BOOK: Debating Darwin

A new book pits one Darwin expert against another in their views on what had more influence on Darwin: the social context of Industrial Revolution England or the German romantics.

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Robert J. Richards and Michael Ruse, Debating Darwin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 320 pp.

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Publisher’s description Charles Darwin is easily the most famous scientist of the modern age, and his theory of evolution is constantly referenced in many contexts by scientists and nonscientists alike. And yet, despite how frequently his ideas are evoked, there remains a surprising amount we don’t know about the father of modern evolutionary thinking, his intellectual roots, and the science he produced. Debating Darwin seeks to change that, bringing together two leading Darwin scholars—Robert J. Richards and Michael Ruse—to engage in a spirited and insightful dialogue, offering their interpretations of Darwin and their critiques of each other’s thinking. Examining key disagreements about Darwin that continue to confound even committed Darwinists, Richards and Ruse offer divergent views on the origins and nature of Darwin and his ideas. Ruse argues that Darwin was quintessentially British and that the roots of his thought can be traced back to the eighteenth century, particularly to the Industrial Revolution and thinkers such as Adam Smith and Thomas Robert Malthus. Ruse argues that when these influences are appreciated, we can see how Darwin’s work in biology is an extension of their theories. In contrast, Richards presents Darwin as a more cosmopolitan, self-educated man, influenced as much by French and particularly German thinkers. Above all, argues Richards, it was Alexander von Humboldt who both inspired Darwin and gave him the conceptual tools that he needed to find and formulate his evolutionary hypotheses. Together, the authors show how the reverberations of the contrasting views on Darwin’s influences can be felt in theories about the nature of natural selection, the role of metaphor in science, and the place of God in Darwin’s thought. Revealing how much there still is to investigate and interrogate about Darwin’s ideas, Debating Darwin contributes to our understanding of evolution itself. The book concludes with a jointly authored chapter that brings this debate into the present, focusing on human evolution, consciousness, religion, and morality. This will be powerful, essential reading for anyone seeking a comprehensive understanding of modern-day evolutionary science and philosophy.

BOOK: Darwin and Women: A Selection of Letters

The Darwin Correspondence Project has published their first book of letters resulting from one of their thematic research avenues, on Darwin and gender.

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Samantha Evans, ed. Darwin and Women: A Selection of Letters (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 298 pp.

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Publisher’s description Darwin and Women focuses on Darwin’s correspondence with women and on the lives of the women he knew and wrote to. It includes a large number of hitherto unpublished letters between members of Darwin’s family and their friends that throw light on the lives of the women of his circle and their relationships, social and professional, with Darwin. The letters included are by turns entertaining, intriguing, and challenging, and are organised into thematic chapters, including botany and zoology as well as marriage and servants, that set them in an accessible narrative context. Darwin’s famous remarks on women’s intelligence in Descent of man provide a recurring motif, and are discussed in the foreword by Gillian Beer, and in the introduction. The immediacy and variety of these texts make this an entertaining read which will suggest avenues for further research to students.

BOOK: Collecting Evolution: The Galapagos Expedition that Vindicated Darwin

I am very excited for Matthew to see his book published! I’ve got a copy checked out from my library and hope to delve into it soon…

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Matthew J. James, Collecting Evolution: The Galapagos Expedition that Vindicated Darwin (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017),  304 pp.

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Publisher’s description In 1905, eight men from the California Academy of Sciences set sail from San Francisco for a scientific collection expedition in the Galapagos Islands, and by the time they were finished in 1906, they had completed one of the most important expeditions in the history of both evolutionary and conservation science. These scientists collected over 78,000 specimens during their time on the islands, validating the work of Charles Darwin and laying the groundwork for foundational evolution texts like Darwin’s Finches. Despite its significance, almost nothing has been written on this voyage, lost amongst discussion of Darwin’s trip on the Beagle and the writing of David Lack.

In Collecting Evolution, author Matthew James finally tells the story of the 1905 Galapagos expedition. James follows these eight young men aboard the Academy to the Galapagos and back, and reveals the reasons behind the groundbreaking success they had. A current Fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, James uses his access to unpublished writings and photographs to provide unprecedented insight into the expedition. We learn the voyagers’ personal stories, and how, for all the scientific progress that was made, just as much intense personal drama unfolded on the trip. This book shares a watershed moment in scientific history, crossed with a maritime adventure. There are four tangential suicides and controversies over credit and fame. Collecting Evolution also explores the personal lives and scientific context that preceded this voyage, including what brought Darwin to the Galapagos on the Beagle voyage seventy years earlier. James discusses how these men thought of themselves as “collectors” before they thought of themselves as scientists, and the implications this had on their approach and their results.

In the end, the voyage of the Academy proved to be crucial in the development of evolutionary science as we know it. It is the longest expedition in Galapagos history, and played a critical role in cementing Darwin’s legacy. Collecting Evolution brings this extraordinary story of eight scientists and their journey to life.

Check out these radio interviews with James about his new book: The Avid Reader Show and Gulf Coast Live on WGCU

BOOK: Darwin’s First Theory: Exploring Darwin’s Quest to Find a Theory of the Earth

This new book about Darwin will surely interest those who appreciate his work in geology, can’t get enough of the Beagle voyage, or like to follow along a current geologist as he travels in the footsteps of Darwin in South America.

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Rob Wesson, Darwin’s First Theory: Exploring Darwin’s Quest to Find a Theory of the Earth (New York: Pegasus Books, 2017), 384 pp. 

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Publisher’s description Everybody knows—or thinks they know—Charles Darwin, the father of evolution and the man who altered the way we view our place in the world. But what most people do not know is that Darwin was on board the HMS Beagle as a geologist—on a mission to examine the land, not flora and fauna. Retracing Darwin’s footsteps in South America and beyond, geologist Rob Wesson treks across the Andes, cruises waters charted by the Beagle, hunts for fossils in Uruguay and Argentina, and explores sites of long vanished glaciers in Scotland and Wales. As he follows Darwin’s path—literally and intellectually—Wesson experiences the land as Darwin did, engages with his observations, and tackles the same questions Darwin had about our ever-changing Earth. Upon his return from his five-year journey aboard the Beagle, after examining the effects of earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, and more, Darwin conceived his theory of subsidence and uplift‚—his first theory. These concepts and attitudes—the vastness of time; the enormous cumulative impact of almost imperceptibly slow change; change as a constant feature of the environment—underlie Darwin’s subsequent discoveries in evolution. And this peculiar way of thinking remains vitally important today as we enter the human-dominated Anthropocene age. Expertly interweaving science and adventure, Darwin’s First Theory is a riveting and revelatory journey around the world with one of the greatest scientific minds in history.

Brief reviews of Darwin’s First Theory from Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, and Nature.

ARTICLE: Darwin’s Influence on Mendel: Evidence from a New Translation of Mendel’s Paper

A recent article of interest in the journal Genetics:

Darwin’s Influence on Mendel: Evidence from a New Translation of Mendel’s Paper

Daniel J. Fairbanks and Scott Abbott

Abstract Gregor Mendel’s classic paper, Versuche über Pflanzen-Hybriden (Experiments on Plant Hybrids), was published in 1866, hence 2016 is its sesquicentennial. Mendel completed his experiments in 1863 and shortly thereafter began compiling the results and writing his paper, which he presented in meetings of the Natural Science Society in Brünn in February and March of 1865. Mendel owned a personal copy of Darwin’s Origin of Species, a German translation published in 1863, and it contains his marginalia. Its publication date indicates that Mendel’s study of Darwin’s book could have had no influence while he was conducting his experiments but its publication date coincided with the period of time when he was preparing his paper, making it possible that Darwin’s writings influenced Mendel’s interpretations and theory. Based on this premise, we prepared a Darwinized English translation of Mendel’s paper by comparing German terms Mendel employed with the same terms in the German translation of Origin of Species in his possession, then using Darwin’s counterpart English words and phrases as much as possible in our translation. We found a substantially higher use of these terms in the final two (10th and 11th) sections of Mendel’s paper, particularly in one key paragraph, where Mendel reflects on evolutionary issues, providing strong evidence of Darwin’s influence on Mendel.

BOOK: Evolution (A Ladybird Expert Book)

A short, illustrated quirky little book covering the topic of evolution. A plus for the feathered dinosaurs, a con for the illustration of George Bush (senior) looking angrily at some broccoli.

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Steve Jones, Evolution (A Ladybird Expert Book) (London: Ladybird Books Ltd, 2017), 56 pp.

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Publisher’s description Part of the new Ladybird Expert series, Evolution is a clear, simple and entertaining introduction to Charles Darwin’s pioneering and revolutionary theory of how all life changes through natural selection. Written by broadcaster, prize-winning author and geneticist Professor Steve Jones, it explores the extraordinary diversity of life on our planet through the complex interactions of one very simple theory. You’ll discover the common origins of dogs and Brussels sprouts, how it is we’re all mutants, where wings, ears and tails came from, why sex is good for you, how some dinosaurs evolved and survived, and why human evolution may finally have stopped. Written by the leading lights and most outstanding communicators in their fields, the Ladybird Expert books provide clear, accessible and authoritative introductions to subjects drawn from science, history and culture.