darwin is rescued by butterflies -- 4/14/21

Today's selection -- from The Language of Butterflies by Wendy Williams. Darwin never expected to see that the changes brought by evolution would be observable during his life, but as the controversy surrounding his Origin of Species raged around him, the changes in butterflies came to his rescue:

"In a review of Origin, the devoutly religious entomologist Thomas Vernon Wollaston claimed that all species were immutable and created by God. The existence of butterflies, he wrote, proved Darwin wrong: 'We cannot conceive that such marvelous perfection of painting as, for instance, the tints of certain butterflies (which are blended together with such nicety and consummate skill, in accordance with the laws of colouring, as to surpass an artist's touch) could have been brought about through mere correlation with a change in some other part of the organism....'

"This would not turn out well for Wollaston.

"Far from being immutable, butterflies were about to become a prime example of evolutionary theory. Darwin was deeply disturbed by Wollas­ton's hostility. They had discussed the issues collegially several times, and he took his colleague's butterfly-based attacks personally. Darwin was a quiet nonbeliever, more than willing to respect others' religious beliefs. Although Origins was far more revolutionary than Das Kapital, Darwin, unlike Marx, was not by nature a revolutionary.

"He just enjoyed thinking things through to their logical conclusion.

"As the controversy raged, younger scientists like the volatile Thomas Henry Huxley, a pugnacious man who described himself as Darwin's 'bulldog,' spoke up for Darwin, but Darwin himself took refuge … [and] the controversy … strengthened to gale force.

"Then Henry Walter Bates and his butterflies came to the rescue.

"In March 1861, Bates wrote to Darwin that he had found evidence that some butterfly species change their wing colors to mimic the wing colors of other butterflies. This, Bates suggested, helped them avoid being eaten. 'I have an immense number of facts on this subject,' Bates wrote in closing. 'Some of these resemblances are perfectly staggering, -- to me they are a source of constant wonder & thrilling delight.'

"Facts! Darwin's eyes likely lit up. Just what he needed. Had he been part of the Victorian butterfly-collecting crowd, he might have seen the truth about butterflies. Since he hadn't been interested, Bates had to point out the facts for him. Bates had found in the Western Hemisphere a group of butterflies that, in Darwin's words, wore 'deceptive dress.' Bates himself called this group 'counterfeits.'

"Essentially, these butterflies were scam artists. They pretended to be what they were not. During his eleven years in South America, Bates had kept in-depth records of everything he saw, including the Lepidoptera. He noticed that he often saw large numbers of particular types of but­terflies flying together. He also noticed that there seemed to be another species that looked similar flying along with the larger group. The second, less common species was, oddly, colored quite like the majority species.

"The majority species turned out to be unpalatable. A predator who took a bite would either regurgitate the meal or actually die. The minor­ity species observed by Bates, however, was highly palatable. Yet preda­tors avoided the minority species just as though it were, like the majority species, inedible. In other words, the minority species was faking it. It was surviving by blending in with the badass majority species."

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Wendy Williams


The Language of Butterflies: How Thieves, Hoarders, Scientists, and Other Obsessives Unlocked the Secrets of the World's Favorite Insect


Simon & Schuster


Copyright 2020 by Wendy Williams


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