BOOK: Naturalists in Paradise: Wallace, Bates and Spruce in the Amazon

Some of my readers may be interested in this new book:

Book Cover

John Hemming, Naturalists in Paradise: Wallace, Bates and Spruce in the Amazon (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2014), 368 pp.

Its author John Hemming, a former Director of the Royal Geographical Society in London, sent along this description:

It was an extraordinary coincidence that three young naturalists, who were destined to be the foremost British scientists in South America throughout the nineteenth century, went to Brazil together in 1848/49. Alfred Russel Wallace, Henry Bates and Richard Spruce had much in common. Each came from a modest provincial English family, each left school at thirteen or fourteen, each was self-taught to a remarkable standard, and each became a passionate and skilled naturalist. Although they decided to collect in different parts of the vast Amazon basin, they each spent many years there: Wallace four years followed by eight in South-east Asia; Bates eleven years; Spruce fifteen years (half of them in the western Amazon and Andes). They had many adventures; each explored and mapped a river; they did pioneering ethnographic work on rarely visited indigenous peoples and their rock art; they were in the forests and rivers every day; but they never hyped up dangers of the tropical forests which they described as a naturalist’s paradise. These were true explorers, too modest to realize how tough they were, and largely disinterested in their prodigious scientific research.

Wallace lost many of his collections on the shipwreck during his return voyage. But his years in Brazil taught him the skills and passions of collecting, preparing specimens, taxonomy, rainforest ecology, and how to operate in tropical rivers and forests. He started to develop theories of animal behaviour, species distribution, biogeography and evolution that led to his later successes in the Wallace Line and the paper on evolution by natural selection that he sent to Darwin in 1858 – although he never claimed primacy for the momentous theory. Bates collected almost 15,000 species, of which some 8,000 were new to science. He discovered Batesian Mimicry whereby innocuous creatures survive predation by mimicking inedible ones. Darwin was delighted that Bates – whose eleven years of fieldwork were unrivalled – immediately espoused his views on evolution. Darwin became a mentor to the young scientist, encouraging him to write his highly successful The Naturalist on the River Amazons, recommending him as the first paid chief executive of the Royal Geographical Society – a job that Bates did brilliantly for three decades – and maintaining a lifelong correspondence and friendship. Spruce, a consummate botanist, identified scores of genera and species, ranging from rainforest giants to tiny mosses and liverworts, and did pioneering work on hallucinogenic plants. Spruce’s herbarium collections are venerated in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and some of his botanical publications are still valid to this day. He was asked to try to get seeds and saplings of the species of Cinchona whose bark has the malaria-palliative quinine from the Andes for replanting in India. After two years of meticulous work, Spruce succeeded in this difficult and delicate task that would have defeated any other botanist. Richard Evans Schultes of Harvard, the finest Amazonian botanist of the twentieth century, wrote that Spruce was ‘undoubtedly one of the greatest explorers of all times’. The three subjects of this book Naturalists in Paradise each earned accolades, medals, and fame that dramatically belied their primary-school education and humble origins.

My first perusal of Hemming’s book shows a detailed narrative, handy reference maps of areas of the Amazon the naturalists worked in, and quality color photos throughout.

HMS Beagle to set sail for LEGO – only with your help!

Luis Peña has designed a LEGO set for HMS Beagle, complete with Charles Darwin and Captain Fitzroy minifigs, among others. He posted it to the LEGO Ideas website, in which set suggestions receive support and if they reach 10,000 supporters within a year of being posted, LEGO will consider making the set a reality.

I supported this set, and hope you will too. It’s necessary to create an account on the site in order to cast your support, but it’s quick and easy, and worth it, don’t you think?

Here are some images from Luis:

BOOK: Four Revolutions in the Earth Sciences: From Heresy to Truth

A new book of interest:

James Lawrence Powell, Four Revolutions in the Earth Sciences: From Heresy to Truth (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), 384 pp.

Publisher’s description Over the course of the twentieth century, scientists came to accept four counterintuitive yet fundamental facts about the Earth: deep time, continental drift, meteorite impact, and global warming. When first suggested, each proposition violated scientific orthodoxy and was quickly denounced as scientific–and sometimes religious–heresy. Nevertheless, after decades of rejection, scientists came to accept each theory. The stories behind these four discoveries reflect more than the fascinating push and pull of scientific work. They reveal the provocative nature of science and how it raises profound and sometimes uncomfortable truths as it advances. For example, counter to common sense, the Earth and the solar system are older than all of human existence; the interactions among the moving plates and the continents they carry account for nearly all of the Earth’s surface features; and nearly every important feature of our solar system results from the chance collision of objects in space. Most surprising of all, we humans have altered the climate of an entire planet and now threaten the future of civilization. This absorbing scientific history is the only book to describe the evolution of these four ideas from heresy to truth, showing how science works in practice and how it inevitably corrects the mistakes of its practitioners. Scientists can be wrong, but they do not stay wrong. In the process, astonishing ideas are born, tested, and over time take root.

BOOK: The Labyrinth: God, Darwin, and the Meaning of Life

A new book of interest:

Philip Appleman, The Labyrinth: God, Darwin, and the Meaning of Life (New York: Quantuck Lane Press, 2014), 72 pp.

Publisher’s description Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? Philip Appleman sagely and eloquently addresses the questions that humans have pondered for ages, putting them in the illuminating context of our evolutionary development and cultural history. Twenty-first century thinkers reflecting on the long and horrendous history of religious wars and atrocities, are no longer willing to pay the traditional deference to religious authority, preferring instead to seek inside their own lives, thoughts, and actions for the “meaning of life.” Science, especially Darwinian biology, has been helpful to moralists in many ways, and has been the source of some of our firmest social understandings.

“CW Prepping Charles Darwin Drama,” perfect opportunity for a Darwin facepalm

From The Hollywood Reporter:

CW Prepping Charles Darwin Drama, CBS Readying Gothic Horror Show

Hot writer Adam Karp is prepping two big-swing dramas for The CW and CBS. First, Karp — who won the 2012 Humanitas Prize’s New Voices Award — is readying Unnatural Selection, a drama set to explore Charles Darwin and Captain Robert FitzRoy’s journey through the Amazon.

The CW has handed out a script commitment for the drama that focuses on a 21-year-old Darwin, and his childhood friend Capt. Fitzroy’s journey through the Amazon to return the woman they both love to her native home. During the journey, they encounter a land ripe with political conflict, mysterious creatures, mythical cities and dangerous foes beyond their wildest imagination. The drama is based on Darwin and FitzRoy’s five-year voyage on the HMS Beagle, which established the former ahead of his Origin of the Species.

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BOOK: Darwin-Inspired Learning

A new book of interest, and not just because a friend of mine has a chapter in it (Karen James):

Carolyn J. Boulter, Michael J. Reiss, and Dawn L. Sanders, eds. Darwin-Inspired Learning (Boston, MA: Sense Publishers, 2014), 450 pp.

Publisher’s description Charles Darwin has been extensively analysed and written about as a scientist, Victorian, father and husband. However, this is the first book to present a carefully thought out pedagogical approach to learning that is centered on Darwin’s life and scientific practice. The ways in which Darwin developed his scientific ideas, and their far reaching effects, continue to challenge and provoke contemporary teachers and learners, inspiring them to consider both how scientists work and how individual humans ‘read nature’. Darwin-inspired learning, as proposed in this international collection of essays, is an enquiry-based pedagogy, that takes the professional practice of Charles Darwin as its source. Without seeking to idealise the man, Darwin-inspired learning places importance on: • active learning • hands-on enquiry • critical thinking • creativity • argumentation • interdisciplinarity. In an increasingly urbanised world, first-hand observations of living plants and animals are becoming rarer. Indeed, some commentators suggest that such encounters are under threat and children are living in a time of ‘nature-deficit’. Darwin-inspired learning, with its focus on close observation and hands-on enquiry, seeks to re-engage children and young people with the living world through critical and creative thinking modeled on Darwin’s life and science.

The publisher has made freely available the introduction and first two chapters, here.