Werner, Syme & Darwin


In his nearly five years aboard H.M.S. Beagle, Charles Darwin catalogued a dizzying array of new creatures. But how to show them to the people back home? Illustration by R. Fresson


It is a fine way to start a new week, thinking of a young person setting sail, and to narrow the focus of that thought, consider color.  We appreciate the notice by Michelle Nijhuis in the current issue of the New Yorker magazine about the upcoming re-issuing of this book, and her comment about it is welcome. Less welcome is the fact that if you click on her link to the book, or search on the title of the book with a fresh search, you will be directed to Amazon. At least if you are searching from the USA. Even from a USA-based search you can find alternatives, but from sources in places such as this excellent shop in the UK, or this one in Scandinavia. With that in mind, if the review below makes you think about purchasing the book, please consider clicking the image to the left which will link you to a bookstore in the USA that is offering it for pre-sale. Either way, enjoy this for now:

The Book That Colored Charles Darwin’s World

“I had been struck by the beautiful colour of the sea when seen through the chinks of a straw hat,” Charles Darwin wrote, in late March, 1832, as H.M.S. Beagle threaded its way through the Abrolhos Shoals, off the Brazilian coast. The water, he wrote, was “Indigo with a little Azure blue,” while the sky above was “Berlin with [a] little Ultra marine.”

Nomen1Darwin, then twenty-three, was only three months into the nearly five-year adventure that would transform his life and, eventually, the way that humans saw themselves and other species. As the voyage’s so-called scientific person, he would collect masses of rocks, fossils, animals, and plants, periodically shipping his specimens to Cambridge in containers ranging from barrels to pillboxes. Like other naturalists of his time, though, his primary documentary tool was the written word, and during the voyage he drew many of his words from a slim volume called “Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours,” published in 1814 by the Scottish artist Patrick Syme.

Nomen2Syme’s guide, a facsimile of which will be released in early February by Smithsonian Books, contains samples, names, and descriptions of a hundred and ten colors, ranging from Snow White to Asparagus Green to Arterial Blood Red to, finally, Blackish Brown. Based on a color-naming system developed in the late eighteenth century by the German mineralogist Abraham Werner, the guide is full of geological comparisons: Grayish White is likened to granular limestone, Brownish Orange to Brazilian topaz. Syme, a flower painter and art teacher, added comparisons from the living world. To Werner’s eyes, the Berlin Blue that Darwin saw in the Atlantic sky resembled a sapphire; to Syme, the wing feathers of a jay. Continue reading

Understanding Tapir


Fossils of Macrauchenia patachonica, as depicted in this artist’s reconstruction, baffled Darwin. The odd mammals disappeared about 12,000 years ago. Credit Jorge Blanco

I am sure I remember seeing these in my childhood collection of books with pictures of prehistoric creatures. Like many boys, the saber-tooth tiger was a favorite, which may explain my preoccupation with the big cats at Chan Chich Lodge. When you favor cats, you get to know their diet, so creatures like these in the image above were also among those I was fascinated by, which would explain why the tapir I have seen in the forests surrounding Chan Chich are among my lifetime favorite wild animal sightings. Thanks to Steph Yin for this story:

Strange Mammals That Stumped Darwin Finally Find a Home

It looked like many different animals and, at the same time, like no other animal at all.

From afar, you might think it was a large, humpless camel. Tall, stout legs ending in rhino feet carried a body weight potentially equal to that of a small car. Its neck stretched like a giraffe’s before giving way to a face resembling a saiga antelope’s. From this face extended a fleshy protuberance, similar to a mini elephant trunk or a tapir’s proboscis. Continue reading

Richard O. Prum’s Beauty Challenge

EvolutionBeautyFor evolutionary biology, on this platform we have favored E.O. Wilson because of his biophilia ideas (about which, plenty). For ornithology, we have leaned heavily on the Lab at Cornell and its many wonderful folks. Now, a scientist at Yale combines both of those fields and takes on the topic of beauty in a challenging manner–I am looking forward to this.

Click the book image at the left to go Indie Bound, a community of independent local bookstores, or if you need more convincing, read the beautifully illustrated Challenging Mainstream Thought About Beauty’s Big Hand in Evolution by James Gorman in the Science section of the New York Times. It is as much profile as review and asks:

Are aesthetic judgments about mates invariably tied to traits we see as adaptive and worth passing on Or, does beauty just ‘happen’?

Not long ago, a physicist at Stanford posed a rhetorical question that took me by surprise.

“Why is there so much beauty?” he asked.

Beauty was not what I was thinking the world was full of when he brought it up. The physicist, Manu Prakash, was captivated by the patterns in seawater made as starfish larvae swam about. But he did put his finger on quite a puzzle: Why is there beauty? Why is there any beauty at all? Continue reading

Evolution On Display


Click the image above to go to Phaidon’s website or see a couple of the book’s photographs and blurbs about the book’s intent below:

Beautiful and bizarre beasts behind Darwin’s theory

Photographer Robert Clark’s new book offers some striking supporting evidence for the theory of natural selection


Southern cassowary (Casuarius casuarius) by Robert Clark. © Robert Clark. From Evolution: A Visual Record

Already, from the cover, we like it. Some of the sample images from inside the book seal the deal. Continue reading

If You Happen To Be In Norwich

An egg mistakenly cracked by Charles Darwin is among the items in The Wonder of Birds exhibit. Photograph: Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery

An egg mistakenly cracked by Charles Darwin is among the items in The Wonder of Birds exhibit. Photograph: Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery

Thanks to the Guardian for pointing us to an exhibition that will be of interest to ornithologically-inclined readers of this blog:

It is an unassuming object, a smallish, strangely glossy brown egg, and it is broken because of the carelessness of the last person you would expect – Charles Darwin.

“He squashed it into too small a box and it cracked, unfortunately,” said curator Francesca Vanke, explaining the state of the spotted tinamou egg going on display at Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery.

The object is the only known surviving egg from Darwin’s HMS Beagle voyage during the 1830s. Probably drawn to its glossy sheen, Darwin signed it C. Darwin and brought it back to Britain after collecting it in Uruguay. Continue reading

One Birthday, Two Remarkable Men


Birthdays do not really matter. But ideas do. And when big ones come along, we celebrate the men and women who shared them in various ways. One way, pedestrian as it may seem, is remembering them on their birthday. Artists and musicians, likewise. We had not remembered, when we posted this yesterday, of this coincidence, but the Gopnik essay mentioned below (we now recall) is worth reading and we thank the Atlantic‘s website for reminding us via this blog post by Alexis Madrigal:

February 12 was a big day in 1809. Abraham Lincoln was born in a wild Kentucky; Charles Darwin was born in a refined Shrewsbury, Shropshire. One man held together the Union. The other developed a theory that resonates through the sciences and beyond to this day. While it’s often difficult to unspool the impacts that individuals have on the world, it seems fair to say that these two minds did something consequential on this rock.

And in a 2009 essay, writer Adam Gopnik tried to get at the shared method of their influence. Continue reading

152 Years And Counting

Besides being the most useful holiday known to man (however it is celebrated, as well as whenever, and by whomever) today is the birthday of the first publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.

Did you know that Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were born on the same day?  And that Lincoln was responsible for making Thanksgiving a national holiday in the USA? Continue reading

“Taste”: Naturally Selected

The arts in all their glory are no more remote from the evolved features of the human mind and personality than an oak is remote from the soil and subterranean waters that nurture and sustain it. The evolution of Homo sapiens in the past million years is not just a history of how we came to have acute color vision, a taste for sweets, and an upright gait.  It is also a story of how we became a species obsessed with creating artistic experiences with which to amuse, shock, titillate, and enrapture ourselves, from children’s games to the quartets of Beethoven, from firelit caves to the continuous worldwide glow of television screens.

—Denis Dutton

The late philosophy professor, editor, writer (and occasional provocateur) Denis Dutton spent a great deal of his professional life closing the gap between art and science. Continue reading

From The Galapagos Islands

I am joining Raxa Collective from the Galapagos Islands with the objective of sharing my daily life, project initiatives and global perspectives from this small piece of land that happens to be one of the few places on Earth where sustainable development is still a feasible concept to implement.

But how did I arrive to the Evolution Paradise where Charles Darwin spent important days during his voyage of the Beagle? After getting my B.Sc. in Ecology and Natural Resources Management from Universidad San Francisco de Quito I decided to take a sabbatical year from university studies and became a naturalist guide in the Galapagos. Islanders say that when you drink water from Pelican Bay (a small Bay in Santa Cruz Islands), you will never leave the Islands again. And guess what?…..  It happened to me with the exception that I left the Islands for several years before deciding that this is the place where I want to spend the rest of my life. I am lucky enough to be one of the Ecuadorians that have legal permanent residency in the Islands so I was able to act on that decision. But that is a completely different topic that will be the subject of one of my next dispatches. Continue reading