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Happy Darwin Day!

Several of us are meeting for dinner tonight in honor of Darwin's 200th birthday, February 12. Our hostess suggested bringing a favorite Darwin quote. It's hard to choose! Here are some I'm considering:

I have invariably found that our knowledge, imperfect though it be, of variation under domestication, afforded the best and safest clue. I may venture to express my conviction of the high value of such studies, although they have been very commonly neglected by naturalists.

...variations, however slight and from what ever cause proceeding, if they be in any degree profitable to the individuals of a species, in their infinitely complex relations to other organic beings and to their physical conditions of life, will tend to the preservation of such individuals, and will generally be inherited by the offspring. I called this principle, but which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term Natural Selection, in order to mark its relation to Man's power of selection.

We have seen that man by selection can certainly produce great results, and can adapt organic beings to his own uses, through the accumulation of slight but useful variations, given to him by the hand of Nature. But Natural Selection, we shall hereafter see, is a power incessantly ready for action, and is as immeasurably superior to man's feeble efforts, as the works of Nature are to those of Art.

If it profit a plant to have its seeds more and more widely disseminated by the wind, I can see no greater difficulty in this being effected through natural selection, than in the cotton-planter increasing and improving by selection the down in the pods on his cotton-trees.

As more individuals are produced than can possibly survive, there must in every case be a struggle for existence, either one individual with another of the same species, or with the individuals of distinct species, or with the physical conditions of life. It is the doctrine of Malthus applied with manifold force to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms; for this case there can be no artificial increase of food, and no prudential restraint from marriage.

That climate acts in main part indirectly by favoring other species, we clearly see in the prodigious number of plants which in our gardens can perfectly well endure our climate, but which never become naturalized, for they cannot compete with our native plants nor resist destruction by our native animals.

Look at a plant in the midst of its range, why does it not double or quadruple its numbers? We know it can perfectly well withstand a little more heat or cold, dampness or dryness, for elsewhere it ranges into slightly hotter or colder, damper or drier districts. In this case we can clearly see that if we wish in imagination to give the plant the power of increasing in number, we should have to give it some advantage over its competitors, or over the animals which prey on it.

What natural selection cannot do, is to modify the structure of one species, without giving it any advantage, for the good of another species; and though statements to this effect may be found in works of natural history, I cannot find one case which will bear investigation.

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator 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.


I have always liked this quote that sounds like he had some concept of genetic drift:

‘Variations neither useful nor injurious would not be affected by natural selection, and would be left to either as a fluctuating element, as perhaps we see in certain polymorphic species, or would ultimately become fixed, owing to the nature of the organism and the nature of the conditions

Very nice. And then there's the letter where he hints at particulate inheritance, noting that crossing a male and a female doesn't usually give a hermaphrodite.

It has become fashionable to point out how much Darwin didn't know, or was wrong, blah-blah-blah de doodah. Yet, the more I read of his work, the more I find he got right. In my opinion, Darwin was one of the best synthesizers of disparate lines of evidence that ever lived.

I will be hoisting a few glasses in his honor on Thursday. And I won't be forgetting Honest Abe either.

Good selection. I'm intrigued to know which of those you actually picked as The One.

I use the first to remind my many evolutionary colleagues who ignore or disparage agriculture of Darwin's interest in it. I use the third to remind my agricultural colleagues of the importance of evolutionary biology. Not wanting to offend anyone on this celebratory occasion, I went with the cotton-trees. I used to show pictures of wild cotton trees (90% wood, 1% cotton fiber) and cultivated cotton in my Crop Ecology class.

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