Charles Darwin may have been right in worrying that the ill health that plagued his family were a result of inbreeding. Darwin didn’t only marry his first cousin, Emma Wedgwood–in fact, the Darwins and the Wedgwoods made a habit of intermarrying (Darwin’s maternal grandparents were also third cousins). Now a new study, which crunched the numbers on first-cousin marriages over four generations of the two dynasties, suggests that his children had an elevated risk of health problems.
The degree of inbreeding among Darwin’s children, while not excessive, was enough to increase the risk of recessive diseases — ones that occur if a harmful version of a gene is inherited from both parents. Three of his 10 children died before age 10 — 2 of bacterial diseases. Childhood mortality from bacterial infections is associated with inbreeding. So, too, is infertility, and three of Darwin’s children who had long marriages left no children [The New York Times].
Friday saw the release of two science-centered films: the medical drama “Extraordinary Measures” opened around the country, while the British-made Charles Darwin biopic “Creation” finally found a U.S. distributor and began limited showings on this side of the pond.
Starring Brendan Fraser and Harrison Ford, “Extraordinary Measures” tells the Hollywood-ized true story of researchers racing to find a cure for Pompe disease, a genetic affliction affecting fewer than 10,000 people in the world. Two of those people, however, are the children of John Crowley, Fraser’s character. “The movie is a great exposure for a rare genetic disease,” said Duke University School of Medicine’s Priya Kishnani, who studies Pompe and participated in much of the research that led to the first and only approved treatment for the disease…. “I would have never thought in my lifetime, a disease that I’m so passionate about would make it into mainstream Hollywood cinema” [The Scientist].
Today’s the day—the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin‘s On the Origin of Species, the most famous work of the great 19th century naturalist. And to mark the occasion, the Darwin Manuscripts Project is uploading Darwin’s original drafts—10,000 pages worth—into an online archive. Look for the material to go online later today.
The collection includes 34 of the original 36 draft leaves of the book, according to editor David Kohn. “I’ve sat in the Cambridge University Library since 1974, touching these documents, but this is the first time that anyone can do this — online in this quantity and with this quality,” Kohn said [MSNBC]. The project leaders intend to digitize more manuscripts down the road, and also reconstruct Darwin’s library.
Still, there are missing pieces. English Heritage, which operates Darwin’s former home as a museum, launched a mission to recover a crucial Darwin notebook that’s been missing for the last two or three decades and might have been stolen from the house. According to Darwin’s great-great-grandson, the author Randal Keynes, the notebook contains notes and descriptions of animals from Darwin’s Galapagos visit. Says Keynes: “The Galapagos notebook is of outstanding value for the history of science…. If Darwin had not posed the questions in that notebook, he might never have written On the Origin of Species” [BBC News]. Luckily, English Heritage still has microfilm of the notebook created in 1969.
While one Darwin artifact is lost, another is found: A British family turned up a first edition of On the Origin of Species in an unexpected location. Christie’s auction house said Sunday the book – one of around 1,250 copies first printed in 1859 – had been on a toilet bookshelf at a family’s home in Oxford [AP]. Christie’s expects the book to fetch upwards of $100,000.
80beats: In Galapagos Finches, Biologists Catch Evolution in the Act
80beats: Darwin is Too Hot for Turkish Officials: Evolution Article Gets Censored
80beats: Vatican Gives Darwin a Big Birthday Hug, Leaving Creationists on the Fringes
DISCOVER: Darwin’s Great Blunder—And Why It Was Good for the World
DISCOVER: DISCOVER Does Darwin: Special Section on Evolution
Image: Wiki Commons
On the Galapagos Islands, where Charles Darwin’s observations led to his evolutionary theory, scientists are now reporting that they’re witnessing a single species splitting into two, according to a new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
A husband and wife team, Peter and Rosemary Grant of Princeton University, have spent the past 36 years studying Darwin’s finches, technically know as tanagers. Darwin‘s observations of the birds during his voyage to the Galapagos on the HMS Beagle helped him arrive at the idea of evolutionary divergence: when different populations of a single species become geographically isolated, and evolve in different directions. The Grants have pushed that work further, with decades of painstaking observations providing a real-time record of evolution in action. In the PNAS paper, they describe something Darwin could only have dreamed of watching: the birth of a new species [Wired.com]. The process has been taking place with the help of a little bit of chance and a special song.
A husband and wife team that for 35 years has researched finches’ evolutionary responses to environmental changes have won the prestigious Kyoto Prize in the basic sciences category. Peter and Rosemary Grant, both emeritus professors at Princeton University, have studied finches that lives on the Galapagos Islands for decades and will share the $515,000 prize. The Kyoto Prize is a Japanese award similar to the Nobel Prize.
The two evolutionary biologists devoted their careers to furthering Charles Darwin‘s theory of evolution. Both 72, the Grants have been traveling regularly since 1973 to the Galápagos, the remote islands west of Ecuador. There, they have painstakingly recorded the characteristics of numerous varieties of finches [Philadelphia Inquirer]. Darwin stumbled upon these finches during his famous tour of the Galapagos Islands in 1835, later chronicled in his book The Voyage of the Beagle.
A top official at Turkey’s science agency reportedly forced the editors of its science magazine to remove a cover story on the life and work of Charles Darwin in what appears to be a sign of the Turkish government’s official discomfort with the theory of evolution.
The article was stripped from the March issue of the widely read popular-science magazine Bilim ve Teknik (Science and Technology) just before it went to press. The magazine, which is published by Turkey’s research funding and science management organization, TÜBİTAK, also switched a planned cover picture of Darwin for an illustration relating to global warming [Nature News]. The editor of the magazine says she was removed from her post over the incident, but has declined to comment further as she’s still an employee of TUBITAK.
The March issue of the magazine, which was intented to celebrate Darwin’s 200th birthday, reached newsstands a week late and 16 pages short. Once the behind-the-scenes machinations became known, academics reacted with outrage. Turkish writer Ender Helvacıoğlu from Science and Future magazine called on the science community to react against this incident and pressure the government, who has the last word appointing the council’s scientific committee. “This intervention can’t be regarded as solely censorship. It connotes the states rejection of science” [Bianet], he wrote. Today a group of university professors were expected to gather at the science council’s headquarters to call for the resignation of the official who ordered the article removed.
Some religious leaders may take issue with Charles Darwin and what he represents, but the Vatican has announced that it is officially on board with evolution. A leading official declared yesterday that Darwin’s theory of evolution was compatible with Christian faith, and could even be traced to St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas. “In fact, what we mean by evolution is the world as created by God,” said Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi [Times Online]. Both St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas recognized that life changes slowly over time, Ravasi said, and that was a step towards comprehending evolution.
The Vatican’s effort to show that science is not incompatible with religion will culminate in a conference on evolution next month, organized to mark the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s landmark publication, On the Origin of Species. The Vatican has backed away slightly from its original proposal to completely ban discussion of intelligent design at the event, which organizers called “poor theology and poor science”. [Instead,] Intelligent Design would be discussed at the fringes of the conference at the Pontifical Gregorian University, but merely as a “cultural phenomenon”, rather than a scientific or theological issue, organisers said [Times Online].
Charles Darwin‘s theory of evolution may have been shaped by his abhorrence of slavery as much as by his keen observations of Galapagos finches, a new book argues. Darwin’s Sacred Cause, by Adrian Desmond and James Moore, notes that slavery propaganda of the time often claimed that different races belonged to different species, a notion that Darwin’s work obliterated. The book suggests that Darwin’s unique approach to evolution – relating all races and species by “common descent” – could have been fostered by his anti-slavery beliefs [BBC News]. Published to coincide with Darwin’s 200th birthday and the 150th anniversary of his publication of On the Origin of Species this year, the book is likely to stir up a new debate over Darwin’s motives.
Many members of Darwin’s extended family were deeply devoted to the abolitionist cause, including his grandfather, Josiah Wedgwood, who founded a chinaware company and produced cameos distributed by anti-slavery campaigners; the medallions bore the legend “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” Darwin’s mother and wife were Wedgwoods and anti-slavery was what Darwin called a “sacred cause”. He was taught to see the oppressed black as a “brother”. This explains why, when he went to Edinburgh University at 16, he could apprentice himself to a freed Guyanese slave to learn the art of bird preservation without thinking it [beneath his dignity] [Times Online]. Darwin later described that former slave as one of his intimate friends.
On the slopes of the Wolf volcano at the northern tip of one of the Galapagos Islands prowls a pink iguana, which until recently had entirely escaped the notice of the island’s visitors–including the eagle-eyed Charles Darwin. But now researchers have spotted the rosy reptile and declared it a new species, which diverged from the Galapagos’s other land iguana species about 5.7 million years ago. Says lead researcher Gabriele Gentile: “What’s surprising is that a new species of megafauna, like a large lizard, may still be [found] in a well-studied archipelago” [National Geographic News].
The creature was first noticed by park rangers on the island of Isabela in 1986, but researchers only began to study the animal in the last few years. A genetic analysis revealed that the pink iguana was quite distinct from the two known land iguana species, but the date of their genetic divergence poses a puzzle. “At 5.7 million years ago, all of the western islands of the archipelago did not exist,” said Gabriele Gentile…. “That’s a conundrum, because it’s now only inhabiting one part of Isabela that formed less than half a million years ago” [BBC News]. In fact, even the oldest parts of the current archipelago may be less than five million years old, researchers say. One possible explanation is that volcanoes that are now underwater may have been above the waves millions of years ago, allowing some marine iguanas to clamber onto those shores and begin evolving.
Researchers may be able to recreate a species of giant tortoise that went extinct from the Galapagos Islands with a program of careful breeding. The new possibility hinges on the discovery that a species of giant tortoise living on the biggest island, Isabela, is very similar genetically to the extinct species, Geochelone elephantopus, which vanished from the island Floreana over a hundred years ago.
By mating Isabela tortoises that are most genetically similar to G. elephantopus, selecting the offspring that are most similar and mating those, through successive generations the species’ genetic makeup may be largely restored [The New York Times]. Says lead researcher Gisella Caccone: “We might need three or four generations to do this…. But in theory it could be done, and I think it’s pretty exciting to bring back from the dead a genome that we thought was gone” [BBC News].