Darwin's Kids Doodled All Over His "Origin of Species" Manuscript

Today, February 12, is Darwin Day, the 206th anniversary of the famed naturalist’s birth! 

Surprisingly, we may have Charles Darwin’s children to thank for the surviving handwritten pages of the naturalist’s “On the Origin of Species” manuscript. Most of the original 600 pages are lost, and of the 45 pages that exist today, many were repurposed by Darwin’s brood of 10 children as art supplies.

Head to our blog to see many more of these doodles and learn about the Museum’s Darwin Manuscripts Project.



More than one hundred and fifty years ago, Charles Darwin hypothesized that species could cross oceans and other vast distances on vegetation rafts, icebergs, or in the case of plant seeds, in the plumage of birds.

Though many were skeptical of Darwin’s “jump dispersal” idea, a new study suggests that Darwin might have been correct.

A new computational method, published in the journal Systematic Biology, tested two competing theories about how species came to live where they do and found strong evidence for jump dispersal, especially for island species.

The question of how species came to live where they live, which is studied by the field of biogeography, has long been debated among biologists, especially in cases where organisms that are related live on distant continents separated by vast oceans. Examples are flightless birds like the African ostrich and the Australian emu and Southern Beeches, a genus of 36 species of trees and shrubs which appear in temperate forests from South America to Australia and New Zealand.

Others found Darwin’s “jump dispersal” theory too fanciful and suggested instead that “land bridges” were used when continents were contiguous. This view, called “vicariance biogeography,” became the dominant paradigm.

In fact, the vicariance view became so dominant that computer programs designed to estimate the biogeographic history of a species left out jump dispersal entirely, and these programs have been used in hundreds of studies in recent years.

Yet, in many cases, statistical dating of evolutionary events indicated that the breakup of land masses occurred tens of millions of years before some species’ ancestors evolved, bringing into question the validity of vicariance methods.

The new study compares the theories of jump dispersal and vicariance in a new computational program developed by Nicholas J. Matzke, a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis. Using data from many species that live on the Hawaiian Islands and on other archipelagos, Matzke found that jump dispersal was able to explain the biogeography of the species with a far greater statistical probability than through the vicariance method.

Conventional biogeography said vicariance was a more scientific explanation than jump dispersal because vicariance relied on normal, predictable processes, and jump dispersal relied on extremely rare, near-miraculous events,” Matzke said. “Now the shoe is really on the other foot because the jump dispersal pattern appears to be much more common. It looks like Darwin was right after all.”

Matzke suggests that researchers need to include jump dispersal in order to accurately reconstruct evolutionary history.

Jump dispersal helps us remember that events that are rare on human timescales can be common over geological timescales, and that biodiversity might be structured largely by these rare chance events.”

“Portrait of Charles Darwin” by David Revoy

Today is the birthday of Charles Darwin! Darwin was a naturalist best known for his work identifying natural selection as a mechanism of evolution. Darwin made sense of the incredible diversity that we see today and was instrumental in establishing evolution as a fact in the scientific and public community (A scientific theory is absolutely in no way similar to an idea an individual has that they colloquially refer to as a ‘theory’. By definition, a scientific theory is well-tested and supported by evidence and accurately explains a range of observations). Evolution is not 'some’ idea of biology; it is the idea of biology. 

Evolution is the central tenet of biology and allows us to make sense of natural relationships and patterns. It is also profoundly beautiful to think about when considering our own place in the tree of life and the common evolutionary history of all life that we know. If you want to discuss evolution further or perhaps are unfamiliar with it in a biological context feel free to contact me but I’ll conclude this post with a passage from the Origin of Species that captures my feelings about this very well. 

“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.”