Darwin Day

Charles Darwin was born 210 years ago today. He died aged 73 in 1882. One of the single most profound ideas ever to enter a human brain seeped into his around 1836 and stewed and bubbled there until in 1858 he was jolted into action and finally published his stunning insight.

No, NOT “the theory of evolution”! Evolution is not a theory, it’s an established scientific fact that happens around us all the time. Don’t listen to claptrap. Evolution is accepted and observed, and is the reason – just for one example – that we have a major problem with drug resistance. Germs evolve to be resistant to drugs. Daily.

No, the theory that evolution happens by natural selection; THAT’s the amazing thought that Darwin had. One hundred and sixty years later, despite the devious efforts of naysayers – and the earnest efforts of real scientists – all the evidence still points to Darwin’s idea being right. Discovery after discovery in the fields of biology, paleontology, geology, molecular biology, genetics, anthropology, and more – each one of which could potentially sabotage his theory – have instead reinforced it. The age of the earth, plate tectonics, fossils, common structures, the distribution of species, embryonic development, germ theory, DNA, etc. Each new discovery has been found to align with Darwin’s powerful theory – biological evolution by natural selection or “descent with modification,” the differential survival of organisms following their naturally occurring variation. His amazing insight, his ‘dangerous idea’, remains a good brief definition of the process to this day.

What Darwin discovered was that “all life is one”! An amazing thought. Who could ever have thought that one day when we became able to test the genes of plants and animals we’d discover that we shared some genes with chimps, yes – one of the reasons the bishop of London fought so hard against the idea when first announced in 1859 – but that we also share some of our genes with grass! NO-ONE would have predicted that. All life is one. Stunning.

As a student Darwin was a proper, normal person! He neglected his medical studies in Edinburgh, preferring to study natural history on interesting field trips, then when his wealthy medical doctor father sent him to Cambridge to study to become an Anglican parson, he preferred riding, shooting and beetle collecting! Only beer drinking seems to be missing from a well-balanced start in life.

Then he took a gap year – five years, actually – and traveled:

Five years on the Beagle
The Beagle on the coast of South America

On his return from sailing around the world he threw himself into scientific work, experimentation, meticulous research and lots of thinking. But he couldn’t bring himself to publish his big insight. His wife Emma was very religious and they both were very aware of the stir his amazing insight would cause. After twenty years of this he was suddenly nudged into action when a younger man sent him a paper to publish which he felt was almost identical to his theory. He scrambled to action, and so it happened that his friends Lyell and Hooker arranged to have his and Alfred Russel Wallace’s papers read jointly to the Linnean Society on 1 July 1958. On the evening of 28 June, Darwin’s baby son died of scarlet fever after a week of severe illness, and he was too distraught to attend the presentation. Their joint paper On the Tendency of Species to form Varieties; and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection was read. What followed was . . nothing. Little attention was given to this announcement of their theory; the president of the Linnean Society made the now-notorious remark in May 1859 that the year 1858 “had not been marked by any revolutionary discoveries.”

In 1859 he finally published his amazing book On The Origin Of Species, ‘one long argument’ for the idea, hatching in his head since 1837, of the ‘common descent’ of all life.

His theory is simply stated in the introduction: As many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive; and as, consequently, there is a frequently recurring struggle for existence, it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally selected. From the strong principle of inheritance, any selected variety will tend to propagate its new and modified form.

At the end of the book he concluded that: There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

A toast to an amazing man and his insight!

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Evolution was already old in 1859: Contrary to popular opinion, neither the term nor the idea of biological evolution began with Charles Darwin and his 1859 paper, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. Many scholars from the ancient Greek philosophers on had inferred that similar species were descended from a common ancestor. The word “evolution” was widely used in English for all sorts of progressions from simpler beginnings from 1647 on. The term Darwin most often used to refer to biological evolution was “descent with modification,” which remains a good brief definition of the process today.

Darwin proposed that evolution could be explained by the differential survival of organisms following their naturally occurring variation—a process he termed “natural selection.” Offspring of organisms differ from one another and from their parents in ways that are heritable – that is, they can pass on the differences genetically to their own offspring.

See more evidence supporting biological evolution.

To this day the truly ignorant – just as the bishop of London did in 1859 – and the merely dishonest misrepresent Darwin’s theory
  • Yes, evolution is also a scientific theory, but not when used in a negative sense. If anyone says ‘it’s only a theory nya nya’, ignore them. If anyone says its a scientific theory matter-of-factly they’re right, but then those people will also immediately tell you it’s also a scientific fact. Read about that here.

birdology

Sy Montgomery sounds like a wonderful person. You think she has to be interesting, anyway, when you learn she wrote a book called The Soul Of An Octopus. Then you learn she kept a pet pig and you think, Hmm, maybe dodgy like some other people you know who will remain nameless, right Bruce and Heather Soutar? She wrote a book on the pig called The Good Good Pig, so you think, OK, maybe unlike Bruce and Heather she turned it into tasty bacon, but no, she loved the pig live. Then you see her petting a tiger and again you think Hmmm . .

But then you find out she wrote “birdology”:

Birdology - Sy Montgomery book
read book review

People know that birds are descendants of dinosaurs, but actually the truth is that Birds Are Dinosaurs. That may be difficult to see when you’re watching a flycatcher, but it is more apparent when you are watching an ostrich or a cassowary, as tall as a man, crowned with a helmet of bone on its head and a killer claw on each foot.

Most of the dinosaurs that became today’s birds took up flying. And in doing so, they utterly reshaped their bodies inside and out. Their bones are hollow and their bodies are full of air sacs; their feathers weigh more than the skeleton and are hollow shafted and shaped to capture and move air. Birds are essentially feather-fringed air bubbles.

Birds can see polarized and ultraviolet light, experience colors we can never know, sense the earth’s magnetic field, and navigate using subtle changes in odor and barometric pressure.

In Birdology Sy Montgomery communicates a heartfelt fascination and awe for birds and hopefully kindles in more of us humans a connection to these complex, mysterious fellow creatures that I personally find so fascinating.

Birds are the only wild animals most people see every day. No matter where we live, birds live with us. Yet many of us don’t appreciate how very strange they are, how different to us. Their hearts look like those of crocodiles. They have no hands. They give birth to eggs. And they’re covered with modi­fied scales called feathers. We shared a common ancestor with even the most distant of our fellow placen­tal mammals as recently as 100 million years ago; The last ancestor we shared with the birds, however, traces back 325 to 350 million years ago.

Sy says her life with animals has taught her “how to be a good creature. How to be compassionate. How to get yourself inside the mind and heart of someone else. Seeing someone’s soul, looking for their truth. Animals teach you all of that and that’s how you get compassion and heart.”

Sy Montgomery sounds like a wonderful person.

the_origin_of_birds

Hacks, Shifts & Contrivances

The ‘net is full of ‘hacks’: Simple and (sometimes) effective solutions to everyday problems (or ‘problems’). Often quirky or inelegant. Here’s a typical geek hack:

dirty dishes

I found some camping hacks: Shoe holder kitchen; Eggs in a bottle; toilet paper jar; etc.

camping hacks

But here’s what really got me going: An 1872 book on hacks for going on a long expedition into Darkest Africa called The Art of Travel, or Shifts and Contrivances available in Wild Countries by Francis Galton, grandson of the famous Erasmus Darwin and cousin of the even more famous Charles Darwin.

Money

Travelers must be healthy, adventurous, and have “at least a moderate fortune”. If your fortune isn’t quite large enough, shoot elephants for their ivory or collect insects, birds and plants and sell them to fund your travels.

Washing Clothes

Here’s how to wash your clothes after you have worn them night and day for six weeks: Kill an animal – any animal – take its gall bladder and add it to boiling water full of ash from the fire. Peel off your greasy clothes and soak them in this mess overnight. Next morning, take them to water and wash and beat them with a flat piece of wood. To get rid of the vermin with which you are infested by now, take half an ounce of mercury, mix it with old tea leaves reduced to pulp by mastication and add saliva (not water) to make a paste. Infuse this into a string which you hang around your neck. The lice will be sure to bite at the bait, swell, become red and die.

Making Soap

Save up the fat from the cooking till you have half a bucket-full. Collect as much wood as you can and wood ashes from plants whose ashes taste acrid. Get a man to make two very large clay pots, ‘which is a very easy thing to do when proper clay can be obtained’. In one pot place the ashes. In the other, under which a fire has been lit, place the fat. Now employ a Damara of sedentary disposition to supervise the process to the end, he or she simply having to keep up the fire under the grease-pot night and day, and from time to time ladle into it a spoonful of the ash-water or lye. This ash-water is sucked up by the grease and in only ten days of constant attendance the stuff is transformed into good white soap.

Make a Boat

If you need to cross a river with your belongings, a make-shift boat is useful: Kill two bulls, skin them and sew the skins together. Cut down ten small willow trees, fourteen feet long. Lash the willow poles as shown, wrap the skins around them. Two men can make this craft in a mere two days.

Galton shift boat

Theory of Loads and Distances – and Women

You need to take a lot of stuff along, so Galton works out how much you can get animals and men to carry. He does this ‘partly by theory and partly by experiment’!

“Let d be the distance the beast or man could travel daily if unburdened; Let b be the burden which would just suffice to prevent an animal from moving a step; Let b’ be some burden less than b and let d’ be the distance he could travel daily when carrying b’.”

He comes to a magic formula b’d² = b(d – d’)² which ‘proves’ the pack animal can carry 4/9 of his maximum staggering load! From this he works out that a man can carry 119lbs a distance of 11 miles a day.

He also confidently states that – unlike many travelers – he believes taking women along is an asset, for they work hard and can carry ‘double the load men can’. Mind you, this man did once use his expertise in trigonometry to discreetly measure the posterior development (her bum) of a South African woman at a distance. Taking along the wives of the hired hands “gives great life to a party,” and they can endure a long journey “nearly as well as a man… and certainly better than a horse or a bullock.” Women were also “invaluable in picking up and retailing information and hearsay gossip” which the traveler might otherwise miss. Plus, they were cheap to run, as Samuel Hearne of the Hudson’s Bay Company had pointed out: “Women were made for labor, and though they do everything, they are maintained at a trifling expense, for, as they always cook, the very licking of their fingers, in scarce times, is sufficient for their subsistence.”

Noisy Donkeys

Just tie a heavy stone around the ass’s tail. “When an ass wants to bray, he elevates his tail, and, if his tail be weighted down, he has not the heart to bray”.

Solitary Travel

‘Neither sleepy nor deaf men should think of traveling alone’.

On Being Held Up by Brigands

When the robber orders you to lie down, draw your own gun and yell, “If this were loaded, you should not treat me thus!” Then lie on the ground as ordered. As the robber approaches to relieve you of your belongings, “aim quickly and shoot him dead – the pistol being really loaded all the time. It’s a trick that has been practiced in most countries, from England to Peru”.

Supplies

After giving long lists of necessities per day and per person and per six months, he comes to a final rough formula for ‘Stores for Individual Use’: You need 7lbs a month for every white man and 3lbs a month for every black man.

Medicine

You need to take aperient, cordial, quinine, camphor, carbolic acid, Warburg’s fever drops, glycerine, mustard paper, and emetic. Or, for an emetic you could use a charge of gunpowder in a tumblerful of warm water, then tickle your throat.

Boots Pinching?

‘A raw egg broken into the boot before putting it on, greatly softens the leather’.

Bedding

Your bedding must be warm and windproof, but not airtight, as ‘sleeping clothes that are absolutely impervious to the passage of the wind necessarily retain the cutaneous excretions. These poison the sleeper, acting upon his blood through his skin, and materially weaken his power of emitting vital heat: the fire of his life burns more languidly’. He also advises you to sleep outside, a tent is too much like home.

Always Keep a Diary

Keep a daily travelogue: “It appears impossible to a traveler, at the close of his journey, to believe he will ever forget its events, however trivial. They seem branded into his memory. But this is not the case – the crowds of new impressions during a few months of civilised life will efface the sharpness of the old ones. I have conversed with . . many men . . the greater part of whose experiences in savagedom had passed out of their memories like the events of a dream.”

Galton camp SWA
Galton’s camp in Damaraland

To Raise and Move a Heavy Body

When a violent hurricane had driven his 80 ton schooner several hundred yards inland, Mr Williams, a missionary in the South Sea Islands, said, “The method by which we raised and moved the vessel was exceedingly simple and we accomplished the task with great ease”. They raised her out of the 4ft hole she had worked herself into by levering her out with long levers and stone weights. Then they filled the bog that lay between her and the sea with stones and logs as rollers. Then they used a chain cable and “compelled her to take a short voyage upon the land before she floated in her pride on the sea”.

Oh, and he did mention, “the united strength of about 2000 people” was used to do this.

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Galton’s first trip was as a student from Germany through Eastern Europe to Constantinople. He rafted down the Danube and swam naked across the harbour in Trieste in order to avoid the hassle of quarantine procedures. In 1845 he went to Egypt and traveled up the Nile to Khartoum in the Sudan, and from there to Beirut, Damascus and down the Jordan. In 1850 he joined the Royal Geographical Society, and over the next two years mounted a long and difficult expedition into then little-known South West Africa (now Namibia) where he met the Damaras mentioned above.

Francis Galton (from the introduction to his book by anthropologist & historian GT Bettany): Mr. Francis Galton, the third son of Samuel Tertius Galton, a banker in Birmingham, in whose family the love of statistical accuracy was very remarkable; and of Violetta, eldest daughter of the celebrated Dr. Erasmus Darwin, author of ‘Zoonomia’, ‘The Botanic Garden’, etc, was born on February 16th, 1822, and educated at King Edward’s School, Birmingham, where he gained no great admiration for “the unhappy system of education that has hitherto prevailed, by which boys acquire a very imperfect knowledge of the structure of two dead languages, and none at all of the structure of the living world”.

What a delightful book of days gone by. Days of adventure, of knowing everything, including what other people and women thought and wanted – without ever asking them!

Possible World Record

I may be in line for a world record soon. We’ll know in about 190 years time.

I read it here-

Heroic Failures

Seems the Slowest Selling Book Ever was a 1716 translation of the New Testament from Coptic into Latin by David Wilkins. He sold 191 copies.

Well, as far as underachievement goes that’s piffling stuff! I sold exactly zero of my 2016 Umko 50 years book, so I should be able to whip this Wilkins’ ass handily. We printed 300 and gave them all away, so unless people start re-selling them I’m safe, and should become an honorary member of the Not Terribly Good Club of Great Britain.

Only danger is his 191st copy sold in 1907, so he still has those 190 years in which he can claim “Yes, but . . “.

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The Book of Heroic Failures was written by Stephen Pile in 1979 in celebration of human inadequacy in all its forms. Entries include William McGonagall, a notoriously bad poet, and Teruo Nakamura a soldier of the Imperial Japanese Army who fought World War II until 1974.

The original edition included an application to become a member of the Not Terribly Good Club of Great Britain; However, this was taken out in later editions because the club received over 30,000 applications and closed on the grounds that it was “a failure as a failure” (but not before Pile himself had been deposed as president for showing alarming competence by preventing a disaster involving a soup toureen, then being expelled from the club for publishing a bestseller). The American version of the book was misprinted by the publishers, who left out half the introduction. As a consequence, later versions of the book came out with an erratum slip longer than the entire introduction. (wikipedia)

Pile says “People keep talking about the things man does well, when these few blades of grass are surrounded by vast prairies of inadequacy which are much more interesting”.

 

wu wei

My garden is a wonderful tangle of KwaZulu indigenous growth gone wild. Interfered with only by my best man Tobias’ earnestly-felt desire to do something. Recently he trimmed the undergrowth near the birdbath and the spot where beautiful turquoise Araneus apricus spins her web each night and takes it down every morning.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I had to sit him down and remind him: Tobias, remember when we listened to the yellow-bellied greenbul’s complaints and you told me how it was saying “Don’t shoot the birds, it’s Spring and they’re nesting”, and how you would teach the kids in Jozini not to shoot birds in that season – and how they did anyway!?
Well, its Summer, and remember: We don’t trim or cut anything till the season fades and we’re sure no birds or other creatures are nesting. And even then we do it with great circumspection? Oh Yes, He Does Remember and Sorry, He Forgot.

But he forgot again and as I was leaving he asked Can You Buy Me A Rake? Um, what for, Tobias? Oh, Yes, He Forgot, We Don’t Rake. Right.

Well, I mention this because I have recently found out that unbeknown to me, I garden according to the ancient principle of wu wei. I mean, I always suspected my method was brilliant, but wu wei! That is brill. Its the Zen (or Tao? – or something . . ) art of “masterful inactivity”.

I love it: “The Art Of Masterful Inactivity”! Wu wei!

I’m reading a book by Esther Woolfson who lives in Aberdeen in Scotland called Field Notes from a Hidden City. The review of her book made me want to write about all the wonderful hidden creatures in my garden and generally in Westville, so I bought it with the express intention of plagiarising it. I’ve got to the part where she writes about wu wei and I’m right behind her.

I read a lot about books and then occasionally I buy one and actually read the whole thing. Often the book review is better than the book. I bought Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck by Eric G Wilson. Well, it was a very good review.

Back to plagiarism: I will write to Esther and tell her what I’m doing if I get the book done. My wu wei credentials are not confined to gardening, however, so she may be safe.

Here’s the manicured bit for soccer, rugby and biking, with refuges for creatures in front and behind. When the kids stop swimming the pool will be made more frog-friendly. Made? Well, Allowed To Go . . . .

Jess MTB small

Araneus apricus is a beautiful little turquoise orb spider I found in my garden.
She was identified by my favourite entomologist Tanza who said:

Hi Pete 

I think she is Araneus apricus, a little orb spider. Most are nocturnal, spinning their webs in the early evening and then removing them in the morning. Maybe she got out of bed late . . .  It is probably a “she” as the males are often (but not always) smaller.
Tanz