BOOK: Charles Darwin’s Life With Birds: His Complete Ornithology

There’s no doubt that many fans of Charles Darwin are also lovers of birds. Nature writer Lyanda Lynn Haupt has previously written about seeing Darwin with fresh eyes by specifically looking at his writings about birds in Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent. This new book, which appears to truly have been a labor of love for ornithologist Clifford B. Frith, provides a comprehensive treatment of how Darwin studied birds, from a 200-page biography that looks at Darwin as an evolving ornithologist to an equal 200 pages of appendices offering three useful collections: Darwin’s published ornithology, a list of birds named after Darwin, and the birds collected by Darwin during the voyage of HMS Beagle. A section of color plates as well as the beautiful dust jacket makes for a very attractive book to peruse. Charles Darwin’s Life With Birds would be a welcome addition on the bookshelf of any Darwin fan or bird lover.


Clifford B. Firth, Charles Darwin’s Life With Birds: His Complete Ornithology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 520 pp.

Publisher’s description Much of Charles Darwin’s groundbreaking work as an evolutionary biologist stemmed from his study of birds. It is universally acknowledged that Darwin’s observation of bird groups and species like the Galapagos finches, mockingbirds, and rock doves was critical to the development of his theories on natural selection, evolution, and sexual selection. The significant number of diverse birds that Darwin covered in his published works represents a most substantial ornithological contribution. His major books alone contain reference to and consideration of almost 500 bird species, as well as interesting and pertinent discussion of over 100 ornithological topics. Charles Darwin’s Life With Birds is a comprehensive treatment of Darwin’s work as an ornithologist. Clifford Frith discusses every ornithological topic and bird species that Darwin researched, providing a complete historical survey of his published writing on birds. Through this, we learn how Darwin became an increasingly skilled and eventually exceptional ornithologist, and how his relationships grew with contemporary scientists like John Gould. It examines how Darwin was influenced by birds, and how the major themes of his research developed through his study of them.

BOOK:Darwin’s Man in Brazil: The Evolving Science of Fritz Müller

A new book from the late biologist David A. West at Virginia Tech promises to fill in a gap in Darwin scholarship – that of the role played by the German naturalist Fritz Müller in the history of evolutionary biology and his relationship with Darwin through correspondence. As West shares in his introduction, Darwin’s son Francis wrote in 1887, “My impression is that of all his unseen friends Fritz Müller was the one for whom he had the strongest regard” (p. 2). It seems then an account of their intellectual friendship as well as an appreciation for Müller’s discoveries is worth a full treatment. Müller, for which Müllerian mimicry is named, appears a couple of times in Desmond and Moore’s Darwin and Janet Browne’s Charles Darwin: The Power of Place; and Browne shares that Darwin wrote to Müller in 1864 in praise of his book Für Darwin: “What an admirable illustration it affords of my whole doctrine!” (p. 260). I thus look forward to learning more about “Darwin’s Man in Brazil.”


David A. West, Darwin’s Man in Brazil: The Evolving Science of Fritz Müller (Gainesville: University Press of Florida , 2016), 344 pp.

Publisher’s description Fritz Müller (1821-1897), though not as well known as his colleague Charles Darwin, belongs in the cohort of great nineteenth-century naturalists. Recovering Müller’s legacy, David A. West describes the close intellectual kinship between Müller and Darwin and details a lively correspondence that spanned seventeen years. The two scientists, despite living on separate continents, often discussed new research topics and exchanged groundbreaking ideas that unequivocally moved the field of evolutionary biology forward. Müller was unique among naturalists testing Darwin’s theory of natural selection because he investigated an enormous diversity of plants and animals, corresponded with prominent scientists, and published important articles in Germany, England, the United States, and Brazil. Darwin frequently praised Müller’s powers of observation and interpretation, counting him among those scientists whose opinions he valued most. Despite the importance and scope of his work, however, Müller is known for relatively few of his discoveries. West remedies this oversight, chronicling the life and work of this remarkable and overlooked man of science.

BOOK: Charles Darwin’s Looking Glass

Some readers here might be interested in this new book which looks at the intersection of British literature and Darwin or evolution:


Dominika Oramus, ed., Charles Darwin’s Looking Glass: The Theory of Evolution and the Life of its Author in Contemporary British Fiction and Non-Fiction (New York: Peter Lang, 2015), 150 pp.

Publisher’s description The book offers a comparative analysis of diverse Darwinism-inspired discourses such as post-modern novels, science fiction, popular science and nature films. Analysing the uses of the evolutionary discourse in recent literature and films, the study demonstrates how natural science influences the contemporary humanities and how literary conventions are used to make scientific and popular-science texts intelligible and attractive. Charles Darwin’s Looking Glass shows how and why today’s culture gazes upon the myth of Darwin, his theory, and his life in order to find its own reflection.

Table of contents here. Charles Darwin’s Looking Glass is available through Amazon or the publisher’s website.

ARTICLE: Deceived by orchids: sex, science, fiction and Darwin

A new article of interest in the British Journal for the History of Science:

Deceived by orchids: sex, science, fiction and Darwin

Jim Endersby

Abstract Between 1916 and 1927, botanists in several countries independently resolved three problems that had mystified earlier naturalists – including Charles Darwin: how did the many species of orchid that did not produce nectar persuade insects to pollinate them? Why did some orchid flowers seem to mimic insects? And why should a native British orchid suffer ‘attacks’ from a bee? Half a century after Darwin’s death, these three mysteries were shown to be aspects of a phenomenon now known as pseudocopulation, whereby male insects are deceived into attempting to mate with the orchid’s flowers, which mimic female insects; the males then carry the flower’s pollen with them when they move on to try the next deceptive orchid. Early twentieth-century botanists were able to see what their predecessors had not because orchids (along with other plants) had undergone an imaginative re-creation: Darwin’s science was appropriated by popular interpreters of science, including the novelist Grant Allen; then H.G. Wells imagined orchids as killers (inspiring a number of imitators), to produce a genre of orchid stories that reflected significant cultural shifts, not least in the presentation of female sexuality. It was only after these changes that scientists were able to see plants as equipped with agency, actively able to pursue their own, cunning reproductive strategies – and to outwit animals in the process. This paper traces the movement of a set of ideas that were created in a context that was recognizably scientific; they then became popular non-fiction, then popular fiction, and then inspired a new science, which in turn inspired a new generation of fiction writers. Long after clear barriers between elite and popular science had supposedly been established in the early twentieth century, they remained porous because a variety of imaginative writers kept destabilizing them. The fluidity of the boundaries between makers, interpreters and publics of scientific knowledge was a highly productive one; it helped biology become a vital part of public culture in the twentieth century and beyond.

BOOK: Complexity: The Evolution of Earth’s Biodiversity and the Future of Humanity

This new book might be of interest to this blog’s readers:


William C. Burger, Complexity: The Evolution of Earth’s Biodiversity and the Future of Humanity (Amherst, NY: Prometheous Books, 2016), 380 pp.

Publisher’s description Tracing the arc of evolutionary history, biologist William C. Burger shows that cooperation and symbiosis have played a critical role in the ever increasing complexity of life on earth. Life may have started from the evolution of cooperating organic molecules, which outpaced their noncooperating neighbors. A prime example of symbiosis was the early incorporation of mitochondria into the eukaryotic cell (through a process called “endosymbiosis”). This event gave these cells a powerful new source of energy. Later, cooperation was again key when millions to trillions of individual eukaryotic cells eventually came together to build the unitary structures of large plants and animals. And cooperation between individuals of the same species resulted in complex animal societies, such as ant colonies and bee hives. Turning to our own species, the author argues that our ability to cooperate, along with incessant inter-group conflict, has driven the advancement of cultures, the elaboration of our technologies, and made us the most “invasive” species on the planet. But our very success has now become a huge problem, as our world dominion threatens the future of the biosphere and confronts us with a very uncertain future. Thought-provoking and full of fascinating detail, this eloquently told story of life on earth and our place within it presents a grand perspective and raises many important questions.