Time-lapse drawing of Charles Darwin

framed drawing of Charles Darwin as an old man with a long, white beard

This pencil drawing is being auctioned off to raise money for the Secular Students’ Alliance. Watch as it is created by the Incredible Mouse.

Saturday 12/10 – at 1pm Central
12-hour fundraising event for the Secular Student Alliance!

“We’ll be joined by a great many guests including PZ Myers, the League of Reason, The Jinn and Tonic Show, Trolling With Logic (and special guests Damon Fowler and Joe Zamecki), as well as some of YouTube’s finest. There will even a sneak preview of Holy Hallucinations 29 by TheLivingDinosaur, but only if you help us raise a lot of money!”

This was done upon request to be auctioned on E-Bay as a fundraising event for the non-profit Secular Student Alliance, by SkepticTV http://www.skeptictv.net/.

Happy Darwin Day!

It’s Darwin’s  Day, when we celebrate Charles Darwin’s birthday. He developed the basic explanation for the variety of lifeforms in biology, with the theories of natural selection and sexual selection operating on excess reproductive capacity. The discovery came up in discussion the other day. Carovee said,

Darwin based his ideas on a) existing theories, and b) his own careful observations. If he hadn’t come up with the theory of evolution, someone else eventually would have figured it out.

This is correct. A number of scientists were groping towards the theory. Not only did Wallace come up with the identical theory twenty years later, based on his years of collecting zoological specimens in South America and the Pacific, while Darwin was still assembling the air-tight arguments for his book, but the whole idea was in the air based on scientifically proven observations such as “New forms of organisms arise where there was a similar population in the same geographic area just before them.” Indeed, Patrick “the Scots Invented it First” Matthew tossed off the theory of natural selection, clearly stated but not elaborated, in an appendix to his book about growing timber for naval ships in 1831.

In spite of the prevailing Creationist myth that scientists are driven by an evil desire to deny the existence of their god, anyone observing scientists or reading their accounts with an open mind receives the overwhelming impression of curiosity, joy, and wonder in discovering how the world works.

Dialogues with Darwin exhibit

Is anyone in Philadelphia this weekend? I’ll be there on the weekend to see the Darwiniana exhibit at the American Philosophical Society’s museum. The exhibit is going on until October 17. Loren Eiseley used their collection when he was writing Darwin’s Century, and he called it magnificent.

Darwin’s super finches

ThinkGeek is selling a T-shirt with an updated Darwin’s finches theme. I think it’s funny.

Darwin and the eye

Charles Darwin’s first sentence below is often quoted by his critics. However, they dishonestly omit the rest of the discussion.

Organs of extreme perfection and complication. To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree. Yet reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to exist; if further, the eye does vary ever so slightly, and the variations be inherited, which is certainly the case; and if any variation or modification in the organ be ever useful to an animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, can hardly be considered real. How a nerve comes to be sensitive to light, hardly concerns us more than how life itself first originated; but I may remark that several facts make me suspect that any sensitive nerve may be rendered sensitive to light, and likewise to those coarser vibrations of the air which produce sound.

In looking for the gradations by which an organ in any species has been perfected, we ought to look exclusively to its lineal ancestors; but this is scarcely ever possible, and we are forced in each case to look to species of the same group, that is to the collateral descendants from the same original parent-form, in order to see what gradations are possible, and for the chance of some gradations having been transmitted from the earlier stages of descent, in an unaltered or little altered condition. Amongst existing Vertebrata, we find but a small amount of gradation in the structure of the eye, and from fossil species we can learn nothing on this head. In this great class we should probably have to descend far beneath the lowest known fossiliferous stratum to discover the earlier stages, by which the eye has been perfected.

In the Articulata we can commence a series with an optic nerve merely coated with pigment, and without any other mechanism; and from this low stage, numerous gradations of structure, branching off in two fundamentally different lines, can be shown to exist, until we reach a moderately high stage of perfection. In certain crustaceans, for instance, there is a double cornea, the inner one divided into facets, within each of which there is a lens shaped swelling. In other crustaceans the transparent cones which are coated by pigment, and which properly act only by excluding lateral pencils of light, are convex at their upper ends and must act by convergence; and at their lower ends there seems to be an imperfect vitreous substance. With these facts, here far too briefly and imperfectly given, which show that there is much graduated diversity in the eyes of living crustaceans, and bearing in mind how small the number of living animals is in proportion to those which have become extinct, I can see no very great difficulty (not more than in the case of many other structures) in believing that natural selection has converted the simple apparatus of an optic nerve merely coated with pigment and invested by transparent membrane, into an optical instrument as perfect as is possessed by any member of the great Articulate class.

He who will go thus far, if he find on finishing this treatise that large bodies of facts, otherwise inexplicable, can be explained by the theory of descent, ought not to hesitate to go further, and to admit that a structure even as perfect as the eye of an eagle might be formed by natural selection, although in this case he does not know any of the transitional grades. His reason ought to conquer his imagination; though I have felt the difficulty far too keenly to be surprised at any degree of hesitation in extending the principle of natural selection to such startling lengths.

It is scarcely possible to avoid comparing the eye to a telescope. We know that this instrument has been perfected by the long-continued efforts of the highest human intellects; and we naturally infer that the eye has been formed by a somewhat analogous process. But may not this inference be presumptuous? Have we any right to assume that the Creator works by intellectual powers like those of man? If we must compare the eye to an optical instrument, we ought in imagination to take a thick layer of transparent tissue, with a nerve sensitive to light beneath, and then suppose every part of this layer to be continually changing slowly in density, so as to separate into layers of different densities and thicknesses, placed at different distances from each other, and with the surfaces of each layer slowly changing in form. Further we must suppose that there is a power always intently watching each slight accidental alteration in the transparent layers; and carefully selecting each alteration which, under varied circumstances, may in any way, or in any degree, tend to produce a distincter image. We must suppose each new state of the instrument to be multiplied by the million; and each to be preserved till a better be produced, and then the old ones to be destroyed. In living bodies, variation will cause the slight alterations, generation will multiply them almost infinitely, and natural selection will pick out with unerring skill each improvement. Let this process go on for millions on millions of years; and during each year on millions of individuals of many kinds; and may we not believe that a living optical instrument might thus be formed as superior to one of glass, as the works of the Creator are to those of man?

If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down. But I can find out no such case.

Evolutionary stages in eye development

Quoting Charles Darwin

Whilst browsing another site, I found this:

In a passage excised by his wife Emma and son Francis from the published version of his Autobiography, Darwin commented that

the scientific community must not “overlook the probability of the constant inculcation [of] a belief in God on the minds of children producing so strong [an] effect on their brains not yet fully developed, that it would be as difficult for them to throw off their belief in God as for a monkey to throw off its instinctive fear and hatred of a snake.”

You can find it at Biography Base, on the Charles Darwin page, near the bottom and just before the Resources.

For a more complete version, see Darwin’s Autobiography with original omissions.

Darwin Day (observed)

The Province of Ontario was nice enough to declare a civic holiday in February, which I’m calling Darwin Day (observed). Just as Victoria Day (observed) is on the nearest Monday to the real May 24, so Darwin Day (observed) is on the Monday after February 12. In honour of Darwin Day, here’s Richard Wiseman’s Charles Darwin optical illusion.

Happy anniversary to The Origin of Species

Today is the sesquicentennial of The Origin of Species‘ publication. After gathering evidence for twenty years, Darwin was surprised to receive a letter from Alfred Russell Wallace, detailing Wallace’s theory and asking Darwin’s opinion.

Darwin immediately realized he’d have to publish and invited Wallace to give a joint paper with him at the Royal Society. The rest, as they say, is history.

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