This article is from
Creation 38(3):16–19, July 2016

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Pigeons don’t fancy Darwin

Pigeon fanciers’ fancy pigeons fuelled Darwin’s flights of fancy



In 1855, Charles Darwin decided to establish his own pigeon loft at his home in Kent. This was despite the fact that he described pigeon-breeding as “a horrid bore” in his letter of 19 March 1855 to his cousin, William Fox, in which he also signalled his intention to write his Origin of Species (published in 1859):

©123rf.com/robertboss, ©123rf.com/abxyz, ©123rf.com/zzvetfancy-feather-hairdos
The fancy feather ‘hairdos’ or head crests (known as manes/hoods/shells/peaks) on various varieties of fancy pigeons are the result of genetic mutations. For example, researchers have identified that a single mutation in a gene named EphB2 causes head and neck feathers to grow upward instead of downward, creating head crests. Mutations modify existing features; they don’t create brand new features (such as feathers on reptiles), so they can’t change a pigeon into something else.
My dear Fox … As you have a Noah’s Ark, I do not doubt that you have pigeons … . Now what I want to know is, at what age nestling pigeons have their tail feathers sufficiently developed to be counted. … I am hard at work on my notes collecting and comparing them, in order in some 2 or 3 years to write a book with all the facts and arguments, which I can collect, for & versus the immutability of species. I want to get the young of our domestic breeds, to see how young, and to what degree the differences appear. I must either breed myself (which is no amusement but a horrid bore to me) the pigeons or buy them young … .1

Darwin’s primary motivation for the task was to collect fuel for his Origin. By September, he was describing pigeon-fancying as a “noble and majestic pursuit”, in a letter to his son William (attending Rugby School in Warwickshire):

I am going up to London this evening and I shall start quite late, for I want to attend a meeting of the Colombarian Society,2 which meets at 7 o’clock near London Bridge. … I am going to bring a lot more pigeons back with me on Saturday, for it is a noble and majestic pursuit, and beats moths and butterflies, whatever you may say to the contrary … .3

It wasn’t long before Darwin had the information he wanted, and much of the first chapter of his Origin of Species. Here’s a sample:

Wiki commons / John CummingsCharles-Darwins-pigeons
In 1868, Charles Darwin decided to donate his collection of pigeon skeletons and skins to the Natural History Museum, London. On some breastbones, annotations he wrote in 1855 are still visible.
On the Breeds of the Domestic Pigeon.—Believing that it is always best to study some special group, I have, after deliberation, taken up domestic pigeons. I have kept every breed which I could purchase or obtain … . The diversity of the breeds is something astonishing. … Altogether at least a score of pigeons might be chosen, which if shown to an ornithologist, and he were told that they were wild birds, would certainly, I think, be ranked by him as well-defined species. Moreover, I do not believe that any ornithologist would place the English carrier, the short-faced tumbler, the runt, the barb, pouter, and fantail in the same genus; more especially as in each of these breeds several truly-inherited sub-breeds, or species as he might have called them, could be shown him. Great as the differences are between the breeds of pigeons, I am fully convinced that the common opinion of naturalists is correct, namely, that all have descended from the rock-pigeon (Columba livia), including under this term several geographical races or sub-species, which differ from each other in the most trifling respects.4

Many today proclaim that Darwin’s work with pigeons provided clear evidence for his theory of evolution. For example, the Natural History Museum, London, to whom Darwin donated all 120 of his pigeon specimens at the conclusion of his experiments, says:

Charles Darwin bred pigeons. … By artificially selecting features, crossing birds with particular characteristics to generate different offspring, he gathered valuable evidence for his theory of evolution by natural selection. … From his travels on HMS Beagle, Darwin suspected that the environment might naturally manipulate species, causing them to change over time, but he couldn’t find a means to explore this effectively in the wild. Experimenting with artificial selection in pigeons gave him a way to study how far a species could change.

The similarity between artificial selection and natural selection is at the heart of Darwin’s explanation of evolution in his revolutionary book On the Origin of Species. And pigeons are the first creatures discussed in detail.5

And lest anybody miss the significance of what evolution really means, the Natural History Museum adds:

©123rf.com/dimitry Maslovsolo-pegeon
The homing instinct of pigeons fascinated Charles Darwin, who wondered if pigeons hauled in crates far from home somehow memorized the twists and turns in the road as they felt them. It wasn’t until many years later that ‘retracement navigation theory’, as it was called, was finally disproved. Research continues to uncover hitherto-unimagined sophisticated navigational mechanisms in pigeons and other birds—see creation.com/migration.

Darwin was worried about how his theory of how evolution worked would be received. It challenged the widely-held belief that God created the world.5 (Emphasis added.)

It sure did. Note however that it’s not the evidence that challenges biblical creation; There are many breeds of pigeons, cattle, horses, dogs, etc., but they are all still pigeons, cattle, horses, dogs, etc!6 Recombination of existing genes can produce enormous variety within a kind, but the variation is limited by the genes in existence. If there are no genes present for producing feathers, you could forlornly try to breed reptiles for billions of years but still not get anything with feathers!

Darwin started and ended with pigeons,7 just as you would expect from the Bible’s account of creatures having been created to reproduce according to their kinds (Genesis 1:11–12, 21, 24–25).

Darwin was cleverly able to apply selection to breed pigeons so different from each other that, if found in the wild, a biologist might have put them into separate species, or even separate genera. Darwin’s work actually demonstrates how the intense selection pressures after the Flood could have acted on gene pools rich in variety to allow rapid speciation/adaptive radiation from the restricted number of land-dwelling kinds represented on the Ark. The variability built into each created kind thus allowed post-Flood populations to respond to changing environmental pressures (adapt) and thus conserve the kinds.8

Ardent supporters of Darwinism might well fancy that pigeons support their hero’s ideas, but in reality the notion that primeval pond scum gave rise to pigeons, plants and people is nothing but wishful flight-of-fancy.

First posted on homepage: 12 March 2018
Re-posted on homepage: 23 September 2020

References and notes

  1. Darwin, C.R. to Fox, W.D., 19 March 1855, Darwin Correspondence Online, Letter No. 1651; darwinproject.ac.uk/letter/entry-1651. Return to text.
  2. Pigeon-fanciers’ societies in England in the 19th century looked to the classical languages for suitably distinguished titles. Hence the ‘Columbarian Society’, whose name is from Latin columbarius, a keeper of doves. Return to text.
  3. Litchfield, H., ed., Emma Darwin wife of Charles Darwin: A century of family letters 2:172–173. Cambridge University Press, 1904; darwin-online.org.uk. Return to text.
  4. Darwin Online: On the Origin of Species, pp. 20–23, 1859. Return to text.
  5. Charles Darwin’s pigeons, nhm.ac.uk, acc. 22 January 2015. Return to text.
  6. Batten, D., Dogs breeding dogs? That’s not evolution, Creation 18(2):20–23, 1996; creation.com/dogs-breeding-dogs. Return to text.
  7. Borger, P., The design of life: Part 3—an introduction to variation-inducing genetic elements, J. Creation 23(1): 99–106, 2009. Return to text.
  8. Wieland, C., Book Review, The Beak of the Finch: Evolution in Real Time, by Jonathan Weiner, Random House, 1994, J. Creation 9(1):21–24, 1995; creation.com/beak-finch. Return to text.

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