Friday Fossil Feature – ammonite or am I right?

By Sarah Boessenecker (@tetrameryx)

Happy Fossil Friday!

Cleoniceras sp., from the lower Cretaceous of Madagascar. The 'ceras' in the name is greek for 'horns.' Photo by S. Boessenecker

Cleoniceras sp., from the lower Cretaceous of Madagascar. The ‘ceras‘ in the name is greek for ‘horns.’ Photo by S. Boessenecker

Ammonites are an amazing group of fossils that can be found all over the world today. They were an incredibly diverse group of cephalopods, arising in the early Devonian (~400 million years ago) and they lived until the end of the Cretaceous period (65 million years ago). While they look similar to the modern nautilus of today, these mollusks are actually most closely related to squids, octopus, and cuttlefish. The term “ammonite” actually dates back from Ancient Greece, when Pliny the Elder thought the resembled the horns of the Egyptian god Ammon – he called these fossils ‘ammonis cornua.

Ammonites are often used as index fossils for paleontologists, as different genera evolved and died out rather quickly in geologic time. As such, they are very useful for biostratigraphy.

We have an amazing collection of ammonites here at the CCNHM, so be sure to take a moment to discover them all on your next visit!

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Friday Fossil Feature – The Tully Monster

By Sarah Boessenecker (@tetrameryx)

Happy Fossil Friday!

Here at CCNHM we have a wonderful collection that was donated from the Mazon Creek Fossil Beds in Illinois. These beds have provided hundreds of specimens of strange organisms that have been exquisitely preserved for over 300 million years!

The beds date from the Pennsylvanian, and form a lagerstätte – a sedimentary structure known for ideal conditions that preserve fossils, especially those of soft-bodied organisms. Anoxic environments prohibited the growth of bacteria and the decomposition of bodies, and as such we can see the structures that would not normally be preserved in other environments.

Tullimonstrom gregarium, the Tully Monster. This strange creature is unique to the Mazon Creek fossil site. Image by S. Boessenecker

Tullimonstrum gregarium, the Tully Monster. This strange creature is unique to the Mazon Creek fossil site and remains a bit of an enigma to paleontologists to this day. Image by S. Boessenecker.

An artist's reconstruction of what the Tully Monster may have looked like in life. Image Source.

An artist’s reconstruction of what the Tully Monster may have looked like in life. Image Source.

The name ‘Tullimonstrum’ comes from its first discoverer Francis Tully, with ‘monstrum’ referring to its bizarre bodyplan. It’s so different from anything seen today, scientists have been unable to determine which phylum it should be placed in! While incredibly common from the Mazon Creek fossil site, (gregarium is referring to the abundance of this fossil) it has never been found in any other locality.


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Friday Fossil Feature – Happy Darwin Day!

By Sarah Boessenecker (@tetrameryx)

Happy Fossil Friday, and Happy Darwin Day!

For today’s Friday Fossil Feature, we’ll look into barnacles – why? Barnacles were important to Darwin in his research and writing of On the Origin of Species.

Giant barnacle-encrusted scallop. From CCNHM Collections, photo by S. Boessenecker.

Giant barnacle-encrusted scallop. From CCNHM Collections, photo by S. Boessenecker.

Chesapectin septenarius (scallop) with barnacles.  From CCNHM Collections, photo by S. Boessenecker.

Chesapectin septenarius (scallop) with barnacles. From CCNHM Collections, photo by S. Boessenecker.

Darwin had previously studied marine invertebrates at the University of Edinburgh, under the guidance of Robert Edmond Grant, and collected a number of barnacle specimens while voyaging with the HMS Beagle.

After his return to England, he began dissecting the barnacle specimens, while compiling his ideas about natural selection, thinking back on the strange fauna he had noted during his time in the Galápagos. Darwin worked closely during this time with Joseph Hooker, and the two compared Darwin’s specimens with those borrowed from other institutions. Barnacles had recently been discovered to be crustaceans rather than molluscs, and Darwin noted the many homologies with other crustaceans. Hooker argued that these homologies were “archetypes” from the Divine mind, but Darwin felt they instead showed evidence of Descent through time, or natural selection. Darwin saw these homologies as irrefutable proof of adaptations, as organs changed over time to work under new conditions.

Darwin's barnacle collection, now at the Zoological Museum of Copenhagen. Image from WikimediaCommons.

Darwin’s barnacle collection, now at the Zoological Museum of Copenhagen. Image from WikimediaCommons.

As Darwin continued to work on these specimens, he was constantly working on his theory, ironing out details and nuance. Once his volumes on barnacles were published, he was able to devote his full attention to writing what is arguably the one of the most celebrated ideas in science to this day.


Further Reading:

Browne, E. Janet (1995). Charles Darwin: vol. 1 Voyaging. London: Jonathan Cape. ISBN 1-84413-314-1.

Richmond, Marsha (January 2007). “Darwin Online: Darwin’s Study of the Cirripedia”. Darwin Online.

Desmond, Adrian; Moore, James (1991), Darwin, London: Michael Joseph, Penguin Group, ISBN 0-7181-3430-3


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Darwin Week, part 4 – Darwin’s Legacy

By Sarah Boessenecker (@tetrameryx)

Darwin had published On the Origin of Species, and it achieved worldwide fame in a short period of time. It sparked fierce debates, and while Darwin was not available to attend these debates due to his recurring illness, his supporters were out in force. Thomas Henry Huxley in particular was such a fierce debater, he became publicly known as ‘Darwin’s bulldog.’

The religious views were mixed, with the Church of England against the book, and the liberal Anglicans praising Darwin’s work, and citing natural selection as an instrument of God’s design. The cleric Charles Kingsley said that natural selection was “just as noble a conception of Deity.” When it came time to publish the second edition of On the Origin of Species, Darwin quoted Kingsley in the last chapter, adding “by the Creator” to the closing sentence, which now read, “life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one.” While some feel this is a concession Darwin made and later regretted, at the time Darwin still believed that God created life through these natural laws.

The Oxford University Museum of Natural History, where the great debate took place. Image from WikimediaCommons.

The Oxford University Museum of Natural History, where the great debate took place. Image from WikimediaCommons.


‘Darwin’s Bulldog,’ Thomas Huxley. Image from WikimediaCommons.


Samuel Wilberforce. Image from WikimediaCommons.

In June of 1860 at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, the Bishop of Oxford Samuel Wilberforce publicly spoke against Darwin’s work. Joseph Hooker and Huxley were in the audience and came to the defense; the debate between Wilberforce and Huxley was heated, with Wilberforce at one point asking Huxley,whether it was through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed his descent from a monkey.” Huxley responded that, “he would not be ashamed to have a monkey for his ancestor, but he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used his great gifts to obscure the truth.” While both sides of the argument claimed victory, the ball was more solidly in the Darwinian’s court.

In America, botanist Asa Gray read On the Origin of Species, and while he agreed evolution happened, he argued that it was a modus operandi, reflecting design of the Creator. He went on to publish a pamphlet, Natural Selection is not inconsistent with Natural Theology, which helped spread the idea of Theistic Evolution, which was a popular compromise.

Back in England, Richard Owen had been one of the first to review Darwin’s book; while he agreed with some points, he could not agree to mankind coming from apes. Darwin had long discussions with him and wrote to Lyell, “Under garb of great civility, he was inclined to be most bitter & sneering against me. Yet I infer from several expressions, that at bottom he goes immense way with us.” Owen grew furious when it seemed Darwin had lumped him in with others that defended the immutability of species; Darwin assured Owen he was looking at all of the evidence as a result of ‘designed laws,’ which

Darwin was the subject of satire often for his idea that humans evolved from apes. Image from WikimediaCommons.

Darwin was the subject of satire often for his idea that humans evolved from apes. Image from WikimediaCommons.

Owen interpreted as sharing his belief in a higher ‘Creative Power.’ However, Darwin had spoken more clearly to friend Lyell, stating that if all steps in evolution were planned, the “whole procedure would be a miracle and natural selection superfluous.”

Owen viewed the book as an “abuse of science to which a neighbouring nation, some seventy years since, owed its temporary degradation,” (referring to the French Revolution) and wrote a scathing review on it. Darwin read the review and wrote about it to Lyell, stating he felt it was “extremely malignant, clever & I fear will be very damaging. He is atrociously severe on Huxley’s lecture, & very bitter against Hooker. So we three enjoyed it together: not that I really enjoyed it, for it made me uncomfortable for one night; but I have got quite over it today. It requires much study to appreciate all the bitter spite of many of the remarks against me; indeed I did not discover all myself.– It scandalously misrepresents many parts. …. It is painful to be hated in the intense degree with which Owen hates me.” As Darwin had respected Owen for some time, this was devastating to him, as he and others sought approval from their peers.


Still, Darwin was steadfast in his ideas, and was undeterred from his research. He kept writing, adding to his ‘big book,’ and collaborating with other scientists with his findings. He considered On the Origins of Species as merely an abstract to his greater idea, and wrote about human evolution. Huxley had already proven humans to related to apes due to similarities in skeletal structure, and it fit in well with Darwin’s initial hypothesis.

Darwin published his ‘big book,’ titled The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex in 1871; copies sold incredibly fast due to name recognition. However, it seemed to people that the ideas were old, with Darwin writing, Everybody is talking about it without being shocked,” which he believed showed the increase in liberal ideas in England.

Darwin's 'big book,' which delves into the evolution of humans, and introduces sexual selection as a mechanism for evolution. Image from WikimediaCommons.

Darwin’s ‘big book,’ which delves into the evolution of humans, and introduces sexual selection as a mechanism for evolution. Image from WikimediaCommons.

Darwin had ample evidence to show that mankind was descended from animals, as well as boldly stating that humans are all one species. He introduced the idea of sexual selection, and used it to explain traits such as the large plumage of peacocks which otherwise seemed to serve no purpose. Darwin concluded from this book “that man with all his noble qualities, with sympathy which feels for the most debased, with benevolence which extends not only to other men but to the humblest living creature, with his god-like intellect which has penetrated into the movements and constitution of the solar system–with all these exalted powers–Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.”


Huxley argued that anatomically, humans are apes. Image from WikimediaCommons.

Modern 'evolutionary tree' diagrams are much more detailed that the simple tree Darwin drew when exploring his theory. Image Source.

Modern ‘evolutionary tree’ diagrams are much more detailed that the simple tree Darwin drew when exploring his theory. Image Source.

While Darwin made remarkable strides in influencing the thoughts of people in his day, his legacy still lives on. Evolution is now accepted as the method for speciation, and there are entire branches in the sciences devoted solely to the study of it. It is taught in classrooms around the world, and is observed repeatedly in both the fossil record and shown in modern species we can observe. There are celebrations in early February of every year for his birthday and to spread knowledge of his ideas and research, as “the last 150(+) years have revolutionised our understanding of nature and our place within it.”


Further Reading:

van Wyhe, John (2008), Darwin: The Story of the Man and His Theories of Evolution, London: Andre Deutsch, ISBN 0-233-00251-0

Bowler, Peter J. (2003), Evolution: The History of an Idea (3rd ed.), University of California Press, ISBN 0-520-23693-9

Browne, E. Janet (2002), Charles Darwin: Vol. 2 The Power of Place, London: Jonathan Cape, ISBN 0-7126-6837-3

Leifchild (1859), “Review of ‘Origin'”, Athenaeum (No. 1673, 19 November 1859)

Huxley, Thomas (1863), Six Lectures to Working Men “On Our Knowledge of the Causes of the Phenomena of Organic Nature” (Republished in Volume II of his Collected Essays, Darwiniana)

Lucas, John R. (1979), “Wilberforce and Huxley: A Legendary Encounter”, The Historical Journal 22 (2), pp. 313–330, doi:10.1017/S0018246X00016848, PMID 11617072

Desmond, Adrian; Moore, James (1991), Darwin, London: Michael Joseph, Penguin Group, ISBN 0-7181-3430-3

Darwin, Charles (1860), “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life”, Nature (2nd ed.) (London: John Murray) 5 (121): 318, Bibcode:1872Natur…5..318B, doi:10.1038/005318a0

Quammen, David (2006), The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, New York: Atlas Books, ISBN 0-393-05981-2


Larson, Edward J. (2004), Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory, New York: Modern Library, ISBN 0-8129-6849-2

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Darwin Week, part 3. “That Mystery of Mysteries”

By Sarah Boessenecker (@tetrameryx)

When Darwin finally returned to England in October of 1836 after 5 years away on the HMS Beagle, he found he was already a rising star. Darwin had sent letters, notes, and musings to his former professor John Henslow, who recognizing the significance of them, passed them on to a group of fellow scientists and naturalists. He had also given a copy to Charles Darwins father Robert, who had initially opposed Darwin going on this trip. According to Henslow, Darwins father did not move from his seat till he had read every word of your book & he was very much gratified – he liked so much the simple clear way you gave your information.”

Darwin spent a short time catching up with his family, and then headed to Cambridge to meet with Henslow. Henslow encouraged Darwin to find other naturalists to curate and catalog the collection of specimens he had amassed while on the Beagle, and agreed to take the botany specimens for him. Robert Darwin, now impressed with the scope of his son’s work, funded Darwin and helped him to find suitable institutions for his collection. Darwin worried about the backlog of work many museums had, and fretted that his specimens would remain in storage for some time.

Darwin was put in touch with up-and-coming anatomist Richard Owen at the Royal College of Surgeons. Owen eagerly accepted the fossils Darwin collected while in South America and his findings came as a shock to Darwin, and would also help contribute to his theory of evolution.

The up-and-coming anatomist Richard Owen. Image from WikimediaCommons.

The up-and-coming anatomist Richard Owen. Image from WikimediaCommons.

Owen studied the fossils Darwin had brought back with him, and described giant sloths such as Megatherium (well-known by this time), the related, but undescribed Scelidotherium, a large capybara-like rodent named Toxodon, and fragments of the armor from the giant armadillo-like creature called Glyptodon, as well as new species of Mastodon. Owen found that these creatures were related to species still living in South America, rather than related to similar-sized animals living in Africa as Darwin thought. These findings would play a key role in Darwin’s views on life and species and change over time.

Darwin’s return to England was an incredibly busy time; eager to discuss his ideas he had contrived while traveling he met again with Charles Lyell and was encouraged to write a paper; on January 4th, 1837 he read this paper to the Geological Society in London, describing the processes of the South American landmass gradually rising, as well as the formation of coral atolls. Darwin had been nervous to present his findings, but they were well received, and he felt “like a peacock admiring his tail.”

That same day, Darwin went on to present the 80 mammal and 450 avian specimens he had collected over the voyage to the Zoological Society. Ornithologist John Gould took special interest in the bird specimens, taking particular care to study the many specimens collected from the Galápagos Islands. His results were groundbreaking; when the Zoological Society met again on January 10th, Gould proposed that the collection of blackbirds, finches, and wrens Darwin had described were instead “a series of ground Finches which are so peculiar [as to form] an entirely new group, containing 12 species”. They later became known as “Darwin’s Finches,” and were featured in local newspapers, though Darwin was traveling to Cambridge again and didn’t learn of this until sometime later. In fact, it wasn’t until March when Gould and Darwin were again able to meet up, and Darwin got the full report of Gould’s findings; he learned the Galápagos ‘wren’ was in fact another species of finch, and that the many types of mockingbirds Darwin noted were in fact separate species, rather than just varieties as he had believed. In fact, Gould had found many more species than Darwin had expected, including 25 of the 26 land birds Darwin had recorded were in fact different species, and found no where else in the world, though they were closely related to species found in South America. Darwin realized the sheer abundance of species found on the islands was due to the fact that they were confined to the islands with little mixing; he wrote to the crew members asking for specimens they had collected, and which island they had come from. This information he collected helped solidify his thoughts on transmutation of species, and he began compiling a series of notebooks organizing his thoughts and theories.

Darwin's finches, showing the different beak sizes and adaptations. Image from WikimediaCommons.

Darwin’s finches, showing the different beak sizes and adaptations. Image from WikimediaCommons.

He later wrote,

The most striking and important fact for us in regard to the inhabitants of islands, is their affinity to those of the nearest mainland, without being actually the same species. [In] the Galápagos Archipelago… almost every product of the land and water bears the unmistakable stamp of the American continent. There are twenty-six land birds, and twenty-five of these are ranked by Mr. Gould as distinct species, supposed to have been created here; yet the close affinity of most of these birds to American species in every character, in their habits, gestures, and tones of voice, was manifest…. The naturalist, looking at the inhabitants of these volcanic islands in the Pacific, distant several hundred miles from the continent, yet feels that he is standing on American land. Why should this be so? why should the species which are supposed to have been created in the Galápagos Archipelago, and nowhere else, bear so plain a stamp of affinity to those created in America? There is nothing in the conditions of life, in the geological nature of the islands, in their height or climate, or in the proportions in which the several classes are associated together, which resembles closely the conditions of the South American coast: in fact there is a considerable dissimilarity in all these respects. On the other hand, there is a considerable degree of resemblance in the volcanic nature of the soil, in climate, height, and size of the islands, between the Galápagos and Cape de Verde Archipelagos: but what an entire and absolute difference in their inhabitants! The inhabitants of the Cape de Verde Islands are related to those of Africa, like those of the Galápagos to America. I believe this grand fact can receive no sort of explanation on the ordinary view of independent creation; whereas on the view here maintained, it is obvious that the Galápagos Islands would be likely to receive colonists, whether by occasional means of transport or by formerly continuous land, from America; and the Cape de Verde Islands from Africa; and that such colonists would be liable to modification;—the principle of inheritance still betraying their original birthplace.”

On February 17th, 1837 Darwin attended a meeting of the Geological Society where Charles Lyell gave the presidential address. Lyell presented Owen’s findings on the fossils Darwin had collected, stating he saw “law of succession” with mammals replacing one another on their continents, inferring that extinct species were in fact related to modern living species. This speech caused Darwin to ponder why past species and modern species should be so closely related from the same locality. At this meeting Darwin was also elected onto the Council of the Society, which Lyell described as “a glorious addition to my society of geologists.”

By early March, Darwin had moved to London to be near his work. Moving to London also allowed Darwin to join the social circle of Lyell, which included prominent and influential scientists. Darwin stayed with his brother Erasmus, who was a free-thinker and friends with radical thinkers who shared his ideas, which was not typical for people of these times.

During all this time Darwin had still been organizing his thoughts and notes about species and transmutation. In his ‘red notebook’ he hypothesized that “one species does change into another” and thought this may explain why the fossils he found were similar to species still living in those geographic areas; he wondered why the territories of some species overlapped without intermediate species. He wondered if mutations “present an analogy to production of species,” which was bold and dangerous to say; his previous geology professor Adam Sedgwick considered those who held the same views as infidel naturalists..[adopting] false theories.” Lyell felt such views as blasphemy, as they implied ape ancestry and destroyed mankind’s “high estate.”

In London, Darwin visited the zoo and saw an ape for the first time and wrote, “Let man visit Ourang-outang in domestication, hear expressive whine, see its intelligence…. let him look at savage…naked, artless, not improving yet improvable & let him dare to boast of his proud preeminence.” He thought back again on the natives of Tierra del Fuego, and dared to think there may be little separation between man and animals, going against the theological doctrine. He often wondered about how the ‘savage’ natives from Tierra del Fuego could be “essentially the same creatures” as the more civilized Europeans. At the Geological Society meeting in May of 1837, the first fossil monkeys were announced. This made Charles Lyell uncomfortable, joking that from “Lamarck’s view” it gave the time necessary “for their tails to wear off.” Darwin, however, found these new discoveries fascinating and looked at them in a new evolutionary way.

By July Darwin had started a new notebook on “transmutation of Species” which was also known as his ‘B Notebook.,’ and was inspired by being “greatly struck from about month of previous March on character of S. American fossils — & species on Galápagos Archipelago. — These facts origin (especially latter) of all my views.” He wrote down his many ideas about lifespans and the age of species, including notes on Owen’s theory that the complexity of an organism was inversely related to its lifespan. Darwin compared sexual reproduction to asexual reproduction, and argued that while asexual reproduction resulted in direct copies of an individual, sexual reproduction allowed for variation in offspring, which enabled the organisms “to adapt & alter the race to changing world.” This, he reasoned, could help explain why the tortoises on the Galápagos islands were all similar, but still different species. He sketched his first evolutionary trees, and wrote “It is absurd to talk of one animal being higher than another.” Darwin was convinced life arose only once, and dismissed the ideas of different lineages giving rise to higher forms, as proposed by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Robert Edmond Grant. He also disagreed with Lamarck’s hypothesis of gradual change, and instead believed that there was a clear distinction between species, no matter how closely related they were. Darwin believed that new species emerged in a form perfectly adapted to their environment, and cited the Galápagos tortoises again. He reasoned that they all shared a common ancestor, and each island had its own species that was perfectly suited to that individual island.

Darwin's first 'evolutionary tree.' Image from WikimediaCommons.

Darwin’s first ‘evolutionary tree.’ Image from WikimediaCommons.

Darwin felt common ancestry was undeniable, especially when looking at animals like the duck-billed platypus, but still held the belief that there was a Creator behind everything. He argued that the Creator was the reason that there were so many unique animals on the Galápagos that still shared traits with those on the mainland, but wandering species like the sandpiper were unchanged from region to region. Darwin thought about how astronomers once believed that God ordered the movement of individual celestial bodies, and felt that it was comparable to God creating individual species for a particular country; he wrote that the divine powers were “much more simple & sublime” when the first animals were created, and new species arose by “the fixed laws of generation.” He saw these new species as “fresh creations” and wrote his hypothesis was “mere assumption, it explains nothing further.”

Darwin continued to do his research living in London, and read papers by Thomas Robert Malthus, such as the 6th edition of An Essay on the Principle of Population. A central thesis of this publication was that “population, when unchecked, goes on doubling itself every twenty five years, or increases in a geometrical ratio.” He compared these ideas with those of Augustin Pyramus de Candolle’s, noting the “warring of the species” and the struggle for existence for species. He reasoned that as species bred beyond available resources, those with favorable variations would be more likely to survive and pass those variations on to their offspring, and those with less favorable variations would not pass them on. Darwin wrote,

In October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic enquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of new species. Here, then, I had at last got a theory by which to work…”

Darwin observed farmers picking their best stock to reproduce, questioning whether they were going against nature by “picking varieties.” He noted that “every part of newly acquired structure is fully practical and perfected,” and feeling that this observation was “a beautiful part of my theory, that domesticated races of organics are made by precisely same means as species – but latter far more perfectly & infinitely slower.” He named this theory ‘natural selection,’ and suggested ideas of adaptations to climate. He read a pamphlet by Sir John Sebright which stated, A severe winter, or a scarcity of food, by destroying the weak and the unhealthy, has all the good effects of the most skilful selection. In cold or barren countries no animals can live to the age of maturity, but those who have strong constitutions; the weak and the unhealthy do not live to propagate their infirmities.” Darwin reflected on those “excellent observations of sickly offspring being cut off so that not propagated by nature,” and wrote, “the whole art of making [domestic] varieties” in relation to farmers selecting mates to breed ornamental ducks was “a mere monstrosity propagated by art.” He referred to this practice by farmers as ‘artificial selection.’

Darwin continued to speculate about human evolution, and worried about the social implications of doing so. He wrote, “Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work, worthy the interposition of a deity, more humble & I believe true to consider him created from animals,” and drew parallels with grinning, saying it was “no doubt a habit gained by formerly being a baboon with giant canine teeth… Laughing modified barking, smiling modified laughing. Barking to tell [troop] good news. discovery of prey. – arising no doubt from want of assistance. – crying is a puzzler.”

Darwin thought about “innumerable variations” mankind had ‘acquired’ and hypothesized that vestigial organs, such as the coccyx (tail bone) were not merely God “rounding out his original thought [to its] exhaustion,” which was the leading thought of the time, but rather remnants from “the parent of man.”

It wasn’t until June of 1843 that Darwin would begin to solidify these thoughts in writing, in his ‘Pencil Sketch’ of his theory. He wrote,

From death, famine, rapine, and the concealed war of nature we can see that the highest good, which we can conceive, the creation of the higher animals has directly come. Doubtless it at first transcends our humble powers, to conceive laws capable of creating individual organisms, each characterised by the most exquisite workmanship and widely-extended adaptations. It accords better with [our modesty] the lowness of our faculties to suppose each must require the fiat of a creator, but in the same proportion the existence of such laws should exalt our notion of the power of the omniscient Creator. There is a simple grandeur in the view of life with its powers of growth, assimilation and reproduction, being originally breathed into matter under one or a few forms, and that whilst this our planet has gone circling on according to fixed laws, and land and water, in a cycle of change, have gone on replacing each other, that from so simple an origin, through the process of gradual selection of infinitesimal changes, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been evolved.”

In May, George Robert Waterhouse wrote to Darwin requesting advice on classification. Darwin wrote it “consists in grouping beings according to their actual relationship, ie their consanguinity, or descent from common stocks,” and in another letter wrote, “all the orders, families & genera amongst the Mammals are merely artificial terms highly useful to show the relationship of those members of the series, which have not become extinct.” He asked this letter to be returned, for fear of his ideas being labeled as heresy. Waterhouse was a follower of Richard Owen, who was a proponent of the Quinarian System, (a short-lived belief that corralled all taxa into 5 subgroups, shown in circles with those closer together representing greater affinities and with the ‘higher classifications’ at the top) and attacked Darwin’s ideas in a paper.

A Quinarian diagram detailing ornithological relationships. Image from WikimediaCommons.

A Quinarian diagram detailing ornithological relationships. Image from WikimediaCommons.

Darwin became friends with botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker, and wrote to him in a letter in January of 1844. He facetiously wrote that he was almost convinced (quite contrary to opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable. Heaven forfend me from Lamarck nonsense of a ‘tendency to progression’ ‘adaptations from the slow willing of animals'” &c,—but the conclusions I am led to are not widely different from his—though the means of change are wholly so— I think I have found out (here’s presumption!) the simple way by which species become exquisitely adapted to various ends.” Hooker responded guardedly with, “There may in my opinion have been a series of productions on different spots, & also a gradual change of species. I shall be delighted to hear how you think that this change may have taken place, as no presently conceived opinions satisfy me on the subject.”

Darwin also wrote to Reverend Leonard Jenyns, also a naturalist and someone Darwin had known since his time at Cambridge. He wrote,

work on the species question has impressed me very forcibly with the importance of all such works, as your intended one, containing what people are pleased generally to call trifling facts. These are the facts, which make one understand the working or œconomy of nature …. namely what are the checks & what the periods of life, by which the increase of any given species is limited.”

He also wrote,

continued steadily reading & collecting facts on variation of domestic animals & plants & on the question of what are species; I have a grand body of facts & I think I can draw some sound conclusions. The general conclusion at which I have slowly been driven from a directly opposite conviction is that species are mutable & that allied species are co-descendants of common stocks. I know how much I open myself, to reproach, for such a conclusion, but I have at least honestly & deliberately come to it. I shall not publish on this subject for several years.”

He cautiously told Jenyns that “With respect to my far-distant work on species, I must have expressed myself with singular inaccuracy, if I led you to suppose that I meant to say that my conclusions were inevitable. They have become so, after years of weighing puzzles, to myself alone;; but in my wildest day-dream, I never expect more than to be able to show that there are two sides to the question of the immutability of species, ie whether species are directly created, or by intermediate laws, (as with the life & death of individuals).”

He told Jenyns of the 200 page essay he had written on the subject, writing that he had “drawn up a sketch & had it copied (in 200 pages) of my conclusions; & if I thought at some future time, that you would think it worth reading, I shd. of course be most thankful to have the criticism of so competent a critic.”

Jenyns never offered to critique the essay, but warned Darwin on the use of the word ‘mutation,’ to which Darwin replied, “it will be years before I publish, so that I shall have plenty of time to think of better words.”

Darwin worked on many other publications during this time, detailing his findings from his voyage with the Beagle, and was often delayed in research due to repeated bouts of illness. Darwin had seen disgrace brought to other scientists who had made similar claims, and wanted to be certain he could answer all objections to his theory before he published. It wasn’t until September of 1854 that Darwin’s other works were wrapped up enough he could fully devote his attention to his theory and the write-up of it. He was still getting other scientists and friends accepting of his idea fully, and this was a slow process.

In early 1856, Lyell read the paper On the Law which has Regulated the Introduction of New Species, written by naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace, and caused Lyell to reevaluate his doubts on evolution. He hurriedly wrote to his friend Darwin, who had taken little interest in Wallace’s writings at the time. Darwin had been busy finalizing his theory to present it in full, and gave the details in full to Lyell. Lyell still could not fully accept the theory, but encouraged Darwin to publish with haste to establish priority. Darwin was conflicted between having his idea presented in full for publication, or getting a paper published quickly.

By mid 1856, Darwin had decided to publish a full treatise on species, and Lyell had begun to come around to accepting the idea of evolution, though he was still conflicted over the social implications of human and animal shared ancestry, especially as race issues were starting to appear, and there were worries of racial wars.

Darwin continued discussions within his scientific circle, and by 1857 he and Wallace had been in contact, with Wallace sending bird specimens from Indonesia to Darwin. Darwin wrote to Wallace,

I can see that we have thought much alike & to a certain extent have come to similar conclusions…This summer will make the 20th year (!) since I opened my first note-book, on what way do species & varieties differ from each other…I am now preparing my work for publication…do not suppose I shall go to press for two years…I have slowly adopted a distinct & tangible idea,– whether true or false others must judge.”

Darwin had many fellow scientists who held him in high regard, and aided by sending him more information. Asa Gray worked on plants, and Darwin wrote to Gray stating that species “have descended from other species, like varieties from one species” and “that species arise like our domestic varieties with much extinction.” Darwin also wrote he had “come to the heteredox conclusion that there are no such things as independently created species – that species are only strongly defined varieties. I know that this will make you despise me. – I do not much underrate the many huge difficulties on this view, but yet it seems to me to explain too much, otherwise inexplicable, to be false.” Gray was intrigued, but didn’t fully grasp the enormity of what Darwin was proposing. Darwin was asked if these ideas could be presented at the Geological Society, but Darwin was still not ready, wanting his case fully prepared before it was presented.

In December of 1857, Wallace wrote to Darwin questioning if he were going to discuss human evolution in his paper. Darwin responded with, “I think I shall avoid the whole subject, as so surrounded with prejudices, though I fully admit that it is the highest & most interesting problem for the naturalist.” Darwin continued working tirelessly on his publication, well into the new year.

In June of 1858, Darwin received a package from Wallace. In it was 20 pages or so of text describing an evolutionary mechanism, with request to send it on to Lyell. Darwin was shocked, and wrote to Lyell,

Some year or so ago you recommended me to read a paper by Wallace in the ‘Annals,’ which had interested you, and, as I was writing to him, I knew this would please him much, so I told him. He has to-day sent me the enclosed, and asked me to forward it to you. It seems to me well worth reading. Your words have come true with a vengeance–that I should be forestalled. You said this, when I explained to you here very briefly my views of ‘Natural Selection’ depending on the struggle for existence. I never saw a more striking coincidence; if Wallace had my MS. sketch written out in 1842, he could not have made a better short abstract! Even his terms now stand as heads of my chapters. Please return me the MS., which he does not say he wishes me to publish, but I shall, of course, at once write and offer to send to any journal. So all my originality, whatever it may amount to, will be smashed, though my book, if it will ever have any value, will not be deteriorated; as all the labour consists in the application of the theory.
I hope you will approve of Wallace’s sketch, that I may tell him what you say.”

While Wallace’s theory was similar to Darwin’s, the mechanism for selection relied on the environment more so than individuals competing. Darwin knew not publishing immediately would cause him to lose priority, but it would be dishonorable to “publish from privately knowing that Wallace is in the field.” He wrote to Lyell requesting advice, arguing he had written to Gray in 1857, and had originally sketched his idea as early as 1844 in a letter to Hooker, “so that I could most truly say and prove that I take nothing from Wallace. I should be extremely glad now to publish a sketch of my general views in about a dozen pages or so. But I cannot persuade myself that I can do so honourably… I would far rather burn my whole book than that he or any man should think that I had behaved in a paltry spirit”.

Lyell and Hooker agreed to publish a joint paper with Darwin at the next meeting of the Linnean Society in July of 1858, as they were all members and on the council. The evening before the meeting, Lyell and Hooker forwarded on the papers by both Wallace and Darwin to the society’s secretary to both be read at the meeting, complete with extracts from Darwin’s letter, and wrote a short introductory statement.

These joint papers were titled On the Tendency of Species to form Varieties; and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection, written by Wallace and Darwin respectively, and were read to the Society by the secretary before reading 6 other papers. There was no discussion of the papers after the readings, though it is unclear if this is due to the amount of business that needed covered at the meeting, or if it was reluctance for members to question the prominent figures of Joseph Hooker and Charles Lyell. Thomas Bell, who had written up and described the reptile specimens Darwin brought back from his voyage on the Beagle presided over the meeting and had apparently disapproved of Darwin’s and Wallace’s ideas; in his presidential report in May of 1859 he wrote, “The year which has passed has not, indeed, been marked by any of those striking discoveries which at once revolutionize, so to speak, the department of science on which they bear.” However, the vice-president of the society was quick to remove any remarks of transmutation from his papers awaiting publication.

Others also were coming around to this idea; prominent zoologist and chair of the Zoology and Comparative Anatomy department of Cambridge from 1866-1907 Alfred Newton wrote, “I sat up late that night to read it [the Linnean Society paper]; and never shall I forget the impression it made upon me. Herein was contained a perfectly simple solution of all the difficulties which had been troubling me for months past. I hardly know whether I at first felt more vexed at the solution not having occurred to me than pleased that it had been found at all.” Newton was convinced and became a follower of Darwinian evolution for the rest of his life.

Wallace was also extremely pleased with the outcome of the meeting, writing that he would have had “much pain & regret” if the papers had been published separately, and Darwin assured Wallace that it “had absolutely nothing whatever to do with leading Lyell and Hooker to what they thought was a fair course of action.” When Wallace inquired about Lyell’s thoughts on the papers, Darwin wrote, “I think he is somewhat staggered, but does not give in and speaks with horror [of] what a job it would be for the next edition of ‘The Principles’ [of Geology] if he were ‘perverted’. But he is most candid and honest, and I think he will end up by being ‘perverted’,” and said , “Considering his age, his former views and position in society, I think his conduct has been heroic on the subject,” noting Lyell’s continued struggle with the subject as it pertained to Mankind’s origination from animals.

Darwin pushed forward in writing his book dealing with natural selection going into the detail he was unable to with his rush to publish his paper for the meeting. He sent chapters to Hooker for critique as they were finished, while Lyell made arrangements with a publisher to produce the book. Darwin fretted, wondering if the publisher knew the subject of the book, stating that to avoid being more un-orthodox than the subject makes inevitable,” he abstained from mentioning the origin of man, or discussing Genesis. The publisher, John Murray, agreed to publish the book sight unseen, and to pay Darwin two-thirds of the profits. He planned to print 500 copies of the book.

The title page of On the Origin of Species. Image from WikimediaCommons.

The title page of Darwin’s book. Image from WikimediaCommons.

This book was titled On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, and Murray upped the print to 1250 copies. Darwin sent an early copy to Lyell, hoping to finally bring him around to this way of thinking, and while Lyell congratulated Darwin, he still worried “the dignity of man is at stake.” Darwin responded that, he was “sorry to say that I have no ‘consolatory view’ on the dignity of man. I am content that man will probably advance, and care not much whether we are looked at as mere savages in a remotely distant future.”

On November 2, 1859 Darwin received his first copy of On the Origin of Species, priced at 15 schillings. Darwin received many complimentary copies he mailed to his friends and those who had helped him in writing. On the copy he sent to Wallace he wrote, “God knows what the public will think.”

The book finally went on sale on November 22, 1859, and became widely circulated, with available copies selling out immediately.

In our next post, read about the immediate reactions to the publication of On the Origin of Species, and the lasting implications of it.

Further Reading:

Desmond, Adrian; Moore, James (1991), Darwin, London: Michael Joseph, Penguin Group, ISBN 0-7181-3430-3

Ball, Philip (12 December 2011). “Shipping timetables debunk Darwin plagiarism accusations”. Nature News & Comment. [Article]

Browne, E. Janet (2002), Charles Darwin: vol. 2 The Power of Place, London: Jonathan Cape, ISBN 0-7126-6837-3

Darwin, Charles (1887), Darwin, F, ed., The life and letters of Charles Darwin, including an autobiographical chapter, London: John Murray (The Autobiography of Charles Darwin)

Keynes, Richard (ed.) (2000), “June – August 1836”, Charles Darwin’s zoology notes & specimen lists from H.M.S. Beagle, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

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Posted in fossils, Museum

Darwin Week, Part 2 – The HMS Beagle

By Sarah Boessenecker (@tetrameryx)

Darwin spent a week in Wales with other students mapping the geology of the area, and upon his arrival home he received a letter from former professor John Stevens Henslow suggesting he accompany captain Robert FitzRoy as a naturalist on the ship HMS Beagle.

The HMS Beagle in the Straits of Magellan.

The HMS Beagle in the Straits of Magellan. Image from WikimediaCommons.

The HMS Beagle was scheduled to begin its voyage in 4 weeks with the intent of mapping the coastline of South America, and would take 2 years to complete. Darwin’s father didn’t look favorably upon this voyage for his son and deemed it a waste of time, but his brother-in-law convinced him to fund his son’s participation in the voyage. Darwin was not the official naturalist of the trip, as that was a title generally given to the ship’s surgeon. However, he was allowed to accompany the crew as a guest, and as he was self-funded he was under no obligation to remain with the crew for the entire duration of the trip.

The 5 year journey of the HMS Beagle. Image from WikimediaCommons.

The 5 year journey of the HMS Beagle. Image from WikimediaCommons.

The HMS Beagle finally left port on December 27, 1831 after a series of delays, and set sail for the Canary Islands. On January 6, they reached the port city of Tenerife, where they were quarantined due to the cholera outbreak in England. As weather conditions continued to improve they again set sail, and Darwin was able to put to use a plankton net he had contrived – only the second recorded incidence of such a net being used. After a day he pulled the net in and collected the organisms from it and was astonished at the sheer abundance of life he found so far away from land. He wrote in his journal, “Many of these creatures so low in the scale of nature are most exquisite in their forms & rich colours. It creates a feeling of wonder that so much beauty should be apparently created for such little purpose.”

As they sailed on they reached the port city of Porto Praya on the island of St. Jago. Here Darwin collected many animals and recorded his thoughts and findings in what would later become his first published work, The Voyage of the Beagle. He also studied in great detail the geology and stratigraphy of St. Jago, referring often to his copy of Lyell’s Principles of Geology and noting that there were layers of white crushed shells between the layers of volcanic rocks throughout the island, including a layer 12 meters above sea level. As far as he could tell, these shells were “the same as those of present day.” He theorized that lava flows had recently (in geologic time) covered the shell beds and were later uplifted, writing in a letter to professor Henslow, “The geology was preeminently interesting & I believe quite new: there are some facts on a large scale of upraised coast … that would interest Mr. Lyell.” He was inspired by this island to write a book on geology saying, “seeing a thing never seen by Lyell, one yet saw it partially through his eyes.”

During this time the ship’s surgeon, Robert McCormick, the designated naturalist, grew resentful of the camaraderie between the captain and Darwin; he felt special favors were being given to the young man, such as help in collecting specimens. Darwin felt that McCormick’s methods were old-fashioned. By the time the HMS Beagle reached South America, McCormick had left the ship.

Along the coast of South America Darwin spent much of his time inland, documenting and recording his finds, and mailing letters and his notes back to England. By August of 1862, the Beagle had reached Patagonia, and traveled inland with local gauchos, where he witnessed the hunting of rhea and ate roasted armadillos. Near the city of Puna Alta Darwin discovered conglomerate rocks in the cliffs, and in these rocks he found fossilized shells as well as the teeth and bones of large extinct mammals. Darwin inferred that these fossils were deposited in gentle tidal environments, rather than being deposited by a great catastrophe. He carried many of these fossils back onto the ship, much to the amusement of his fellow crew, who called them “the cargoes of apparent rubbish which he frequently brought on board.” While there Darwin also collected many fossils of giant ground sloths, small rodents, and the armored glyptodonts.

A caricature of the happenings on board the HMS Beagle as Darwin brought more fossils with him. Image from WikimediaCommons.

A caricature of the happenings on board the HMS Beagle as Darwin brought more fossils with him. Image from WikimediaCommons.

They continued onward and reached Tierra del Fuego in December of 1862. Darwin was taken aback by the natives of the Yaghan tribe, believing them to be crude and savage. He described them in his journal as “without exception the most curious and interesting spectacle I ever beheld: I could not have believed how wide was the difference between savage and civilised man: it is greater than between a wild and domesticated animal, inasmuch as in man there is a greater power of improvement.” Darwin would later recall these thoughts as he wrote The Descent of Man, arguing that not only had humans themselves risen from a lesser form, but civilized society as well.

One of the natives Darwin encountered. Image from WikimediaCommons.

One of the natives Darwin encountered. Image from WikimediaCommons.

The Beagle continued its journey south around the tip of South America, and up the west coast of the continent. Darwin fell sick on his return from visiting the mountains in Chile and was bedridden for a month. The Beagle and her crew waited for Darwin, and when he was well enough to travel again they sailed up toward toward the port city of Valdivia in Chile, and while onshore Darwin experienced a large (estimated magnitude of 8.2) earthquake. They sailed north up the coast to the town of Concepción and noted the city was in ruins, including the great cathedral, from both the shaking of the quake itself and the resulting tsunami. Darwin and captain FitzRoy noted that the mussel beds were now far above high tide line, and that the ground had risen nearly 3 meters. Darwin had been preset for the very process of continental crust rising from the ocean, just as Lyell had described. Darwin noted this, and on a later trek into the Andes he found fossilized seashells in the strata and described it as “like watching a thunderstorm, or hearing in the full Orchestra a Chorus of the Messiah.”

Remains of the Cathedral of Concepción. Image from WikimediaCommons.

Remains of the Cathedral of Concepción. Image from WikimediaCommons.

In September of 1835 the HMS Beagle reached the Galápagos Islands, where Darwin eagerly explored the geology, flora, and fauna of the volcanic archipelago. He learned from locals that the tortoises of the different islands, while closely related, all differed in shell shape from island to island. His own observations were that the mockingbirds, while similar, also differed from island to island. He tirelessly collected birds, reptiles, insects, and plants from the islands. Darwin took many detailed notes on the flora and fauna, which he would reflect back on during his voyage home and while in England. Little did he know at the time, but he had already made his greatest discovery, and he only needed to put the pieces together.

The tortoise shells varied from island to island. Image source.

The tortoise shells varied from island to island. Image source.

The HMS Beagle left the Galápagos and sailed on toward Australia and New Zealand, investigating coral atolls along the way to understand how coral reefs formed, specifically whether they rose from the bottom of the ocean or instead from the tops of undersea, extinct volcanoes. They eventually arrived in Cape Town, and Darwin was able to meet with John Herschel, who praised Lyell’s Principles of Geology, writing that it was “a complete revolution in [its] subject, by altering entirely the point of view in which it must thenceforward be contemplated,” and boldly speculated “that mystery of mysteries, the replacement of extinct species by others.” This meeting with Herschel also greatly influenced Darwin, and aided in his thoughts he was already gathering from his years studying while aboard the Beagle. Darwin recollected about the mockingbirds he saw while in the Galapagos and wrote in his journal,

“These birds are closely allied in appearance to the Thenca of Chile or Callandra of la Plata. … In each Isld. each kind is exclusively found: habits of all are indistinguishable. When I recollect, the fact that the form of the body, shape of scales & general size, the Spaniards can at once pronounce, from which Island any Tortoise may have been brought. When I see these Islands in sight of each other, & [but del.] possessed of but a scanty stock of animals, tenanted by these birds, but slightly differing in structure & filling the same place in Nature, I must suspect they are only varieties. The only fact of a similar kind of which I am aware, is the constant asserted difference — between the wolf-like Fox of East & West Falkland Islds. If there is the slightest foundation for these remarks the zoology of Archipelagoes — will be well worth examining; for such facts [would inserted] undermine the stability of Species.”

Darwin had inserted the word ‘would’ into this journal entry, showing he had some hesitation and doubts about species changing through time. This would appear as a common theme for much of his life, and subsequently it would take decades before Darwin would go on to publish On the Origin of Species.

The Beagle left Cape Town and slowly made its way back to England, giving Darwin plenty of time to ponder his notes and collect his thoughts. After over 5 years away, he finally returned home to a new found celebrity status, having become well-known for his notes he’d sent home over the years. While it would be some time before Darwin published his greatest idea, the seeds of the theory were already planted in his mind.

Check our next post to read about his inception of evolutionary theory!

Further Reading:

Browne, Janet; Neve, Michael (1989), “Introduction”, in Darwin, Charles, Voyage of the Beagle: Charles Darwin’s Journal of researches, London: Penguin Books, ISBN 0-14-043268-X

Keynes, Richard (2001), Charles Darwin’s Beagle Diary, Cambridge University Press, retrieved 2009-01-27

Darwin Correspondence Project – Letter 106 — Peacock, George to Darwin, C. R., (26? Aug 1831)”. Retrieved 2009-01-28.

Herbert, Sandra (1991), “Charles Darwin as a prospective geological author”, British Journal for the History of Science (24), pp. 159–192, retrieved 2009-01-29

Desmond, Adrian; Moore, James (1991), Darwin, London: Michael Joseph, Penguin Group, ISBN 0-7181-3430-3

Grant, K. Thalia and Estes, Gregory B. “Darwin in Galapagos: Footsteps to a New World.” 2009. Princeton University Press.

Gould, John (1839), Darwin, C. R., ed., Birds Part 3 No. 4, The zoology of the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, London: Smith Elder and Co., retrieved 2009-04-18

Keynes, Richard (2000), Charles Darwin’s zoology notes & specimen lists from H.M.S. Beagle., Cambridge University Press, retrieved 2009-01-27

van Wyhe, John (27 March 2007), “Mind the gap: Did Darwin avoid publishing his theory for many years?”, Notes and Records of the Royal Society 61: 177–205, doi:10.1098/rsnr.2006.0171, retrieved 2009-02-02

Darwin, Charles (1845), Journal of Researches into the natural history and geology of the countries visited during the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle round the world, under the Command of Capt. Fitz Roy, R.N. 2d edition, London: John Murray

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Posted in Museum

Happy Darwin Week! (Part 1)

By Sarah Boessenecker (@tetrameryx)

Happy Darwin Week!

Charles Darwin, a name symbolic of evolution and natural selection. Over 150 years ago he published On the Origin of Species, what has come to be known as one of the most well-known papers and founded evolutionary biology as we know it today.

One of the most important scientific papers published, which changed the way we thought about the world. Image from WikimediaCommons.

One of the most important scientific papers published, which changed the way we thought about the world. Image from WikimediaCommons.

This paper and the thinking that came with it has had such an impact on the world that to this day we still celebrate the man and his ideas with Darwin Day, where scientists around the world celebrate his birthday every year and planning events during the week surrounding it.

So who was Charles Darwin?

Charles Darwin around the time of publishing On the Origin of Species. Image from WikimediaCommons.

Charles Darwin around the time of publishing On the Origin of Species. Image from WikimediaCommons.

Charles Darwin was born on February 12, 1809 in Shrewsbury, England. A born naturalist, he enjoyed nature and chemistry from an early age, and began learning the methods of scientific experimentation with his brother with their chemistry lab in the tool shed of their garden. However, Darwin did poorly in his early studies, and was pulled from his schooling by his father who then had him apprentice for him for a summer in his medical practice. He later went to the University of Edinburgh Medical School to study medicine, as his father hoped he would follow in his footsteps, but Darwin didn’t enjoy the classes and didn’t like the sight of blood, and as such neglected his studies once more.

Darwin caught a lucky break when he joined the Plinian Society his second year of university, which was a student organization that focused on natural history, and featured passionate debates about many radical ideas that challenged the current thoughts of the time. He became an assistant to Robert Edmond Grant, a prominent physician and naturalist at the university. Grant was a follower of Lamarckism (a belief that an organism passes on traits acquired through life to its offspring), and shared his views with Darwin, which was audacious for the early 19th century. Darwin was intrigued by these ideas, and had read similar concepts in his grandfather’s journals. He had been taking natural history courses at the university, learning classification of organisms and also worked in the collections at the University Museum.

An example of Lamarckism - the giraffe stretches its neck to reach the leaves, and passes this trait on to its offspring. Image source.

An example of Lamarckism – the giraffe stretches its neck to reach the leaves, and passes this trait on to its offspring. Image source.

Darwin’s continued neglect of studies upset his father and he was pulled from the University of Edinburgh. His father then enrolled him in Christ’s College, in Cambridge to study to work on attaining a BA and also take the first steps toward becoming an Angelican parson. Darwin soon became interested in the collecting of beetles, and even had some of his work published in James Francis Stephen’s Illustrations of British entomology. While at Christ’s College he became friends with professor John Stevens Henslow and many other academics and parson-naturalists who all pursued scientific studies and Natural Theology, contributing to his ideas on the natural world. While here and under the guidance of these mentors, Darwin excelled in his studies, even graduating 10th in his class of nearly 200 students.

Darwin remained at Cambridge until mid 1831, and read William Paley’s Natural Theology or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, which argued for divine design in nature, reasoning that God acted through the laws of nature. He also studied John Herschel’s book Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy, which explained that the highest purpose natural philosophy could attain was understanding the laws of nature through inductive reasoning based on observing one’s surroundings. Reading Alexander von Humboldt’s Personal Narrative which were accounts of his scientific travels from 1799-1804 further inspired Darwin to contribute to science, and planned to join fellow students in Tenerife to study natural history in the tropics. To prepare for this journey, he took a geology course taught by Adam Sedgwick and traveled with him to map the strata of Wales.

All of these courses and readings helped set Darwin up to go on one of the most famous voyages in history, which would further inspire Darwin to publish his greatest ideas. In the next post we will talk about Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle, and the inspiration he got that would eventually lead to the writing and publication of The Origin of Species.

Further Reading:

Freeman, R. B. (2007). Charles Darwin: A companion (2nd online ed.). The Complete Works of Charles Darwin Online. pp. 107, 109. Retrieved 25 December 2014.

Desmond, Adrian; Moore, James; Browne, Janet (2004). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/7176.

Larson, Edward J. (2004). Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory. Modern Library. ISBN 0-679-64288-9.

Desmond, Adrian; Moore, James (1991). Darwin. London: Michael Joseph, Penguin Group. ISBN 0-7181-3430-3.

Browne, E. Janet (1995). Charles Darwin: vol. 1 Voyaging. London: Jonathan Cape. ISBN 1-84413-314-1.

von Sydow, Momme (2005). “Darwin – A Christian Undermining Christianity? On Self-Undermining Dynamics of Ideas Between Belief and Science” (PDF). In Knight, David M.; Eddy, Matthew D. Science and Beliefs: From Natural Philosophy to Natural Science, 1700–1900. Burlington: Ashgate. pp. 141–156. ISBN 0-7546-3996-7. Retrieved 16 December 2008.

Darwin, Charles (1958). Barlow, Nora, ed. The Autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809–1882. With the original omissions restored. Edited and with appendix and notes by his granddaughter Nora Barlow. London: Collins. Retrieved 28 September 2013.

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Posted in fossils

Friday Fossil Feature

By Sarah Boessenecker (@tetrameryx)

Happy Fossil Friday!

It’s Darwin Week here at the College of Charleston, so it’s only appropriate that today’s Friday Fossil Feature showcases a fossil near and dear to Charles Darwin’s heart. While traveling on the HMS Beagle, Darwin visited South America and while in Patagonia discovered the fossil remains of great prehistoric animals – these animals were no longer around, though similar taxa were still alive, and this indicated a recent extinction had taken place.

Darwin collected the fossils and carefully packaged them for the return to England, where they were received with great interest.

What were some of these fossils? Why, similar fossils to those still found in the Southern US!

Meet Glossotherium chapadmalense, a giant ground sloth found from South America to the southern US.

Meet Glossotherium chapadmalense, a giant ground sloth found from South America to the southern US. Photo by S. Boessenecker

Glossotherium, whose name literally means “tongue beast” was a large ground sloth -over 4 meters from snout to tail, and weighed in at likely close to 1 ton. While mostly quadrupedal, it is thought they could assume a bipedal stance on occasion.

It is possible that Glossotherium could assume a bipedal stance. Photo by S. Boessenecker

It is possible that Glossotherium could assume a bipedal stance. Photo by S. Boessenecker

Unlike sloths today that are arboreal (tree-dwelling), Glossotherium likely burrowed with their powerful forelimbs; burrows discovered in the late 1920’s have claw marks matching up with those of Glossotherium and the large ear ossicles are similar to those of today’s elephants, indicating they heard low-frequency sounds better than higher frequency sounds; other fossorial (burrowing) have similar features for hearing today.

Darwin did many other things while traveling on the HMS Beagle; stay tuned for an upcoming series of posts all about Charles Darwin!

Further Reading:

Browne, E. Janet (1995). Charles Darwin: vol. 1 Voyaging. London: Jonathan Cape. ISBN 1-84413-314-1.

Desmond, Adrian; Moore, James (1991). Darwin. London: Michael Joseph, Penguin Group. ISBN 0-7181-3430-3.

McDonald, H. Gregory, Larry D. Agenbroad, and Carol Manganaro Haden. “Late Pleistocene Mylodont Sloth Paramylodon Harlani (mammalia: Xenarthra) from Arizona”. The Southwestern Naturalist 49.2 (2004): 229–238 [Full Article]

Estimation of hearing capabilities of Pleistocene ground sloths (Mammalia, Xenarthra) from middle-ear anatomy. R. Ernesto Blanco , Andrés Rinderknecht. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. Vol. 28, Iss. 1, 2008 [Full Article]




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Posted in Museum

Friday Fossil Feature – Cotylocara macei

By Robert Boessenecker(@CoastalPaleo) and Sarah Boessenecker(@tetrameryx)

Happy Fossil Friday!

Our featured fossil this week is Cotylocara macei, an extinct dolphin from South Carolina.

Cotylocara as on display in the Evolution of Whales exhibit at the CCNHM.

Cotylocara as on display in the Evolution of Whales exhibit at the CCNHM. Photo by S. Boessenecker

Cotylocara macei was named in 2014 by Jonathan Geisler, Matt Colbert, and College of Charleston Professor Emeritus Jim Carew in the journal Nature. Cotylocara macei is our first type specimen here at CCNHM – in other words, the specimen that a new species is based upon. It is a member of the family Xenorophidae, an extinct family representing an early radiation of some of the most primitive known toothed whales (Odontoceti).

Xenorophids are relatively strange and have narrow snouts, gaps between their teeth, and unique skull anatomy in the facial region. The blowhole of Cotylocara was not as far posterior as it is in modern dolphins, and it lacks many sinuses present in modern dolphins – but it does have many features indicative of the capability for sound production used for echolocation as in modern dolphins, such as asymmetry of the skull, asymmetry of holes for blood vessels (foramina) in the face, and large basins on the base of the snout and behind the blowhole.

It’s easy to see the strange warping of the skull when viewed from head-on; these features show that Cotylocara was capable of echolocation. Photo by S. Boessenecker

These are all likely related to well-developed soft tissues like facial muscles and the fatty melon that are implicated in echolocation in modern dolphins. At ~30 million years old, Cotylocara is the best evidence yet that the earliest odontocetes were capable of echolocation, quickly distinguishing themselves from filter-feeding baleen whales.

The strange skull shape of odontocetes allows for the soft tissues that aid in echolocation. Photo from WikimediaCommons

Stop by during museum hours and say hello to Cotylocara macei yourself!



Further Reading:

A supermatrix analysis of genomic, morphological, and paleontological data from crown Cetacea

BMC Evolutionary Biology, 2011, Volume 11, Number 1, Page 1

Jonathan H Geisler, Michael R McGowen, Guang Yang, John Gatesy [Full Article]


A new Xenorophus-like odontocete cetacean from the oligocene of North Carolina and a discussion of the basal odontocete radiation.

Journal of Systematic Palaeontology, 6, pp 433-452. doi:10.1017/S1477201908002472.

Mark D. Uhen (2008). [Full Article]


A new basal odontocete from the upper Rupelian of South Carolina, U.S.A., with contributions to the systematics of Xenorophus and Microcetus (Mammalia, Cetacea)

Albert E. Sanders , Jonathan H. Geisler

Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology

Vol. 35, Iss. 1, 2015 [Full Article]


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Posted in fossils

Congratulations, CCNHM!

By Sarah Boessenecker


Recently, Best College Reviews honored the CCNHM by listing us as one of the top Higher Education Natural History Museums. We made the list at number 21, along side many notable and well-known museums, such as the Yale Peabody Museum, the Harvard Museum of Natural History, and the Academy of Natural Sciences at Drexel University. Talk about some highly acclaimed universities and museums to be included with!

A large Dunkleosteus terrelli cast welcomes visitors to the museum.

A large Dunkleosteus terrelli cast welcomes visitors to the museum.


Visitors walk through the epochs - a fossil timeline of the Earth's history.

Visitors walk through the epochs – a fossil timeline of the Earth’s history.


Our museum was founded in April of 2010, so this is quite the achievement for a 6 year old museum. Over the past 6 years we’ve grown and become a must-see on the list of things to do in Charleston, and our collection is constantly changing; Charleston is a hot-spot for cetacean fossils, and is quickly becoming the premier location for the study of whale evolution.

Sea turtles are very prevalent in the Charleston area.


Whales aren’t all the CCNHM has to offer though – we also have a plethora of sea turtles, sloths, dugongs, mammoths – and even some trilobites, marine reptiles and dinosaur specimens for those who prefer their fossils on the older side.






If you’re in the area be sure to come and take a tour – it’s guaranteed you’ll have a blast, and learn a bit too. Be sure to stay tuned to this blog as we will keep you posted on all the happenings with the museum, as well as teaching you about the fossils in our collection!

Posted in fossils