Darwin, Wallace, and evolution

150 years ago, Charles Darwin was born in England. 100 years ago, his famous Origin of Species was published.

To commemorate those events, this year is “Darwin year”. As part of that, there is an exhibition about Darwin and evolution in the natural history museum. It is called “Expeditie Darwin”.

The central theme of the exhibition is Darwin‘s journey around the world, and the contribution of especially his visit to the Galapagos islands then, to his theory of evolution. Islands, the exhibition says, make for peculiar twists in the evolution of animal (and plant) species. Animals, eg, may evolve into bigger, or smaller species, than their original continental ancestors, depending on presence of predators, food, etc. Today still, scientists, including employees of the museum, discover new facts on evolution, including on islands.

According to the exhibition, the major contribution to evolution theory were the various species of buntings, which Darwin collected on the Galapagos islands. Darwin at first thought they were finches, and they are still known as Darwin’s finches.

Well, the exhibition says that Darwin’s finches are really buntings. Wikipedia claims that they are really tanagers (thraupidae).

This mistake by Darwin was not really unexpected, as Darwin’s major subject at university had been theology, not biology. In fact, then it was hardly possible to major in biology at any university. Some recent authors say that Darwin’s discoveries on Galapagos mockingbirds, or in Argentina, really were more of an influence on evolution theory than the buntings. This view is not discussed in the exhibition.

Darwin’s view that natural selection was the mechanism propelling evolution forward was influenced by another theologian, Thomas Malthus, who had not majored in the subject in which he would become best known; political economy in Malthus‘ case.

Darwin found out that the main differences between the various Galapagos “finch” species were their beaks, adapted to different kinds of food in the island environment. From that, he concluded that the divergence from one continental ancestral species which had arrived on the islands to the present different species had been rather recent. 12 of the 14 Darwin’s finch species are present in the museum collection.

After traveling around the world on the ship Beagle as a twen, and forming the basic principles of his evolution theory during and soon after that journey, Darwin waited until he was fifty with publishing his ideas. Perhaps there was something of another theologian-scholar in him, a literary fictional theologian-scholar: Edward Casaubon from George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch. Casaubon does not want to publish his complex sweeping theories until he would be totally sure that no critic would have a chance of successfully attacking them. Which means defering and defering publication, maybe until the Greek kalends.

In Darwin’s nineteenth century reality, however, there was an additional reason for delaying publication on especially the evolution theory: it could be foreseen that Christian believers in creation (about 6,000 years ago, according to Bishop Usher‘s addition of numbers in the Bible) of immutable species would sharply attack Darwin. Charles Darwin was an irenic person, who did not want trouble, also not with what later would become known as “creationists“, some of which he knew well personally. Eg, his wife, and Captain Fitzroy of the Beagle were very devout.

However, in 1858 Darwin got a letter, all the way from Asia, from Welsh born Alfred Russel Wallace. Like Darwin, Wallace had not studied biology as major university subject; contrary to Darwin, he had no university education at all. He also “pioneered the theory of the Ice Ages and equal wages for women“.

Like Darwin, Wallace had studied birds on various (Indonesian in his case) islands. He studied especially imperial pigeons: various species, similar to each other, like Darwin’s finches; yet differing according to environment, also like Darwin’s finches. Wallace was from a much poorer family than Darwin. He had less cause than Darwin to be afraid of criticisms from Christian “polite society” if he would publish.

Darwin understood that soon, maybe someone else would get the credit for theories on which he had been working for decades. A potential conflict between Darwin and Wallace was prevented by the presentation of a paper, written jointly by them. Darwin now started working much faster toward publishing the Origin of Species, which came out next year.

At the exhibition are three imperial pigeon species studied by Wallace: the elegant imperial pigeon; the pink-headed imperial pigeon; and the purple-tailed imperial pigeon.

At the exhibition are also many other animal species, mainly from islands. Living or extinct (eg, the dodo). There are explanations how scientists of this museum study those animals. One example of that research is the discovery of the jellyfish eating sea anemone (or lake anemone, as it lives in a salt lake) Entacmaea medusivora. It was already known from Palau. Later, a museum researcher found out that it lives in Borneo island as well.

Darwin Killed Off The Werewolf: here.

Darwin and the Silurian, here.

Timeline: The evolution of life, here.

Mangrove finches: here.

Newly Goat-Free, a Galapagos Island Awaits a Finch Renaissance: here.

A new species of finch may have arisen in the Galapagos: here.

Adaptation and function of the bills of Darwin’s finches: divergence by feeding type and sex: here.

Race, sex and the ‘earthly paradise’: Wallace versus Darwin on human evolution and prospects: here.

A global model for the origin of species independent of geographical isolation: here.

Linnaean taxonomy is still a cornerstone of biology, but modern DNA techniques have erased many of the established boundaries between species. This has made identifying species difficult in practice, which can cause problems, as shown by a researcher from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden: here.

Charles Darwin’s theory of gradual evolution is not supported by geological history, New York University Geologist Michael Rampino concludes in an essay in the journal Historical Biology. In fact, Rampino notes that a more accurate theory of gradual evolution, positing that long periods of evolutionary stability are disrupted by catastrophic mass extinctions of life, was put forth by Scottish horticulturalist Patrick Matthew prior to Darwin’s published work on the topic: here.

16 thoughts on “Darwin, Wallace, and evolution

  1. Princeton biologists’ evolutionary work on finches awarded

    by Carly Rothman/The Star-Ledger

    Friday June 19, 2009, 3:01 AM

    PRINCETON — Together, they spent more than 35 years tracking “Darwin’s finches” in the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador.

    Together, they taught at Princeton University, published groundbreaking research on evolutionary theory, and received honors including the Darwin Medal from the Royal Society of London.

    Today, biologists Peter and Rosemary Grant together will mark another major achievement: The husband-and-wife team has been awarded the Kyoto Prize, an international award presented by the Inamori Foundation of Japan.

    The program, founded 25 years ago by entrepreneur, businessman and philanthropist Kazuo Inamori, honors outstanding contributions in advanced technology, basic sciences and arts and philosophy. The Grants are this year’s honorees in the Basic Science category.

    “It is Dr. Inamori’s belief that our society’s future can be assured only when there is a balance between technological development and the advancement of the human spirit,” said Jay Scovie, the North American liaison for the Inamori Foundation, explaining the Grants were selected both for their “enormous” scientific contributions and “the selfless dedication, the commitment, and the willingness to make significant personal sacrifice for the sake of their science.”

    Through their painstaking study of the beak size and shape of 14 finch varieties, mainly on the Daphne Major island, the Grants have substantiated and expanded the theories of Charles Darwin, examining the mechanisms by which species evolve in response to environmental changes and yielding insights on how natural selection takes place.

    “Peter and Rosemary Grant have been the leaders in showing how evolution works — how small changes can lead to big ones,” said John Bonner, the George M. Moffett Professor Emeritus of Biology at Princeton University, in a statement released by the school.

    The Grants could not be quoted for this story because the prize’s organizers required news of the award be held until the couple was alerted early this morning.

    “Honors for the Grants are extremely well-deserved … they have revolutionized our view of evolution, providing dramatic evidence of evolution at work,” Simon Levin, the George M. Moffett Professor of Biology at Princeton University, wrote in an e-mail.

    Levin was the 2005 Kyoto Prize winner in the basic science category for his work in environmental science. Also in 2005, Princeton alumnus George Heilmeir, who invented liquid crystal display technology, won the prize for advanced technology, according to a statement from the university.

    After graduating from the University of Cambridge and earning his doctorate at the University of British Columbia, Peter Grant served on the faculties of the University of Michigan and McGill University, according to the university’s statement. He came to Princeton in 1985, chairing the newly created Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology between 1990 and 1991. He is currently the Class of 1877 Professor Emeritus of Zoology.

    Rosemary Grant graduated from Edinburgh University and earned her doctorate from Uppsala University in Sweden, meanwhile working as a research associate at several institutions, according to the statement. She joined Princeton University in 1985 as a research staff member, becoming a senior research scholar in 1997. She retired last year after many years as a lecturer.

    Both Grants are fellows of the Royal Societies of London and Canada. The authors of several books, the Grants were the subject of a 1994 Pulitzer Prize winner, “The Beak of the Finch.”

    The winner in each category will receive a prize of 50 million yen, or about $500,000. The Grants will be invited to receive their award in Kyoto in November.



  2. Posted by: “bigraccoon” bigraccoon@earthlink.net redwoodsaurus
    Sun Jul 12, 2009 3:27 pm (PDT)

    Texas Governor Perry Picks Creationist To Run State Education Board


    Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) has chosen Gail Lowe, an outspoken creationist, to run the state’s Board of Education.

    It was actually the less controversial choice. Cynthia Dunbar, reportedly under consideration for the post, believed government should be guided by a “biblical litmus test” and thought public education was a “subtly deceptive tool of perversion.” (She home-schooled her own children.) She has also endorsed conspiracy theories suggesting President Obama is not a natural-born citizen.

    Lowe, on the other hand, thinks evolution should be taught and “kids ought to be able to hold religious beliefs and still study science without any conflict.” But in 2008, she took the position that “biology textbooks which do not teach both the scientific strengths and weaknesses of the theory of evolution must be rejected by the board.” She has voted against new textbooks that do not contain those “weaknesses.” She is a newspaper editor, not a teacher.

    Lowe will replace Don McLeroy, another self-described creationist and dentist whose reappointment was blocked by Democrats. He had been chairman of the board since 2007 and will remain a member.



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