BOOK: Political Descent: Malthus, Mutualism, and the Politics of Evolution in Victorian England

Piers J. Hale, Political Descent: Malthus, Mutualism, and the Politics of Evolution in Victorian England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 464 pp.

Publisher’s description: Historians of science have long noted the influence of the nineteenth-century political economist Thomas Robert Malthus on Charles Darwin. In a bold move, Piers J. Hale contends that this focus on Malthus and his effect on Darwin’s evolutionary thought neglects a strong anti-Malthusian tradition in English intellectual life, one that not only predated the 1859 publication of the Origin of Species but also persisted throughout the Victorian period until World War I. Political Descent reveals that two evolutionary and political traditions developed in England in the wake of the 1832 Reform Act: one Malthusian, the other decidedly anti-Malthusian and owing much to the ideas of the French naturalist Jean Baptiste Lamarck. These two traditions, Hale shows, developed in a context of mutual hostility, debate, and refutation. Participants disagreed not only about evolutionary processes but also on broader questions regarding the kind of creature our evolution had made us and in what kind of society we ought therefore to live. Significantly, and in spite of Darwin’s acknowledgement that natural selection was “the doctrine of Malthus, applied to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms,” both sides of the debate claimed to be the more correctly “Darwinian.” By exploring the full spectrum of scientific and political issues at stake, Political Descent offers a novel approach to the relationship between evolution and political thought in the Victorian and Edwardian eras.

On his blog, also called Political Descent, Hale offers a more detailed summary of the book.

BOOK: The Mountain Mystery

Ron Miksha, The Mountain Mystery (CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2014), 330 pp.

Publisher’s description: Fifty years ago, no one could explain mountains. Arguments about their origin were spirited, to say the least. Progressive scientists were ridiculed for their ideas. Most geologists thought the Earth was shrinking. Contracting like a hot ball of iron, shrinking and exposing ridges that became mountains. Others were quite sure the planet was expanding. Growth widened sea basins and raised mountains. There was yet another idea, the theory that the world’s crust was broken into big plates that jostled around, drifting until they collided and jarred mountains into existence. That idea was invariably dismissed as pseudo-science. Or “utter damned rot” as one prominent scientist said. But the doubtful theory of plate tectonics prevailed. Mountains, earthquakes, ancient ice ages, even veins of gold and fields of oil are now seen as the offspring of moving tectonic plates. Just half a century ago, most geologists sternly rejected the idea of drifting continents. But a few intrepid champions of plate tectonics dared to differ. The Mountain Mystery tells their story.

BOOK: Victorian Scientific Naturalism: Community, Identity, Continuity

Gowan Dawson and Bernard Lightman, eds., Victorian Scientific Naturalism: Community, Identity, Continuity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 368pp.

Victorian Scientific Naturalism examines the secular creeds of the generation of intellectuals who, in the wake of The Origin of Species, wrested cultural authority from the old Anglican establishment while installing themselves as a new professional scientific elite. These scientific naturalists—led by biologists, physicists, and mathematicians such as William Kingdon Clifford, Joseph Dalton Hooker, Thomas Henry Huxley, and John Tyndall—sought to persuade both the state and the public that scientists, not theologians, should be granted cultural authority, since their expertise gave them special insight into society, politics, and even ethics.

In Victorian Scientific Naturalism, Gowan Dawson and Bernard Lightman bring together new essays by leading historians of science and literary critics that recall these scientific naturalists, in light of recent scholarship that has tended to sideline them, and that reevaluate their place in the broader landscape of nineteenth-century Britain. Ranging in topic from daring climbing expeditions in the Alps to the maintenance of aristocratic protocols of conduct at Kew Gardens, these essays offer a series of new perspectives on Victorian scientific naturalism—as well as its subsequent incarnations in the early twentieth century—that together provide an innovative understanding of the movement centering on the issues of community, identity, and continuity.

Summary of the editors’ introduction from James Ungureanu.

BOOK: America’s Darwin: Darwinian Theory and U.S. Literary Culture

Tina Gianquitto and Lydia Fisher, eds., America’s Darwin: Darwinian Theory and U. S. Literary Culture (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2014), 401pp.

While much has been written about the impact of Darwin’s theories on U.S. culture, and countless scholarly collections have been devoted to the science of evolution, few have addressed the specific details of Darwin’s theories as a cultural force affecting U.S. writers. America’s Darwin fills this gap and features a range of critical approaches that examine U.S. textual responses to Darwin’s works.

The scholars in this collection represent a range of disciplines—literature, history of science, women’s studies, geology, biology, entomology, and anthropology. All pay close attention to the specific forms that Darwinian evolution took in the United States, engaging not only with Darwin’s most famous works, such as On the Origin of Species, but also with less familiar works, such as The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.

Each contributor considers distinctive social, cultural, and intellectual conditions that affected the reception and dissemination of evolutionary thought, from before the publication of On the Origin of Species to the early years of the twenty-first century. These essays engage with the specific details and language of a wide selection of Darwin’s texts, treating his writings as primary sources essential to comprehending the impact of Darwinian language on American writers and thinkers. This careful engagement with the texts of evolution enables us to see the broad points of its acceptance and adoption in the American scene; this approach also highlights the ways in which writers, reformers, and others reconfigured Darwinian language to suit their individual purposes.

America’s Darwin demonstrates the many ways in which writers and others fit themselves to a narrative of evolution whose dominant motifs are contingency and uncertainty. Collectively, the authors make the compelling case that the interpretation of evolutionary theory in the U.S. has always shifted in relation to prevailing cultural anxieties.

BOOK: A Garden of Marvels

Readers of this blog might find this new book of interest, as chapters 25 and 28 (they’re short chapters!) look at Darwin’s “botanophilia,” specifically his studies of orchids and plant reproduction, climbing plants, and carnivorous plants.

Ruth Kassinger, A Garden of Marvels: How We Discovered that Flowers Have Sex, Leaves Eat Air, and Other Secrets of Plants (New York: William Morrow, 2014), 416pp.

In the tradition of The Botany of Desire and Wicked Plants, a witty and engaging history of the first botanists interwoven with stories of today’s extraordinary plants found in the garden and the lab.

In Paradise Under Glass, Ruth Kassinger recounted with grace and humor her journey from brown thumb to green, sharing lessons she learned from building a home conservatory in the wake of a devastating personal crisis.

In A Garden of Marvels, she extends the story. Frustrated by plants that fail to thrive, she sets out to understand the basics of botany in order to become a better gardener. She retraces the progress of the first botanists who banished myths and misunderstandings and discovered that flowers have sex, leaves eat air, roots choose their food, and hormones make morning glories climb fence posts. She also visits modern gardens, farms, and labs to discover the science behind extraordinary plants like one-ton pumpkins, a truly black petunia, a biofuel grass that grows twelve feet tall, and the world’s only photosynthesizing animal. Transferring her insights to her own garden, she nurtures a “cocktail” tree that bears five kinds of fruit, cures a Buddha’s Hand plant with beneficial fungi, and gets a tree to text her when it’s thirsty.

Intertwining personal anecdote, accessible science, and untold history, the ever-engaging author takes us on an eye-opening journey into her garden—and yours.

The author was interviewed about her book on the podcast Science for the People. Listen here!

Darwin’s Beagle library now online

Darwin Online has made available digitizations of around 400 books comprising Darwin’s library that he had aboard the HMS Beagle. Says historian John van Wyhe, who oversaw the project: ““Darwin lived and worked in the Beagle library for five years. The library reveals the sources and inspirations that Darwin read day after day as he swung in his hammock during long sea crossings, or as he worked on his specimens at the chart table or under the microscope. For a long time this was lost to us, but the online library provides an unprecedented insight into the journey that changed science and our understanding of the world.”

Read an introduction, the list of books in the library, and see illustrations from the works.

BOOK REVIEW: The Galapagos: A Natural History

This would be no surprise to anyone: I hope to visit the Galapagos someday. It won’t happen in the near future, so for now I’ll settle for reading books about the famous islands, and get jealous of my uncle-in-law who recently posted photos from his travels in South America to his Facebook page, including the Galapagos. He did bring me back this t-shirt, however! 10359073_10154320780050249_1253261699024635731_o I mentioned reading books about the Galapagos, and I recently finished a new one: The Galapagos: A Natural History by science journalist Henry Nicholls (who previously wrote Lonesome George: The Life and Loves of a Conservation Icon). It’s not a very long book – the reading pages (minus acknowledgments and an appendix) come in at just 144 pages – yet Nicholls packs a wealth of information very succinctly in ten chapters that can each be read in short bursts (perfect for a father of young children like me!). So, what does a slim book like The Galapagos: A Natural History give the reader? The answer: a delightful overview of interesting natural history topics that serve as a general introduction of the islands. This is not a field guide, however, and Nicholls does not discuss every species of plant or animal to be found on “The Encantadas” but rather describes what visitors are likely to see or be interested in knowing more about. Also, he peppers these descriptions with history, culture, politics, and economics of the islands to flesh out the context of their natural offerings. He describes scientific observations of the past – much more than Darwin’s five weeks – and present, and the work of the many organizations on the islands which seek to protect and conserve its natural history.

Nicholls begins with two chapters looking at geographical aspects of the islands: their geologic origin and their place in the Pacific Ocean, both of which have much to do with the insular flora and fauna to be found there. He then moves on to oceanic bird species before tackling plants, invertebrates, and land birds (where we learn about the island’s famous finches and perhaps more important mockingbirds). Iguanas of various types and the well-known Galapagos tortoises are discussed in a chapter about reptiles. The final three chapters are devoted to humans – the discovery and history of exploration of the islands; conservation work being done there (to counter the environmental destruction laid upon the native plants and animals); the tourism industry; local culture and politics; and more.

The Galapagos: A Natural History is an enjoyable read. For someone with more than a passing interest in the islands, by picking this book up and rereading a chapter here and there, Nicholls will allow me to daydream of visiting the Galapagos.

My friend John Riutta also posted about this book on his website The Well-Read Naturalist.