Among the small thrills of encountering canonical works for the first time - Homer, say, or the King James Bible, or Star Wars - are the moments when you come across some turn of phrase so well-used it has been worn flat into the surface of everyday speech and think: so that's where that comes from. I'm thinking that the same might be true of the Origin, but in a different way.

For example, what's the first living thing that Darwin names? Turns out it's "the woodpecker, with its feet, tail, beak and tongue so admirably adapted to catch insects under the bark of trees".

This got me thinking about subsequent biologists who have cited the woodpecker as an example of a beast particularly well suited to a particular way of life. Most especially, in The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee, Jared Diamond uses the birds to illustrate the limits of convergent evolution -- that is, of the same set of traits evolving multiple times independently.

The package of traits that Darwin names: the backwards pointing feet for clinging to tree trunks, the stiff prop of a tail, the chisel-like beak, and the long tongue (according to this site, the woodpecker has also done bacterial-flagellum-like duty in creationist arguments) for slurping out invertebrates, has evolved just once. And in the places where there are no woodpeckers -- they hate crossing water, and so have never reached New Guinea, Australia or New Zealand -- no bird has come up with the toolkit for boring into live wood, and so live wood goes unbored. (From this, Diamond argues that the package of adaptations we call intelligent life is probably rare in the universe.)

Diamond doesn't mention Darwin here, but perhaps, when he was reaching for a case study, his thinking consciously or otherwise crystallized around that sentence in the introduction of the Origin. I'm thinking that there's a cultural studies PhD to be done called something like 'Species as text: evolution, quotation, and the anxiety of model organisms'. But let's not even go there.

Something else strikes me about the woodpecker being the first animal mentioned in the Origin. Darwin had been round the world and knew of all sorts of animals and plants with outlandish physiques and habits. And yet the route into his theory begins, not with something obviously 'extreme', like an elephant or a giant squid, but a bird that you would be pretty much guaranteed to see on a stroll in the woods around Down House.

Similarly, the first plant he mentions is the equally common mistletoe, "which draws its nourishment from certain trees, which has seed that must be transported by certain birds, and which has flowers with separate sexes absolutely requiring the agency of certain insects to bring pollen from one flower to the other".

One reason for this is surely to use examples that his readers would be able to picture. Also, of course, any general theory for the origin of species needs to explain woodpeckers as much as it does squid. But what makes me happy about Darwin's use of woodpeckers and mistletoe here is one of the things that makes me happy about science in general, that it makes the familiar strange (and vice versa).

What would his readers have made of this? If you believe that each species has been separately created to fill a particular place in nature, I don't think it would be at all obvious, as you took that woodland walk, that there is anything special about woodpeckers relative to magpies, or mistletoe compared with foxgloves. These species just are: of course woodpeckers peck wood -- they're woodpeckers, aren't they? What's the problem?

In seeing the problem, and in seeing woodpeckers and mistletoe afresh, Darwin also shows his ecological side: in those few sentences he smuggles in notions of ecological specialism, the idea that some species are more specialized than others -- what we now think of as broad and narrow niches -- and that this needs explaining.

Wearing my 1859-layperson goggles, I'm not sure all this would have been clear from so brief a passage; indeed, I might have been confused by the entire concept (the very word 'adapted' implies a process of some sorts - adapted from what?) but it shows how completely Darwin rethought how nature works.

One final thought on the intro from a 2009 perspective - he mentions that Alfred Russel Wallace "arrived at almost exactly the same general conclusions that I have on the origin of species" , right there, on the first page! That makes me surprised that the 'Wallace wuz robbed' bandwagon ever got rolling. It's not like Darwin was covering up.

OK, over to you. Join me back here on Monday for chapter 1, 'Variation under domestication' - or, as a zoologist I was talking to today who tried and failed to read the book in his teens called it, "all that boring stuff about pigeons".


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The Great spotted woodpecker shown here yesterday was, I think, an unusual individual, and thanks to everyone who had a go at explaining what it was that made her so odd. Unfortunately no-one got it right. Several of you noted that she appeared to be tridactyl on at least one foot, whereas she…
Man, this guy didn't know anything. I don't mean that as an insult. Darwin, as he admits, knew almost nothing about inheritance, about how variation is produced, or about the origins and history of domesticated plants and animals. You'd think that would be a handicap in using domestication as an…

"That makes me surprised that the 'Wallace wuz robbed' bandwagon ever got rolling." . . . Wallace was also a pallbearer at Darwin's funeral and Darwin was instrumental in Wallace receiving a pension.

So, Darwin bought Wallace's silence! There was a conspiracy!

By John Whitfield (not verified) on 09 Jan 2009 #permalink

I was really hoping to read along and learn as I just got my copy of the Origin for Christmas. However when I go below the fold, all of the info in the column on the right, is written on top of the post and comments. Makes it either difficult or impossible to read. It happens on my husband's computer too. Anyone else have this problem, or can anyone help me with this?

The RSS feed seems to be broken, or nonexistant. :(

I thought there was general recognition for Wallace at the time (I had heard that evolution was originally and for some time called "Darwin-Wallace Theory" or some such thing), and it's only really history (in which Darwin, in having the more publically accessible work rather than necessarily the first) that has gradually forgotten about Wallace's contribution. Could be making this up.

Am currently well into Chapter 1 (pigeons ahoy), but I suspect the posts will overtake me before the end of this week. :$

Muggins: Had that problem with Pharyngula a while back. Not sure if it's a browser or a site issue. Try back in a few hours, or tomorrow; or maybe try using a different browser.

If you can't wait (or waiting doesn't fix it) try copying and pasting the text into notepad or word or something. If that doesn't work, try "view source" in your browser to get at all that juicy, erroneously stylesheeted content.

Hi Everyone,

Please accept my apologies for your technical difficulties. The page looks ok to me (I'm currently using Firefox in Windows, but usually use Safari).

Being a scienceblogs newbie, I'm not sure if this is something I'm doing, or related to the recent software shenanigans. I will try and find out.

Right, I have consulted the folks at scienceblogs, and they tell me that things should be working now. I have managed to subscribe to the feed by clicking the 'subscribe' whatnot in the url window, although the link at will apparently not be working for a short while yet.

Apologies for the difficulty, and thanks for your patience. Please let me know of any further problems, and I will sort them out asap.

The idea of reading works that started particular movements is fun, but I think that you are correct in trying to place yourself in the mindset of an 1859 academic or layperson. I am reminded of my wife reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time, and partway through it she realised that while it was somewhat predictable, the Dwarves and Elves and their distrust of one another, etc. - that it's familiar precisely because it started the whole thing. LotR is part of so much subsequent fantasy, much as you know much of what Darwin wrote from other texts on evolution.

By Epinephrine (not verified) on 12 Jan 2009 #permalink

Would just like to mention that while Darwin was largely born into money, Wallace was much more of a self-made man. I, personally, always pictured Darwin as donning the robes of academia while Wallace was more of your museum-researcher/curator stock. Definately more blue-collar.

Wallace also never had Darwin's ability to politic. Wallace was often somewhat contraversial (supporting women's sufferage and spiritualism) and even a little embarrassing to the scientific community at times. However, that is exactly why we love him so much.

Can't much say anything about him being robbed though...

Anyone who is interested in learning more about Wallace (including ideas he had which were wholly his own such as "Wallace's Line") can read about it in the excellent National Geographic Magazine article called "The Man Who Wasn't Darwin" by Quammen. In the print edition, it's accompanied by the most beautiful full-color photography of the sorts of organisms Wallace used in formulating his analyses of speciation and migration. But the text along does right by him as well, and there is a link to the images in the "Photo Gallery" text write above the article itself:

By Alison Reiheld (not verified) on 12 Jan 2009 #permalink

Darwin had another reason for highlighting the woodpecker. The woodpecker's tongue was one of the examples used in William Paley's 'Natural Theology' to show that evolution, in the form proposed by Charles's grandfather Erasmus Darwin, could not explain adaptations. Charles was very familiar with Paley's work, and his own theory of natural selection is aimed at showing that adaptations of the kind discussed by Paley do not need to be explained by 'intelligent design'.

Aaah, thank you, David B. That is brilliant to know. So Paley begat Darwin, who begat Diamond and others.

I am intrigued by Darwin's final comment in the Introduction:

"I am convinced that Natural Selection has been the main but not exclusive means of modification."

The impression I get from reading Dawkins et al. is that Natural Selection is the ne plus ultra: nothing else is needed to explain modification. Is Darwin simply referring to domestication as the only other cause of modification, or does he have something else in mind here?


I don't think you would find that Dawkins or anyone else would feel that Natural Selection is the only reason for adaptation. Sexual selection is discussed pretty frequently, as is genetic drift in small populations and founding group effects, for a few quick examples.

By Epinephrine (not verified) on 13 Jan 2009 #permalink

Anyone else startled when Darwin described the mistletoe plant as a "parasite?" I think he says this again in chapter 3. Somehow my mental association of mistletoe with holiday cheer clashes with the characterization as a parasite, even though Darwin is completely accurate.

By richard blaine (not verified) on 18 Jan 2009 #permalink

As one who is chronically unable to get words down (must speak with my shrink), I thought must make an exception and thank you for this excellent commentary.

Is Darwin simply referring to domestication as the only other cause of modification, or does he have something else in mind here?