History of Science

From the archive

The gang-of-four ready to take over the ant world. From left: Philip Ward, Seán Brady, Ted Schultz and Brian Fisher at the IUSSI congress in Sapporo, Japan.

It was at the XIV international meeting of the International Union for the Study of Social Insects in 2002 that the “gang of four” decided to join forces to reconstruct the phylogenetic history of ants using molecular data.  Four years later Brady et al. 2006 was published.


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More on the insect cabinet on display at the AMNH

Friday, January 1st, 2010 | History of Science, Personalities, Uncategorized | Comments Off on More on the insect cabinet on display at the AMNH

I previously wrote about a beautiful insect cabinet currently on display at the American Museum of Natural History thought to belong to naturalists Alfred Russell Wallace. I also noted that George Beccaloni, from the the Natural History Museum in London, holds that the cabinet may not be Wallace’s on account of some pieces of evidence, including the differences in shape between the labels of the AMNH cabinet and that of known Wallace’s specimens at the NHM.

Now Beccaloni provides further evidence to back his opinion in the form of a letter written by Wallace to Walter Bates in 1846. Read for yourself and decide.

Oh, and a happy new year to all the readers of this blog!

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The Pewter Leprechaun Awards Ceremony

Tuesday, December 15th, 2009 | Cladistics, History of Science, Humor | 1 Comment

E. Haeckel

You may not fancy public humiliation of scientific papers (ah come on, who doesn’t?), but the Pewter Leprechaun Awards Ceremony is a fun read. If you want to know what is this all about look here.

You really need to know well your history on systematics and biogeography to fully enjoy the piece, but if you don’t you will do well in putting Google to a good use and run some searches on those names. On a side note, I do think Brazeau’s paper didn’t deserved the nomination, specially among the other contestants.

I hope they do send a pewter leprechaun to the winner (and blog about it).

Whose insect cabinet is on display at the AMNH?

Monday, November 30th, 2009 | History of Science, Personalities | 5 Comments
© D. Finnin/AMNH

© D. Finnin/AMNH

The American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) has currently on display a cabinet with a collection of specimens thought to belong to Alfred Russell Wallace, the great Victorian naturalist considered to be the father of biogeography and co-discover of natural selection. The cabinet currently belongs to a private owner who purchased it from an antique dealer in Arlington, Va. in 1979.

The New York Times has a piece with the story of this find that explains the cabinet’s importance: prior to this discovery, it was thought that the only existing Wallace collection consisted of the fewer specimens housed at the Natural History Museum (NHM) in London. › Continue reading

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150 years of On the Origin of Species

Tuesday, November 24th, 2009 | History of Science | 2 Comments

On the Origin of Species

This is my copy of Charles Darwin book On the Origin of Species published 150 years ago today. It is the ugliest-looking book I have in my collection. It doesn’t matter. It is the seventeenth printing of a facsimile of the 1859 original edition that Ernst Mayr, the prominent twentieth century evolutionary biologist, first produced in 1964 to provide mass access to a book that “ushered in a new era in our thinking about the nature of man” (p. vii). › Continue reading

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The Snodgrass Tapes

Snodgrass Tapes

Here is a hidden treasure in the web.

Robert E. Snodgrass was an American entomologist who published extensively on arthropod anatomy and evolution during the first half of the twentieth century. He was as knowledgeable about arthropod morphology as he was a superb artist– you can see some of his illustrations decorating the banner of this blog. His name is synonymous with insect morphology: his 1935 textbook on the subject (reedited by Cornell University Press in 1993) is still the main reference for any modern course in entomology.

Snodgrass was a lecturer in the University of Maryland for most of his academic life. In 1960, two years before his death, he gave a series of three lectures that were recorded in audio tape. Fortunately for us Jeffrey W. Shultz, professor of entomology at Maryland, has digitized and made these lectures available through a nicely designed page called The Snodgrass Tapes. › Continue reading


Nineteenth century figure found to be wrong about something, kind of

Friday, August 21st, 2009 | Comparative Anatomy, History of Science | 1 Comment

appendixI have Google Alerts set for the term “cladistics” so I will receive a feed every time Google indexes that word. Now, in the last couple of days those feeds have catch a story circulating in the news media regarding a recently published study looking at the appendix from a comparative and phylogenetic perspective, pretty cool if you ask me.

I can only access the abstract of the original publication unfortunately, but it does seems to be a well done and thorough study. The problem is the way the report gets increasingly hyped by the news media. I first got this: Evolution of the appendix: A biological ‘remnant’ no more. OK, that’s not bad. I then got this: Appendix redux. Yeah, sure, succinct and clever. But today I got this: Darwin wrongly called the appendix a biological ‘remnant’, say researchers:

› Continue reading

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Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage fight crime

Thursday, July 9th, 2009 | History of Science, Off topic, Personalities | Comments Off on Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage fight crime


If you happen to share my obsession interest for science in the 1800’s you should definitely check out The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, a witty blog-comic created by animator Sydney Padua.

› Continue reading

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The Newton of Natural History who never was

Portrait of Richard Owen (Smithsonian Institution's photostream).

Portrait of Richard Owen (Smithsonian Institution's photostream).

I feel a lot of sympathy for Richard Owen. The more I read his work the more so. He is a fascinating dark character, both for the peculiar quality of his scientific oeuvre as well as for his eccentric persona. A true representative of Natural History in the Victorian Era.

History has certainly not be kind to him, foremost because it seems almost impossible to talk about him without reference to Darwin (as I am doing right  now). This is quite understandable given the impact that the publication of On the Origin of Species had on defining the period. Problem is that, with a few notable exceptions1, he is wrongly portrayed as the leading antievolutionist of the time, his contribution to science thus construed as coming from a figure on the loser side of the debate and reduced to opponent of the Darwinians, in a type example of whig history.

I have previously wrote about Owen’s archetype and his clarification of the terms homology and analogy, concepts that form the cornerstone of comparative biology. He was indeed against the Darwinians, not because he rejected species evolution but because he thought natural selection, as an external force, was not a viable mechanism that could account for the pattern of shared structures make evident by comparative anatomy, the Unity of Type2. › Continue reading

  1. For example Rupke, N. 1994. Richard Owen: Victorian Naturalist, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT. and Amundson, R. 1998. Typology Reconsidered: Two Doctrines on the History of Evolutionary Biology . Biology and Philosophy. 13, 153-177.
  2. And he was not alone. The view that natural selection is the main process behind evolution took some decades to gain the wide acceptance it has today. Peter Bowler has documented the extend to which naturalists after The Origin held alternative views to natural selection in his book The Non-Darwinian Revolution

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Evolution today and tomorrow – Lisbon’s conference

Sunday, April 26th, 2009 | History of Science, Personalities, Theory, Web | Comments Off on Evolution today and tomorrow – Lisbon’s conference

I spend last Thursday and Friday attending a conference held at the University of Lisbon: Evolution today and tomorrow: Darwin evaluated by contemporary evolutionary and philosophical theories. 23 – 24 April 2009. Don’t let the event’s webpage design fool you, the conference was well organized and brought together a diverse array of interesting speakers, both Portuguese and from abroad. › Continue reading

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