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


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.



BOOK: Buckets from an English Sea: 1832 and the Making of Charles Darwin

Here’s a new Darwin title that takes a very focused view on his life, just a single year…


Louis B. Rosenblatt, Buckets from an English Sea: 1832 and the Making of Charles Darwin (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 216 pp.

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Publisher’s description Darwin did not discover evolution. He didn’t trip over it on the way to somewhere else the way Columbus discovered the New World. Like the atom, planetary orbits, and so many other scientific constructs, evolution was invented in order to explain striking phenomena. And it has been most successful. A century and a half has not simply confirmed Darwin’s work, it has linked evolution to the mechanisms of life on the molecular scale. It is what life does. Where Darwin had drawn his theories from forest and field, we now set them in the coiling and uncoiling of twists of DNA, linking where they might, with a host of molecular bits and pieces scurrying about. Darwin, himself, however, has been a closed story. A century and a half of study of the man and his work, including close readings of his books, his notebooks and letters, and even the books he read, has led to a working appreciation of his genius. The ‘success’ of this account has, however, kept us from seeing several important issues: most notably, why did he pursue evolution in the first place? Buckets from an English Sea offers a new view of what inspired Darwin and provoked his work. Stunning events early in the voyage of the Beagle challenged his deeply held conviction that people are innately good. This study of 1832 highlights the resources available to the young Darwin as he worked to secure humanity’s innate goodness.

BOOK: Charles Darwin’s Around the World Adventure

I always love a new children’s book about Darwin. This new one following Darwin on the HMS Beagle voyage and his land excursions is no exception.

Charles Darwin_Thermes (1).jpg

Jennifer Thermes, Charles Darwin’s Around the World Adventure (New York: Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2016), 48 pp.

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Publisher’s description In 1831, Charles Darwin embarked on his first voyage. Though he was a scientist by profession, he was an explorer at heart. While journeying around South America for the first time aboard a ninety-foot-long ship named the Beagle, Charles collected insets, dug up bones, galloped with gauchos, encountered volcanoes and earthquakes, and even ate armadillo for breakfast! The discoveries he made during this adventure would later inspire ideas that changed how we see the world. Complete with mesmerizing map work that charts Darwin’s thrilling five-year voyage, as well as “Fun Facts” and more, Charles Darwin’s Around-the-World Adventure captures the beauty and mystery of nature with wide-eyed wonder.

This book show beautifully the extent to which Darwin traveled, and the maps are detailed and charming. I can imagine the idea of traveling around the world for years could be a difficult thing for young kids to get their minds around – Jennifer Thermes provides a fun and informative account.

Enjoy these images from Charles Darwin’s Around the World Adventure:

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

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


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

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

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

ARTICLE: Darwin the geologist in southern South America

New in Earth Sciences History:

Darwin the geologist in southern South America

Robert H. Dott, Jr. and Ian W. D. Dalziel

Abstract Charles Darwin was a reputable geologist before he achieved biological fame. Most of his geological research was accomplished in southern South America during the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle (1831–1836). Afterward he published four books and several articles about geology and coral atolls and became active in the Geological Society of London. We have followed Darwin’s footsteps during our own researches and have been very impressed with his keen observations and inferences. He made some mistakes, however, such as appealing to iceberg rafting to explain erratic boulders and to inundations of the sea to carve valleys. Darwin prepared an important hand-colored geological map of southern South America, which for unknown reasons he did not publish. The distributions of seven map units are shown. These were described in his books wherein he also documented multiple elevated marine terraces on both coasts of South America. While exploring the Andean Cordillera in central Chile and Argentina, he discovered two fossil forests. Darwin developed a tectonic theory involving vertical uplift of the entire continent, which was greatest in the Andes where magma leaked up from a hypothetical subterranean sea of magma to form volcanoes and earthquakes. The theory had little impact and was soon eclipsed by theories involving lateral compression of strata. His and other contemporary theories suffered from a lack of knowledge about the earth’s interior. Finally with modern plate tectonic theory involving intense lateral compression across the Andean Cordillera we can explain satisfactorily the geology so carefully documented by Darwin.

BOOK REVIEW: Tiny Thinkers: Charlie and the Tortoise

The first title in a new book series for kids called Tiny Thinkers – where real life scientists are depicted as kids – is about Charles Darwin.


In Tiny Thinkers: Charlie and the Tortoise (Garland, TX: Secular Media Group, 2015, 40 pp.), written by M.J. Mouton and illustrated by Jezreel S. Cuevas, a Beagle named Hitch (perhaps a reference to atheist Christoper Hitchens, given the name of the publisher) accompanies a young Darwin on his famous voyage around the world. They land in the Galapagos Islands, and Darwin of course loves all the plants and animals there are to study. The illustrations are cute and the text given in rhyming form.

Charlie and the Tortoise unfortunately continues the notion that Darwin recognized a group of birds with varying beak sizes and shapes and eating habits as all different species of finches. He did not know they were all finches until an ornithologist in London examined specimens following the Beagle‘s return. Also, another group of birds were more instrumental in his thinking about variation and adaptation, the archipelago’s mockingbirds. Scientific myths remain hard to abandon. (See Frank Sulloway’s 1982 paper on Darwin’s finches and this essay from John van Wyhe.) As an historian of science, such details are important. I am not sure if this new book series has any history consultants. If not, they should. Not only should science books for kids get the science right, they should get the history right, too. I do give credit to the author, however, for not writing that Darwin had a Eureka moment about evolution on the Galapagos – that’s what usually follows his apparent observation of the different species of finches.