Saturday, December 10, 2011

Evolutionary Chemistry: from Darwinism to drugs

Most therapeutic drugs work by binding to proteins and interfering with their function. A key challenge for chemists working in the pharmaceutical industry is to discover new medicinal chemicals that fit important protein targets, rather like a key fits a lock. The traditional way to do this is to take a long hard look at the protein “lock” and then rationally design a chemical “key” that fits it. However, analogies with biological evolution have recently inspired an alternative approach: evolutionary chemistry.

Instead of attempting rational drug design, the evolutionary chemist simply generates a massive pool of variable DNA-like starting molecules (analogous to the variation that underlies biological natural selection). When these are then introduced to the target protein, only a small fraction of the molecules bind (the selection step). However, various chemical tricks then allow the chemist to amplify this population of molecules (the reproduction step). The amplified molecules are then used as the starting point for a subsequent round of selection and amplification. After several rounds of selection, the molecular mixture is greatly enriched for aptamers, molecules that bind tightly and specifically to the chosen target.

This evolutionary approach, called SELEX, has already led to the development of one useful drug, Pegaptanib (with the trade name Macugen), which has been licensed as a medicine to treat a common cause of blindness (age-related macular degeneration). But this is just the start: evolutionary chemistry is all set to deliver additional medically useful aptamers in the next few years that will target heart disease or cancer. For example, the US company Archemix has a developed lead aptamer, ARC1779, which acts as a potent, selective antagonist of von Willebrand Factor (vWF), with potential for use as an anticoagulant or antithrombotic agent ( It is currently undergoing evaluation in clinical trials in patients diagnosed with acute coronary syndrome undergoing percutaneous coronary intervention.

For an unusual attempt to communicate how SELEX works (albeit applied to discovering new diagnostics rather than drugs), take a look at this video of the winning entry in the Dance you PhD competition of 2010!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Darwin's Pilgrims: The Video

In February 2009, I hosted 'Darwin's Pilgrims": a visit to England by two Americans with links to the Dover Pennsylvania trial, Cynthia Sneath and Lauri Lebo, and Canadian Lit Hop artist Baba Brinkman to celebrate Darwin's 200th birthday. The trip involved a "pilgrimage" to Darwin-related sites and a series of performances in English cities, including the premiere of the Rap Guide to Evolution. Previous blog posts captured the spirit of the event
But this is the first time I have presented the complete video, covering trips to Malvern, Cambridge and London, even though I finished it a couple of years ago. I hope you enjoy the footage and the great music! For a bunch of non-believers, we spent a lot of time in churches!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Don’t want to believe in evolution?

Is it possible to be a rationalist (a believer in the laws of logic) but not believe in evolution? Just about! But only just!

There are several philosophical show stoppers that bring rational argument to a halt.

Perhaps requiring the least mental gymnastics is the "Omphalos hypothesis", so-named after an 1857 book by English naturalist (and local Worcester man) Philip Gosse. Gosse argued that even if creation occurred from nothing, the creator would necessarily leave traces of previous existence that had never actually occurred. Although Adam was never hooked up to a placenta, he required a navel ("omphalos" in Greek) because it made him a complete human being. Similarly, God must have created trees with rings that they never grew and rocks with a fossil record of life that never actually existed.

This kind of thinking has drawn adverse responses from Catholic scientist Ken Miller and the "Zoo Rabbi" Natan Slifkin, who both reject it as depicting God as a dishonest charlatan. A secular response, Last Thursdayism, proposes, that by this logic, the world might just as easily have been created last Thursday, but with the appearance of age such as false memories and fictitious history books. There is even a parody religion, The Church of Last Thursday.

The first real philosophical show stopper is metaphysical solipsism: the belief that you, the reader, is all there is and that this blog and this author, this world and the evolution of life in it, are all just figments of your imagination. However, it is scarcely possible to hold this belief in your mind for even a minute and, as English philosopher Bertrand Russell once pointed out, solipsism
“is rejected in fact even by those who mean to accept it. I once received a letter from an eminent logician… saying that she was a solipsist, and was surprised that there were no others. Coming from a logician and a solipsist, her surprise surprised me.”
One modern variant on solipsism is the brain-in-a-vat idea, taken seriously by, among others, Berkeley philosopher Barry Stroud. In this scenario, your brain has been removed from your body, placed in a vat of life-sustaining liquid and your neurons hooked up to a supercomputer that provides you with a virtual reality indistinguishable from any “real” reality. So, the argument goes, if you are in a vat, all your conclusions about evolution in the real world are false. And, as you have no way of knowing whether you are in a vat or not, this leaves you free to doubt the reality of evolution.

But why suppose you ever had a body in the first place, why not suppose you are a disembodied brain created yesterday with false memories of a biological world built by evolution? Some cosmologists are seriously discussing the idea of Boltzmann brains, self-conscious entities that arise from random fluctuations in vacuum energy (named after Austrian physicist Ludwig Boltzmann, who suggested that the whole universe resulted from such a fluctuation). If the universe lasts long enough, such entities are inevitable, say the cosmologists. But why stop at a brain—viewing yourself as a Boltzmann-brain-in-a-vat breaks none of the laws of physics and also gets you off the hook of having to believe in evolution.

A more general case of the brain-in-a-vat idea is the simulation hypothesis. According to this viewpoint, popularized by the Matrix films, we are all living in a simulated reality, run on a computer powerful enough to create a internally consistent simulation, so detailed that it could not be distinguished from “real” reality. Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom argues that it is more likely than not that we are living in such a simulation. His argument rests on the assumption that any sufficiently advanced civilization capable of creating simulations that contained intelligent individuals would be unlikely to restrict itself to a single simulation, instead, it would run billions of them. Thus, he asks, why suppose that we are the one civilization that develops the simulations rather than one of the billions run in simulation? Richard Dawkins points out that this merely pushes the need for evolution back stage as the only plausible source of the intelligences running the simulation.

Mathematical physicist Frank Tipler has controversially attempted to interweave cosmology, simulation and religion. He posits that as the universe comes to an end in a singularity, the computational capacity of the universe will outrun time, so that an intelligent civilization could run an infinite simulation within a finite time. Tipler borrows a term from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin to describe this final state of infinite information the Omega point. Recently, Tipler has come to identify his Omega point with God and to equate the associated infinite simulation with the resurrection of the dead. But why not assume we are already dead in Tipler’s sense, i.e. already living in his Omega point simulation and thus free to dispense with any direct evolutionary explanation for our own origins?

How is an evolutionary biologist to respond to all this? The obvious response is to adapt a line from George Orwell and say that you have to be a real philosopher to believe all that, no scientist could be so foolish! In fact, insofar as none of these scenarios is verifiable, they fall outside the realm of science and bring no additional explanatory power. So, you don't really have any excuses for dismissing evolution! Wise up and smell the cladogenesis!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Bio380 Human Evolution Genes and Genomes Bioinformatics Practical

I have a bioinformatics practical class tomorrow and rather than hide it away, I thought I might as well share it with the world via this blog. Happy to receive comments on any mistakes or suggestions for improvements or additional reading.

Bio380 Human Evolution Bioinformatics Practical 2011

Follow this link to the entry for the FOXP2 chimpanzee protein:
Take a minute to explore the information on the page.
  • Q. What is the evidence that this gene is functional in the chimpanzee?
  • Q. Why is this entry called FOXP2_PANTR
  • Q. What does the Forkhead domain do?
Scroll down to the sequence at the bottom of the page
  • Q. What is unusual about the first third of the protein sequence?
Click on the pop-up Fasta view button
  • Q. What is a FASTA sequence?
Select the sequence that pops up and copy it to the clipboard. Then return to the previous window.

Open in a new tab and go to
Select “protein blast”
  • Q. What is BLAST?
Paste the FoxP2 FASTA sequence into the search box. Click on the algorithm parameters link, then tick the box indicating Filter low complexity regions
  • Q. What does this do?
Start the Blast search. The Blast search may take some time, so open a fresh tab and go to
Search for “foxp2_human”
Spend some time exploring the information therein, while you wait for the Blast search to finish.

Return to the Blast search result. Scroll through the results. In the segment of the query spanning residues 241-698, how many differences does the chimp protein show from the following:
Orang utan (Pongo pygmaeus) Gorilla (Gorilla gorilla)
Lar gibbon (Hylobytes lar) Macaque (Macaca mulatta)
Horse (Equus cabellus) Mouse (Mus musculus)
Humans (Homo sapiens)
PS: use the sequence with header "FoxP2_Human"
  • Q. What differences do you find?
  • Q. How conservative or radical are the changes in amino-acid properties?
Go to
This paper suggests that the human sequence undergoes an additional post-translational modification compare to the chimp sequence
  • Q. What is this difference and how significant is likely to be?
Go to
Search for FoxP2, then click on the first entry and explore the information therein, particularly that under the Evolution heading.
  • Q. Does this confirm or deny any of your previous conclusions?
Follow the link to this recent paper:
Speed-read the abstract and introduction
  • Q. On the basis of this, would you expect Neandertals to be able to speak?
  • Q. What would you expect their FoxP2 gene to look like?
Follow this link to another recent paper
  • Q. What do you conclude?
Now read these blog entries
  • Q. Do your conclusions change?
  • Q. Are blogs are useful source of scientific information?

The genome of James Watson, Nobel laureate and co-discoverer of the structure of DNA can be found here:

  • Q. Is Jim Watson a black man?
And, finally, is Watson’s recent gaffe on race more likely to be due to:
  1. A single gene disorder (the “butt-head racist gene”?)
  2. A polygenic disoder (the “butt-head racist gene complex”?)
  3. The racist culture in which he grew up?

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Darwin and Mendel: The Great What If?

Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel were contemporaries. One of the great “what ifs” in the history of science is “what if Darwin and Mendel had met to discuss each other’s work, or, at least, had exchanged notes?”

The closest they came to meeting was in the summer of 1862, when Mendel visited England to attend the International Exhibition, a world fair held in South Kensington. Charles Darwin was less than twenty miles away, but their paths never crossed as the Darwins were stuck at home, nursing their son Leonard through scarlet fever.

Mendel read a German translation of Darwin’s Origin before publishing his seminal paper in 1865, but he did not see any connection between his work and Darwin’s. It has been claimed that Mendel’s paper sat on a shelf at Down House, unread, but this is just a myth. Although Darwin possessed two books that briefly referred to Mendel’s work, there is no evidence that he read the relevant sections; in one of the books, the pages are clearly uncut. Darwin leant one of these two books to his friend George Romanes, who used it to write an encyclopedia entry, priming another myth: that Darwin wrote about Mendel in the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

How close was Darwin to discovering Mendel’s laws of inheritance? As early as 1838, Darwin scribbled in his notes a question that, in retrospect, seems pregnant with potential: “Do races of peas become intermixed & gardener have hybrid seedlings?” In a letter written to Wallace in February 1866, Darwin recognizes that inheritance can be non-blending:

“My dear Wallace… I do not think you understand what I mean by the non-blending of certain varieties… I crossed the Painted Lady and Purple sweetpeas, which are very differently coloured varieties, and got, even out of the same pod, both varieties perfect but not intermediate.”

Furthermore, as Chinese plant scientist Yongsheng Liu has pointed out, Darwin describes experiments that are uncannily similar to Mendel’s, in his 1868 work Variation Under Domestication:

Now I crossed the peloric snapdragon… with pollen of the common form; and the later, reciprocally, with peloric pollen. I thus raised two great beds of seedlings, and not one was peloric. The crossed plants, which perfectly resembled the common snapdragon, were allowed to sow themselves, and out of a hundred and twenty-seven seedlings, eighty-eight proved to be common snapdragons, two were in an intermediate condition between the peloric and normal state, and thirty-seven were perfectly peloric, having reverted to the structure of their one grandparent…”

The ratio, at 2.4 to 1, is close enough statistically to conform to an expectation of 3 to 1, so this might count as a glimpse by Darwin of Mendel’s first law.

But given that Mendel himself did not recognize the universality of his own work, it is unfair to expect Darwin or anyone else to do so, particularly in the face of less easily interpreted results from crosses in other species of plants and animals. Instead, the modern synthesis of Darwin's and Mendel's work had to wait until the mid-Twentieth Century.


The extent of Charles Darwin’s knowledge of Mendel by Andrew Sclater

The Monk in the Garden: The Lost and Found Genius of Gregor Mendel, the Father of Genetics by Robin Marantz Henig

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Rough Guide to Darwin

As part of my attempt to put all my talks, whether for teaching or research online, I have put these two talks I gave yesterday in Oxford on to YouTube.

The Rough Guide to Darwin
Talk given to doctoral students in Oxford 11th Oct 2011
Covers Darwin's early life, including wayward youth, before discussing his major work, impact and legacy

Warning: Explicit discussion of Darwin and sexuality. "Let's get Downe and dirty with Darwin!"
Ignore grey screen YouTube snafu at very beginning. Soon sorts itself out.

From Darwin to Drug Resistance
Talk given to doctoral students in Oxford 11th Oct 2011
Brief review of Darwin's legacy and evolutionary thinking in bacteriology.
Ignore grey screen YouTube snafu at very beginning. Soon sorts itself out.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Wallace: Darwin’s Rival or Ambassador?

Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) was born in Llanbadoc, near the Welsh town of Usk and grew up in Hertfordshire. He worked as an apprentice surveyor for the six years. During a brief spell as schoolmaster in Leicester, Wallace met entomologist Henry Bates and developed an interest in natural history. He worked for several more years as a surveyor/engineer. Then, inspired by Humboldt and Darwin, Wallace set off with Bates on an expedition to Brazil. In 1852, after four years collecting specimens and surveying the Rio Negro, Wallace set off back to England. At sea, a fire forced Wallace to abandon his specimen collection and, adrift, he spent ten days in a lifeboat, awaiting rescue.

Back safe in England, an insurance payment supported him while he wrote papers and forged links with naturalists, including Darwin. In 1854, Wallace embarked on an expedition to the Malay Archipelago (present-day Malaysia and Indonesia). During this six-year excursion, Wallace collected over a 100,00 specimens, discovered the discontinuity between the kinds of plants and animals found in the northern part of the archipelago and those found in the south (now called the Wallace line), and, crucially, hit upon the idea of evolution by natural selection independently of Darwin. Wallace’s experiences were written up as a lively travelogue, The Malay Archipelago.

During his middle years Wallace was beset with financial problems, which we largely alleviated in 1881 by a government pension that Darwin helped him obtain. In late life, Wallace extended his work on biogeography, became an early environmentalist and toured the US promoting evolution and natural selection. In old age, he settled in Broadstone, a suburb of Poole in Dorset. He is buried in Broadstone cemetery in a grave capped with a (rather phallic!?) fossil tree trunk and block of limestone.

Although often cast as Darwin’s rival, Wallace remained a loyal and lifelong supporter of Darwin, accepted Darwin’s claim to priority, dedicated The Malay Archipelago to Darwin and even entitled his major book on evolution Darwinism. Wallace was an altogether more colourful character than Darwin, but also rather more flakey. Wallace adopted spiritualism and unlike Darwin, expounded a progressive, teleological view of evolution, with the universe working towards the birth of the human spirit. He rejected natural selection as an explanation of the human mind, instead favouring interventions from the “unseen world of spirit”. He became a socialist and an opponent of smallpox vaccination. He got tangled up in disputes as to whether the earth was flat (in the Bedford Level experiment, he showed it wasn’t) or whether there were canals on Mars (he argued there weren’t). It is clear that, had Darwin died in South America, “Wallaceism” would have turned out quite different from Darwinism!

Further Online Reading
The Alfred Russel Wallace web page:

Image Rights
Wallace Grave George W. Beccaloni: Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Open Education and Bio380 lecture on Neanderthals

This academic year I have set myself the goal of making all my lecture available for all, in the public domain, via YouTube and maybe also Slideshare. The technical side of doing this is fairly straightforward (capture a screen movie via QuickTime), but the major hassle is ensuring and documenting permissions for all images. In my first attempt, I quickly realised that putting this information on the same slides as the images led to cluttered chaos, so I have piled them all up at the end of the talk.

It is unclear to me what the rules are about using material from published papers, but cannot see how authors would not want students to know about their work. So, in general, I am proceeding along the course of it is easier to apologise afterwards rather than ask permission in advance. If anyone objects to anything I have done, let me know and I will remove the offending material from the public domain. Also, if anyone has tips on how to do all this as efficiently and fairly as possible, please let us know via the comments. Ditto if you want to send words of encouragement!

It will be interesting to see if anyone other than my own students look at this stuff, but here we go, the game's afoot! Information wants to be free!

Here is my first lecture for this year from the Bio380 course: Waking the Dead, on Neanderthals and their influence on the modern human gene pool. Enjoy!

Slidecast via YouTube

Slides via Slideshare

Great Read at Birmingham: Captain Kirkup and Chris Stringer

AV material associated with this week's Great Read at Birmingham events.

Captain Kirkup on Evolution and Game Theory

Video of the talk and subsequent Q&A :

Slides to go with this:
(Open these in a separate window as they will need to be manually paused and progressed forward: sorry no synchronised slidecast available)

Chris Stringer on The Origin of Our Species
Podcast of the talk via YouTube (publicly available):

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Live tweets from Great Read at Birmingham opening event

Here are the live tweets from Great Read at Birmingham opening event, sorted from earliest to latest

66. mjpallen: @mjpallen @greatreadatbham @unibirmingham live tweet under #GRAB2011 hashtag
65. mjpallen: #grab2011 ken miller up on stage; textbook author, daughter had to read his book at school; she gave up biology for history :-)
64. mjpallen: #grab2011 Ken testified in George and Pennsylvania; pervasive problem in US education and local politics; evolution in Ohio local politics
63. mjpallen: #grab2011 “vote for proevolution candidate you vote for sin“ 2 of republican presidential candidates creationist; creationist museums
62. mjpallen: #grab2011 antievolution bills pop up all over; problem coming to UK and Germany; Uk scientists published letter defending evolution
61. mjpallen: #grab2011 creationist conference in Malvern, UK; now describing Dover trial why lawsuit? 1st amendment
60. mjpallen: #grab2011 Ken lead witness in Dover trial Goals: show ID not science; show it is religion.
59. mjpallen: #grab2011 Conservative judge, so ID people thought easy time coming
58. mjpallen: #grab2011 > 9 hours cross examination: like PhD viva over and over again. Trial showed collapse of ID as credible theory; icons of ID trashed
57. mjpallen: #grab2011 ID claim: evo cannot make irreducibly complex systems; Michael Behe; missing part makes it nonfunctional; mousetrap example
56. mjpallen: #grab2011 flagellar components alone have no function say ID ppl. Only designer can make it. But even Darwin knew of change of function
55. mjpallen: #grab2011 testable to see if flagellar components can do anything if not all together; take away all but 10 parts of flagellum; still works
54. mjpallen: #grab2011 works as type III secretion system; counters irreducible complexity claim. ID is wrong! Cites Pallen and Matzke paper. testability
53. mjpallen: #grab2011 ID textbook Pandas and People; textbook evolved from creationist book with "creation" changed to ID; Barbara Forest testimony
52. mjpallen: #grab2011 1987 book changed because creationism deemed in law religious; Dover trail covered by BBC in War on Science; showing clip fr Nova
51. mjpallen: #grab2011 "judgment day" overblown rhetoric in nova show; received award; back to Dover case; Dec 20 2005; verdict ID not science!
50. mjpallen: #grab2011 struggle continues; "only a theory" book written to contain antirationalism antiscience; US lagging in science & math; Nature edop
49. pathogenomenick: Ken miller shows this great antievolution poster #GRAB2011
48. mjpallen: #grab2011 nonsense on web; abundance of human fossils; Darwin's tree from Origin dead ringer for human evo tree!
47. mjpallen: #grab2011 new findings all the time; e.g. A. sediba; Matzke study on hominin brain size; sustained increase in brain size; no gap in record
46. mjpallen: #grab2011 chimp genome confirms predictions from elsewhere; chromosomes 46 in man; 48 in great apes; chr 2 is fusion of two chimp chromosome
45. mjpallen: #grab2011 fused chromsome has telomere in middle; 2 centromeres; one inactive; DNA seqs are facts; no ID explanation for this
44. mjpallen: #grab2011 evolution doesn't imply Dawkinsism acc to Miller. Dan Dennett says God/evo not compatible; Miller says yes; Dobzhansky was X-ian
43. mjpallen: #grab2011 nothing in biology makes sense in light of evolution; Dobzh also supported compatabilitism; evo is process of creation he said
42. mjpallen: #grab2011 pope says evolution God do mix! St Augustine wrote universe evolved; Miller says scientists question 5th C mystic; but Mendel monk
41. mjpallen: #grab2011 Mendel did expts even tho religious Augustinian; Darwin not religious; agnostic not atheist; said that theism and evo compatible
40. mjpallen: #grab2011 Now cites Darwin first notebook tree; then closing words of Origin See also
39. mjpallen: #grab2011 John Hawks now on the stage; science changes year by year; ancient genomes teach us about our own gene functions
38. mjpallen: #grab2011 focus on late stages in human evolution <1m years; Neanderthal means "brute" in vernacular;not fair; Darwin met Neanderthal fr Gib
37. mjpallen: #grab2011 Neander valley ripped up by mining; site was carpark; dug up in 2000 or so; found new remains; jigsaw fit to old bones; DNA found
36. mjpallen: #grab2011 Haekel drew mad trees; Homo stupidus for Neanderthals! now lots of evidence of culture; bone techn; shells w. holes for ornament;
35. mjpallen: #grab2011 cut feathers from birds; Neander hyoid bone suggests they talked; reconstruction of voice like Dame Edna/Steve Perry/Journey :-)
34. pathogenomenick: Lol at John hawks' impression of neandertals communicating: a rendition of don't stop believing by journey #GRAB2011
33. GreatReadatBham: @johnhawks just sang to us as Journey in describing the voice of Neanderthals #GRAB2011
32. mjpallen: #grab2011 Neander trading across long distances; cultural and complex. Vindija cave perfect site; shin bone yielded lots of DNA; 1.4x genome
31. GreatReadatBham: follow @mjpallen live feed #GRAB2011
30. mjpallen: #grab2011 more evidence from DNA than from all fossil record; some redheads MCR1 mutations unique to Neanders, not same as AMHs. not all red
29. mjpallen: #grab2011 Siberia at edge of range; low DNA variability among Neanderthals; genealogy possible; 100s of specimens; healed fractures seen
28. mjpallen: #grab2011 bony injuries in Neanders same as rodeo riders; amputation of arm; blind, lame; hunting large mammals; even rhinos; tough life
27. mjpallen: #grab2011 ambush hunters like cougars; chronic disabilities; osteoA; starch grains fr tooth calculus; lots of new science here, cannibalism?
26. mjpallen: #grab2011; men in one site all related; women not. enamel hypoplasia; starvation; dead kids; synchrotron scanning of life history
25. mjpallen: #grab2011 neanderthals live fast die young; Denisova cave in Altai mountains; rugged country; horse country; vertical limestone; few caves
24. mjpallen: #grab2011 David Reich calls it magical place; cold place zero deg C; like fridge; chimney over cave; size of lecture theatre with high roof
23. mjpallen: #grab2011 sheep layer on top; beneath that remains of human; bracelets; pinky bone has yielded best ancient DNA ever! But only 6% DNA human
22. mjpallen: #grab2011 79% DNA no hit Neander mitochondrial DNA variation low; Denisovan DNA is outgroup to humans and Neanderthals; tooth yielded same
21. mjpallen: #grab2011 does Neander and Denisovan DNA survive in humans? ABO polymorphisms for >2m years; not useful; need to find consistent patterns
20. mjpallen: #grab2011 Neanderthal genes more often resemble non-Africans; 3% of our genomes; skeletal evidence of mixture too from mandibular foramen
19. mjpallen: #grab2011 paper out any moment shows Denisovan DNA in Melanesians and Aborigines at 5% or less. Long distance away! Mystery.
18. mjpallen: #grab2011 we don't know what Denisovan skeletons looked like; missing popn movements; mixtures now established between AMH and archaics
17. mjpallen: #grab2011 evidence of admixture in East African pygmies, unkn source. Neanderthals and Denisovans form clade; how can this info be useful?
16. mjpallen: #grab2011 we can explain some heritability; mentions Galton @uniBirmingham alumnus; 300 genes now explain 20% of height variation
15. mjpallen: #grab2011 Hawks using Neander and Denisova genomes to discover new genes underling phenotypes in modern humans; showing genetic maps; HAR1
14. mjpallen: #grab2011 human accelerated region; humans very diff from other primates here; Denisova diff from humans and Neanders in HAR1! Moreancestral
13. mjpallen: #grab2011 Hawks now comparing his own genome to Neanderthals! His androgen receptor is Neanderthal and may make him bald!
12. mjpallen: #grab2011 Hawks now closing with ode to power of evolutionary thinking! and phew can take rest from live tweeting. Thanks for listening! Bye
11. GreatReadatBham: #grab2011 evolution organises knowledge, including complex, real-world data about Neanderthals per @johnhawks
10. pathogenomenick: @mjpallen: #grab2011 Hawks now comparing his own genome to Neanderthals!" impressively nerdy python output in slide :)
9. gilbertjacka: RT @pathogenomenick: Ken miller shows this great antievolution poster #GRAB2011
8. GreatReadatBham: #grab2011 thanks to @johnhawjohn and Ken Miller for a great launch to GRAB 2011 on evolution @unibirmingham
7. pathogenomenick: Wonder if freshers know how lucky they are to see ken miller and John hawks in 1 day- not all biology lectures will be like that! #GRAB2011
6. scienceboy86: RT @GreatReadatBham: #grab2011 thanks to @johnhawjohn and Ken Miller for a great launch to GRAB 2011 on evolution @unibirmingham
5. GreatReadatBham: And thanks to all the great @unibirmingham students who came along! #grab2011
4. JoshRosenau: RT @mjpallen: #grab2011 "vote for proevolution candidate you vote for sin!" 2 of republican presidential candidates creationist; creationist museums
3. JoshRosenau: RT @mjpallen: #grab2011 new findings all the time; e.g. A. sediba; Matzke study on hominin brain size; sustained increase in brain size; no gap in record
2. johnhawks: RT @GreatReadatBham: #grab2011 evolution organises knowledge, including complex, real-world data about Neanderthals per @johnhawks
1. GreatReadatBham: #grab2011 next event Cap Benjamin Kirkup US Army on evolution of antibiotic resistance 5pm Tues 27/9 Poyntyng Large

Darwin's Shrewsbury

Brief tour of Darwin sights in Shrewsbury for speakers at Great Read at Birmingham initiative. Sights include Darwin shopping centre, stained glass window of Darwin in McDonalds, Unitarian chapel, Darwin's schools and his birthplace (The Mount).

Visiting Down House with Randal Keynes

I have now received two VIP tours of Down House with Randal Keynes (Darwin's great-great-grandson) as tour guide. Randal's mellifluous voice, sharp intellect and wide-ranging knowledge of Darwin's life, science and family make these trips an unforgettable treat!

Last Friday I visited with three eminent American speakers at the Great Read at Birmingham initiative: Ken Miller, John Hawks and Captain Ben Kirkup. John Hawks has already blogged on the experience here:

Last February, I visited with Eugenie Scott from the NCSE.

Below are links to YouTube videos of both trips. Watch them and fall under Randal's spell as he guides us through Darwin's home and gardens, his life and family.

Tour of Down House with Randal Keynes for Great Read at Birmingham speakers

Tour of Down House with Randal Keynes and Eugenie Scott

Relevant links

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Adam Tickell on Thomas Henry Huxley at Great Read at Birmingham event

Professor Adam Tickell, PVC for Research and Knowledge Transfer, University of Birmingham, speaking at the launch of the Great Read at Birmingham initiative, September 22nd 2011

Video and text of the speech

Dear students,

I am sure that you have enjoyed the two excellent talks from our external speakers. First let me introduce myself. My name is Adam Tickell and I am Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research here at the University of Birmingham, which means it is my job to ensure that the academics that lecture you produce the very best research that they can, on top of their excellent teaching.
Now, I know that Mark Pallen later in the term is going to tell you about Charles Darwin, who formulated the Theory of Evolution.

But it is worth stressing that Darwin was a retiring person who left the defence of his theory in the rough and tumble of Victorian society to others.

His most famous, and robust, advocate was a remarkable man called Thomas Henry Huxley, who was so vociferous in his defence of Darwin’s theory that he earned the nickname Darwin’s Bulldog.

Many of you will have heard of Huxley’s famous encounter in 1860 with the Bishop of Oxford, with the famous gibe about whether Huxley was descended from an ape via his grandmother or grandfather. In fact, that gibe was probably never uttered and one of the things you should learn in your three years is the importance of going beyond what is written in textbooks and newspapers and even academic publications and evaluating the evidence for yourselves!

But whatever the truth of that encounter, Huxley was a remarkable individual. Although he left school at the age of ten, he was a voracious reader and taught himself science, philosophy, history and German. An adventurer medic, who served as surgeon’s mate on the delightfully named HMS Rattlesnake, as it surveyed northern Australia and New Guinea. An expert on invertebrate comparative biology, authoring several papers that clarified some tricky taxonomy.

In 1854 Huxley took up a Chair of Natural History at the Royal College of Mines (now part of Imperial College), where for over thirty years he made valuable contributions to science and education in Britain. Huxley’s numerous achievements include his prescient classification of birds with dinosaurs (only recently recognized as correct), a treatise on the physical geography of the Thames valley, a classic book on crayfish and a biography of the Scottish philosopher David Hume. Huxley helped secularize schools, opened up adult education and transformed the academic activities of universities, viewing them as factories of new knowledge rather than storehouses of old. He even coined the word “agnostic”.

Huxley also left behind a treasure trove of aphorisms:

“After all, it is as respectable to be modified ape as to be modified dirt”

“Life is too short to occupy oneself with the slaying of the slain more than once”

“Science is organized common sense”

“The great tragedy of science is the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.”

From his biographer Edward Clodd, comes the greatest tribute of all: “It was worth being born to have known Huxley”!

But why, you may ask I am bigging it up so much for Huxley?

First, he is important in the history of ideas. Great ideas, like the theory of evolution, need to be argued over and Victorian society was, by no means, receptive to an explanation of life on earth that didn’t rely on God. Huxley’s advocacy of Darwin’s theory was powerfully influential.
Second, Huxley is important to the history of this University. Although the University on this campus dates back to 1900, before that, where the Birmingham Central Library now stands, there was something called the Mason Science College. This college was founded in 1875 by Sir Josiah Mason, a Birmingham industrialist and philanthropist, who made his fortune in making key rings, pens, and nibs. Mason College had several notable alumni before its incorporation into the University of Birmingham, including two prime ministers, Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain and a Nobel Prize winner Francis Aston.

But the key point is the foundation stone of Mason College was laid in 1880 by none other than Thomas Henry Huxley. So there is direct link between the institution in which you are enrolling and Darwin’s Bulldog! In Huxley’s honour, each year the university holds a Huxley Lecture, a tradition which goes back over a century. And of course, Darwin himself is built into the very fabric of our buildings, as a statue above the main entrance to the Aston Webb building.

Huxley gave a speech at the foundation of Mason College on the topic of “Science and Culture”. The speech makes interesting reading even today, packed full of sound bites and arguing that a scientific education was more important than a classical one. In it, Huxley delights in pouring scorn on the distinction between pure and applied research and suggests that the scientific method, which has proved so successful in the physical sciences, should be applied to the study of society.

My third reason for talking about Huxley is more personal.

Huxley died in 1895, but not before founding a family, that like the Darwin family was marked with a record of high achievement. He and his wife Henrietta had eight children. Like they Darwins they suffered the pain of losing a child in infancy. Two of Huxley’s daughters married the same man, the Pre-Raphalite painter John Collier, although not at the same time! You can see his paintings in the Tate gallery and Bridgman Art Library in London.

The most eminent of Huxley’s sons, Leonard, had six children by two wives. These included Julian Huxley – an evolutionary biologist who was not only the first director of UNESCO and a founder of the World Wildlife Fund, but also a eugenicist who – at least before the horrors of the holocaust – had unsavoury views about the rate at which what he called the lower strata reproduced. Julian was the brother of Aldous, who wrote Brave New World, and Andrew, who won the Nobel prize for his work on the physiology of nerves. One of Leonard’s grand-daughters, Angela Huxley, married a great-grandson of Charles Darwin, thus fusing these two notable lineages.

As I said, Thomas Huxley had eight children. His eldest daughter Jessica was lucky to survive scarlet fever when two years old, a disease which had killed her brother Noel. She grew up to marry Frederick Waller, who was architect to the Dean and Chapter of Gloucester Cathedral.

And now, I’m afraid, you will have to indulge me.

Jessie and Fred begat Oriana.

And Oriana begat Renée, Celia and Elvira.

And Renée wrote novels and married an Irish writer.

And I think you all might be able to guess where this is going when I tell you that the Irish writer was my grandfather Jerrard Tickell.

I have to say, I knew little of this as a child – my abiding memory of my grandmother is of her bringing packets of Rowntrees Fruit Gums when she came for Sunday lunch.

However, in the absence of fruit gums, I am very pleased to help kick off the Great Read at Birmingham initiative, which has so much to do with the legacy of Thomas Huxley and his closest associate, Charles Darwin.

I would like to close by quoting my great-great- great grandfather’s closing from his foundation speech, which calls on us, as his to praise Mason’s “crucial instance of wisdom” in establishing his Science College:

"In conclusion,” Huxley said, “I am sure that I make myself the mouthpiece of all present in offering to the venerable founder of the institution, which now commences its beneficent career, our congratulations on the completion of his work; and in expressing the conviction that the remotest posterity will point to it as a crucial instance of the wisdom which natural piety leads all men to ascribe to their ancestors."

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Great Read at Birmingham

This week, all the new undergraduates at the University of Birmingham (~6000 students) will receive a copy of the same book in their Welcome Packs and be asked to read it before arriving to encourage to engage with academic ideas and to create a shared experience for all new students. That book is The Rough Guide to Evolution!

The University believes that attending an institution like @uniBirmingham is about grappling with complex, multi-faceted, and even controversial ideas. As an academic community, the University welcomes and enjoys debate and hopes that this choice of book will stimulate discussion.

The idea behind the the Great Read at Birmingham initiative was proposed by the Vice-Chancellor, Professor David Eastwood, and is based on many successful similar programmes run in North America. But no British university has ever implemented a programme on this scale before!

There will be University-wide activities around the book during Welcome Week and the first term. Schools and departments will also use the book in study skills modules or in other ways.

Events kick off with Great Read at Birmingham Guest Talks in Welcome Week

Thursday 22 September 2011 15:30-17:00
As part of the Great Read at Birmingham initiative, "Rough Guide to Evolution" author Professor Mark Pallen welcomes two great speakers on evolution to our University, speaking back to back in Welcome Week in the Barber Institute Concert Hall.

This is open only to students at @uniBirmingham. Limited spaces available. First come, first served!

Professor Ken Miller is a biochemist, textbook author, a Christian and an articulate spokesman for evolution. He played a key role laying out the evidence for evolution in the landmark Dover trial in 2005 and brings the full power of his engaging oratory to our first year students in his talk.

Professor John Hawks is an expert on human evolution and a keen blogger. He will bring us all up to date with evidence for and ramifications of interbreeding between humans, Neanderthals and the mysterious Denisovans with his fascinating talk.

Rough Guide to Evolution now available on Kindle and as eBook

Great news! The Rough Guide to Evolution is now available to buy as a Kindle eBook here:
And as a Adobe eBook here:
So, go on, indulge yourself and buy a copy now!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The evolution of biblical manuscripts

In an ironic twist of fate that might infuriate creationist fundamentalist Christians, evolutionary thinking dominates scholarly studies of biblical manuscripts, particularly attempts to reconstruct original texts of the New Testament in the face of copying errors!

The New Testament of the King James Bible is a seventeenth-century English translation of the Textus Receptus, a Greek text prepared by Dutch theologian Erasmus in the sixteenth century from a few late-medieval manuscripts.

In the late nineteenth century, Birmingham-born theologian Brook Westcott and his Dublin-born collaborator Fenton Hort tried to improve on the Textus Receptus, publishing The New Testament in The Original Greek (1881), which incorporated information from a wide range of manuscripts, including the oldest fragments known at the time.

Crucially, they adopted a genealogical view of manuscript affiliation that directly parallels the tree-like branching descent with modification seen in Darwin’s theory of evolution. In their own words:

“All trustworthy restoration of corrupted texts is founded on the study of their history, that is, of the relations of descent or affinity which connect the several documents.”

However, Westcott and Hort also recognized the potential for horizontal transfer between lineages, viewing the Byzantine textual lineage as a fusion of the two earlier traditions (the western and Alexandrian).

In the early twentieth century, British theologian Burnett Streeter proposed a theory of local texts, in which textual traditions diverged as a result of geographical separation – a parallel with allopatric speciation in evolutionary biology.

From the 1950s onwards, American biblical scholar Ernest Colwell attempted to bring quantitative methods into the analysis of New Testament textual traditions. Cladistic approaches borrowed from evolutionary biology now sit at the cutting edge of studies of New Testament manuscripts: exponents include David Parker, a theologian at the University of Birmingham, Gerd Mink at the Institute for New Testament Textual Research, Münster, Germany and among American scholars, Stephen Carlson.

So, in conclusion, evolutionary thinking even illuminates the origins of the text of the Bible!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Some Darwinian poetry to make you smile

Charles Darwin's grandfather Eramus Darwin was a brilliant but seriously bonkers chap--a kind of 18th Century English Rasta. You can read all about his interests on the relevant Wikipedia page, but I cannot help sharing these few lines from the Temple of Nature in which he sees the fruits of past (sensual or sexual) pleasure in geological sediments? What was he smoking?

"HEAR, O ye Sons of Time! your final doom,
And read the characters, that mark your tomb:
The marble mountain, and the sparry steep,
Were built by myriad nations of the deep, --
Age after age, who form'd their spiral shells,
Their sea-fan gardens and their coral cells;
Till central fires with unextinguished sway
Raised the primeval islands into day; --
The sand-fill'd strata stretch'd from pole to pole;
Unmeasured beds of clay, and marl, and coal,
Black ore of manganese, the zinky stone,
And dusky steel on his magnetic throne,
In deep morass, or eminence superb,
Rose from the wrecks of animal or herb;
These from their elements by Life combined,
Form'd by digestion, and in glands refined,
Gave by their just excitement of the sense
The Bliss of Being to the vital Ens.

"Thus the tall mountains, that emboss the lands,
Huge isles of rock, and continents of sands,
Whose dim extent eludes the inquiring sight,
Shout round the globe, how Reproduction strives
With vanquish'd Death, -- and Happiness survives;
How Life increasing peoples every clime,
And young renascent nature conquers Time;
And high in golden characters record
The immense munificence of NATURE'S LORD!
For a roots reggae reinterpretation of some of Ras D's anti-slavery poetry, have a listen at this rough and ready bit of whimsy I cooked up a few years ago with a Jamaican friend.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Mary Anning: Fossil hunter extraordinaire

Anyone off to Lyme Regis for their holidays should spare a thought for Mary Anning (1799-1847), who hailed from this English coastal town. Geologist and historian of science Hugh Torrens describes her as “the greatest fossilist the world ever knew”.

Left destitute by the death of their father in 1810, Mary and her brother Joseph turned to collecting fossils from the local coastline (now styled the Jurassic Coast: see recent Guardian pics) in the hope of selling them to amateur collectors. At the age of twelve, just a few months after her father's death, Mary made a spectacular find that brought her to the attention of the scientific community: the first complete skeleton of an ichthyosaur (a giant "fish lizard") ever found. Although Joseph had found the skull (shown here) a year before, Mary was responsible for locating the rest of the fossil.

Her subsequent discoveries included the first plesiosaur (her own drawing shown here) in 1821 and a remarkable specimen of an extinct ray-finned fish, Dapedium politum, in 1828. Anning also described the first complete skeleton of a flying reptile, the pterosaur Dimorphodon macronyx.

Later in life, Anning’s fame secured her financial support from the British Association for the Advancement of Science and honorary membership of the Geological Society of London—the only woman in an exclusively male club.

The chief impact of Anning’s work was that her fossils established beyond doubt the concept of extinction, proving that some extinct animals looked nothing like anything alive today. Anning died from breast cancer in her forties and is buried with her brother at St Michael’s Church, Lyme Regis, where a stained-glass window is dedicated to her memory.

Galton or Weismann first to continuity of the germ-plasm?

While researching the previous post, my curiosity was piqued over a comment by Frank Darwin about his relative Francis Galton (who BTW was apprenticed here in Birmingham). While researching The Rough Guide to Evolution, I soon realised that many quotations are misattributed (here is one telling example) or quoted out of context and so good scholarship requires that one actually dig out the source and confirm that it says what it is purported to say. In the last few years, and even more so since I wrote the book, this has become a whole lot easier, largely thanks to the Google books initiative.

So, let's return to what Frank wrote:

“But in science the credit goes to the man who convinces the world, not to the man to whom the idea first occurs. Not the man who finds a grain of new and precious quality, but to him who sows it, reaps it, grinds it and feeds the world on it.”

which I and others have cited in the context of his father's theory of evolution.

But if you look at the whole paragraph, it is clear that Frank was talking about an article in the Macmillan's Magazine by Francis Galton and the fact that Galton got to the theory of germ-plasm and what is often called the Weismann barrier earlier than August Weismann (who got there in the 1890s and is generally credited with priority):
"With regard to the machinery of reproduction the essay is remarkable for containing what is practically identical with Weismann’s continuity of the germ-cell, and Galton’s priority is acknowledged by that author. But in science the credit goes to the man who convinces the world, not to the man to whom the idea first occurs. Not the man who finds a grain of new and precious quality, but to him who sows it, reaps it, grinds it and feeds the world on it. This is true of this very Macmillan’s Magazine article. Who would know of these admirable views on Hereditary Genius and Eugenics, if this were Galton’s only utterance? This is the grain which has increased and multiplied: and it is to-day familiar nutriment, and is now assiduously cultivated by the Eugenics Education Society. But if Natural Inheritance, and Hereditary Genius had not been written; if the papers on eugenics had not appeared, and especially if he had not convinced the world of his seriousness by creating a eugenic foundation at University College, where his friend Professor Karl Pearson carries on the Galtonian traditions—why then the paper in Macmillan would have counted for very little. But it was not quite unnoticed. By my father it is referred to in the Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication. Galton was encouraged and reassured by Darwin’s appreciation of his work: his words in Hereditary Genius are, “I feel assured that, inasmuch as what I then wrote was sufficient to earn the acceptance of Mr. Darwin . . . the increased amount of evidence submitted in the present volume is not likely to be gainsaid.” He was characteristically generous in owning his debt to the author of the Origin of Species, and characteristically modest in the value he ascribed to my father’s words."
So, does this mean the textbooks (and wikipedia) need re-writing? Should Weismann be demoted in the pantheon of the history of science? Well, a few moments with Google turns up the article that Frank was discussing and here is the relevant passage:
"If we examine the question from the opposite side, a list of life-long habits in the parents might be adduced which leave no perceptible trace on their descendants. I cannot ascertain that the son of an old soldier learns his drill more quickly than the son of an artizan. I am assured that the sons of fishermen, whose ancestors have pursued the same calling time out of mind, are just as sea-sick as the sons of landsmen when they first go to sea. I cannot discover that the castes of India show signs of being naturally endowed with special aptitudes. If the habits of an individual are transmitted to his descendants, it is, as Darwin says, in a very small degree, and is hardly, if at all, traceable.

We shall therefore take an approximately correct view of the origin of our life, if we consider our own embryos to have sprung immediately from those embryos whence our parents were developed, and these from the embryos of their parents, and so on for ever. We should in this way look on the nature of mankind, and perhaps on that of the whole animated creation, as one continuous system, ever pushing out new branches in all directions, that variously interlace, and that bud into separate lives at every point of interlacement.

This simile does not at all express the popular notion of life. Most persons seem to have a vague idea that a new element, specially fashioned in heaven, and not transmitted by simple descent, is introduced into the body of every newly-born infant. Such a notion is unfitted to stand upon any scientific basis with which we are acquainted. It is impossible it should be true, unless there exists some property or quality in man that is not transmissible by descent."
(NB I should at this stage distance myself from all the racist twaddle proffered elsewhere in Galton's article).

Well, there is a nice separation between embryo and soma here, and even a hint of Dawkin's Selfish Gene / river of DNA out of Eden. And it appears that Weismann did himself write to Galton in 1889:
"You have exposed in your paper an in idea which is in one essential point nearly allied to the main idea contained in my theory of the continuity of germ-plasm"

But another Google books link reveals an interesting analysis by Bulmer in his biography of Galton. Bulmer's verdict is that Galton foreshadowed Weismann "only in a weak sense", because his language and ideas were less precise.

Nonetheless, perhaps Galton should be edged into the textbooks and encyclopaedias on this? Or is this just another example of "precursorism"? What do you think?

Darwin: serial plagiarizer or revolutionary genius?

Stephen Jay Gould once joked that “precursoritis" (or should it be "precursorism") is the bane of historiography. Nonetheless, it is clear that there were precursors to Darwin in describing natural selection and other components of his theory of evolution.

In 1941, Conway Zirkle wrote a remarkable (and long) paper Natural Selection before the "Origin of Species" (available in full via Google books) in which he collated and discussed over two dozen descriptions of natural selection and associated ideas that pre-dated Darwin.

Although most of these earlier authors lacked Darwin’s clear conception of the implications of natural selection for the origin of species, some of their passages are strikingly prescient of Darwin’s ideas. Take, for example, this passage from French freethinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–78):

… children, bringing with them into the world the excellent constitution of their parents, and then confirming it by the same exercises which first produced it, would thus acquire all that strength and vigour, of which the human frame is capable. Nature in this case treats them exactly as Sparta treated the children of her citizens: those of them who came well formed into the world, she renders strong and robust, and destroys all the rest...

Or this passage from the German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder (1744–1803):

In short, every species extends its possession of the Earth in proportion to its capacity, cunning, strength, or courage… the whole creation is at war, and the most opposite powers are found so close to each other… Each strives with each, as each is pressed upon; each must provide for his own subsistence, and defend his own life. Why acts Nature thus and why does she thus crowd her creatures one upon another? Because she would produce the greatest number and variety of living beings in the least space, so that one crushes another,and an equilibrium of powers can alone produce peace in the creation.

In the Temple of Nature, Charles Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin provides a poetic description of the Struggle for Existence, culminating in a graphic rhyming couplet:

In ocean's pearly haunts, the waves beneath
Sits the grim monarch of insatiate Death;
The shark rapacious with descending blow
Darts on the scaly brood, that swims below;
The crawling crocodiles, beneath that move,
Arrest with rising jaw the tribes above; 60
With monstrous gape sepulchral whales devour
Shoals at a gulp, a million in an hour.
—Air, earth, and ocean, to astonish'd day
One scene of blood, one mighty tomb display!
From Hunger's arm the shafts of Death are hurl'd,
And one great Slaughter-house the warring world!

While in Zoonomia he obliquely references Sexual Selection and Natural Selection:

The birds, which do not carry food to their young, and do not therefore marry, are armed with spurs for the purpose of fighting for the exclusive possession of the females, as cocks and quails. It is certain that these weapons are not provided for their defence against other adversaries, because the females of these species are without this armour. The final cause of this contest amongst the males seems to be, that the strongest and most active animal should propagate the species, which should thence become improved.

Two other early descriptions of natural selection have been unearthed since Zirkle’s paper. One comes from a densely written inaccessible book (Principles of Knowledge: see review here) by one of Darwin’s heroes, the geologist James Hutton, who rejected evolution of species, but described natural selection:

If an organised body is not in the situation and circumstances best adapted to its sustenance and propagation, then, in conceiving an indefinite variety among the individuals of that species, we must be assured, that, on the one hand, those which depart most from the best adapted constitution, will be most liable to perish, while, on the other hand, those organised bodies, which most approach to the best constitution for the present circumstances, will be best adapted to continue, in preserving themselves and multiplying the individuals of their race.

The second comes from an unlikely sourceNatural Theology (1809), where William Paley (the irritant that gave rise to Darwin's pearl) proposed natural selection, only later to reject it:

There is another answer which has the same effect as the resolving of things into chance; which answer would persuade us to believe, that the eye, the animal to which it belongs, every other animal, every plant, indeed every organized body which we see, are only so many out of the possible varieties and combinations of being, which the lapse of infinite ages has brought into existence; that the present world is the relict of that variety: millions of other bodily forms and other species having perished, being by the defect of their constitution incapable of preservation, or of continuance by generation.

Charles Darwin acknowledged the role of earlier thinkers such as Geoffrey St. Hilaire in very first edition of the Origin. He also clearly drew inspiration from agriculturalist Sir John Sebright, who he cites several times for his work on breeding. However, Darwin fails to mention in publication a passage penned by Sebright in 1809
The greatest number of females will, of course, fall to the share of the most vigorous males; and the strongest individuals of both sexes, by driving away the weakest, will enjoy the best food, and the most favourable situations, for themselves and for their offspring. A severe winter, or a scarcity of food, by destroying the weak and the unhealthy, has had all the good effects of the most skilful selection.
even though Darwin alluded to it in his C notebook of1838:
Sir J. Sebright — pamphlet most important showing effects of peculiarities being long in blood.++ thinks difficulty in crossing race — bad effects of incestuous intercourse. — excellent observations of sickly offspring being cut off so that not propagated by nature. — Whole art of making varieties may be inferred from facts stated

Two others were credited only in later editions of the Origin for their prior descriptions of natural selection. William Wells was a Scottish-American physician who described the role of natural selection in the evolution of humans in the appendix to an essay on dew published in 1818, while Patrick Matthew was a Scottish fruit grower who proposed natural selection as mechanism of evolution in his On Naval Timber and Arboriculture (1831) over a quarter-century before Darwin and Wallace.

So, it is clear that Darwin was not the first to propose all the ideas that made up later came to be known as the Darwinian Theory of Evolution. However, any attempt to detract from his revolutionary achievements by arguing that he was simply a serial plagiarist or intellectual scavenger is as senseless as claiming that Shakespeare was a second-rate playwright merely because he reused some old existing plotlines!!

It was Darwin’s genius to weave many disparate ideas (such as variation under domestication, Malthusian population pressure and the oddities of biogeography) into a unique combination that is still largely thought to be accurate today, while other combinations of similar concepts, for example, Lamarck's or Spencer's theories of evolution, have been abandoned.

In addition, Darwin was able to articulate these ideas, and the evidence for them, with such unprecedented clarity and forcefulness that within a few short years most naturalists and much of the wider society had come to accept biological evolution as a fact, proven beyond reasonable doubt. Furthermore, there is an abundant documentary evidence trail to show that Darwin generally did not rely on precursors in his thinking, and where he did, he acknowledged it.

Peter Bowler, Professor of History of Science at Queen’s University Belfast makes the point forcefully in his book Evolution, the History of an Idea:
“Simple priority is not enough to earn a thinker a place in the history of science: one has to develop the idea and convince others of its value to make a real contribution. Darwin's notebooks confirm that he drew no inspiration from Matthew or any of the other alleged precursors.”
Darwin’s own son Frank Darwin made a similar point in the first Galton Lecture in 1914 (albeit moaning about Weismann gaining credit when Francis Galton had priority over on the continuity of the germ cell) :
“In science the credit goes to the man who convinces the world, not to the man to whom the idea first occurs. Not the man who finds a grain of new and precious quality, but to him who sows it, reaps it, grinds it and feeds the world on it”
The last word on this subject should go to Darwin himself, who in an 1860 letter to Rev. Baden Powell (father of the scoutmaster) states that
"No person, not even the most ignorant, could suppose that I meant to arrogate to myself the origination of the doctrine that species had not been independently created. The only novelty in my work is the attempt to show how species become modified, and to a certain extent how the theory of descent explains certain large classes of facts; and in these respects I received no assistance from my predecessors."

Sources and related links