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Posts Tagged ‘Charles Darwin

how evolution was proved to be true

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The origin of species is a natural phenomenon

Jean-Baptiste Lamarck

The origin of species is an object of inquiry

Charles Darwin

The origin of species is an object of experimental investigation

Hugo de Vries

(quoted in The Gene: an intimate history, by Siddhartha Mukherjee)

Gregor Mendel

I’ve recently read Siddhartha Mukherjee’s monumental book The Gene: an intimate history, a work of literature as well as science, and I don’t know quite where to start with its explorations and insights, but since, as a teacher to international students some of whom come from Arabic countries, I’m occasionally faced with disbelief regarding the Darwin-Wallace theory of natural selection from random variation (usually in some such form as ‘you don’t really believe we come from monkeys do you?’), I think it might be interesting, and useful for me, to trace the connections, in time and ideas, between that theory and the discovery of genes that the theory essentially led to.

One of the problems for Darwin’s theory, as first set down, was how variations could be fixed in subsequent generations. And of course another problem was – how could a variation occur in the first place? How were traits inherited, whether they varied from the parent or not? As Mukherjee points out, heredity needed to be both regular and irregular for the theory to work.

There were few clues in Darwin’s day about inheritance and mutation. Apart from realising that it must have something to do with reproduction, Darwin himself could only half-heartedly suggest an unoriginal notion of blending inheritance, while also leaning at times towards Lamarckian inheritance of acquired characteristics – which he at other times scoffed at.

Mukherjee argues here that Darwin’s weakness was impracticality: he was no experimenter, though a keen observer. The trouble was that no amount of observation, in Darwin’s day, would uncover genes. Even Mendel was unable to do that, at least not in the modern DNA sense. But in any case Darwin lacked Mendel’s experimental genius. Still, he did his best to develop a hypothesis of inheritance, knowing it was crucial to his overall theory. He called it pangenesis. It involved the idea of ‘gemmules’ inhabiting every cell of an organism’s body and somehow shaping the varieties of organs, tissues, bones and the like, and then specimens of these varied gemmules were collected into the germ cells to produce ‘mixed’ offspring, with gemmules from each partner. Darwin describes it rather vaguely in his book The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication, published in 1868:

They [the gemmules] are collected from all parts of the system to constitute the sexual elements, and their development in the next generation forms the new being; but they are likewise capable of transmission in a dormant state to future generations and may then be developed.

Darwin himself admitted his hypothesis to be ‘rash and crude’, and it was effectively demolished by a very smart Scotsman, Fleeming Jenkin, who pointed out that a trait would be diluted away by successive unions with those who didn’t have it (Jenkin gave as an example the trait of whiteness, i.e. having ‘white gemmules’, but a better example would be that of blue eyes). With an intermingling of sexual unions, specific traits would be blended over time into a kind of uniform grey, like paint pigments (think of Blue Mink’s hit song ‘Melting Pot’).

Darwin was aware of and much troubled by Jenkin’s critique, but he (and the scientific world) wasn’t aware that a paper published in 1866 had provided the solution – though he came tantalisingly close to that awareness. The paper, ‘Experiments in Plant Hybridisation’, by Gregor Mendel, reported carefully controlled experiments in the breeding of pea plants. First Mendel isolated ‘true-bred’ plants, noting seven true-bred traits, each of which had two variants (smooth or wrinkled seeds; yellow or green seeds; white or violet coloured flowers; flowers at the tip or at the branches; green or yellow pods; smooth or crumpled pods; tall or short plants). These variants of a particular trait are now known as alleles. 

Next, he began a whole series of painstaking experiments in cross-breeding. He wanted to know what would happen if, say, a green-podded plant was crossed with a yellow-podded one, or if a short plant was crossed with a tall one. Would they blend into an intermediate colour or height, or would one dominate? He was well aware that this was a key question for ‘the history of the evolution of organic forms’, as he put it.

He experimented in this way for some eight years, with thousands of crosses and crosses of crosses, and the more the crosses multiplied, the more clearly he found patterns emerging. The first pattern was clear – there was no blending. With each crossing of true-bred variants, only one variant appeared in the offspring – only tall plants, only round peas and so on. Mendel named them as dominant traits, and the non-appearing ones as recessive. This was already a monumental result, blowing away the blending hypothesis, but as always, the discovery raised as many questions as answers. What had happened to the recessive traits, and why were some traits recessive and others dominant?

Further experimentation revealed that disappeared traits could reappear in toto in further cross-breedings. Mendel had to carefully analyse the relations between different recessive and dominant traits as they were cross-bred in order to construct a mathematical model of the different ‘indivisible, independent particles of information’ and their interactions.

Although Mendel was alert to the importance of his work, he was spectacularly unsuccessful in alerting the biological community to this fact, due partly to his obscurity as a researcher, and partly to the underwhelming style of his landmark paper. Meanwhile others were aware of the centrality of inheritance to Darwin’s evolutionary theory. The German embryologist August Weismann added another nail to the coffin of the ‘gemmule’ hypothesis in 1883, a year after Darwin’s death, by showing that mice with surgically removed tails – thus having their ‘tail gemmules’ removed – never produced tail-less offspring. Weismann presented his own hypothesis, that hereditary information was always and only passed down vertically through the germ-line, that’s to say, through sperm and egg cells. But how could this be so? What was the nature of the information passed down, information that could contain stability and change at the same time?

The Dutch botanist Hugo de Vries, inspired by a meeting with Darwin himself not long before the latter’s death, was possessed by these questions and, though Mendel was completely unknown to him, he too looked for the answer through plant hybridisation, though less systematically and without the good fortune of hitting on true-breeding pea plants as his subjects. However, he gradually became aware of the particulate nature of hereditary information, with these particles (he called them ‘pangenes’, in deference to Darwin’s ‘pangenesis’), passing down information intact through the germ-line. Sperm and egg contributed equally, with no blending. He reported his findings in a paper entitled Hereditary monstrosities in 1897, and continued his work, hoping to develop a more detailed picture of the hereditary process. So imagine his surprise when in 1900 a colleague sent de Vries a paper he’d unearthed, written by ‘a certain Mendel’ from the 1860s, which displayed a clearer understanding of the hereditary process than anyone had so far managed. His response was to rush his own most recent work into press without mentioning Mendel. However, two other botanists, both as it happened working with pea hybrids, also stumbled on Mendel’s work at the same time. Thus, in a three-month period in 1900, three leading botanists wrote papers highly indebted to Mendel after more than three decades of profound silence.

Hugo de Vries

The next step of course, was to move beyond Mendel. De Vries, who soon corrected his unfair treatment of his predecessor, sought to answer the question ‘How do variants arise in the first place?’ He soon found the answer, and another solid proof of Darwin’s natural selection. The ‘random variation’ from which nature selected, according to the theory, could be replaced by a term of de Vries’ coinage, ‘mutation’. The Dutchman had collected many thousands of seeds from a wild primrose patch during his country rambles, which he planted in his garden. He identified some some 800 new variants, many of them strikingly original. These random ‘spontaneous mutants’, he realised, could be combined with natural selection to create the engine of evolution, the variety of all living things. And key to this variety wasn’t the living organisms themselves but their units of inheritance, units which either benefitted or handicapped their offspring under particular conditions of nature.

The era of genetics had begun. The tough-minded English biologist William Bateson became transfixed on reading a later paper of de Vries, citing Mendel, and henceforth became ‘Mendel’s bulldog’. In 1905 he coined the word ‘genetics’ for the study of heredity and variation, and successfully promoted that study at his home base, Cambridge. And just as Darwin’s idea of random variation sparked a search for the source of that variation, the idea of genetics and those particles of information known as ‘genes’ led to a worldwide explosion of research and inquiry into the nature of genes and how they worked – chromosomes, haploid and diploid cells, DNA, RNA, gene expression, genomics, the whole damn thing. We now see natural selection operating everywhere we’re prepared to look, as well as the principles of ‘artificial’ or human selection, in almost all the food we eat, the pets we fondle, and the superbugs we try so desperately to contain or eradicate. But of course there’s so much more to learn….

William Bateson

Written by stewart henderson

June 14, 2017 at 5:42 pm

clever Charlie Darwin

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A photo taken by me! King Charles seated in state in the Musuem of Natural History, London. It was a thrill to be granted an audience

A photo taken by me! King Charles seated in state in the Musuem of Natural History, London. It was a thrill to be granted an audience

I recently decided to reread Darwin’s Origin of Species, which was really reading it for the first time as my first reading was pretty cursory, and I could barely follow the wealth of particular knowledge he used for cumulative effect to adduce his theory. This time I’ve been doing a closer reading, and becoming increasingly impressed, and I’ve only read the first chapter, ‘Variation under Domestication’.

Darwin’s argument here of course is that domesticated horses, dogs, birds and plants have been artificially selected over long periods of time, and often unconsciously, to suit human needs and tastes. This might seem screamingly obvious today, and to a degree it was recognised in Darwin’s time, but because of an inability to take the long view, and also because of the then-prevalent paradigm of the fixity of species, breeders and nurserymen tended to under-estimate their own cumulative powers, and to claim, for example, that dogs and pigeons had always come in many varieties. Even Darwin was uncertain, and was willing to concede – writing of course before the advent of Mendelian genetics, never mind the revolution wrought by the identification and analysis of DNA as the molecule of inheritance – that in some cases the breeders might be right:

In the case of most of our anciently domesticated animals and plants, I do not think it is possible to come to any definite conclusion, whether they have descended from one or several species.

He was even prepared to concede that it was ‘highly probable that our domestic dogs have descended from several wild species’, while at the same time arguing that the breeding of dogs, in Egypt, other parts of Africa and Australia (where, in his Beagle travels, he observed dingoes, which he may have seen as semi-domesticated by the Aborigines) extended back far further in time than most people suspected. We now know that Darwin’s concession here was ‘premature’. The latest research strongly suggests that our domesticated dogs trace their ancestry to a group of European wolves dating from 19,000 to 32,000 years ago, and probably now extinct. That’s a time-frame Darwin would’ve baulked at, and it’s both funny and kind of tragic that this is something I’ve ‘discovered’ after 30 seconds of selective internet searching. There’s no doubt, though that Darwin’s bold but always informed speculations were heading in the right direction.

Particularly informed –  and bold – were his speculations about pigeons. This is hardly surprising as he spent several years studying and breeding them himself. Interestingly, he started doing so because he’d become convinced that all the fancy pigeons then on show were most likely derived from one common species, the rock pigeon or rock dove (Columba livia), a view already held by some naturalists but few breeders.  He devotes several pages in Chapter 1 to arguing his case, for example pointing out that the ‘several distinct species’ argued for by breeders can be crossed with complete success, that’s to say with no signs of sterility or more than usually defective offspring.

So, as with dogs, I decided to look up what the latest research was on the ancestry of English carriers, short-faced tumblers, runts, fantails, common tumblers, barbs, pouters, trumpeters and laughers, to name some of the pigeons Darwin mentions in the chapter, and was excited to find that a piece of research published as recently as 2013 has confirmed Darwin’s hypothesis. Cheaper and faster genome sequencing technologies have enabled researchers to sequence the genomes of many wild and domesticated birds, and they’ve found that all of the latter are clearly closer to C livia than to any other wild species. It only took just over 150 years for Darwin to be proven correct.

Close reading like this really does reap some fun rewards, and I’ll finish with two more examples. Darwin wrote of how in the world of breeding, quite a drastic change can be brought about in one breeding step, as in the case of the fuller’s teasel with its hooks. He goes on:

So it has probably been with the turnspit dog; and this is known to have been the case with the ancon sheep.

Not knowing wtf he was talking about, I irritatedly decided to look up these unknown creatures. The turnspit dog is a now-extinct breed, bred specifically from around the 16th century to provide the dogpower to turn meat on a spit, the only conceivable way of cooking large joints of meat in your average fancy household for a couple of centuries. The dog, or dogs, because the system worked better if you had two of them engaged in shift work, turned a wheel by running inside it, rat-like, until the meat was cooked. They were known to be long-bodied and short-legged, but details of how they were bred aren’t known, as they were apparently beneath scholarly consideration. They certainly weren’t seen as cuddly pets – if you treat creatures as slaves it heightens your contempt for then (cf Aristotle) – and they were even taken to church as foot-warmers. They’d disappeared entirely by the end of the 19th century.

It's a dog's life?

It’s a dog’s life?

The ancon sheep was a short-legged type, apparently bred from a single individual in the USA in the late nineteenth century, its short legs having the singular advantage, to some, of curtailing its hopes of freedom by jumping the fence. The term ‘ancon’ has since been used by breeding researchers to describe strains of creatures arising from an individual with the same phenotype.


Written by stewart henderson

June 4, 2016 at 11:00 am

how did life begin? part 1 – Greenland rocks, warm little ponds and unpromising gunk

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the basics of the Miller-Urey experiment: sparking interest

the basics of the Miller-Urey experiment: sparking interest


Jacinta: Well, we need an antidote to all that theological hocus-pocus, so how about a bit of fundamental science for dummies?

Canto: Sounds great, I just happened to read today that there are three great questions, or areas of exploration for fundamental science. The origin of the universe – and its composition, including weird black holes, dark matter and dark energy – that’s one. The others are the origin of life and the origin of consciousness. Take your pick.

Jacinta: I’ll choose life thanks.

Canto: Not a bad choice for a nihilist. So life has inhabited this planet for about three and a half billion years, or maybe more, while the planet was still cooling from its formation…

Jacinta: Isn’t it still doing that?

Canto: Well, yes of course. An interesting study conducted a few years ago found that around 54% of the heat welling up from within the earth is radiogenic, meaning that it results from radioactive decay of elements like radium and thorium. The rest is primordial heat from the time of the planet’s coalescing into a big ball of matter.

Jacinta: Gravity sucks.

Canto: Energetically so.

Jacinta: You say three and a half billion years or more – can you be a bit more specific? Are we able to home in on the where and the when of life’s origin on this planet?

Canto: Well, that would be the pot of gold, to locate the place and time of the first homeostatic replicators, to wind back history to actually witness that emergence, but I suspect there would be nothing to actually see, at least  not on the time-scale of a human life. I think it’d be like the emergence of human language, only slower. You’d have to compress time somehow to witness it.

Jacinta: Fair enough, or maybe not, it seems to me that the distinction between the animate and the inanimate would be pretty clear-cut, but anyway presumably scientists have a time-frame on this emergence. What allows them to date it back to a specific time?

Canto: Well, it’s an ongoing process of honing the techniques and discovering more bits of evidence, a bit like what has happened with defining the age of our universe. For example, you’ve heard of stromatolites?

Jacinta: Yes, those funny black piles that stick out of the water and sand, somewhere in Western Australia? They’re made from really old fossilised cyanobacteria, right?

Canto: Well, that’s a start, they’re rather more complicated than that and we’re still learning about them and still discovering new deposits, all around the world, both on the shoreline and inland. But the Shark Bay stromatolites  in WA were the first to be identified, and that was only in 1956. More recently though, there’s been an entirely different discovery in Greenland that’s raised a lot of excitement and controversy…

Jacinta: But hang on, these stromatolites, they say they’re really old, like more than 3 billion years, but how do they know that? As Bill Bryson would say.

Canto: Well, good question Jass, in fact it’s highly relevant to this Greenland discovery so let me talk about radiometric dating, using this example. Greenland has been attracting attention since the sixties as a potential mineral and mining resource, so the Danish Geological Survey was having a look-see around the region of Nuuk, the capital, in the south-west of the island. The principal geologist found ten successive layers of rock in the area, using standard stratigraphic techniques that you can find online, though they’re not always easy to apply, as strata are rarely neatly horizontal, what with crustal movements, fault-lines and rockfalls and erosion and such. Anyway, it was his educated guess that the bottom of these layers was extremely old, so he sent a sample to Oxford, to an expert in radiometric dating there. This was in about 1970.

Isua rocks, Greenland. Oldest rocks discovered, showing plausible traces of 3.8 billion-year-old life

Isua rocks, Greenland. Oldest rocks discovered, showing plausible traces of 3.8 billion-year-old life

Jacinta: And doesn’t it have to do with radioactive isotopes and half-lives and such?

Canto: Absolutely. Take uranium 238, which if you’ve been watching the excellent recent ABC documentary you’ll know that it decays through a whole chain of, from memory, twelve nuclides before stabilising as an isotope of lead. That decay has a half-life of 4.5 billion years – longer than the life of this planet, or at least the life of its crust. So it’s a matter of measuring the ratio of isotopes, to see how much of the natural uranium has decayed. In this case, the gneiss, the piece of bottom-strata rock that was analysed, had the highest proportion of lead in it of any naturally occurring rock ever discovered.

Jacinta: So that means it’s likely the oldest rock? Aw, I thought Australia had the oldest. This is terrible news.

Canto: No time to be parochial when the meaning of life is at stake. May I continue? So this was an exciting discovery, but more was to come, and it’s continuing to come. The geological team were inspired to continue their explorations around the Godthaab Fjord in Greenland, and found what are called ‘mud volcanoes’, pillows of basaltic volcanic lava that had issued out into the seawater. These were again dated at about 3.7 billion years old, and this strongly suggested the existence of warm oceans at that time, with hydrothermal vents such as those recently discovered to be teeming with life…

Jacinta: Right, so that might be pushing the age of life back a few hundred million years, if it can be verified, but it still doesn’t answer the how question..

Canto: Oh, nowhere near it, but I’ve just started mate. May I continue? Not surprisingly this region is now seen as a treasure trove for those hunting out the first life forms and trying to work out how life began. It was soon found that the Isua greenstone to the north of Nuuk contains carbon with a scientifically exciting isotopic ratio. The level of carbon 13 was unexpectedly low. This is generally an indication of the presence of organic material. Photosynthesising organisms prefer the lighter carbon 12 isotope, which they capture from atmospheric or oceanic carbon dioxide. But the finding’s controversial. Many are skeptical because this is the period known as the ‘late heavy bombardment’, with asteroids crashing and smashing and vaporising and possibly even sterilising… and they haven’t discovered any fossils.

Jacinta: So, photosynthesis, that’s what created the great oxygenation, which created an atmosphere for complex oxygen-dependent organisms, is that right?

Canto: Well, that was much later, and it’s a vastly complex story with quite a few gaps in it, so maybe we’ll save it for future conversations…

Jacinta: Okay, fine, but couldn’t one of those asteroids have brought life here, or proto-life, or the last essential ingredient…?

Canto: Yes, yes, maybe, but you’re distracting me. May I please continue? Where was I? Okay, so let’s look at the various theories put forward about the origin of life – and it will bring us back to Greenland. You’ve mentioned one, called panspermia. That’s the idea that life was seeded here from space, maybe during the heavy bombardment…

Jacinta: Which isn’t an adequate explanation at all, because where did that life come from? I want to know how any life-form anywhere can spring from the inanimate.

Canto: Yes all right, don’t we all smarty-pants? One of the most interesting early speculators on the subject was one Charles Darwin, who wrote – very famously – in a letter to his good mate Joseph Hooker in 1871, and I quote:

It is often said that all the conditions for the first production of a living organism are now present, which could ever have been present.— But if (& oh what a big if) we could conceive in some warm little pond with all sorts of ammonia & phosphoric salts,—light, heat, electricity &c present, that a protein compound was chemically formed, ready to undergo still more complex changes, at the present day such matter wd be instantly devoured, or absorbed, which would not have been the case before living creatures were formed.

Now this was pretty damn good speculation for the time, and a couple of generations later two biologists, Aleksandr Oparin of Russia and John Haldane of England, independently developed a hypothesis that built on Darwin’s ideas.

Jacinta: Oh yes, they had this idea that if you added a bit of lightning to the early terrestrial atmosphere, which was full of  ammonia or something, you’d get a lot of organic chemistry happening.

Canto: Well I think the ‘or something’ part is true there – their idea was that there was a lot of hydrogen, methane and water vapour in the early atmosphere, and that, combined with local heat caused perhaps by lightning, or volcanic activity or some sort of concentrated solar radiation, the combo created a soup of organic compounds, out of which somehow over time emerged a primordial replicator.

Jacinta: So far, so vague.

Canto: Okay, I’m just getting started. The Oparin-Haldane hypothesis was highly speculative, of course. The point being made was that this key event was all that was needed for natural selection to kick in. This replication must have been advantageous, and of course over time there would’ve been mutations,with the mutants competing with the originals, and the winners would’ve been the most efficient and effective harvesters of resources, and there would’ve been expansion and more mutations and modifications and so forth. And out of that would come the first self-sustaining homeostatic environment, the proto-cell, within which more sophisticated machinery for processing resources could be developed…

Jacinta: Okay so you’ve more or less succeeded in dissolving the boundary between the animate and the inanimate before my eyes, but it’s still pretty vague on the details.

Canto: In 1953, Stanley Miller took up the challenge of his supervisor, famous Nobel Prize-winning biologist Harold Urey, who noted that nobody had tested the Oparin-Haldane hypothesis experimentally. Miller created a mini-atmosphere in a bottle, using methane (CH4), hydrogen, water vapour and ammonia (NH3), and after sparking it up for a while, he managed, to the amazement of all, to produce amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. Surely the first step in producing life itself.

Jacinta: Ah yes, that was a famous experiment, but didn’t it turn out to be something of a dead end?

Canto: Well, yes and no. It has been replicated with different mixtures and ratios of gases, and amino acids, sugars and even traces of nucleic acids have been generated, but nothing that could be described as a primordial replicator. But of course this work has got a lot of biologists thinking.

Jacinta: But this was 60 years ago. That’s a lot of thought without much action.

Canto: Well, what has since been realised about the experiments of Miller and others is that they create an enormous complexity of organic molecules in a rather uncontrolled way, a kind of chemical gunk similar to what might be created when you burn the dinner. The point being that when you burn the dinner – which is something necessarily organic like a dead chook, or pig, or tragically finless shark or whatnot…

Jacinta: Or a pumpkin, or Nan’s rhubarb pie..

Canto: Yeah, okay – you get this messy complexity, all mixed with oil and vinegary acids and shite – you get this break-down into gunk, and that’s easy. What’s hard is to go in the other direction, to build up from gunk into a fully fledged chicken, or a handsomely finned shark. And that’s what these experiments were trying to do, in their small way. They were creating this primordial-soup-gunk and hoping, with a bit of experimental help, to spark life into it, and basically getting nowhere. The problem is essentially to do with randomness and order. How do we get order out of random complexity? It’s easy to go the other way, for example with explosions and machine guns and such. We see that everywhere. But building the kind of replicating order that you find even in mycoplasma, the smallest genus of bacteria, from scratch, and by chance – well, that’s mind-bogglingly improbable.

mycoplasma, one of the simplest life forms - but try making one from scratch

mycoplasma, one of the simplest life forms – but try making one from scratch

Jacinta: So we have to think in terms of intermediate stages.

Canto: Yes, well, there are big problems with that, too… But let’s give it a rest for now. Next time, we’ll discuss the RNA world that most biologists are convinced preceded and helped create the DNA world we live in.


N B – This piece owes much to many, but mainly to Life on the edge: the coming of age of quantum biology, by Jim Al-Khalili & Johnjoe McFadden

Written by stewart henderson

September 8, 2015 at 10:03 pm

reveries of a solitary wa*ker: wa*k 2

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bulldog Tommy about to land a bookish blow

bulldog Tommy about to land a bookish blow

The Darwin book continues to be a rollicking good read, I’m into the post Origin period, where shit hits the fans and Darwin’s fans, led by that young Turkish bulldog Tommy Huxley, shovel shit on the opposition, captained by soapy Sam Wilberforce and the brains of high Anglicanism, Dicky Owen – the most gifted naturalist of his age, to be fair. What’s fascinating is that the Origin precipitated the last great politico-religious struggle in England, a very drawn-out affair which crossed the Atlantic and continues in the US to this day, but in England it has been a slow-acting poison to conservative Anglicanism. Liberal Anglicanism, essentially a bridge to atheism, has swallowed natural selection with a sort of diffident, dumb grace, flexible as to their god’s ever-changing plan. As a semi-student of history though, I can well understand Darwin’s own diffidence about publicizing his theory. It was bad enough for the time, had it been a century earlier (impossible of course given the eighteenth century state of knowledge) he would absolutely have been martyred for it. As it was, during the couple of decades between formulating his theory and going public, the public, especially the disaffected Chartist ‘rabble’, had become increasingly keen for a weapon to strike down the High Clergy and the swanningly civilised aristos, and apes for ancestors, monkeys for uncles, even gorillas for girlfriends, fitted the bill perfectly. Darwin, of course, presented his case as dispassionately as humanly possible, with nary a mention of human descent, and afterwards kept his head down in Downe, obsessing over pigeons and orchids and sexual selection (actually chipping away very effectively at the god-did-it argument), while Tommy Huxley, Joe Hooker and co fought the good Darwinian battle in the big smoke with consummate derring-do (don’t believe a word of this by the way, as if you would). Darwin was anything but a fighter – he had vomiting fits at the very thought of confrontation – but in his oddly reclusive way he was always the leader, because unlike many of his supporters, even the closest ones, he knew he was right. His aim, his obsession, with all his apparently arcane researches, was to keep adding to the mountain of evidence.

There are many intriguing things about Darwin. He was vain but genuinely humble, highly-strung and emotional but profoundly analytical, a hypochondriac and yet a real invalid for stretches of his life, and of course a revolutionary who hated revolutionaries. As a young, footloose, disgustingly well-heeled intellectual, he could think of nothing better than to make a pleasant living as a naturalist-clergyman, like many a gentleman among his family’s connections. By his career’s end, the naturalist-clergyman was becoming a relic, probably more due to his own productions than to any other cause.

The founding father of eugenics, atheism, Nazism, bestiality and please don’t get me started


And this leads to a consideration of his most profound impact, outside the confines of science, what makes him the most controversial and contested, and in some circles reviled, figure of the past two hundred years, and that is his, and his theory’s, complete denial of human specialness. A specialness which is at the heart of the Abrahamic religions, without which not.

This recognition of human relatedness to other species, the bringing of humans back to the pack, wasn’t an anti-Christian urge by any means, it was more a result of his obsessive interest in solving the problems of adaptation and basic survival of creatures such as barnacles, earthworms and pigeons. This obsession gave him great respect for the sometimes barely fathomable complexity and ingenuity of even the most ‘basic’ life-forms. He saw human complexity as a continuation of that adaptive process, but biologists and many other scientists were, at that time, unable to shake off notions of human exceptionality. Owen, Wallace, Luis Agassiz, Asa Gray, Charles Lyell, St George Mivart and others of Darwin’s time, all had qualms about, or simply rejected outright, the implications for humanity of Darwinian natural selection, and these represented the scientific mainstream, essentially. Darwin himself was able to weather the storm through the support of strong allies such as Hooker and Huxley, his own ability to avoid and deflect controversy, his inaccessibility at Downe, his long-suffering but profoundly loyal wife, and his habit of retreating into the messy fine detail of his studies. He also, through voluminous correspondence – he would’ve loved the world of email and Facebook – built up a huge network of scientific boffins, breeders and farmers, with whom he was unfailingly polite and charming while exploiting their specialist knowledge. So he was able to adapt very well to the challenges thrown at him.



I’m writing here as if delivering a lecture, and I do wish I could reach more people. I don’t have too many contacts with a penchant for science, or for history, but then I don’t have many contacts. But enough complaining (mea culpa after all), I note that the vaccination controversy drags on, with too many people standing on their ‘right’ to not vaccinate their children, which shows up the problems with the rights concept, which I’ve always considered artificial but a useful fiction which has helped to build a more humane global society, and speaking of globalism the battle to save the lives of Australians under the death penalty is almost over, but we should continue the battle to the end because it’s a bad law and national sovereignty be damned, and that should be the same for any national under any national or state law. Which makes me wonder, I’m not a lawyer, but what would happen if an Australian citizen was charged with a capital offence and sentenced to death in the notorious US state of Texas? Maybe they only kill US citizens, that’d keep them out of international trouble, but what we need to keep working on is an international code of ethics and an international law and I do think we’re creeping towards it slowly slowly.

capital punishment - green doesn't do it, red does, and yellow's moving away

capital punishment – green doesn’t do it, red does, and yellow’s moving away

Written by stewart henderson

April 9, 2015 at 6:53 am

reveries of a solitary wa*ker: wa*k 1

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(Being a thousand words or so of mental drivel)

I’d prefer not to be coy about the title but I’ve a job to protect.

the delightful enthusiasm of children

the delightful enthusiasm of children

Began watching documentary series chronicles of the third reich, yet another rake-over of that terrible but ghoulishly fascinating period, and it kicked off with noted historian Ian Kershaw saying that the regime was unique in that it aimed to overthrow the entire Judeo-Christian system of ethics that sustained western Europe for centuries. Bullshit I say. No such thing. What nazism was overthrowing, or delaying or subverting, was the progress of western Europe, for example the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, movements towards democracy, individual liberty, internationalism, none of which owed anything to the Judeo-Christian belief system. This lazy thinking and remarking continually goes unchallenged. At the height of Judeo-Christian control we had monarchical dictatorships, divine right, religious authoritarianism, extreme corruption, torture, rigid hierarchies, feudal slavery, etc, a world of inhumanity and brutality. Not saying that Christianity caused this, life wouldn’t have been any better in China or Japan, doubtless. Depended on chance and ‘birthright’ as to how well you fared.


Reading the big bio of Darwin by Desmond and Moore, thinking how so much that was radical or extreme becomes mainstream within a few generations, such as materialism, atheism, democratic principles, equality for women, humans as apes. Chartism’s aims – extension of suffrage, taxation reform, the repeal of laws too unjust to be enacted nowadays, all horrific to the upper classes, who armed themselves with crowbars to protect their homes and privileges. And among them, quite a few favouring transmutation (though not of the Darwinian kind – more a sort of Lamarckian progressive development towards the human pinnacle) and atheistic science. Makes you think of today’s accelerating trends, e.g gay marriage. All these ideas were opposed because they would bring down civilisation as we know it. Rock n roll was another one.
Also thinking how science threatened and continues to threaten religion. Moslem student asked me last week, do you think humans come from apes? Could see what his hopes were, was happy to crush them and move on. No doubt he’ll return to Saudi, ask the question again and be reassured as to his human specialness. But maybe not. But in Darwin’s day, so many associates, Sedgwick, Henslow, Lyell, Owen, Whewell, even Herschel, even bloody Wallace, couldn’t countenance our ‘demotion’ to a primate, on grounds some of them didn’t even recognise as religious. How can it possibly be argued that religion and science are compatible? Only if we have a very different religion, and perhaps a very different science – panpsychism, spooky action at a distance, positively conscious positrons.

A love-hate thing with Darwin, all his stuffy aristocratic connectedness, his family’s money, but then his boldness of ideas, but then his timidity born of an unwillingness to offend, a need to be admired, feted, but two kinds of glory, the one for a grand idea that might just outlast the opprobrium of his elite class in mid-nineteenth century England, the other for being a model member of that class, civilized, restrained, highly intelligent, pushing gently outwards the boundaries of knowledge. The tension between immediate, hail-fellow-well-met acceptance and something more, his dangerous idea, something barely digestible but profoundly transformative.


Keep reading about the hard problem of consciousness, without greatly focusing. Don’t really believe in it. We’re surely just at the beginning of getting to grips with this stuff – but how much time do we have? Dennett talks of the mind as cultural construct, Cartesian theatre as he calls it, and you don’t need to have ever heard of Descartes to wonder at how memories, rehearsals, fantasies can be played out inside the head, inaccessible to everyone but yourself, but without the boundaries of the skull, or of a theatre, no straightforward boundaries of space or time, yet composed of reality-bits, physical and emotional. One of my first serious wonderings, I seem to remember (not trustworthy) was about this boundary-less but secret place-thing called the mind. Not sure about a cultural construct, seemed very real and self-evident to me, and a wonderful safe haven where you can think and do things for which you’ll never get arrested, never have to apologise, a theatre of blood, sex and brilliance…

But I don’t think I thought then, and I don’t think now, that this was anything other than a product of the brain because to me the brain was like every other organ, the heart, the liver, the kidneys, the lungs, they were all mysterious, I didn’t know how any of them worked, and though I knew that I could learn a lot more about them, and would over the course of my life, I suspected that nobody knew everything about how any of them functioned, and the brain was just more complex and so would contain more mysteries than any of the others perhaps put together, but it had to come from the brain because, well everybody said thoughts were produced by the brain and these were just thoughts after all and where else could they come from – there was no alternative. And it seems we’re slowly nutting it out, but humans are understandably impatient to find answers, solutions. We like to give prizes for them.


Also reading Natalie Angier’s Woman, a revised version of a book brought out in the nineties. It’s a popular biology book from a good feminist perspective, and I’m learning much about breast milk and infant formula, about the breast itself, about menstruation, about the controversies around hysterectomies and so on, but her style often irritates, drawing attention to too much clever-clever writing rather than the subject at hand. It’s a tricky area, you want your writing lively and engaging, not like reading an encyclopedia, but especially with science writing you want it all to be comprehensible and transparent – like an encyclopedia. Angier sometimes uses metaphors and puns and (for me) arcane pop references which have me scratching my head and losing the plot, but to be fair it’s worth persevering for the content. But it shouldn’t be about persevering.

a change of focus, and Charlie Darwin’s teenage fantasies

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He's just so moi, though I'm more rough than ruff

He’s just so moi, though I’m more rough than ruff

“bashful, insolent; chaste, lustful; prating, silent; laborious, delicate; ingenious, heavy; melancholic, pleasant; lying, true; knowing, ignorant; liberal, covetous, and prodigal”

Michel de Montaigne, ‘Myself’

Sitting at my computer with the ABC’s ‘Rage’ on in the background, when on came a video by an artist who’s taken the moniker ‘Montaigne’, and how could I not be attracted? Good luck to her. I first stumbled on the original Montaigne decades ago, and like thousands before and since, I was fairly blown away. He’s been an inspiration and a touchstone ever since, and to think I’m now approaching his age at his death. One thing he wrote has always stayed with me, and I’ll misquote in the Montaignian tradition, being more concerned with the idea than the actual words – something like ‘I write not to learn about myself, but to create myself’. This raises the importance of writing, of written language, to an almost ridiculous degree, and I feel it in myself, as I’ve sacrificed much to my writing, such as it is. Certainly relationships, friendships, career – but I was always bad at those. All I have to show for it is a body of work, much of it lost, certainly before the blogosphere came along, the blogosphere that retains everything, for better or worse.

The New Yorker captures the appeal of Montaigne well. He wasn’t an autobiographical writer, in that he didn’t dwell on the details of his own life, but as a skeptic who trusted little beyond his own thoughts, he provided a fascinating insight into a liberal and wide-ranging thinker of an earlier era, and he liberated the minds of those who came later and were inspired by his example, including moi, some 400 years on. So, I’d like to make my writings a bit more Montaignian in future (I’ve been thinking about it for a while).

I’ve been focussing mainly on science heretofore, but there are hundreds of bloggers better qualified to write about science than me. My excuse, now and in the future, is that I’m keen to educate myself, and science will continue to play a major part, as I’m a thorough-going materialist and endlessly interested in our expanding technological achievements and our increasing knowledge. But I want to be a little more random in my focus, to reflect on implications, trends, and my experience of being in this rapidly changing world. We’ll see how it pans out.

what's in that noddle?

what’s in that noddle?

Reading the celebrated biography of Charles Darwin by Adrian Desmond and James Moore, I was intrigued by some remarks in a letter to his cousin and friend, William Darwin Fox, referring to the ‘paradise’ of Fanny and Sarah Owen’s bedrooms. This was 1828, and the 19-year-old Darwin, already an avid and accomplished beetle collector and on his way to becoming a self-made naturalist, was contemplating ‘divinity’ studies at Cambridge, having flunked out of medicine in Edinburgh. Fanny was his girlfriend at the time. These bedrooms were

‘a paradise… about which, like any good Mussulman I am always thinking… (only here) the black-eyed Houris… do not merely exist in Mahomets noddle, but are real substantial flesh and blood.’

It’s not so much the sensual avidity shown by the 19-year-old that intrigues me here, but the religious attitude (and the fascinating reference to Islam). For someone about to embark on a godly career – though with the definite intention of using it to further his passion for naturalism – such a cavalier treatment of religion, albeit the wrong one, as ‘inside the noddle’, is quite revealing. But then Darwin’s immediate family, or the males at least, were all quasi-freethinkers, unlike his Wedgewood cousins. Darwin never took the idea of Holy Orders seriously.

Written by stewart henderson

February 8, 2015 at 10:53 am