photograph 51 played a key role only in convincing Watson that DNA had a helical structure (that is all that a glance could tell you), which is something that Wilkins had long been convinced of and had been repeatedly argued in discussions in King’s. And in providing a dramatic, Watson-centred hook to the account in the book.

Franklin’s decisive and unwitting contribution to Watson and Crick’s discovery was not a single photo. Indeed, she did not even take photograph 51; it was taken by her PhD student, Raymond Gosling, who had initially been a student of Wilkins. By the end of 1952, Gosling was again supervised by Wilkins, which is why Wilkins had the photo and had every right to show it to Watson. Whether that was wise is another matter.

Instead it was something much more significant: a set of values, established by Franklin on the basis of her detailed studies of these photos, and which were contained in a report by the King’s lab to the Medical Research Council, which provided Watson and above all Crick with the key. This report, including Franklin’s data, was handed to Watson and Crick by members of the Cambridge lab where they worked at the end of 1952.

Franklin was not consulted, but the data were not secret, or private. Indeed, she had presented similar data 15 months earlier at a talk Watson attended, but he did not take notes, and by his own account spent his time musing about her dress sense. But the Cambridge crew could and should have asked her, and were wrong not to. Given her previous (and understandable) complaint to members of Wilkins’ group that they should not interpret her data for her, it is perhaps no surprise that she wasn’t asked – it seems very likely her answer would have been ‘no’.

Once Crick saw the data, he understood their significance in a way that Franklin initially did not do – he had been working on the way that helical molecules diffracted X-rays, so his mind was prepared to understand them in an instant. That encounter of a prepared mind with Franklin’s values, not Watson glancing at photograph 51, was the decisive moment.

By early March 1953, Watson and Crick had come up with the detailed double helix structure, and invited Franklin and Wilkins to come and see it. The King’s duo immediately accepted it as correct – in a way it just had to be true, it was so beautiful. The structure was published in Nature shortly thereafter, as a set of three articles, the other two being from Franklin (including photograph 51) and from Wilkins – they provided the empirical justification (but not proof) for Watson and Crick’s theoretical model.

In a piece of understatement, the Watson and Crick paper acknowledged that ‘We have also been stimulated by a knowledge of the general nature of the unpublished experimental results and ideas of Dr M. H. F. Wilkins, Dr. R. E. Franklin and their co-workers’.

A significant element in the discovery of the double helix was the magic of Watson and Crick’s interaction. It is striking that, unlike them, Franklin did not have anyone she could talk to and argue with about her work, and in particular did not get on with Wilkins (I imagined what might have happened if they had been able to work together in a previous post).

And yet, as she was finishing up at King’s, getting ready to move to Birkbeck, she continued, all on her own, to analyse her data. Her lab books reveal her astonishing solitary progress. By 24 February, using Crick’s method published the year before, she had realised that DNA was a double helix, that the bases on either strand were complementary and interchangeable (A with T, C with G), and above all she realised that, as she put it ‘an infinite variety of nucleotide sequences would be possible to explain the biological specificity of DNA’.

In that final, key respect, she was ahead of Watson and Crick’s first explicit statement of this fundamental aspect of DNA structure, which would not be made for another 3 months (the first Watson and Crick paper had very little on function, referring merely to replication).

Making key contributions to the structure of two important viruses, single-handedly approaching the double helix structure of DNA, those are remarkable contributions by a woman scientist at a time when women were relatively rare in the global scientific community. It is just slightly frustrating that her contribution is ‘reduced’ to DNA, and her role in that discovery is framed in the way Watson self-servingly portrayed it.

But, I suppose, it’s better that Franklin is remembered in a distorted, albeit positive way, than solely through Watson’s portrayal in The Double Helix. The simplicity of the story of ‘she took a photo, Watson stole it, she was robbed’ has an undoubted power, even if it isn’t strictly true. It can be a way for young people to come to grips with the science and the history of science, undoubtedly driven by understandable irritation at Watson’s views, both in his account, and subsequently. For example, it is hard to be grumpy about this rap battle between Franklin and Watson and Crick, written and performed by 7th graders. The historical detail is not precisely right, but still. . .

The iconic power of photograph 51 is probably too cemented to dislodge, and she did, after all, use it in her Nature paper of 1953. So, my irritation at the UK’s commemorative 50p piece is subsumed by the fact that it is a beautiful thing, and better this than nothing:

But remember: it was her data that counted, not that photo. The person who made all the fuss about the photo was Jim Watson, in his novelised account. In that respect, our memory of her is still determined by his account, which should not be taken as historically accurate except where it can be independently verified. Above all, she did so much more than provide the data that were used to discover the double helix. With luck, at her bicentenary a more balanced view will dominant popular culture.

* Two exceptions are this week’s editorial in Nature and an article in the Times Literary Supplement by the historian of science Patricia Fara. Both are excellent brief accounts of Franklin’s life that, as Fara’s title puts it, go ‘beyond the double helix’. Strikingly, both still refer to that photo, rather than the key role of Franklin’s data. That tells you all you need to know about the grip of Watson’s account.

If you want to know more about Franklin, Brenda Maddox’s biography The Dark Lady of DNA is excellent. My book Life’s Greatest Secret (2015) contains a detailed chapter on the double helix and Franklin’s contribution.