About the Darwin-L Discussion Group

Publication note: The introductory message below was sent to all new subscribers to the Darwin-L discussion group. It provides information about the scope and purpose of the group, as well as background on the comparative study of the historical sciences. Athough Darwin-L is no longer active, this message may still be useful to those interested in exploring the topics that the group covered. —R.J. O’Hara, 25 December 1998

DARWIN-L@RAVEN.CC.UKANS.EDU is an international network discussion group on the history and theory of the historical sciences. This introductory information is sent automatically to all new subscribers and may be viewed at any other time by visiting the Darwin-L Web Server (rjohara.net/darwin) or by sending the message INFO DARWIN-L to listserv@raven.cc.ukans.edu. It contains information about the scope and purpose of Darwin-L, the mechanics of participation in the discussion group, and network etiquette, along with an appendix that summarizes the most commonly used listserv commands. You may wish to retain this message or print a copy of it for future reference, especially if you are new to network discussion groups. Please refer general questions about the use of e-mail and computer networks to your local computer center; specific questions about the Darwin-L group may be sent to the group’s sponsor, Dr. Robert J. O’Hara (rjohara@post.harvard.edu).

Scope and Purpose of Darwin-L

Darwin-L was established in September 1993 to promote the reintegration of a range of academic fields all of which are concerned with reconstructing the past from evidence in the present, and to encourage communication among professional researchers in these fields. Darwin-L is not devoted to evolutionary biology nor to the work of Charles Darwin, but instead examines the entire range of historical sciences from an explicitly interdisciplinary perspective. These fields include evolutionary biology, historical linguistics, textual transmission and stemmatics, historical geology, systematics and phylogeny, archeology, paleontology, historical anthropology, historical geography, and cosmology.

Darwin-L welcomes scholarly discussion of all of these fields with special reference to history, theory, and interdisciplinary comparison. Appropriate topics might include the intellectual context of historical linguistics in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; the stratigraphic approaches to historical reconstruction used in geology and other fields; the genealogical trees produced by systematic biologists, historical linguists, and students of textual transmission; the antiquarian movement of the seventeenth century; the role of laws in historical reconstruction in cosmology, evolution, and linguistics; the historical clocks used in radiometric dating, molecular systematics, and historical linguistics; the comparative movements of the nineteenth century (comparative philology, comparative anatomy, comparative ethnography); and the representation of the past in texts and diagrams. The range of our interests corresponds to the sciences called “palaetiological” by the nineteenth-century English polymath William Whewell. The unpronounceable term “palaetiological” never became popular, but the unity of the palaetiological sciences was well understood by writers such as Charles Darwin, who compared the evolution of biological species to the evolution of languages, and Charles Lyell who began his Principles of Geology by explicitly comparing geological history to civil history. Whewell described the palaetiological sciences in this way:

As we may look back towards the first condition of our planet, we may in like manner turn our thoughts towards the first condition of the solar system, and try whether we can discern any traces of an order of things antecedent to that which is now established; and if we find, as some great mathematicians have conceived, indications of an earlier state in which the planets were not yet gathered into their present forms, we have, in pursuit of this train of research, a palaetiological portion of Astronomy. Again, as we may inquire how languages, and how man, have been diffused over the earth’s surface from place to place, we may make the like inquiry with regard to the races of plants and animals, founding our inferences upon the existing geographical distribution of the animal and vegetable kingdoms: and thus the Geography of Plants and of Animals also becomes a portion of Palaetiology. Again, as we can in some measure trace the progress of Arts from nation to nation and from age to age, we can also pursue a similar investigation with respect to the progress of Mythology, of Poetry, of Government, of Law.… It is not an arbitrary and useless proceeding to construct such a Class of sciences. For wide and various as their subjects are, it will be found that they have all certain principles, maxims, and rules of procedure in common; and thus may reflect light upon each other by being treated together. (Whewell, William. 1847. The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, second edition. London: John W. Parker. Volume 1, pp. 639–640.)

Because discussions on Darwin-L are strongly interdisciplinary, participants are specially charged to be sympathetic to queries from scholars in other fields who may speak different disciplinary “languages.” Though the question “What exactly is a clade?” might appear to be simple-minded to an evolutionary biologist, this term may well be unfamiliar to an historical linguist (even though the concept itself may already exist in that field under another name). Similarly, a textual scholar might be called upon to explain to an evolutionary biologist what “separative errors” are and why they are important. From time to time particular topics or fields may predominate, but participants should remember that the group as a whole is not devoted to any particular field, such as evolutionary biology, but rather addresses the entire range of historical sciences from an explicitly comparative perspective. And please note that Darwin-L is an academic discussion group, not a popular chat forum: commercial advertising, messages about “creation vs. evolution,” queries on how to use e-mail, etc., will be rejected by the moderator. For more information on the social conventions of network discussion groups see below under Network Etiquette.

Mechanics of Participation

As a subscriber to Darwin-L you will receive copies of all the messages sent to the group’s address, Darwin-L@raven.cc.ukans.edu. The number of messages you receive depends entirely upon how active the participating members of the group are: some discussion groups are very active, with as many as five to ten messages each day, while others are rather quiet, with only one or two messages each week. You are under no obligation to participate in the group’s discussions: you are welcome simply to sit back and read or discard whatever messages arrive in your mailbox from the participating members.

Darwin-L is managed by “listserv” software. The original listserv software ran on IBM VM mainframes; Darwin-L runs under another variety of listserv software (sometimes called “listproc”) that works on UNIX mainframes. Like most mainframe software, the UNIX listserv is freqently inelegant, but it does function and can be used successfully. Listserv-based discussion groups like Darwin-L are often called “lists” or “mailing lists,” because the actual address “Darwin-L@raven.cc.ukans.edu” is nothing more than a list of all the members of the group; when a message is sent to that address the listserv program distributes the message automatically to all the names on the list. Thus when people speak of sending messages to “the list” or joining “the list” they just mean “the discussion group.” (The “L” in Darwin-L stands for “list,” and is the conventional way of indicating that a particular e-mail address such as “Darwin-L@raven.cc.ukans.edu” is a list of addresses rather than an individual.)

To join the Darwin-L discussion group send the following e-mail message to listserv@raven.cc.ukans.edu:


   For example: SUBSCRIBE DARWIN-L Robert J. O'Hara

To cancel your subscription send the following message to the same address:


These messages are processed automatically by the listserv program, not by a person, so you should not include any extraneous text, and you should leave the subject line of the message blank.

Darwin-L has several hundred subscribers, and it is occasionally a “high-volume” discussion group, with several messages being distributed from it every day. If you ever find the number of messages you receive from the group to be burdensome you may elect to receive your mail in “digest” form: the listserv program will bundle up each day’s messages and send them to you as a single message which will take up less space in your mailbox. To receive your mail in digest form send the one-line message:


to listserv@raven.cc.ukans.edu. If you are already receiving messages in digest form and you wish to return to one-at-a-time delivery, send this one-line message:


to the same address. As with the subscription requests, these messages are processed automatically by the listserv program, so you should leave the subject line of the message blank and not include any extraneous text.

To address the group as a whole—with a question, an announcement, a request for information, or any other matter relating to the historical sciences—simply send your message to Darwin-L@raven.cc.ukans.edu. All mail sent to this address is automatically distributed to the group as a whole. Please note the difference between the two addresses: listserv@raven.cc.ukans.edu is the listserv program that manages subscriptions and cancellations, while Darwin-L@raven.cc.ukans.edu is the address of the group as a whole. A common error is to send subscription requests and cancellations to the group as a whole rather than to the listserv program; this will not change your subscription status, and it will broadcast your request unnecessarily to all the members of the group as though it were a discussion topic.

That is all you need to know in order to join or leave the Darwin-L group and to participate in its discussions. There are a number of other specialized commands that can be sent to the listserv program—to request a list of the current subscribers, for example, or to retrieve a log of previously posted messages. These commands are listed in the Appendix at the end of this document. Knowledge of these extra commands is in no way necessary for full participation in the group.

Network Etiquette

Computer networks are social environments, and they function best when people follow certain guidelines of polite behavior. While some network discussion groups are unmoderated—that is, all messages sent to the group’s address are immediately and automatically forwarded to all members of the group—Darwin-L is a moderated group. This means that all messages sent to the group’s address are forwarded to the list owner for approval before they are passed on to the group as a whole. The advantage of a moderated group is that it allows the list owner to filter out a certain amount of “noise” (error messages, commercial advertising, personal messages sent to the group as a whole, off-topic posts, and the like) which would otherwise clutter up subscribers’ mailboxes. The disadvantage of a moderated group is that it makes communication a bit less instantaneous, and creates more work for the list owner. The following guidelines will help to minimize the amount of extraneous noise in our (or any) network discussion group, and will help to keep the quality of messages high.

Do use informative subject headers. People who subscribe to several discussion groups may have 50 or more messages in their mailboxes each morning, and a message with a subject line like “An idea” or “New question” may well get deleted by such people without even being read. Informative subject lines like “Idea on stratigraphy” or “Question on language geography” are more helpful.

Do post messages that are clear, substantive, and topical. While many network discussion groups encourage casual conversation, Darwin-L hopes to promote scholarly interchange among professionals, and because our group is so large we must consciously strive to keep our “signal-to-noise ratio” as high as possible. Darwin-L is not a USENET group; do not feel as though you need reply to every message that comes your way just to keep the discussion going. When appropriate, reply to messages privately (see below). General messages about how to use e-mail, messages arguing “creation vs. evolution,” and all forms of commercial advertising will be rejected by the moderator.

Do format your messages with care. Well-formatted messages, with a minimum of typographical errors and with block-style paragraphs separated by spaces, are easier to read on a computer screen and are more likely to elicit useful responses. Remember that all messages posted to Darwin-L are logged and may be retrieved at any time by our members, and that while this certainly does not constitute “publication,” it does give posted messages a degree of permanence that is not found in casual conversation. It is a good idea to type carriage returns at the end of each line (as though you were using a typewriter), and to limit the length of your lines to 80 characters since most mailing systems place an 80-character limit on the length of lines. The inclusion of citations to published material, where appropriate, will also make your posts more useful to other members.

Do sign your messages with your name and e-mail address. Different e-mail systems work differently, and while most preserve the name of the original sender in the message header, some do not. If you do not put your name and e-mail address at the bottom of your messages, some users may not be able to determine who sent the message: they will only see “Darwin-L” as the source in the message header.

Do quote selectively from previous messages in a reply. If you are replying to a previously posted message, do include an extract or restatement of the question so that people reading your message will be able to follow the thread of the discussion. Active groups may have two or three threads going simultaneously, and without such guidance it is easy for readers to get lost. Some e-mail systems allow you to include the entire text of a prior message in your reply; try not to do this unless the original message is a short one, because it wastes network space.

Don’t send private e-mail to the group as a whole. If you have private correspondence to carry on with a member of the group try not to do it via the group itself, but conduct it through personal e-mail. If you want to know the phone number of someone who just posted a message, for example, don’t send your request to Darwin-L, but rather to the person’s own e-mail address which you should be able to determine from the header of the message or from a signature block at the end of the message. If you send the message “Hey, Joe, what’s your phone number” to the group address, that personal message may be distributed to the entire group and may clutter up the mailboxes of hundreds of subscribers all around the world. This won’t cause the collapse of civilization, but it can be a bit annoying.

Don’t flame. “Flaming” is network jargon for “using abusive or intemperate language.” Flaming is not acceptable behavior on Darwin-L. Discussion of controversial questions is welcome, but members with strong personal disagreements should pursue them through private e-mail rather than in public before the group as a whole. The organizers reserve the right to exclude disruptive persons from the group. If someone does post an impolite or conspicuously uninformed message, the best strategy is always either to ignore it or to reply to the poster privately.

Do observe for a while before posting your first message, especially if you are new to Darwin-L. This will give you a sense of the general tone of the group and of the kinds of messages that normally appear. New members are invited to introduce themselves to the group by posting a message describing their background and the nature of their interest in the historical sciences.

Appendix: Summary of LISTSERV Commands

The following are the most commonly used listserv commands that Darwin-L members may wish to know. All these commands must be sent to the listserv address, not to Darwin-L itself; that is, they should all be sent to listserv@raven.cc.ukans.edu, not to Darwin-L@raven.cc.ukans.edu.

To subscribe to Darwin-L:


   For example: SUBSCRIBE DARWIN-L John Smith

To cancel your subscription:


To get a list of the current subscribers:


To hide your name so that it doesn’t appear when others REVIEW the list:


To reverse the previous command:


(CONCEAL NO is the default for all subscribers when they first join; unless you explicitly conceal your name the REVIEW command will show it.)

To receive mail from the list in digest form (one message per day, consisting of the whole day’s posts bundled together):


To receive mail from the list as soon as it is posted, individually, one message at a time (this is the default setting all subscribers have when they join; the only reason you would have to issue this command is if you have already set your mail to “digest,” and now wish to change it back to one-at-a-time):


To temporarily suspend delivery of Darwin-L mail to your address (useful if your are going away for an extended period and do not want your mailbox to overflow while you are gone):


(To resume mail delivery after issuing the POSTPONE command send either the DIGEST or ACK commands described above.)

To get an index of the files available on the raven computer, including logs of previously posted Darwin-L messages:


To retrieve a file listed in the index:

   GET DARWIN-L filename

   For example: GET DARWIN-L log9505

This last message would retrieve the file named “log9505” from the group’s directory. This file contains the log of messages for May 1995. If you have access to World Wide Web software you may retrieve Darwin-L files much more easily by connecting to the Darwin-L Web Server (rjohara.net/darwin).

If you wish to see a few other technical and specialized listserv commands that are rarely used send the message:


The SET PASSWORD command that the listserv program instructs you to issue shortly after you subscribe may in fact be safely ignored. That message is generated automatically by the listserv program and it confuses many users, but list owners are apparently powerless to prevent it from being sent.

Questions about Darwin-L not answered in this document may be sent to the group’s sponsor, Dr. Robert J. O’Hara (rjohara@post.harvard.edu). Darwin-L receives computing support from the Department of History and the Academic Computing Center, University of Kansas.

© RJO 1995–2022