Darwin: A Companion, and other recent Darwin offerings


Darwin: A Companion by Paul van Helvert and John van Wyhe (World Scientific, 2021) ~ Publisher’s description: “This is the ultimate guide to the life and work of Charles Darwin. The result of decades of research through a vast and daunting literature which is hard for beginners and experts alike to navigate, it brings together widely scattered facts including very many unknown to even the most ardent Darwin aficionados. It includes hundreds of new discoveries and corrections to the existing literature. It provides the most complete summaries of his publications, manuscripts, lifetime itinerary, finances, personal library, friends and colleagues, opponents, visitors to his home, anniversaries, hundreds of flora, fauna, monuments and places named after him and a host of other topics. Also included are the most complete lists (iconographies) ever created of illustrations of the Beagle, over 1000 portraits of Darwin, his wife and home as well as all known Darwin photographs, stamps and caricatures. The book is richly illustrated with 350 images, most previously unknown.”

A Most Interesting Problem: What Darwin’s Descent of Man Got Right and Wrong about Human Evolution, edited by Jeremy DeSilva (Princeton University Press, 2021) ~ Publisher’s description: “In 1871, Charles Darwin published The Descent of Man, a companion to Origin of Species in which he attempted to explain human evolution, a topic he called ‘the highest and most interesting problem for the naturalist.’ A Most Interesting Problem brings together twelve world-class scholars and science communicators to investigate what Darwin got right―and what he got wrong―about the origin, history, and biological variation of humans. Edited by Jeremy DeSilva and with an introduction by acclaimed Darwin biographer Janet Browne, A Most Interesting Problem draws on the latest discoveries in fields such as genetics, paleontology, bioarchaeology, anthropology, and primatology. This compelling and accessible book tackles the very subjects Darwin explores in Descent, including the evidence for human evolution, our place in the family tree, the origins of civilization, human races, and sex differences. A Most Interesting Problem is a testament to how scientific ideas are tested and how evidence helps to structure our narratives about human origins, showing how some of Darwin’s ideas have withstood more than a century of scrutiny while others have not.”


In the journal Notes and Records (from the Royal Society):

Mind the step: did Hooker’s judgement clinch Darwin’s disenchantment? by Derek Partridge

Abstract The decade from 1844 to 1854 in which Charles Darwin first published two books and then studied barnacles for the final eight years has long been a puzzling digression from the development of his theory of evolution. This essay proposes that it was a conjunction of two quite different activities: a three-year pause initiated to assess and hopefully finalize the editorial completion of his 1844 Essay for publication, followed by a step-change decision to redirect his primary research activity in late 1847. A disenchantment hypothesis is proposed; it presents the step-change decision as a consequence of weighing up the accumulated unencouraging prospects for species-theory development in competition with the emergence of promising projections associated with a broad study of marine invertebrates. Recognition of the triumph, as Darwin initially saw it, of his Essay, followed by years of hostile inputs, opens this new route to understanding this decade. Within it Joseph Hooker emerges as a significant causal force. Many of the customary ‘postponement’ explanations of this digression can be integrated with this pause-and-step-change explanation, whereas explanation of the interval as a gap due to a pre-planned activity cannot, and is revealed to be seriously faulty.

In BJHS Themes:

The meaning of absence: the primate tree that did not make it into Darwin’s The Descent of Man by Marianne Sommer

Abstract This paper engages with a specific image: Darwin’s tree of the primates. Although this diagram was sketched in ink on paper in 1868, it did not make it into the publication of The Descent of Man (1871). This may seem all the more in need of an explanation because, as Adrian Desmond and James Moore have shown, Darwin strongly relied on the notion of familial genealogy in the development of his theory of organismic evolution, or rather descent. However, Darwin expressed scepticism towards visualizations of phylogenies in correspondence with Ernst Haeckel and in fact also in Descent, considering such representations at once too speculative and too concrete. An abstraction such as a tree diagram left little room to ponder possibilities or demarcate hypotheses from evidence. I thus bring Darwin’s primate tree into communication with his view on primate and human phylogeny as formulated in Descent, including his rejection of polygenism. I argue that considering the tree’s inherent teleology, as well as its power to suggest species status of human populations and to reify ‘racial’ hierarchies, the absence of the diagram in The Descent of Man may be a significant statement.

In Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A:

The tree and the table: Darwin, Mendeleev and the meaning of ‘theory’ by David Reznick

Abstract Darwin and Mendeleev revolutionized their respective disciplines by organizing diverse facts into simple, pictorial representations—a tree and a table. Each representation provides a foundation for a scientific theory for two reasons. First, a successful theory unites diverse phenomena under a single explanatory framework. Second, it does so in a way that defines paths for future inquiry that extends its reach and tests its limits. For Mendeleev, this meant creating a table that accommodated the current understanding of the elements but also contained blanks that predicted the discovery of previously unknown elements. More importantly, the structure of the table helped shape future research to define the structure of matter. For Darwin, envisioning life as a tree meant defining the rules that govern the origin of adaptations, species and shape the constantly shifting diversity of life. At the same time, his theory inspired research into the laws of inheritance and created diverse new areas of research, like behaviour, sexual selection and biogeography. The shared property of Darwin and Mendeleev’s contributions was to provide a unifying rational explanation for natural phenomena.

In Perspectives on Science:

Interpreting the History of Evolutionary Biology through a Kuhnian Prism: Sense or Nonsense? by Koen B. Tanghe , Lieven Pauwels , Alexis De Tiège , and Johan Braeckman

Abstract Traditionally, Thomas S. Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) is largely identified with his analysis of the structure of scientific revolutions. Here, we contribute to a minority tradition in the Kuhn literature by interpreting the history of evolutionary biology through the prism of the entire historical developmental model of sciences that he elaborates in The Structure. This research not only reveals a certain match between this model and the history of evolutionary biology but, more importantly, also sheds new light on several episodes in that history, and particularly on the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859), the construction of the modern evolutionary synthesis, the chronic discontent with it, and the latest expression of that discontent, called the extended evolutionary synthesis. Lastly, we also explain why this kind of analysis hasn’t been done before.


George Beccaloni of the Wallace Correspondence Project on “Alfred Russel Wallace, Charles Darwin and Natural Selection: the Real Story”:

“Join The Leakey Foundation for a free virtual celebration of Darwin’s birthday and the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Descent of Man. A Most Interesting Problem [see above for the book] brings together seven world-class scholars and science communicators to explore what Darwin got right and what he got wrong about the origin, history, and biological variation of humans. A Most Interesting Problem features presentations by Janet Browne, Jeremy DeSilva, Holly Dunsworth, Agustín Fuentes, Ann Gibbons, Yohannes Haile-Selassie, and Brian Hare.”

“Charles Darwin as Apical Freethought Ancestor” with David Orenstein of the American Humanist Association:

“Charles Darwin and the Fossil Record” with paleontologist Thomas R. Holtz:

Finally, like my Facebook page The Dispersal of Darwin or follow on Twitter @darwinsbulldog for more Darwin and evolution-related links. One particular Twitter thread shares items about The Descent of Man (1871), of which this year is the 150th anniversary of its publication.

Darwin, evolution & science books for holiday gift giving (2020)

This is a great time of the year to gift science books to family and friends, or even yourself – axial tilt is the reason for the season, after all (or, in the case of some of these titles, a purchase request to your public or school library). Here are some recent books about Darwin, evolution, and related topics:

Darwins Historical Sketch: An Examination of the ‘Preface’ to the Origin of Species by Curtis N. Johnson (Oxford University Press, 2020). Publisher’s description: “Charles Darwin’s ‘Historical Sketch’ has appeared as a preface to nearly every authorized edition of Darwin’s Origin of Species since the second English edition was published in 1860. The ‘Historical Sketch’ provides a brief history of opinion about the species question as a prelude to Darwin’s own independent contribution to the subject, but its provenance is somewhat obscure. While some previous thinkers anticipated portions of Darwin’s theory long before he did, none of them saw the complete picture as clearly as Darwin. As such, he was able to claim originality and priority for the idea that has transformed our understanding of nature. His ‘Historical Sketch’ was written as an attempt to address these issues. Some things are known about its production, such as when it first appeared and what changes were made to it between its first appearance in 1860 and its final form in 1866. Other questions remain unanswered. How did it evolve in Darwin’s mind? Why did he write it at all? What did he think he was accomplishing by prefacing it to Origin of Species? Curtis Johnson approaches these questions, offering some clarity on the originality of Darwin’s work. Darwin’s ‘Historical Sketch’ is the first comprehensive study of Darwin’s ‘Preface’ to Origin of Species. Johnson conveys the pressure Darwin felt from friends and other correspondents to showcase the originality of his theory, and he tackles questions of originality by carefully examining the 35 authors Darwin referenced in this monumental text.” Order: Publisher | Amazon | Powell’s | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound

Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider: How Scientific Names Celebrate Adventurers, Heroes, and Even a Few Scoundrels by Stephen B. Heard (Yale University Press, 2020). Publisher’s description: “Ever since Carl Linnaeus’s binomial system of scientific names was adopted in the eighteenth century, scientists have been eponymously naming organisms in ways that both honor and vilify their namesakes. This charming, informative, and accessible history examines the fascinating stories behind taxonomic nomenclature, from Linnaeus himself naming a small and unpleasant weed after a rival botanist to the recent influx of scientific names based on pop-culture icons—including David Bowie’s spider, Frank Zappa’s jellyfish, and Beyoncé’s fly. Exploring the naming process as an opportunity for scientists to express themselves in creative ways, Stephen B. Heard’s fresh approach shows how scientific names function as a window into both the passions and foibles of the scientific community and as a more general indicator of the ways in which humans relate to, and impose order on, the natural world.” Order: Publisher | Amazon | Powell’s | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound

Darwin’s Corals: A New Model of Evolution and the Tradition of Natural History by Horst Bredekamp (De Gruyter, 2019). Publisher’s description: “To this day Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory of the ‘survival of the fittest’ has been visualized with the universal model of a tree of life. But early on in Darwin’s thinking the coral provided a fascinating alternative to the tree as a depiction of the evolution of the species. Horst Bredekamp shows how Darwin, a coral enthusiast and collector, found in it a more adequate illustration of evolution through natural selection: It grows anarchically in all directions and no longer upholds mankind as the ‘crown of creation.’ Using this example Darwin is proving himself to be both a destroyer and consummator of traditional natural philosophy. Since antiquity the coral had been a symbol of nature as a whole.” Order: Publisher | Amazon | Powell’s | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound

The Scientific Method: An Evolution of Thinking from Darwin to Dewey by Henry M. Cowles (Harvard University Press, 2020). Publisher’s description: “The idea of a single scientific method, shared across specialties and teachable to ten-year-olds, is just over a hundred years old. For centuries prior, science had meant a kind of knowledge, made from facts gathered through direct observation or deduced from first principles. But during the nineteenth century, science came to mean something else: a way of thinking. The Scientific Method tells the story of how this approach took hold in laboratories, the field, and eventually classrooms, where science was once taught as a natural process. Henry M. Cowles reveals the intertwined histories of evolution and experiment, from Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection to John Dewey’s vision for science education. Darwin portrayed nature as akin to a man of science, experimenting through evolution, while his followers turned his theory onto the mind itself. Psychologists reimagined the scientific method as a problem-solving adaptation, a basic feature of cognition that had helped humans prosper. This was how Dewey and other educators taught science at the turn of the twentieth century—but their organic account was not to last. Soon, the scientific method was reimagined as a means of controlling nature, not a product of it. By shedding its roots in evolutionary theory, the scientific method came to seem far less natural, but far more powerful. This book reveals the origin of a fundamental modern concept. Once seen as a natural adaptation, the method soon became a symbol of science’s power over nature, a power that, until recently, has rarely been called into question.” Order: Publisher | Amazon | Powell’s | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound

Catastrophic Thinking: Extinction and the Value of Diversity from Darwin to the Anthropocene by David Sepkoski (University of Chicago Press, 2020). Publisher’s description: “We live in an age in which we are repeatedly reminded—by scientists, by the media, by popular culture—of the looming threat of mass extinction. We’re told that human activity is currently producing a sixth mass extinction, perhaps of even greater magnitude than the five previous geological catastrophes that drastically altered life on Earth. Indeed, there is a very real concern that the human species may itself be poised to go the way of the dinosaurs, victims of the most recent mass extinction some 65 million years ago. How we interpret the causes and consequences of extinction and their ensuing moral imperatives is deeply embedded in the cultural values of any given historical moment. And, as David Sepkoski reveals, the history of scientific ideas about extinction over the past two hundred years—as both a past and a current process—is implicated in major changes in the way Western society has approached biological and cultural diversity. It seems self-evident to most of us that diverse ecosystems and societies are intrinsically valuable, but the current fascination with diversity is a relatively recent phenomenon. In fact, the way we value diversity depends crucially on our sense that it is precarious—that it is something actively threatened, and that its loss could have profound consequences. In Catastrophic Thinking, Sepkoski uncovers how and why we learned to value diversity as a precious resource at the same time as we learned to think catastrophically about extinction. Order: Publisher | Amazon | Powell’s | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound

Some Assembly Required: Decoding Four Billion Years of Life, from Ancient Fossils to DNA by Neil Shubin (Pantheon, 2020). Publisher’s description: “Over billions of years, ancient fish evolved to walk on land, reptiles transformed into birds that fly, and apelike primates evolved into humans that walk on two legs, talk, and write. For more than a century, paleontologists have traveled the globe to find fossils that show how such changes have happened. We have now arrived at a remarkable moment—prehistoric fossils coupled with new DNA technology have given us the tools to answer some of the basic questions of our existence: How do big changes in evolution happen? Is our presence on Earth the product of mere chance? This new science reveals a multibillion-year evolutionary history filled with twists and turns, trial and error, accident and invention. In Some Assembly Required, Neil Shubin takes readers on a journey of discovery spanning centuries, as explorers and scientists seek to understand the origins of life’s immense diversity.” Review by Paul Braterman. Order: Publisher | Amazon | Powell’s | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound

The Story of Evolution in 25 Discoveries: The Evidence and the People Who Found It by Donald R. Prothero (Columbia UP, 2020). Publisher’s description: “In The Story of Evolution in 25 Discoveries, Donald R. Prothero explores the most fascinating breakthroughs in piecing together the evidence for evolution. In twenty-five vignettes, he recounts the dramatic stories of the people who made crucial discoveries, placing each moment in the context of what it represented for the progress of science. He tackles topics like what it means to see evolution in action and what the many transitional fossils show us about evolution, following figures from Darwin to lesser-known researchers as they unlock the mysteries of the fossil record, the earth, and the universe. The book also features the stories of animal species strange and familiar, including humans―and our ties to some of our closest relatives and more distant cousins. Prothero’s wide-ranging tales showcase awe-inspiring and bizarre aspects of nature and the powerful insights they give us into the way that life works.” Order: Publisher | Amazon | Powell’s | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound

The Art and Science of Ernst Haeckel. 40th Anniversary Edition by Julia Voss and Rainer Willman (TASCHEN, 2020). Publisher’s description: “Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919) was a German-born biologist, naturalist, evolutionist, artist, philosopher, and doctor who spent his life researching flora and fauna from the highest mountaintops to the deepest ocean. A vociferous supporter and developer of Darwin’s theories of evolution, he denounced religious dogma, authored philosophical treatises, gained a doctorate in zoology, and coined scientific terms which have passed into common usage, including ecology, phylum, and stem cell. At the heart of Haeckel’s colossal legacy was the motivation not only to discover but also to explain. To do this, he created hundreds of detailed drawings, watercolors, and sketches of his findings which he published in successive volumes, including several marine organism collections and the majestic Kunstformen der Natur (Art Forms in Nature), which could serve as the cornerstone of Haeckel’s entire life project. Like a meticulous visual encyclopedia of living things, Haeckel’s work was as remarkable for its graphic precision and meticulous shading as for its understanding of organic evolution. From bats to the box jellyfish, lizards to lichen, and spider legs to sea anemones, Haeckel emphasized the essential symmetries and order of nature, and found biological beauty in even the most unlikely of creatures. In this book, we celebrate the scientific, artistic, and environmental importance of Haeckel’s work, with a collection of 300 of his finest prints from several of his most important tomes, including Die Radiolarien, Monographie der Medusen, Die Kalkschwämme, and Kunstformen der Natur. At a time when biodiversity is increasingly threatened by human activities, the book is at once a visual masterwork, an underwater exploration, and a vivid reminder of the precious variety of life. Order: Publisher | Amazon | Powell’s | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound

Great Adaptations: Star-Nosed Moles, Electric Eels, and Other Tales of Evolution’s Mysteries Solved by Kenneth Catania (Princeton UP, 2020). Publisher’s description: “From star-nosed moles that have super-sensing snouts to electric eels that paralyze their prey, animals possess unique and extraordinary abilities. In Great Adaptations, Kenneth Catania presents an entertaining and engaging look at some of nature’s most remarkable creatures. Telling the story of his biological detective work, Catania sheds light on the mysteries behind the behaviors of tentacled snakes, tiny shrews, zombie-making wasps, and more. He shows not only how studying these animals can provide deep insights into how life evolved, but also how scientific discovery can be filled with adventure and fun. Beginning with the star-nosed mole, Catania reveals what the creature’s nasal star is actually for, and what this tells us about how brains work. He explores how the deceptive hunting strategy of tentacled snakes leads prey straight to their mouths, how eels use electricity to control other animals, and why emerald jewel wasps make zombies out of cockroaches. He also solves the enigma of worm grunting—a traditional technique in which earthworms are enticed out of the ground—by teaming up with professional worm grunters. Catania demonstrates the merits of approaching science with an open mind, considers the role played by citizen scientists, and illustrates that most animals have incredible, hidden abilities that defy our imagination. Examining some strange and spectacular creatures, Great Adaptations offers a wondrous journey into nature’s grand designs.” Order: Publisher | Amazon | Powell’s | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound

A Series of Fortunate Events: Chance and the Making of the Planet, Life, and You by Sean B. Carroll (Princeton UP, 2020). Publisher’s description: “Why is the world the way it is? How did we get here? Does everything happen for a reason or are some things left to chance? Philosophers and theologians have pondered these questions for millennia, but startling scientific discoveries over the past half century are revealing that we live in a world driven by chance. A Series of Fortunate Events tells the story of the awesome power of chance and how it is the surprising source of all the beauty and diversity in the living world. Like every other species, we humans are here by accident. But it is shocking just how many things—any of which might never have occurred—had to happen in certain ways for any of us to exist. From an extremely improbable asteroid impact, to the wild gyrations of the Ice Age, to invisible accidents in our parents’ gonads, we are all here through an astonishing series of fortunate events. And chance continues to reign every day over the razor-thin line between our life and death. This is a relatively small book about a really big idea. It is also a spirited tale. Drawing inspiration from Monty Python, Kurt Vonnegut, and other great thinkers, and crafted by one of today’s most accomplished science storytellers, A Series of Fortunate Events is an irresistibly entertaining and thought-provoking account of one of the most important but least appreciated facts of life.” Order: Publisher | Amazon | Powell’s | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound

Dinner with Darwin: Food, Drink, and Evolution by Jonathan Silvertown (University of Chicago Press, 2020). Publisher’s description: “What do eggs, flour, and milk have in common? They form the basis of waffles, of course, but these staples of breakfast bounty also share an evolutionary function: eggs, seeds (from which we derive flour by grinding), and milk have each evolved to nourish offspring. Indeed, ponder the genesis of your breakfast, lunch, or dinner, and you’ll soon realize that everything we eat and drink has an evolutionary history. In Dinner with Darwin, join Jonathan Silvertown for a multicourse meal of evolutionary gastronomy, a tantalizing tour of human taste that helps us to understand the origins of our diets and the foods that have been central to them for millennia—from spices to spirits. A delectable concoction of coevolution and cookery, gut microbiomes and microherbs, and both the chicken and its egg, Dinner with Darwin reveals that our shopping lists, recipe cards, and restaurant menus don’t just contain the ingredients for culinary delight. They also tell a fascinating story about natural selection and its influence on our plates—and palates. Digging deeper, Silvertown’s repast includes entrées into GMOs and hybrids, and looks at the science of our sensory interactions with foods and cooking—the sights, aromas, and tastes we experience in our kitchens and dining rooms. As is the wont of any true chef, Silvertown packs his menu with eclectic components, dishing on everything from Charles Darwin’s intestinal maladies to taste bud anatomy and turducken. Our evolutionary relationship with food and drink stretches from the days of cooking cave dwellers to contemporary crêperies and beyond, and Dinner with Darwin serves up scintillating insight into the entire, awesome span. This feast of soup, science, and human society is one to savor. With a wit as dry as a fine pinot noir and a cache of evolutionary knowledge as vast as the most discerning connoisseur’s wine cellar, Silvertown whets our appetites—and leaves us hungry for more.” Order: Publisher | Amazon | Powell’s | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound

L: 50 Objects, Stories & Discoveries from the Linnean Society of London (Linnean Society, 2020). Publisher’s description: “Spanning centuries, the Linnean Society of London’s collections and library are home to many ‘firsts’, as well as numerous unique items of scientific importance, and a plethora of stunning illustrations, plates and original drawings. For the first time, a selection of these items are being showcased in our own book of ‘treasures’, L: 50 Objects, Stories and Discoveries from The Linnean Society of London. From the vasculum Charles Darwin used to collect plants during his voyage on the HMS Beagle…to the first ‘photographic’ book by Anna Atkins…to the world’s first spherical cultured pearls, there is much to explore in L: 50 Objects, Stories and Discoveries from The Linnean Society of London; some new discoveries were even made in the process of writing this book. From amongst our wonderful collections, curators, researchers, archivists, librarians and Fellows have chosen 50 iconic objects, stories and discoveries—items that tell the story of the study of natural history through the ages, and the intriguing story of the Society itself.” Order from the Linnean Society.

The Scientific Spirit of American Humanism by Stephen P. Weldon (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020). Publisher’s description: “Recent polls show that a quarter of Americans claim to have no religious affiliation, identifying instead as atheists, agnostics, or ‘nothing in particular.’ A century ago, a small group of American intellectuals who dubbed themselves humanists tread this same path, turning to science as a major source of spiritual sustenance. In The Scientific Spirit of American Humanism, Stephen P. Weldon tells the fascinating story of this group as it developed over the twentieth century, following the fortunes of a few generations of radical ministers, academic philosophers, and prominent scientists who sought to replace traditional religion with a modern, liberal, scientific outlook. Weldon explores humanism through the networks of friendships and institutional relationships that underlay it, from philosophers preaching in synagogues and ministers editing articles of Nobel laureates to magicians invoking the scientific method. Examining the development of an increasingly antagonistic engagement between religious conservatives and the secular culture of the academy, Weldon explains how this conflict has shaped the discussion of science and religion in American culture. He also uncovers a less known—but equally influential—story about the conflict within humanism itself between two very different visions of science: an aspirational, democratic outlook held by the followers of John Dewey on the one hand, and a skeptical, combative view influenced by logical positivism on the other. Putting America’s distinctive science talk into historical perspective, Weldon shows how events such as the Pugwash movement for nuclear disarmament, the ongoing evolution controversies, the debunking of pseudo-science, and the selection of scientists and popularizers like Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov as humanist figureheads all fit a distinctly American ethos. Weldon maintains that this secular ethos gained much of its influence by tapping into the idealism found in the American radical religious tradition that includes the deism of Thomas Paine, nineteenth-century rationalism and free thought, Protestant modernism, and most important, Unitarianism. Drawing on archival research, interviews, and a thorough study of the main humanist publications, The Scientific Spirit of American Humanism reveals a new level of detail about the personal and institutional forces that have shaped major trends in American secular culture. Significantly, the book shows why special attention to American liberal religiosity remains critical to a clear understanding of the scientific spirit in American culture.” Order: Publisher | Amazon | Powell’s | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound

Creationism USA: Bridging the Impasse on Teaching Evolution by Adam Laats (Oxford University Press, 2020). Publisher’s description: “Who are America’s creationists? What do they want? Do they truly believe Jesus rode around on dinosaurs, as sometimes depicted? Creationism USA reveals how common misconceptions about creationism have led Americans into a century of unnecessary culture-war histrionics about evolution education and creationism. Adam Laats argues that Americans do not have deep, fundamental disagreements about evolution – not about the actual science behind it and not in ways that truly matter to public policy. Laats asserts that Americans do, however, have significant disagreements about creationism. By describing the history of creationism and its many variations, Laats demonstrates that the real conflict about evolution is not between creationists and evolution. The true landscape of American creationism is far more complicated than headlines suggest. Creationism USA digs beyond those headlines to prove two fundamental facts about American creationism. First, almost all Americans can be classified as creationists of one type or another. Second, nearly all Americans (including self-identified creationists) want their children to learn mainstream evolutionary science. Taken together, these truths about American creationism point to a large and productive middle ground, a widely shared public vision of the proper relationship between schools, science, and religion. Creationism USA both explains the current state of America’s battles over creationism and offers a nuanced yet straight-forward prescription to solve them.” Order: Publisher | Amazon | Powell’s | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound

History Within: The Science, Culture, and Politics of Bones, Organisms, and Molecules by Marianne Sommer (University of Chicago Press, 2020). Publisher’s description: “Personal genomics services such as 23andMe and Ancestry.com now offer what once was science fiction: the ability to sequence and analyze an individual’s entire genetic code—promising, in some cases, facts about that individual’s ancestry that may have remained otherwise lost. Such services draw on and contribute to the science of human population genetics that attempts to reconstruct the history of humankind, including the origin and movement of specific populations. Is it true, though, that who we are and where we come from is written into the sequence of our genomes? Are genes better documents for determining our histories and identities than fossils or other historical sources? Our interpretation of gene sequences, like our interpretation of other historical evidence, inevitably tells a story laden with political and moral values. Focusing on the work of Henry Fairfield Osborn, Julian Sorell Huxley, and Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza in paleoanthropology, evolutionary biology, and human population genetics, History Within asks how the sciences of human origins, whether through the museum, the zoo, or the genetics lab, have shaped our idea of what it means to be human. How have these biologically based histories influenced our ideas about nature, society, and culture? As Marianne Sommer shows, the stories we tell about bones, organisms, and molecules often change the world.” Order: Publisher | Amazon | Powell’s | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound

The Genesis Quest: The Geniuses and Eccentrics on a Journey to Uncover the Origin of Life on Earth by Michael Marshall (University of Chicago Press, 2020). Pub;isher’s description: “How did life begin? Why are we here? These are some of the most profound questions we can ask. For almost a century, a small band of eccentric scientists has struggled to answer these questions and explain one of the greatest mysteries of all: how and why life began on Earth. There are many different proposals, and each idea has attracted passionate believers who promote it with an almost religious fervor, as well as detractors who reject it with equal passion. But the quest to unravel life’s genesis is not just a story of big ideas. It is also a compelling human story, rich in personalities, conflicts, and surprising twists and turns. Along the way the journey takes in some of the greatest discoveries in modern biology, from evolution and cells to DNA and life’s family tree. It is also a search whose end may finally be in sight. In The Genesis Quest, Michael Marshall shows how the quest to understand life’s beginning is also a journey to discover the true nature of life, and by extension our place in the universe.” Order: Publisher | Amazon | Powell’s | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound

Pragmatism’s Evolution: Organism and Environment in American Philosophy by Trevor Pearce (University of Chicago Press, 2020). Publisher’s description: “In Pragmatism’s Evolution, Trevor Pearce demonstrates that the philosophical tradition of pragmatism owes an enormous debt to specific biological debates in the late 1800s, especially those concerning the role of the environment in development and evolution. Many are familiar with John Dewey’s 1909 assertion that evolutionary ideas overturned two thousand years of philosophy—but what exactly happened in the fifty years prior to Dewey’s claim? What form did evolutionary ideas take? When and how were they received by American philosophers? Although the various thinkers associated with pragmatism—from Charles Sanders Peirce to Jane Addams and beyond—were towering figures in American intellectual life, few realize the full extent of their engagement with the life sciences. In his analysis, Pearce focuses on a series of debates in biology from 1860 to 1910—from the instincts of honeybees to the inheritance of acquired characteristics—in which the pragmatists were active participants. If we want to understand the pragmatists and their influence, Pearce argues, we need to understand the relationship between pragmatism and biology.” Order: Publisher | Amazon | Powell’s | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound

When Darwin Sailed the Sea: Uncover How Darwin’s Revolutionary Ideas Helped Change the World by David Long and illustrated by Sam Kalda (Wide Eyed Editions, 2020, 80 pp.). Publisher’s description: “Published to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the launch of the HMS Beagle, this beautifully illustrated narrative nonfiction book tells the story of Charles Darwin, and shows how his revolutionary research changed the world forever. At the age of 22, Charles Darwin clambered up the steps of HMS Beagle armed with enough notepads to last him for several years and set sail on a journey of exploration that would change his life and how we view the entire world forever. ‘The voyage of the Beagle has been by far the most important event of my life and has determined my whole career.’ From his fascination with the natural world that began at an early age, his love of collecting new specimens, and keen eye for observation to his groundbreaking theory of evolution, uncover the incredible life of Charles Darwin in this fascinating story of his life. At the back of the book, explore a selection of the amazing species he discovered, concise profiles of some of the incredible people who helped Darwin on his path to becoming a groundbreaking scientist, a glossary of terms, and a timeline of Darwin’s life and career. When Darwin Sailed the Sea is the perfect book for any child who has ever looked at the world and asked ‘why.'” Order: Publisher | Amazon | Powell’s | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound

Darwin’s Rival: Alfred Russel Wallace and the Search for Evolution by Christiane Dorion and illustrated by Harry Tennant (Candlewick Studio, 2020). Publisher’s description: “A beautifully illustrated volume follows a lesser-known Victorian naturalist and explorer on his global journeys — and reveals how he developed his own theory of evolution. Everyone knows Charles Darwin, the famous naturalist who proposed a theory of evolution. But not everyone knows the story of Alfred Russel Wallace, Darwin’s friend and rival who simultaneously discovered the process of natural selection. This sumptuously illustrated book tells Wallace’s story, from his humble beginnings to his adventures in the Amazon rain forest and Malay Archipelago, and demonstrates the great contribution he made to one of the most important scientific discoveries of all time.” Video with author discussing Wallace and this book. Order: Publisher | Amazon | Powell’s | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound

Fossils for Kids: A Junior Scientist’s Guide to Dinosaur Bones, Ancient Animals, and Prehistoric Life on Earth by Ashley Hall (Rockridge Press, 2020). Publisher’s description: “Set off on an amazing adventure into the prehistoric past when dinosaurs roamed the Earth. Fossils for Kids is filled with fascinating photographs and captivating facts that will teach junior fossil hunters how fossils form, where they are found, and tips on how to identify them. Start by learning more about some of your favorite dinosaurs―from Velociraptor to Tyrannosaurus rex―and where you can see the coolest dinosaur skeletons. Then discover the creatures that predate even the dinosaurs! You’ll meet famous birds, like the Archaeopteryx, explore tiny invertebrate trilobites, and learn which ancient plant is the source of a delicious drink―root beer! It’s time to unearth your scientific curiosity―there’s no telling what you’ll find using Fossils for Kids as your guide.” Order: Publisher | Amazon | Powell’s | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound

Did You See that Dinosaur?: Search the Page, Find the Dinosaur in a Fact-Filled Adventure by Riley Black and illustrated by Scott Koblish (Rockridge Press, 2020). Publisher’s description: “Have you ever wanted to see a real, live dinosaur? Kid paleontologists Ava and Mateo set their time machine to the Mesozoic Era―and they want you to come, too! Unearth the lost items in this search and find book for kids as you time travel through the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous Periods. From the lizard-munching Plateosaurus to the insect-eating Caelestiventus, learn everything about super cool and super huge dinosaurs and reptiles, as well as what the world was like millions of years ago. Solve the mysteries and make amazing discoveries in the wonderful age of dinosaurs.” Order: Publisher | Amazon | Powell’s | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound

Dinosaurs: How We Know What We Know by Mary Higby Schweitzer, Elena Rita Schroeter, and Charles Doug Czajka (CRC Press, 2020). Publisher’s description: “This textbook introduces research on dinosaurs by describing the science behind how we know what we know about dinosaurs. A wide range of topics is covered, from fossils and taphonomy to dinosaur physiology, evolution, and extinction. In addition, sedimentology, paleo-tectonics, and non-dinosaurian Mesozoic life are discussed. There is a special opportunity to capitalize on the enthusiasm for dinosaurs that students bring to classrooms to foster a deeper engagement in all sciences. Students are encouraged to synthesize information, employ critical thinking, construct hypotheses, devise methods to test these hypotheses, and come to new defensible conclusions, just as paleontologists do.” Order: Publisher | Amazon | Powell’s | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound

A Life on Our Planet: My Witness Statement and a Vision for the Future by David Attenborough (Grand Central Publishing, 2020). Publisher’s description: “See the world. Then make it better. I am 93. I’ve had an extraordinary life. It’s only now that I appreciate how extraordinary. As a young man, I felt I was out there in the wild, experiencing the untouched natural world – but it was an illusion. The tragedy of our time has been happening all around us, barely noticeable from day to day — the loss of our planet’s wild places, its biodiversity. I have been witness to this decline. A Life on Our Planet is my witness statement, and my vision for the future. It is the story of how we came to make this, our greatest mistake — and how, if we act now, we can yet put it right. We have one final chance to create the perfect home for ourselves and restore the wonderful world we inherited. All we need is the will to do so.” Order: Publisher | Amazon | Powell’s | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound

Sea Change: A Message of the Oceans by Sylvia Earle (Texas A&M University Press, 2020). Publisher’s description: “In 1952, at age sixteen, Sylvia Earle—then a budding marine biologist—borrowed a friend’s copper diving helmet, compressor, and pump and slipped below the waters of a Florida river. It was her first underwater dive. Since then, Earle has descended to more than 3,000 feet in a submersible and, despite beginning at a time when few women were taken seriously as marine scientists, has led or participated in expeditions totaling more than 7,000 hours underwater, and counting. Equal parts memoir, adventure tale, and call to action, Sea Change: A Message of the Oceans has become a classic of environmental literature, at once the gripping adventure story of Earle’s three decades of undersea exploration, an insider’s introduction to the dynamic field of marine biology, and an urgent plea for the preservation of the world’s fragile and rapidly deteriorating ocean ecosystems. Featuring a gallery of color photographs and a new preface by Earle, this new edition of Sea Change arrives at a uniquely pivotal time when its message is needed more than ever before. She writes, ‘I want to share the exhilaration of discovery, and convey a sense of urgency about the need for all of us to use whatever talents and resources we have to continue to explore and understand the nature of this extraordinary ocean planet.’ Her message is clear: how we treat the oceans now will determine the future health of the planet—and our species.” Order: Publisher | Amazon | Powell’s | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound

Naturalist: A Graphic Adaptation by Edward O. Wilson, adapted by Jim Ottaviani, and illustrated by C. M. Butzer (Island Press, 2020). Publisher’s description: “Regarded as one of the world’s preeminent biologists, Edward O. Wilson spent his boyhood exploring the forests and swamps of south Alabama and the Florida panhandle, collecting snakes, butterflies, and ants—the latter to become his lifelong specialty. His memoir Naturalist, called ‘one of the finest scientific memoirs ever written’ by the Los Angeles Times, is an inspiring account of Wilson’s growth as a scientist and the evolution of the fields he helped define. This graphic edition, adapted by New York Times bestselling comics writer Jim Ottaviani and illustrated by C. M. Butzer, brings Wilson’s childhood and celebrated career to life through dynamic full-color illustrations and Wilson’s own lyric writing. In this adaptation of Naturalist, vivid illustrations draw readers in to Wilson’s lifelong quest to explore and protect the natural world. His success began not with an elite education but an insatiable curiosity about Earth’s wild creatures, and this new edition of Naturalist makes Wilson’s work accessible for anyone who shares his passion. On every page, striking art adds immediacy and highlights the warmth and sense of humor that sets Wilson’s writing apart. Naturalist was written as an invitation—a reminder that curiosity is vital and scientific exploration is open to all of us. Each dynamic frame of this graphic adaptation deepens Wilson’s message, renewing his call to discover and celebrate the little things of the world.” Video about the book (featuring Wilson). Order: Publisher | Amazon | Powell’s | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound

Also have a look at the these book posts from the last couple of years, here, here, here, here, and here.

[Please note that all links to Amazon are affiliate links]

Two Darwin articles in Journal of Victorian Culture

The current issue of the Journal of Victorian Culture (April 2020) has two Darwin-related articles:

Perspective: The History and Afterlife of Darwin’s Childhood Garden

Jude Piesse

Abstract This article examines the history and significance of Charles Darwin’s childhood garden at The Mount in Shrewsbury. Unlike the mature Darwin’s garden at Down House, Kent, his childhood garden at The Mount has only recently begun to be restored and it is not well known outside of local or specialist circles. The first part of the article aims to recover the story of the garden for a wider interdisciplinary readership. It builds upon research in the fields of garden history and biography to make a case for the garden’s importance to Darwin’s life and scientific work while also revealing the site’s afterlife as a lost garden and challenging restoration project. The second part of the article argues that the garden can be viewed as an enchanted space that enables us to connect more closely with a positive vision of a romantic, ecologically conscious Darwin who is of particular relevance to our times. I conclude by briefly outlining how these ideas were tested at the Darwin’s Childhood Garden Study Day, organized with Shropshire Wildlife Trust in 2016 following its purchase of part of the site in 2013.

The First Darwinian: Alfred Russel Wallace and the Meaning of Darwinism

Ian Hesketh

Abstract This essay is an initial study of a larger project that seeks to produce a history of the term ‘Darwinism’. While it is generally well-known that Darwinism could refer to a variety of different things in the Victorian period, from a general evolutionary naturalism to the particular theory of natural selection, very little has been written about the history of the term or how it was contested at given times and places. Building on James Moore’s 1991 sketch of the history of Darwinism in the 1860s, this paper specifically seeks to situate Alfred Russel Wallace’s 1889 book Darwinism in the context of a larger struggle over Darwin’s legacy in the 1880s. It is argued that Wallace used his authority as one of the founders of evolution by natural selection to reimagine what he called ‘pure Darwinism’ as a teleological evolutionism, one that integrated the theory of natural selection with an interpretation of spirit phenomena thereby producing a more agreeable and holistic account of life than was previously associated with Darwinian evolution. By considering the reception of Wallace’s Darwinism in the periodical press it will be argued further that Wallace’s interpretation of Darwinism was generally well received, which suggests that our understanding of what Darwinism meant in the late Victorian period needs to be revisited.


ARTICLE: Trees, Coral, and Seaweed: An Interpretation of Sketches Found in Darwin’s Papers

A new article in Journal of the History of Biology:

Trees, Coral, and Seaweed: An Interpretation of Sketches Found in Darwin’s Papers

Kees van Putten

Abstract The sole diagram in On the Origin of Species is generally considered to be merely an illustration of Darwin’s ideas, but such an interpretation ignores the fact that Darwin himself expressly stated that the diagram helped him to discover and express his ideas. This article demonstrates that developing the so-called “tree diagram” substantially aided Darwin’s heuristics. This demonstration is based on an interpretation of the diagram and of 17 sketches found in Darwin’s scientific papers. The key to this interpretation is the meaning that Darwin assigned to the graphic elements (points, lines, and spaces) he used to construct the preliminary sketches and the diagram. I argue that each of the sketches contributed to the shaping of Darwin’s ideas and that, in their succession, each added new elements that ultimately resulted in the fully developed published diagram.


ARTICLE: An Origin of Citations: Darwin’s Collaborators and Their Contributions to the Origin of Species

From the Journal of the History of Biology:

An Origin of Citations: Darwin’s Collaborators and Their Contributions to the Origin of Species

Pedro de Lima Navarro & Cristina de Amorim Machado

Abstract In the first edition of the Origin of Species (1859), Charles Darwin apologized for not correctly referencing all the works cited in his magnum opus. More than 150 years later we have catalogued these citations and analyzed the resultant data. Looking for a complete selection of collaborators, a flexible interpretation of the term citation was necessary; we define it as any reference made to a third party, independently of its form or function. Following the same idea, the sixth edition of the Origin, originally published in 1872 and reprinted with minor additions and corrections in 1876, was chosen for the research because it represents the end of a long debate between Darwin and his peers. It naturally is the edition with the greatest number of citations and collaborators. Through a diverse theoretical analysis, we aim to present a new perspective for the study of the Origin of Species: a bibliographic approach that provides the tools needed to understand the history of the book as a physical and cultural object. Bibliometrics provides a theory of citations as well as a quantitative analysis; science studies highlights the profound social aspects of science in the making. The analysis resulted in 639 citations to 298 collaborators and provided a new perspective of the rhetorical structure of the Origin, even though these results are only the tip of the iceberg of the potential of all the data gathered in this study.

ARTICLE: Darwin’s Technology of Life

In the journal Isis for December 2019:

Darwin’s Technology of Life

Giuliano Pancaldi

Abstract Some of Darwin’s views on descent with modification were developed alongside his adoption of a number of concepts inspired by the domain that we would now call science and technology. Focusing on the period from Darwin’s circumnavigation journey to the publication of the Origin in 1859, this essay explores the rich manuscript and published documentation left by Darwin to trace in detail his exposure to contemporary technologies and notions of invention. It argues that the parallel Darwin established on several occasions between the history of life on earth and human inventions was more than a metaphor. According to Darwin’s radical evolutionary perspective, life and invention—including his own theory explaining descent with modification—belonged to the same domain. It further argues that Darwin’s technology of life approach allowed him to make room for a plurality of causes driving evolutionary change, while at the same time avoiding the question of the origin of life. This same approach helped him to mold his scientific persona, while marking his distance from a mixed population of naturalists that included materialists as well as exponents of speculative German natural philosophy, although these were all frequent sources of reflection during his most creative years.

Darwin, evolution & science books for holiday gift giving (2019)

This is a great time of the year to gift science books to family and friends, or even yourself – axial tilt is the reason for the season, after all. Here are some recent books about Darwin, evolution, and related topics:



Darcy Pattison, Pollen: Darwin’s 130 Year Prediction (Little Rock, AR: Mims House, 2019, 33 pp.; illustrated by Peter Willis) ~ This award-winning book looks at a very specific aspect of Darwin’s work: his predicting that a type of moth would be found that would be adapted to pollinating a specific orchid flower. The year is 1862, and Darwin receives a package with a specimen of a star orchid from Madagascar, with a 11.5 inch nectary. He predicts that a species of moth with a very long proboscis (a flexible, elongated part of an insect’s mouth) must exist in Madagascar that can pollinate such a flower. Darwin knew of no such species, and his fellow naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace thought about this problem too. Darwin died without such a species being found, but in 1903 a new species of hawk moth from Madagascar was described that indeed had such a proboscis. While many considered this moth and the star orchid to be a great match, still no one had witnessed the act of pollination between the two. Not until 1992, at least, when the German entomologist Lutz Thilo Wasserthal set up a camera in a tent where he placed some of these orchids, and while the moth is rare he was able to capture a photo of this species pollinating the star orchid. And thus, Darwin’s prediction 130 years before was shown as correct. This book does a great job in telling a scientific mystery story and introducing various biological concepts. The publisher also has children’s books about the physicist Michael Faraday, the physicist Ernst Chladni, and on how a 1919 eclipse tested Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Order Pollen: Darwin’s 130 Year Prediction: Publisher, Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound (for those wishing to learn more about this topic, check out these three articles: 1/2/3).


Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species adapted and illustrated by Sabina Radeva (New York: Penguin/Crown Books for Young Readers, 2019, 64 pp.; see some images here) This is a beautiful adaptation of Origin for elementary-aged children. The author, a graphic designer with a background in biology, begins by sharing a Biblical view of creation via illustration (without mention of the Bible or Christianity), followed by a brief overview of Buffon’s and Lamarck’s thoughts. Then comes Darwin, the Beagle voyage, and his return home to England and his long, hard work on his theory until he publishes Origin. The focus then turns from Darwin’s life to the theory itself: variation in nature is covered before discussing artificial selection, then the struggle for existence before introducing natural selection. The Tree of Life concept comes next, followed by discussions of the difficulties that Darwin anticipated about his theory and tackled in his book: the imperfection of the geological record, organs of extreme perfection, instinct, migration (geographical distribution), and the mutual affinities of organic beings. The book largely follows the organization of Origin, and toward the end the author shares a quote from Darwin – “In the distant future I see open fields for far more important research… Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history” – next to an image of the familiar, but unfortunately erroneous, depiction of the evolution of man from apes as a linear process ending in Darwin himself (this type of illustration is known as the “March of Progress”). While I adore the rest of this book, I am bummed that this depiction of evolution crept in – it remains pervasive in people’s understanding of the subject. That said, the whole of the book is splendid, richly illustrated and peppered with many quotes from Origin, and includes much more information in an author’s note, a list of misconceptions about evolution, and an appendix bringing recent ideas in biology to bear on Darwin’s theory. Radeva has done a fine job of making Darwin’s theory comprehensible for younger readers. Order Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species: Publisher, Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound (Richard at The Friends of Charles Darwin also shared about this book, the UK version).


Blake Edgar, Smithsonian Dinosaurs and Other Amazing Creatures from Deep Time (New York: Penguin/Smithsonian Books, 2019, 64 pp.) ~ Earlier in 2019, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC reopened its long-awaited renovation of their fossil halls, called Deep Time. My spouse and son were fortunate to spend some time there recently on a quick DC trip over Thanksgiving break (I shared a short video my son took on Twitter). This is a companion book to the exhibit, and includes breathtaking artwork from paleoartist Julius Csotonyi (his paintings serve as murals throughout the exhibit). The publisher describes the book as “present[ing] some of Earth’s strangest and most unusual creatures from as early as 3.8 billion years ago. Beginning with the first evidence of life, it moves through periods of biodiversity and mass extinction and into a look at the first dinosaurs, mammals, pterosaurs, and other fauna and flora from the Archean to the Quarternary eras. It offers a rare look at some of the world’s most fascinating creatures from sauropods, the largest creatures to ever walk the land, to the top carnivorous predator Tyrannosaurus rex, as well as the mastodons, saber-toothed cats, dire wolves, walrus-whales, and other beasts that seem outlandish to us now.” This is a book that children and adults can both enjoy. Order Smithsonian Dinosaurs and Other Amazing Creatures from Deep Time: Publisher, Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.



Bill Jenkins, Evolution Before Darwin: Theories of the Transmutation of Species in Edinburgh (New York: Edinburgh University Press, 2019, 232pp.) ~  Publisher’s description: “This book is the first major study of what was probably the most important centre of pre-Darwinian evolutionary thought in the British Isles. It sheds new light on the genesis and development of one of the most important scientific theories in the history of western thought. It was long believed that evolutionary theories received an almost universally cold reception in British natural history circles in the first half of the nineteenth century. However, a relatively recently serious doubt has been cast on this assumption. This book shows that Edinburgh in the late 1820s and early 1830s was witness to a ferment of radical new ideas on the natural world, including speculation on the origin and evolution of life, at just the time when Charles Darwin was a student in the city. Those who were students in Edinburgh at the time could have hardly avoided coming into contact with these new ideas.” Order Evolution Before Darwin: Publisher, Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.


Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species (London: Natural History Museum, 2019, 520 pp.) ~ This is a small, and handsome facsimile edition of the second edition of Origin from 1860, with a green cover mimicking that of the original first edition from 1859 (the title page bears a stamp stating “British Museum Natural History”, so I assume this is taken from the Natural History Museum’s own collection). Darwin’s single diagram of a tree of life is included as the book’s endpapers, and while the text is that of the second, the “Historical Sketch” from the third edition is included. From the short introduction: “Reproduced here is the second edition… which is essentially the same as the first edition, with a few minor corrections, and so reflects Darwin’s original thoughts before the additional evidence and reviews emerged” (anyone wishing to learn in great detail the difference between the different editions of Origin and their publication histories should head here). While there are many current editions of Darwin’s Origin one could have on their shelf, this affordable and highly-pleasing edition would be a great way to go. Order On the Origin of Species: Publisher, Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.


Ricardo Rozzi, Kurt Heidinger, and Francisca Massardo, Tracing Darwin’s Path in Cape Horn (Denton/Punta Arenas, Chile: University of North Texas Press/ Universidad de Magallanes, 2018, 288 pp.) ~ This is quite the book for any serious Darwin aficionado or armchair – or actual – traveler/naturalist. From the publisher: “Charles Darwin spent the majority of his 1831-1836 voyage around the world in southern South America, and his early experiences in the Cape Horn region seem to have triggered his first ideas on human evolution. Darwin was not only a field naturalist, but also a scholar of the observations of the European explorers who preceded him. This book illuminates the foundations of Cape Horn’s natural history that oriented Darwin’s own explorations and his ideas on evolution, which acquire the highest relevance for planetary sustainability and environmental ethics. Richly illustrated with maps and color photographs, this book offers a guide to the sites visited by Darwin, and a compass for present-day visitors who can follow Darwin’s path over the sea and land that today are protected by the UNESCO Cape Horn Biosphere Reserve.” Order Tracing Darwin’s Path in Cape Horn: Publisher, Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.


Susannah Gibson, The Spirit of Inquiry: How One Extraordinary Society Shaped Modern Science (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019, 400 pp.) ~ From the publisher: “Cambridge is now world-famous as a centre of science, but it wasn’t always so. Before the nineteenth century, the sciences were of little importance in the University of Cambridge. But that began to change in 1819 when two young Cambridge fellows took a geological fieldtrip to the Isle of Wight. Adam Sedgwick and John Stevens Henslow spent their days there exploring, unearthing dazzling fossils, dreaming up elaborate theories about the formation of the earth, and bemoaning the lack of serious science in their ancient university. As they threw themselves into the exciting new science of geology – conjuring millions of years of history from the evidence they found in the island’s rocks – they also began to dream of a new scientific society for Cambridge. This society would bring together like-minded young men who wished to learn of the latest science from overseas, and would encourage original research in Cambridge. It would be, they wrote, a society “to keep alive the spirit of inquiry”. Their vision was realised when they founded the Cambridge Philosophical Society later that same year. Its founders could not have imagined the impact the Cambridge Philosophical Society would have: it was responsible for the first publication of Charles Darwin’s scientific writings, and hosted some of the most heated debates about evolutionary theory in the nineteenth century; it saw the first announcement of x-ray diffraction by a young Lawrence Bragg – a technique that would revolutionise the physical, chemical and life sciences; it published the first paper by C.T.R. Wilson on his cloud chamber – a device that opened up a previously-unimaginable world of sub-atomic particles. 200 years on from the Society’s foundation, this book reflects on the achievements of Sedgwick, Henslow, their peers, and their successors. Susannah Gibson explains how Cambridge moved from what Sedgwick saw as a “death-like stagnation” (really little more than a provincial training school for Church of England clergy) to being a world-leader in the sciences. And she shows how science, once a peripheral activity undertaken for interest by a small number of wealthy gentlemen, has transformed into an enormously well-funded activity that can affect every aspect of our lives.” Order The Spirit of Inquiry: How One Extraordinary Society Shaped Modern Science: Publisher, Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound (reviews can be found at Nature, Kirkus Reviews, The Biologist, The Geological Society, and Times Higher Education).


Nature’s Explorers: Adventurers who recorded the wonders of the natural world (London: Natural History Museum, 2019, 240 pp.) ~ Ten years ago I had the pleasure of spending a little time in the library at the Natural History Museum, London. I was offered a look at Alfred Russel Wallace material there. So many books on shelves and some on display on top of the shelves, one could have spent all day perusing the collection of historic natural history texts. Fortunately, the museum’s publishing division regularly puts out books that showcase what’s in their collection and beyond, such as Expeditions and Endeavours: Images of Nature, Women Artists: Images of Nature, Art of Nature: Three Centuries of Natural History Art from Around the World, Rare Treasures from the Library of the Natural History Museum, and The Art of British Natural History. The current book, Nature Explorer’s, consists of chapters on 23 explorers and naturalists with full color images of natural history illustrations, portraits, maps, or other drawings. For folks interested in Darwin, he’s here of course, as well as Wallace, botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker, Wallace’s fellow explorer in the Amazon, Henry Walter Bates, ornithologist John Gould, and Conrad Martens, the artist on HMS Beagle from 1832-4. That’s only six chapters – there’s plenty to explore in the other seventeen, folks whose work “constituted what we might now look back on and recognise as a first broad survey of our planet, its life and its people” Order Nature’s Explorers: Adventurers who recorded the wonders of the natural world: Publisher, Amazon (UK), Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.


Charles H. Smith, James T. Costa, and David Collard, eds., An Alfred Russel Wallace Companion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019, 416 pp.) ~ I will be reviewing this book in the near future for Reports of the National Center for Science Education, so for now will simply share the publisher’s description: “Although Alfred Russel Wallace (1823–1913) was one of the most famous scientists in the world at the time of his death at the age of ninety, today he is known to many as a kind of ‘almost-Darwin,’ a secondary figure relegated to the footnotes of Darwin’s prodigious insights. But this diminution could hardly be less justified. Research into the life of this brilliant naturalist and social critic continues to produce new insights into his significance to history and his role in helping to shape modern thought. Wallace declared his eight years of exploration in southeast Asia to be ‘the central and controlling incident’ of his life. As 2019 marks one hundred and fifty years since the publication of The Malay Archipelago, Wallace’s canonical work chronicling his epic voyage, this collaborative book gathers an interdisciplinary array of writers to celebrate Wallace’s remarkable life and diverse scholarly accomplishments. Wallace left school at the age of fourteen and was largely self-taught, a voracious curiosity and appetite for learning sustaining him throughout his long life. After years as a surveyor and builder, in 1848 he left Britain to become a professional natural history collector in the Amazon, where he spent four years. Then, in 1854, he departed for the Malay Archipelago. It was on this voyage that he constructed a theory of natural selection similar to the one Charles Darwin was developing, and the two copublished papers on the subject in 1858, some sixteen months before the release of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. But as the contributors to the Companion show, this much-discussed parallel evolution in thought was only one epoch in an extraordinary intellectual life. When Wallace returned to Britain in 1862, he commenced a career of writing on a huge range of subjects extending from evolutionary studies and biogeography to spiritualism and socialism. An Alfred Russel Wallace Companion provides something of a necessary reexamination of the full breadth of Wallace’s thought—an attempt to describe not only the history and present state of our understanding of his work, but also its implications for the future.” Order An Alfred Russel Wallace Companion: Publisher, Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound (see a review at Victorian Web).


Elizabeth Hennessy, On the Backs of Tortoises: Darwin, the Galapagos, and the Fate of an Evolutionary Eden (New Haven: Yale UNiversity Press, 2019, 336 pp.) ~ Publisher’s description: “The Galápagos archipelago is often viewed as a last foothold of pristine nature. For sixty years, conservationists have worked to restore this evolutionary Eden after centuries of exploitation at the hands of pirates, whalers, and island settlers. This book tells the story of the islands’ namesakes—the giant tortoises—as coveted food sources, objects of natural history, and famous icons of conservation and tourism. By doing so, it brings into stark relief the paradoxical, and impossible, goal of conserving species by trying to restore a past state of prehistoric evolution. The tortoises, Elizabeth Hennessy demonstrates, are not prehistoric, but rather microcosms whose stories show how deeply human and nonhuman life are entangled. In a world where evolution is thoroughly shaped by global history, Hennessy puts forward a vision for conservation based on reckoning with the past, rather than trying to erase it.” Order On the Backs of Tortoises: Publisher, Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound (see a review from NPR).


Oren Harman and Michael R. Dietrich, eds., Dreamers, Visionaries, and Revolutionaries in the Life Sciences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018, 336 pp.) ~ This is the third in a series of books from the same editors providing short biographies of a wide variety of biologist and researchers in the life sciences: first with Rebels, Mavericks, and Heretics in Biology (2009) and then Outsider Scientists: Routes to Innovation in Biology (2013). I’ve particularly enjoyed the biographies of Ernst Haeckel by Robert J. Richards and Rachel Carson by Janet Browne. Here’s the publisher’s description: “What are the conditions that foster true novelty and allow visionaries to set their eyes on unknown horizons? What have been the challenges that have spawned new innovations, and how have they shaped modern biology? In Dreamers, Visionaries, and Revolutionaries in the Life Sciences, editors Oren Harman and Michael R. Dietrich explore these questions through the lives of eighteen exemplary biologists who had grand and often radical ideas that went far beyond the run-of-the-mill science of their peers. From the Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who coined the word “biology” in the early nineteenth century, to the American James Lovelock, for whom the Earth is a living, breathing organism, these dreamers innovated in ways that forced their contemporaries to reexamine comfortable truths. With this collection readers will follow Jane Goodall into the hidden world of apes in African jungles and Francis Crick as he attacks the problem of consciousness. Join Mary Lasker on her campaign to conquer cancer and follow geneticist George Church as he dreams of bringing back woolly mammoths and Neanderthals. In these lives and the many others featured in these pages, we discover visions that were sometimes fantastical, quixotic, and even threatening and destabilizing, but always a challenge to the status quo.” Order Dreamers, Visionaries, and Revolutionaries in the Life Sciences: Publisher, Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound (if you have access, here’s a review in the Journal of the History of Biology).


The Paleozoic, written and illustrated by Estrella Vega. This foldout presentation of prehistoric creatures is fantastic. Five books, one for each of the periods of the Paleozoic Era. Line them all up and it is 42 ft long! As Vega calls it, “Prehistory Unfolded.” For more information, visit estrellavega.com (or find each of the books here on Amazon). She has the Mesozoic Era is in the works…


M. J. S. Hodge, Before and After Darwin: Origins, Species, Cosmogonies, and Ontologies (Routledge, 2019, 362 pp.) ~ This is the first volume a paperback (i.e., much cheaper) edition of a previously published two-volume collection of Darwin or evolutionary thought articles by historian of science Hodge. From the publisher: “This is the first of a pair of volumes by Jonathan Hodge, collecting all his most innovative, revisionist and influential papers on Charles Darwin and on the longer run of theories about origins and species from ancient times to the present. The focus in this volume is on the diversity of theories among such pre-Darwinian authors as Lamarck and Whewell, and on developments in the theory of natural selection since Darwin. Plato’s Timaeus, the Biblical Genesis and any current textbook of evolutionary biology are all, it may well seem, on this same enduring topic: origins and species. However, even among classical authors, there were fundamental disagreements: the ontology and cosmogony of the Greek atomists were deeply opposed to Plato’s; and, in the millennia since, the ontological and cosmogonical contexts for theories about origins and species have never settled into any unifying consensus. While the structure of Darwinian theory may be today broadly what it was in Darwin’s own argumentation, controversy continues over the old issues about order, chance, necessity and purpose in the living world and the wider universe as a whole. The historical and philosophical papers collected in this volume, and in the companion volume devoted to Darwin’s theorising, seek to clarify the major continuities and discontinuities in the long run of thinking about origins and species.” A paperback edition of the second volume – Darwin Studies: A Theorist and his Theories in their Context – is forthcming. Order Before and After Darwin: Origins, Species, Cosmogonies, and Ontologies: Publisher, Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.


Thierry Hoquet, Revisiting the ‘Origin of Species’: The Other Darwins (New York: Routledge, 2018, 252 pp.) ~ From the publisher: “Contemporary interest in Darwin rises from a general ideal of what Darwin’s books ought to contain: a theory of transformation of species by natural selection. However, a reader opening Darwin’s masterpiece, On the Origin of Species, today may be struck by the fact that this ‘selectionist’ view does not deliver the key to many aspects of the book. Without contesting the importance of natural selection to Darwinism, much less supposing that a fully-formed “Darwinism” stepped out of Darwin’s head in 1859, this innovative volume aims to return to the text of the Origin itself. Revisiting the ‘Origin of Species’ focuses on Darwin as theorising on the origin of variations; showing that Darwin himself was never a pan-selectionist (in contrast to some of his followers) but was concerned with “other means of modification” (which makes him an evolutionary pluralist). Furthermore, in contrast to common textbook presentations of “Darwinism”, Hoquet stresses the fact that On the Origin of Species can lend itself to several contradictory interpretations. Thus, this volume identifies where rival interpretations have taken root; to unearth the ambiguities readers of Darwin have latched onto as they have produced a myriad of Darwinian legacies, each more or less faithful enough to the originator’s thought. Emphasising the historical features, complexities and intricacies of Darwin’s argument, Revisiting the ‘Origin of Species’ can be used by any lay readers opening Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. This volume will also appeal to students and researchers interested in areas such as Evolution, Natural Selection, Scientific Translations and Origins of Life.” Order Revisiting the Origin of Species: The Other Darwins: Publisher, Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.


David Sloan Wilson, This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution (New York: Pantheon/Penguin, 2019, 304 pp.) ~ From the publisher: “It is widely understood that Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution completely revolutionized the study of biology. Yet, according to David Sloan Wilson, the Darwinian revolution won’t be truly complete until it is applied more broadly—to everything associated with the words “human,” “culture,” and “policy.” In a series of engaging and insightful examples—from the breeding of hens to the timing of cataract surgeries to the organization of an automobile plant—Wilson shows how an evolutionary worldview provides a practical tool kit for understanding not only genetic evolution but also the fast-paced changes that are having an impact on our world and ourselves. What emerges is an incredibly empowering argument: If we can become wise managers of evolutionary processes, we can solve the problems of our age at all scales—from the efficacy of our groups to our well-being as individuals to our stewardship of the planet Earth.” Order This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution: Publisher, Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound (read an excerpt here, and reviews at Nature, Psychology Today, Massive Science, Kirkus Reviews, and Publisher’s Weekly).

For more book ideas, see:

  Darwin, evolution & science books for holiday gift giving (2018)
  New graphic novels about Humboldt’s and Darwin’s travels
  New book provides wide overview of the history of natural history
  BOOK: Creatures of Cain: The Hunt for Human Nature in Cold War America

Also, my friends at The Well-Read Naturalist and The Friends of Charles Darwin always have recommendations and reviews for new nature books to check out.

Charles Darwin in the Smithsonian’s Deep Time fossil hall

Over the Thanksgiving break, my wife and son took a trip to Washington, DC. Among the many, many places they visited was the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. There they got to see the museum’s new Deep Time fossil hall, and they sent me these photos of the Charles Darwin quote and young Darwin statue that fit so prominently in the exhibit. The quote is the last line of On the Origin of Species – “From so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved” – and the statue depicts Darwin writing in a notebook, showing his “I think” tree of life sketch.

Darwin statue at NMNH in DC


Other views of the statue, and information regarding the time capsule that was placed underneath it, at the following links: Smithsonian, Washington Post, 1a.org, and Washington Post again.

BOOK: Creatures of Cain: The Hunt for Human Nature in Cold War America

A recently published book of possible interest to followers here is Creatures of Cain: The Hunt for Human Nature in Cold War America by Erika Milam (Princeton University Press, 2019):


Publisher’s description After World War II, the question of how to define a universal human nature took on new urgency. Creatures of Cain charts the rise and precipitous fall in Cold War America of a theory that attributed man’s evolutionary success to his unique capacity for murder. Drawing on a wealth of archival materials and in-depth interviews, Erika Lorraine Milam reveals how the scientists who advanced this “killer ape” theory capitalized on an expanding postwar market in intellectual paperbacks and widespread faith in the power of science to solve humanity’s problems, even to answer the most fundamental questions of human identity. The killer ape theory spread quickly from colloquial science publications to late-night television, classrooms, political debates, and Hollywood films. Behind the scenes, however, scientists were sharply divided, their disagreements centering squarely on questions of race and gender. Then, in the 1970s, the theory unraveled altogether when primatologists discovered that chimpanzees also kill members of their own species. While the discovery brought an end to definitions of human exceptionalism delineated by violence, Milam shows how some evolutionists began to argue for a shared chimpanzee-human history of aggression even as other scientists discredited such theories as sloppy popularizations. A wide-ranging account of a compelling episode in American science, Creatures of Cain argues that the legacy of the killer ape persists today in the conviction that science can resolve the essential dilemmas of human nature.

Milam was interviewed about her research on the podcast Time to Eat the Dogs, and she wrote an essay for Aeon based on her book.

[Amazon|Powell’s|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound]

New book provides wide overview of the history of natural history

Worlds of Natural History

On the left you have the 1996 volume Cultures of Natural History (edited by N. Jardine, J.A. Secord, and E.C. Spary), a well-respected overview of the history of natural history. Almost a quarter century later, Cambridge University Press has published a follow up volume, while adding a fourth editor: Worlds of Natural History on the right. I found the first volume very useful when an undergraduate student in history, and likewise from a perusal of the table of contents of the new volume will find much to enjoy and use. The press has made available for free PDFs of nine chapters from Cultures and two from Worlds. Click here for these downloads!

Here’s the publisher information for the new volume:

H.A. Curry, N. Jardine, J.A. Secord, and E.C. Spary, eds., Worlds of Natural History (Cambridge University Press, 2019), 682 pp.

Description From Aztec accounts of hibernating hummingbirds to contemporary television spectaculars, human encounters with nature have long sparked wonder, curiosity and delight. Written by leading scholars, this richly illustrated volume offers a lively introduction to the history of natural history, from the sixteenth century to the present day. Covering an extraordinary range of topics, from curiosity cabinets and travelling menageries to modern seed banks and radio-tracked wildlife, this volume draws together the work of historians of science, of environment and of art, museum curators and literary scholars. The essays are framed by an introduction charting recent trends in the field and an epilogue outlining the prospects for the future. Accessible to newcomers and established specialists alike, Worlds of Natural History provides a much-needed perspective on current discussions of biodiversity and an enticing overview of an increasingly vital aspect of human history.


New graphic novels about Humboldt’s and Darwin’s travels

Humboldt & Darwin graphic novels

Two recent books take the world travels of two of the most important figures in the history of science and digest them into readable and visually appealing formats. As graphic novels, these books have the potential to reach audiences who would not necessarily pick up Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of America: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World or Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle.

Andrea Wulf and Lilian Melcher (illustrator), The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt (Pantheon, 2019), 272 pp. [Amazon|Powell’s|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound]

Publisher’s description Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) was an intrepid explorer and the most famous scientist of his age. His restless life was packed with adventure and discovery, but his most revolutionary idea was a radical vision of nature as a complex and interconnected global force that does not exist for the use of humankind alone. His theories and ideas were profoundly influenced by a five-year exploration of South America. Now Andrea Wulf partners with artist Lillian Melcher to bring this daring expedition to life, complete with excerpts from Humboldt’s own diaries, atlases, and publications. She gives us an intimate portrait of the man who predicted human-induced climate change, fashioned poetic narrative out of scientific observation, and influenced iconic figures such as Simón Bolívar, Thomas Jefferson, Charles Darwin, and John Muir. This gorgeous account of the expedition not only shows how Humboldt honed his groundbreaking understanding of the natural world but also illuminates the man and his passions.

Links: reviews from Nature, Publishers Weekly, and Kirkus; an animation for the book; story on Science Friday (and excerpt)

Fabien Grolleau and Jérémie Royer (illustrator), Darwin: An Exceptional Voyage (Nobrow, 2019), 184 pp. [Amazon|Powell’s|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound]

Publisher’s description This sweeping, intelligent and immersive biographical graphic novel from award-winning creators, joins legendary scientist Charles Darwin as a young man, as he embarks on his voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle. ~ It is the year 1831. A gifted but distracted young man named Charles Darwin has been offered a place aboard the H.M.S. Beagle, in a chain of events that will change both his life and the course of modern science. Join him on an epic journey of thrilling discovery as he explores remote corners of the natural world and pieces together the very beginnings of his revolutionary theory of evolution.

Links: review from Multiversity Comics; excerpt from The Comics Journal

ARTICLES: Evolution and Film Censorship, was Huxley “Darwin’s Bulldog”?, and the Struggle for Coexistence

Here are a few items of possible interest to readers here:

In Osiris:

Darwin on the Cutting-Room Floor: Evolution, Religion, and Film Censorship

David A. Kirby

Abstract In the mid-twentieth century, film studios sent their screenplays to the Hays Office, Hollywood’s official censorship body, and to the Catholic Church’s Legion of Decency for approval and recommendations for revision. This essay examines how filmmakers crafted stories involving evolutionary biology and how religiously motivated movie censorship groups modified these cinematic narratives in order to depict what they considered to be more appropriate visions of humanity’s origins. I find that censorship groups were concerned about the perceived impact of science fiction cinema on the public’s belief systems and on the wider cultural meanings of evolution. By controlling the stories told about evolution in science fiction cinema, censorship organizations believed that they could regulate the broader cultural meanings of evolution itself. But this is not a straightforward story of “science” versus “religion.” There were significant differences among these groups as to how to censor evolution, as well as changes in their attitudes toward evolutionary content over time. As a result, I show how censorship groups adopted diverse perspectives, depending on their perception of what constituted a morally appropriate science fiction story about evolution.

In The Linnean (PDF here):

Why there was no ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’: Thomas Henry Huxley’s Famous Nickname

John van Wyhe

Summary “It is true that Huxley was widely known as a defiant defender of Darwinism. But imagining that he was widely acknowledged as ‘Darwin’s bulldog’ obscures some of the historical reality, such as the fact that he had his own (non-Darwinian) ideas about evolution and was long tentative about the efficacy of natural selection. Appreciating that he was not known as ‘Darwin’s bulldog’ should lead to a more nuanced recognition of who he was and what he really did. If one of the most widely known, enjoyed and unquestioned nicknames in the history of science is incorrect, what other undisputed facts might also be wrong?”

And a PhD dissertation (PDF here):

The Struggle for Coexistence: Peter Kropotkin and the Social Ecology of Science in Russia, Europe, and England, 1859-1922

Eric Michael Johnson

Summary This dissertation follows the history and intellectual development of Peter Kropotkin whose scientific theory of mutual aid showed how Darwinian evolution could explain cooperation and the origin of morality. By following his journey from prince to naturalist to political radical, it reveals that Kropotkin was part of a transnational network of scientific and political thinkers whose perspective can be defined as Socialist Darwinism. Those figures that would later be defined as representing Social Darwinism originated in their opposition to Socialist Darwinism and through an ongoing debate with them. This demonstrates that political and scientific ideas about evolutionary change were influenced by each other in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.


ARTICLE: Why there was no ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’: Thomas Henry Huxley’s Famous Nickname

New from The Linnean (April 2019):

Why there was no ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’: Thomas Henry Huxley’s Famous Nickname

John van Wyhe

[No abstract, but here’s a very short description from the author: “TH Huxley was not known as Darwin’s bulldog during the 19th century as thousands of books, articles, websites etc. have been saying for almost a hundred years.”]

Here’s a PDF of the article! And as someone has already asked me, does this mean I must change my Twitter handle?


ARTICLE: Charles Darwin, Richard Owen, and Natural Selection: A Question of Priority

From the Journal of the History of Biology (March 2019):

Charles Darwin, Richard Owen, and Natural Selection: A Question of Priority

Curtis N. Johnson

Abstract No single author presented Darwin with a more difficult question about his priority in discovering natural selection than the British comparative anatomist and paleontologist Richard Owen. Owen was arguably the most influential biologist in Great Britain in Darwin’s time. Darwin wanted his approbation for what he believed to be his own theory of natural selection. Unfortunately for Darwin, when Owen first commented in publication about Darwin’s theory of descent he was openly hostile (Edinb. Rev. vol. 111, Article VIII, 1860, pp. 487–533, anonymous). Darwin was taken off-guard. In private meetings and correspondence prior to 1860 Owen had been nothing but polite and friendly, even helping Darwin in cataloguing and analyzing Darwin’s zoological specimens from the Beagle voyage. Every early indication predicted a life-long friendship and collaboration. But that was not to be. Owen followed his slashing review with a mounting campaign in the 1860s to denounce and discredit both Darwin and his small but ascendant circle of friends and supporters. But that was not enough for Owen. Starting in 1866, perhaps by now realizing Darwin had landed the big fish, Owen launched a new campaign, to claim the discovery of “Darwin’s theory” for himself. Darwin naturally fought back, mainly in the “Historical Sketch” that he prefaced to Origin starting in 1861. But when we peel back the layers of personal animus and escalating vituperation we discover in fact their quarrel was generated more by mutual misunderstanding than scientific disagreement. The battle ended only when Darwin finally penetrated to the crux of the matter and put an end to the rivalry in 1872, in the final version of the Sketch.


Darwin, evolution & science books for holiday gift giving (2018)

‘Tis the season for holiday gift giving (to others or to yourself, no shame there), so I thought I’d share about some recent books about evolution and related topics that might strike in you a desire to spread the good news (of science!).



Rebecca Stefoff and Teagan White (illustrator), Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species: Young Readers Edition (New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2018, 176. pp.) ~ As she has done for other books (Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee, and Charles C. Mann’s 1493), Stefoff has taken an important book and adapted it for a younger audience, using more accessible language and including copious illustrations and photographs, and while remaining true to Darwin’s chapter structure, has provided updated information on topics that have, well, evolved since Darwin’s time. If On the Origin of Species continues to be a book that everyone has an opinion about yet have never actually read (it can be a challenging read), perhaps they can start with this handsome large format edition. It surely deserves a place on the shelves of middle and high school libraries. Order Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species: Young Readers Edition: Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

Grandmother Fish

Jonathan Tweet and Karen Lewis (illustrator), Grandmother Fish (New York: Feiwel & Friends, 2016, 32 pp.) ~ This fantastic book about evolution for preschool-aged kids is not new, but I shared about it previously and it is worth mentioning again! Order Grandmother Fish: Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

One Iguana, Two Iguanas

Sneed B. Collard III, One Iguana, Two Iguanas: A Story of Accident, Natural Selection, and Evolution (Thomaston, ME: Tilbury House, 2018, 48 pp.) ~ I have not looked at a copy of this book myself, but Greg Laden has. Here’s the publisher’s description: “Natural selection and speciation are all but ignored in children’s nonfiction. To help address this glaring deficiency, award-winning children’s science writer Sneed Collard traveled to the Galapagos Islands to see for himself, where Charles Darwin saw, how new species form. The result is this fascinating story of two species of iguana, one land-based and one marine, both of which developed from a single ancestor that reached the islands millions of years ago. The animals evolved in different directions while living within sight of one another. How is that possible?” Geared toward upper elementary and middle grade readers. Order One Iguana, Two Iguanas: A Story of Accident, Natural Selection, and Evolution: Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

Stuff of Stars, The.jpeg

Marion Dane Bauer and Ekua Holmes, Ekua (illustrator), The Stuff of Stars (Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press, 2018, 40 pp.) ~ Going further back that biological evolution, this book puts the Sagan-esque notion of everything being made of “star stuff” – that all the matter that makes up every organism, including humans, was first created in the furnaces of stars billions of years ago – into a beautiful presentation of words and art. For some science-minded people who live without religion, appreciating our elemental connection to the universe can serve as a secular spirituality, and The Stuff of Stars serves as a perfect introduction of this idea. Order The Stuff of Stars: Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.


Ince, Martin, Continental Drift: The Evolution of Our World from the Origins of Life to the Future (Blueprint Editions, 80 pp.; titled Drift in the UK for WeldonOwen Publishing) ~ It is difficult to discuss the evolution of animals on Earth without bringing in geology: how plates of earth’s crusts moving around the globe over millions of years has had a major effect on the evolutionary lineages of organisms. Continental Drift by science writer Martin Ince, begins with the formation of Earth 4.5 billions years ago and the formation of land around 3.4 bya, and then passes through periods of geologic time (Cambrian, Devonian, Permian, Jurassic, Cretaceous, Paleogene, Anthropocene, etc.), describing the movement of plates and evolution of organisms during those periods. Copiously illustrated with drawings and photographs, as well as large maps showing how the earth’s land appeared in each period, this book is perfect for upper elementary and middle grade students wishing to learn more about the history of our planet and its life. In fact, curious adults will find value in pouring through its pages. Order Drift: Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

When the Whales Walked

Dougal Dixon and Hannah Bailey (illustrator), When the Whales Walked: And Other Incredible Evolutionary Journeys (London: words & pictures, 2018, 64 pp.) ~ I have not seen a copy of this book yet, but it looks like an important one to teach readers about transitional fossils. The publisher’s description: “Step back in time and discover a world where whales once walked, crocodiles were warm-blooded and snakes had legs! Meet terrifying giant birds, and tiny elephants living on islands in this fascinating creature guide like no other. Learn how whales once walked on four legs before taking to the oceans; how dinosaurs evolved into birds; and how the first cats were small and lived in trees. Featuring a stunning mix of annotated illustrations, illustrated scenes and family trees, evolution is explained here in a captivating and novel style that will make children look at animals in a whole new way.” Order When the Whales Walked: Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

Galapagos Girl

Marsha Diane Arnold and Angela Dominguez (illustrator), Galápagos Girl/Galapagueña (New York: Lee & Low Books, 2018, 40 pp.) ~ This is a charming picture book about a young girl born and raised on Floreana island in the Galápagos, who grew up among its unique animals and has made a life of researching, protecting, and educating about the Galápagos and its wildlife. Her name is Valentina Cruz, and through her story readers will learn about what it means to spend time in nature and value protecting it. The publisher’s description: “For Valentina, living on the Galápagos islands means spending her days outside, observing the natural world around her. She greets sea lions splashing on the shore, scampers over lava rocks with Sally-lightfoot crabs, and swims with manta rays. She is a Galápagos girl, and there is no other place she’d rather be! But this wondrous world is fragile, and when Valentina learns her wild companions are under threat, she vows to help protect them and the islands. Whimsical illustrations by Pura Belpré Honoree Angela Dominguez transport readers to the unique Galápagos islands, which shelter a number of diverse plant and animal species that can be found nowhere else on the planet. Come discover this beautiful world with Valentina and her animal friends!” The book is presented in both English and Spanish, and Mr. Darwin only receives a single mention, in a note at the end of the book about finches. This book is, after all, about Valentina, not Charles, as there are many persons connected to the history of these islands. Order Galápagos Girl/Galapagueña: Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.



Unnatural Selection

Katrina von Grouw, Unnatural Selection (Princeton University Press, 2013, 304 pp.) ~ This book came out in the summer, but I shared about it previously and it is worth mentioning again! Order Unnatural Selection: Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

Life on Earth (1)

David Attenborough, Life on Earth: The Greatest Story Ever Told (London: William Collins, 2018, 352 pp.) ~ A classic, updated. From the publisher: “David Attenborough’s unforgettable meeting with gorillas became an iconic moment for millions of television viewers. Life on Earth, the series and accompanying book, fundamentally changed the way we view and interact with the natural world setting a new benchmark of quality, influencing a generation of nature lovers. Told through an examination of animal and plant life, this is an astonishing celebration of the evolution of life on earth, with a cast of characters drawn from the whole range of organisms that have ever lived on this planet. Attenborough’s perceptive, dynamic approach to the evolution of millions of species of living organisms takes the reader on an unforgettable journey of discovery from the very first spark of life to the blue and green wonder we know today. Now, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the book’s first publication, David Attenborough has revisited Life on Earth, completely updating and adding to the original text, taking account of modern scientific discoveries from around the globe. He has chosen beautiful, completely new photography, helping to illustrate the book in a much greater way than was possible forty years ago. This special anniversary edition provides a fitting tribute to an enduring wildlife classic, destined to enthral the generation who saw it when first published and bring it alive for a whole new generation.” Order Life on Earth: Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

Darwin's Most Wonderful Plants

Ken Thompson, Darwin’s Most Wonderful Plants: Darwin’s Botany Today (London: Profile Books, 2018, 256 pp.) ~  In five chapters Thompson takes a look at Darwin’s seven books that cover botanical topics, from his first on orchids in 1862 to The Power of Movement in Plants in 1880. From the publisher: “Ken Thompson sees Darwin as a brilliant and revolutionary botanist, whose observations and theories were far ahead of his time – and are often only now being confirmed and extended by high-tech modern research. Like Darwin, he is fascinated and amazed by the powers of plants – particularly their Triffid-like aspects of movement, hunting and ‘plant intelligence’. This is a much needed book that re-establishes Darwin as a pioneering botanist, whose close observations of plants were crucial to his theories of evolution.” Order Darwin’s Most Wonderful Plants: Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

Tangled Tree, The.JPG

David Quammen, The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018, 480 pp.) ~ Currently making my way through this new offering from one of the best science writers we have. Quammen tells the intriguing story of how molecular biologists rewrote the tree of life, centering on the work of Carl Woese (billed as one of the most important biologists of the 20th century that you’ve never heard of) but including Lynn Margulis and a great many others. Quammen blends science with storytelling in such a fashion that one feels as if they are witnessing science at work as it is happening – it’s ups and downs, its triumphs and lesser moments. With plenty of Darwin to start the narrative off. Highly recommended. Order The Tangled Tree: Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

Wall of Birds, The

Jane Kim and Thayer Walker, The Wall of Birds: One Planet, 243 Families, 375 Million Years – A Visual Journey (New York: Harper Design, 2018, 224 pp.) ~ Ever since I first saw social media posts showing the work in progress for a mural on a wall at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology‘s office, I have been in awe of Jane Kim’s bird and other scientific illustrations. They are absolutely gorgeous, and this new book by Kim shares her experience doing the mural and about all the birds presented, including dinosaurs! Order The Wall of Birds: Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound. More info about the wall here, and Jane’s website here.

Cruisin' the Fossil Coastline

Kirk Johnson and Ray Troll (artist), Cruisin’ the Fossil Coastline: The Travels of an Artist and a Scientist along the Shores of the Prehistoric Pacific (Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing, 2018, 290 pp.) ~ A follow up to Johnson and Troll’s Cruisin’ the Fossil Freeway: An Epoch Tale of a Scientist and an Artist on the Ultimate 5,000-mile Paleo Road Trip (2007), which followed the author and artist through the American West in search of fossils and paleontologists, Cruisin’ the Fossil Coastline does the same for the stretch of coastline from southern California up north into Alaska. Johnson is a fine writer, and Troll’s unique art style never disappoints. Order Cruisin’ the Fossil Coastline: Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

Galapagos Life in Motion.jpeg

Walter Perez and Michael Weisberg, Galápagos: Life in Motion (Princeton University Press, 2018, 208 pp.) ~ For someone who hopes to visit the Galápagos in their lifetime but is not sure if it will happen, this book of photographs by Walter Perez is an antidote to waiting for such an opportunity. From the publisher: “The Galápagos Islands are home to an amazing variety of iconic creatures, from Giant Tortoises, Galápagos Sea Lions, Galápagos Penguins, and Ghost Crabs to Darwin’s finches, the Blue-footed Booby, and Hummingbird Moths. But how precisely do these animals manage to survive on―and in the waters around―their desert-like volcanic islands, where fresh water is always scarce, food is often hard to come by, and finding a good mate is a challenge because animal populations are so small? In this stunning large-format book, Galápagos experts Walter Perez and Michael Weisberg present an unprecedented photographic account of the remarkable survival behaviors of these beautiful and unique animals. With more than 200 detailed, close-up photographs, the book captures Galápagos animals in action as they feed, play, fight, court, mate, build nests, give birth, raise their young, and cooperate and clash with other species.” Order Galápagos: Life in Motion: Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

Charles Darwin - A Reference Guide to His Life and Works

J. David Archibald, Charles Darwin: A Reference Guide to His Life and Works (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2018, 232 pp.) ~ I have yet to view a copy of this book, but I have liked Archibald’s other books about Darwin and evolution so I expect this to serve as a useful resource. Here is the publisher’s description: “Charles Darwin: A Reference Guide to His Life and Works provides an important new compendium presenting a detailed chronology of all aspects Darwin’s life. The extensive encyclopedia section includes many hundreds of entries of various kinds related to Darwin – people, places, institutions, concepts, and his publications. The bibliography provides a comprehensive listing of the vast majority of Darwin’s works published during and after his lifetime. It also provides a more selective list of publications concerning his life and work.” Order Charles Darwin: A Reference Guide to His Life and Works: Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

On the bookshelf: Evolution, anthropology, geology, philosophy of paleontology, and early 20th century activism for birds


The following titles are some of the books I have been reading or have recently obtained that readers here are likely to find of interest. Ordering links follow the descriptions of each book, but I recommend also checking your local bookstore or library!

Efram, Sera-Shriar (ed.), Historicizing Humans: Deep Time, Evolution, and Race in Nineteenth-Century British Sciences (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018, 320 pp.) ~ The publiher’s description reads: “A number of important developments and discoveries across the British Empire’s imperial landscape during the nineteenth century invited new questions about human ancestry. The rise of secularism and scientific naturalism; new evidence, such as skeletal and archaeological remains; and European encounters with different people all over the world challenged the existing harmony between science and religion and threatened traditional biblical ideas about special creation and the timeline of human history. Advances in print culture and voyages of exploration also provided researchers with a wealth of material that contributed to their investigations into humanity’s past. Historicizing Humans takes a critical approach to nineteenth-century human history, as the contributors consider how these histories were shaped by the colonial world, and for various scientific, religious, and sociopolitical purposes. This volume highlights the underlying questions and shared assumptions that emerged as various human developmental theories competed for dominance throughout the British Empire.” Readers interested in Darwin specifically will want to check out chapter 6 – Gregory Radick on “How and Why Darwin Got Emotional about Race.” Radick delves into Darwin’s writing in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) as a means to understand Darwin’s thoughts on human evolution and suggests that Expression provides more evidence in Darwin’s mind of man’s animal ancestry than what he offered in On the Origin of Species (1859) or The Descent of Man (1871). Order Historicizing Humans: Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

Kieran D. O’Hara, A Brief History of Geology (Cambridge University Press, 2018, 274 pp.) ~ “Geology as a science has a fascinating and controversial history. Kieran D. O’Hara’s book provides a brief and accessible account of the major events in the history of geology over the last two hundred years, from early theories of Earth structure during the Reformation, through major controversies over the age of the Earth during the Industrial Revolution, to the more recent twentieth-century development of plate tectonic theory, and on to current ideas concerning the Anthropocene. Most chapters include a short ‘text box’ providing more technical and detailed elaborations on selected topics. The book also includes a history of the geology of the Moon, a topic not normally included in books on the history of geology. The book will appeal to students of Earth science, researchers in geology who wish to learn more about the history of their subject, and general readers interested in the history of science.” Order A Brief History of GeologyAmazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

Peter R. Grant and B. Rosemary Grant, 40 Years of Evolution: Darwin’s Finches on Daphne Major Island (Princeton University Press, 2014, 432 pp.) ~ One of the very first books I read about evolution when the topic grabbed me as a teenager was The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner (1995), which told the story of the Grants’ lengthy study of finches on the Galapagos islands. Jump two decades later and their research in the field continues, as they describe in this newer book. From the publisher: “Renowned evolutionary biologists Peter and Rosemary Grant have produced landmark studies of the Galápagos finches first made famous by Charles Darwin. In How and Why Species Multiply [2008], they offered a complete evolutionary history of Darwin’s finches since their origin almost three million years ago. Now, in their richly illustrated new book, 40 Years of Evolution, the authors turn their attention to events taking place on a contemporary scale. By continuously tracking finch populations over a period of four decades, they uncover the causes and consequences of significant events leading to evolutionary changes in species. The authors used a vast and unparalleled range of ecological, behavioral, and genetic data–including song recordings, DNA analyses, and feeding and breeding behavior–to measure changes in finch populations on the small island of Daphne Major in the Galápagos archipelago. They find that natural selection happens repeatedly, that finches hybridize and exchange genes rarely, and that they compete for scarce food in times of drought, with the remarkable result that the finch populations today differ significantly in average beak size and shape from those of forty years ago. The authors’ most spectacular discovery is the initiation and establishment of a new lineage that now behaves as a new species, differing from others in size, song, and other characteristics. The authors emphasize the immeasurable value of continuous long-term studies of natural populations and of critical opportunities for detecting and understanding rare but significant events. By following the fates of finches for several generations, 40 Years of Evolution offers unparalleled insights into ecological and evolutionary changes in natural environments.” Order 40 Years of EvolutionAmazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

Tessa Boase, Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather: Fashion, Fury and Feminism – Women’s Fight for Change (Aurum Press, 2018, 336 pp.) ~ Women’s suffrage in Britain began in 1918, when certain woman over the age of 30 were granted the right to vote, but the effort to reach such a point had begun decades earlier. Social historian Tessa Boase tells the story of how the women’s suffrage movement was intertwined with the movement to protect British birds. The publisher’s description: “When Mrs Pankhurst stormed the House of Commons with her crack squad of militant suffragettes in 1908, she wore on her hat a voluptuous purple feather. This is the intriguing story behind that feather. Twelve years before the suffragette movement began dominating headlines, a very different women’s campaign captured the public imagination. Its aim was radical: to stamp out the fashion for feathers in hats. Leading the fight was a character just as heroic as Emmeline Pankhurst, but with opposite beliefs. Her name was Etta Lemon, and she was anti-fashion, anti-feminist – and anti-suffrage. Mrs Lemon has been forgotten by history, but her mighty society lives on. Few, today, are aware that Britain’s biggest conservation charity, the RSPB, was born through the determined efforts of a handful of women, led by the indomitable Mrs Lemon. While the suffragettes were slashing paintings and smashing shop windows, Etta Lemon and her local secretaries were challenging ‘murderous millinery’ all the way up to Parliament. This gripping narrative explores two singular heroines – one lionised, the other forgotten – and their rival, overlapping campaigns. Moving from the feather workers’ slums to the highest courtly circles, from the first female political rally to the first forcible feeding, Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather is a unique journey through a society in transformation. This is a highly original story of women stepping into the public sphere, agitating for change – and finally finding a voice.” Order Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple FeatherAmazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

Peter Ward, Lamarck’s Revenge: How Epigenetics Is Revolutionizing Our Understanding of Evolution’s Past and Present (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018, 288 pp.) ~ “In the 1700s, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck first described epigenetics to explain the inheritance of acquired characteristics; however, his theory was supplanted in the 1800s by Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection through heritable genetic mutations. But natural selection could not adequately explain how rapidly species re-diversified and repopulated after mass extinctions. Now advances in the study of DNA and RNA have resurrected epigenetics, which can create radical physical and physiological changes in subsequent generations by the simple addition of a single small molecule, thus passing along a propensity for molecules to attach in the same places in the next generation! Epigenetics is a complex process, but paleontologist and astrobiologist Peter Ward breaks it down for general readers, using the epigenetic paradigm to reexamine how the history of our species–from deep time to the outbreak of the Black Plague and into the present–has left its mark on our physiology, behavior, and intelligence. Most alarming are chapters about epigenetic changes we are undergoing now triggered by toxins, environmental pollutants, famine, poor nutrition, and overexposure to violence. Lamarck’s Revenge is an eye-opening and controversial exploration of how traits are inherited, and how outside influences drive what we pass along to our progeny.” Order Lamarck’s RevengeAmazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

Adrian Currie, Rock, Bone, and Ruin: An Optimist’s Guide to the Historical Sciences (MIT Press, 2018, 376 pp.) ~ I’ve read lots of books about dinosaurs and paleontology over the years, but this one suggests to not necessarily take everything a paleontologist says for granted. From the publisher: “The ‘historical sciences’—geology, paleontology, and archaeology—have made extraordinary progress in advancing our understanding of the deep past. How has this been possible, given that the evidence they have to work with offers mere traces of the past? In Rock, Bone, and Ruin, Adrian Currie explains that these scientists are ‘methodological omnivores,’ with a variety of strategies and techniques at their disposal, and that this gives us every reason to be optimistic about their capacity to uncover truths about prehistory. Creative and opportunistic paleontologists, for example, discovered and described a new species of prehistoric duck-billed platypus from a single fossilized tooth. Examining the complex reasoning processes of historical science, Currie also considers philosophical and scientific reflection on the relationship between past and present, the nature of evidence, contingency, and scientific progress. Currie draws on varied examples from across the historical sciences, from Mayan ritual sacrifice to giant Mesozoic fleas to Mars’s mysterious watery past, to develop an account of the nature of, and resources available to, historical science. He presents two major case studies: the emerging explanation of sauropod size, and the ‘snowball earth’ hypothesis that accounts for signs of glaciation in Neoproterozoic tropics. He develops the Ripple Model of Evidence to analyze ‘unlucky circumstances’ in scientific investigation; examines and refutes arguments for pessimism about the capacity of the historical sciences, defending the role of analogy and arguing that simulations have an experiment-like function. Currie argues for a creative, open-ended approach, ’empirically grounded’ speculation.” Order Rock, Bone, and Ruin: AmazonPowell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

ARTICLE: Darwin among the Philosophers: Hull and Ruse on Darwin, Herschel, and Whewell

A new Darwin article in the HOPOS: The Journal of the International Society for the
History of Philosophy of Science:

Darwin among the Philosophers: Hull and Ruse on Darwin, Herschel, and Whewell

Phillip Honenberger

Abstract In a series of articles and books published in the 1970s, David Hull (1935–2010) and Michael Ruse (1940–) proposed interpretations of the relation between nineteenth-century British philosophy of science, on the one hand, and the views and methods of Charles Darwin, on the other, that were incompatible or at least in strong interpretive tension with one another. According to Hull, John Herschel’s and William Whewell’s philosophies of science were logically incompatible with Darwin’s revolutionary theory. According to Ruse, however, Darwin discovered and developed his theory through direct adherence to those philosophies. Here, I reconstruct Hull’s and Ruse’s interpretations of the Herschel-Whewell-Darwin relationship and then, drawing on Hull’s and Ruse’s published record and archival correspondence in the years 1968–76—particularly regarding reduction, laws, and species—I offer an explanation for their differences, namely, their different orientations to logical empiricism.


BOOK: Unnatural Selection by Katrina van Grouw

This summer, I – and a theater full of lovers of science – were treated to a talk from natural history illustrator, scientist, and author Katrina van Grow. At one of Portland’s Science on Tap evenings, the author of the popular Unfeathered Bird (Princeton University Press, 2013) shared all about her new book Unnatural Selection (also from Princeton University Press), and she did so enthusiastically. Illustrating and discussing animal skeletons is obviously a passion of hers, and it showed wonderfully in her presentation. I was delighted to buy a copy of Unnatural Selection from her. For others, this would make a great gift for the Darwin aficionado in your life!

Unnatural Selection (1)

The subject of Unnatural Selection, opposite that of Darwin’s “natural selection,” is the human-initiated selective breeding of domestic animals: the dogs, pigeons, chickens and geese, and livestock that grace the pages of this beautiful, large-format book. The publisher’s description:

Unnatural Selection is a stunningly illustrated book about selective breeding–the ongoing transformation of animals at the hand of man. More important, it’s a book about selective breeding on a far, far grander scale—a scale that encompasses all life on Earth. We’d call it evolution. A unique fusion of art, science, and history, this book celebrates the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s monumental work The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication, and is intended as a tribute to what Darwin might have achieved had he possessed that elusive missing piece to the evolutionary puzzle—the knowledge of how individual traits are passed from one generation to the next. With the benefit of a century and a half of hindsight, Katrina van Grouw explains evolution by building on the analogy that Darwin himself used—comparing the selective breeding process with natural selection in the wild, and, like Darwin, featuring a multitude of fascinating examples. This is more than just a book about pets and livestock, however. The revelation of Unnatural Selection is that identical traits can occur in all animals, wild and domesticated, and both are governed by the same evolutionary principles. As van Grouw shows, animals are plastic things, constantly changing. In wild animals the changes are usually too slow to see—species appear to stay the same. When it comes to domesticated animals, however, change happens fast, making them the perfect model of evolution in action. Suitable for the lay reader and student, as well as the more seasoned biologist, and featuring more than four hundred breathtaking illustrations of living animals, skeletons, and historical specimens, Unnatural Selection will be enjoyed by anyone with an interest in natural history and the history of evolutionary thinking.

I’ve poured over the fantastic illustrations and look forward to diving into the text!

Princeton UP Blog: Katrina van Grouw on the 150th Anniversary of Darwin’s Classic Work
The Friends of Charles Darwin: Book review: ‘Unnatural Selection’ by Katrina van Grouw
Tetrapod Zoology: Coming Soon in 2018: Katrina Van Grouw’s Unnatural Selection
Linnean Society of London lecture on YouTube: Unnatural Selection: Evolution at the Hand of Man (and one from 2017 for The Unfeathered Bird)
Darwin Online: The variation of animals and plants under domestication (1868)

ARTICLE: Diagramming Evolution: The Case of Darwin’s Trees

A new article in the journal Endeavour:

Diagramming Evolution: The Case of Darwin’s Trees

Greg Priest

Abstract From his earliest student days through the writing of his last book, Charles Darwin drew diagrams. In developing his evolutionary ideas, his preferred form of diagram was the tree. An examination of several of Darwin’s trees—from sketches in a private notebook from the late 1830s through the diagram published in the Origin—opens a window onto the role of diagramming in Darwin’s scientific practice. In his diagrams, Darwin simultaneously represented both observable patterns in nature and conjectural narratives of evolutionary history. He then brought these natural patterns and narratives into dialogue, allowing him to explore whether the narratives could explain the patterns. But Darwin’s diagrams did not reveal their meaning directly to passive readers; they required readers to engage dynamically with them in order to understand the connections they disclosed between patterns and narratives. Moreover, the narratives Darwin depicted in his diagrams did not represent past sequences of events that he claimed had actually occurred; the narratives were conjectural, schematic, and probabilistic. Instead of depicting actual histories in all their particularity, Darwin depicted narratives in his diagrams in order to make general claims about how nature works. The conjunction of these features of Darwin’s diagrams is central to how they do their epistemic work.

BOOK: Darwin: The Man, His Great Voyage, and His Theory of Evolution

In 2011 I reviewed the The Darwin Experience: The Story of the Man and His Theory
of Evolution by John van Wyhe (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Press, 2008) for the Reports of the National Center for Science Education (PDF), calling the book a “wonderful window into the life and work of Charles Darwin, suitable for newcomers to the topic as well as those already familiar because of its display-like presentation and the illustrations and facsimile documents.” It was a large format book and came in a sleeve, its 64 pages and removable documents meant to be touched and poured over in a different manner than just reading a traditional book. While I still enjoy occasionally perusing that book, I am finding the newly published version for the Natural History Museum in London – Darwin: The Man, His Great Voyage, and His Theory of Evolution (London: Carlton/André Deutsch, 2018, 160 pp.) – to be a more rewarding reading experience.


While van Wyhe’s text is the same, I find the the new publisher’s presentation of images and documents to be more pleasant. The scans of the primary documents are placed on the pages, and are reproduced much better than those of the first version of the book. I highly recommend this new version for Darwin aficionados, and it would have been the perfect book for me when I first became interested in Darwin as a teenager.* Here are a few photos from inside the book:

* If I recall correctly, the first book I read about Darwin (around 1995), was Roy Gallant’s Charles Darwin: The Making of a Scientist (1972), because this was available in my high school library.



On the bookshelf: Darwin, dinosaurs, and Victorian science


The following titles are some of the books I have been reading or have recently obtained that readers here are likely to find of interest. Ordering links follow the descriptions of each book, but I recommend also checking your local bookstore or library!

Alistair Sponsel, Darwin’s Evolving Identity: Adventure, Ambition, and the Sin of Speculation (University of Chicago Press, 2018, 336 pp.) ~ When I attended (and presented) at the Darwin in the Field conference in Cambridge, England in 2009, I met Alistair Sponsel, then a post-doctoral fellow with the Smithsonian Institution Archives. At this conference, Sponsel re-examined Darwin’s claim that he developed his theory of coral reef formation on the west coast of South America, arguing that Darwin only developed the theory after leaving South America (a “eureka” moment on the island of Tahiti). Almost a decade later, Sponsel has published his book on Darwin’s coral reef theory. From the several chapters I’ve enjoyed so far, this is undoubtedly the most academic of books presented in this post. Sponsel has meticulously surveyed Darwin’s writings to reassess many aspects of Darwin’s coral reef studies during the voyage of HMS Beagle and his subsequent publications on the topic. While it is undoubtedly enough to flesh out a valuable contribution to Darwin studies, Sponsel goes further to give new light on the question of why Darwin delayed the publication of On the Origin of Species. Rather than fear of the religious backlash to a book about evolution keeping Darwin from publishing his theory, Sponsel aims to show that Darwin was concerned with how theories should be presented, and his caution stemmed from the critical response to his geological publications of the 1840s. His efforts to gain as much evidence in support of evolution by natural selection was to avoid the “sin of speculation,” as he felt about his coral reef work.  I look forward to the rest of the chapters in Sponsel’s book. Anyone interested in how Humboldt influenced Darwin will want to check this one out. Order Darwin’s Evolving Identity: AmazonPowell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

Roland Jackson, The Ascent of John Tyndall: Victorian Scientist, Mountaineer, and Public Intellectual (Oxford University Press, 2018, 608 pp.) ~ Later this year the sixth volume of The Correspondence of John Tyndall, for which I was a co-editor, will be published. And this July, I will begin work as a co-editor for the tenth volume with Roland Jackson, who this year published this biography of Tyndall. Having worked on Tyndall’s letters in graduate school and over the last couple of years, as well as writing about Tyndall and Darwin for my graduate paper, I am familiar with the major points of his life and scientific career. Yet I’ve only focused on narrow ranges of his lifetime – there is much more to learn about this towering figure of science in the nineteenth-century that most people have likely not heard of. Almost halfway into this biography, I’ve found Jackson’s narrative style to my liking; and it will be a great resource for information when working on my next volume of Tyndall letters. Order The Ascent of John Tyndall: AmazonPowell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

Richard O. Prum, The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World – And Us (Anchor Books/Penguin, 2018, 448 pp.) ~ I have not yet delved into this paperback edition of Prum‘s well-received book (Doubleday, 2017), one of the New York Times ten best books of the year, but I certainly will when I have finished other books in this post. Here is the publisher’s description: “In the great halls of science, dogma holds that Darwin’s theory of natural selection explains every branch on the tree of life: which species thrive, which wither away to extinction, and what features each evolves. But can adaptation by natural selection really account for everything we see in nature? Yale University ornithologist Richard Prum—reviving Darwin’s own views—thinks not. Deep in tropical jungles around the world are birds with a dizzying array of appearances and mating displays: Club-winged Manakins who sing with their wings, Great Argus Pheasants who dazzle prospective mates with a four-foot-wide cone of feathers covered in golden 3D spheres, Red-capped Manakins who moonwalk. In thirty years of fieldwork, Prum has seen numerous display traits that seem disconnected from, if not outright contrary to, selection for individual survival. To explain this, he dusts off Darwin’s long-neglected theory of sexual selection in which the act of choosing a mate for purely aesthetic reasons—for the mere pleasure of it—is an independent engine of evolutionary change. Mate choice can drive ornamental traits from the constraints of adaptive evolution, allowing them to grow ever more elaborate. It also sets the stakes for sexual conflict, in which the sexual autonomy of the female evolves in response to male sexual control. Most crucially, this framework provides important insights into the evolution of human sexuality, particularly the ways in which female preferences have changed male bodies, and even maleness itself, through evolutionary time. The Evolution of Beauty presents a unique scientific vision for how nature’s splendor contributes to a more complete understanding of evolution and of ourselves.” Here are some videos of recent lectures Prum has given on this topic for the Chicago Humanities Festival, Heyman Center for the Humanities, and the American Philosophical Society. It is worth noting that 2017 also saw the publication of Evelleen Richards’ Darwin and the Making of Sexual Selection (University of Chicago Press), “a comprehensive and meticulously researched account of Darwin’s path to its formulation—one that shows the man, rather than the myth, and examines both the social and intellectual roots of Darwin’s theory.” Order The Evolution of Beauty: AmazonPowell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

Adrian Lister, Darwin’s Fossils: The Collection that Shaped the Theory of Evolution (Smithsonian Books, 2018, 160 pp.) ~ Before I had a copy of this book myself, I read a review of it on the website Massive, where it states, “Darwin’s Fossils is overall a dry and dull book. The first chapter or two is lively, pulling together Darwin and a cast of characters, either scientists waiting in Britain for crates filled with samples Darwin mailed back or the crew of the Beagle. That’s just the introduction though, and when Darwin’s Fossils gets to the meat of the text, it’s nothing but data and figures. It’s the worst caricature of science writing made flesh. The illustrations are worthwhile, but little else is.” I am not sure where this reviewer finds that the bulk of the text is just data and figures. Yes, the measurements of the variety of fossils Darwin discovered are included, and the book is chock full of illustrations, photographs, and maps, but what would you expect from a book that’s purpose is to describe “Darwin’s fossils”? But, such data hardly constitutes the bulk of the text. So far, a third of the way into the book, I find the author‘s style to be enjoyable as he not only describes the fossils as Darwin would have found them, but gives the readers an idea of how they fit into Darwin’s developing theory but also what the modern thinking is about the animals these bones came from. The book is split into chapters on how Darwin came to be a naturalist, giant mammal fossils, petrified forests, marine fossils, and coral reefs, with a final chapter on Darwin’s theory development. I look forward to continuing this read (it sits on my nightstand), and think anyone interested in Darwin, paleontology, or travel in the pursuit of science would likewise enjoy it. The author, Adrian Lister at the Natural History Museum, London, has also organized the digitization of Darwin’s fossils to be made public online (here). Order Darwin’s Fossils: AmazonPowell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

Steve Brusatte, The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World (William Morrow, 2018, 416 pp.) ~ My gateway into learning about Darwin and evolution was through books about dinosaur paleontology, my fascination with the prehistoric beasts spurred by seeing the film Jurassic Park (1993) when I was 15 (the film came out 25 years ago this month!).  Two of the first dinosaur books I read were wide-ranging, covering what was known about a variety of dinosaurs by examining recent discoveries and theories, across the globe and with scores of paleontologists. John Noble Wilford’s The Riddle of the Dinosaur (1985) and Don Lessem’s Kings of Creation (1992), copies of which both still sit on my bookshelf, grabbed my attention from cover to cover. Brusatte, a paleontologist with at the University of Edinburgh, likewise brings readers up to date on the current thinking about the lives of that group of vertebrates that ruled the planet for more than 150 million years, why they went extinct, and about the evolution of birds from theropod dinosaurs (where Darwin gets a mention when Archaeopteryx is discussed). Although I never went on to get a degree in paleontology like I originally intended, I always look forward to a good book about dinosaurs. Order The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & NobleIndiebound.