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.

BOOK REVIEW: The Not-So-Intelligent Designer


Every time I see the above image passed around on Facebook, I chuckle. But the other day I wondered just where young-earth creationist and Creation Museum founder Ken Ham said or wrote these words. A Google search for “The eye is a perfect design by a perfect creator” results in a single entry: this same image on someone’s Google+ page. So I don’t know where the quote comes from, and it seems to me to have been fabricated. Which is, as it is with creationists messing with the words of supporters of evolution (“quote-mining”), dishonest. The sentiment, however, makes a point: creationists insist on things having been designed by God or the intelligent designer, yet the human body is full of absolutely ridiculous design (disregard the easy way out: the entry of sin into the world is what has caused anatomical changes which mimic poor design – that’s simply throwing science out the door). Whether Ham said those words trapped between the quote marks or not, the many anatomical problems with the human body speak to it being a product of evolution.

And that topic is marvelously laid out by zoologist and human anatomy and physiology professor Abby Hafer in a new book:

Abby Hafer, The Not-So-Intelligent Designer: Why Evolution Explains the Human Body and Intelligent Design Does Not (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2015), 244 pp.

Publisher’s description: Why do men’s testicles hang outside the body? Why does our appendix sometimes explode and kill us? And who does the Designer like better, anyway-us or squid? These and other questions are addressed in The Not-So-Intelligent Designer: Why Evolution Explains the Human Body and Intelligent Design Does Not. Dr. Abby Hafer argues that the human body has many faulty design features that would never have been the choice of an intelligent creator. She also points out that there are other animals that got better body parts, which makes the Designer look a bit strange; discusses the history and politics of Intelligent Design and creationism; reveals animals that shouldn’t exist according to Intelligent Design; and disposes of the idea of irreducible complexity. Her points are illustrated with pictures, wit, and erudition.

Beyond the straight-to-the-point examination of human anatomical issues in light of intelligent design (such as the birth canal in women, human teeth, and, of course, the human eye), The Not-So-Intelligent Designer also provides thoughts about intelligent design as a whole – its origins, lack of progress, and continued efforts to push forward an ideological agenda by combating a scientific theory. Hafer’s writing is light-hearted, humorous, and full of common sense. I am enjoying reading through the book at night before bed.

BOOK REVIEW: Darwin on Evolution: Words of Wisdom from the Father of Evolution

I have long wondered if someone would put together a book of Darwin quotations. Given the volume of resources out there on Darwin, published and online, I figured that such a collection would be similar to the wonderful The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, compiled and edited by an Einstein expert (who worked on the Collected Papers of Albert Einstein), with sources for the quotes. Would Cambridge University Press, which has put out more than 20 volumes of Darwin’s correspondence, put together a Quotable Darwin? Or perhaps historian of science John van Wyhe, with so much Darwin material at his fingertips with Darwin Online?

No such luck, yet. Until then, our only offering is from a publisher that also put out quotation books on Jack London, John D. Rockefeller, Machiavelli, Mark Twain, and Abraham Lincoln.

When I first learned of Darwin on Evolution: Words of Wisdom from the Father of Evolution (New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2015, 144 pp.), my hopes were not set high upon seeing the quote given on the book’s cover: “It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change.” As has been noted by the Darwin Correspondence Project, among others, these words (or variations of them) do not come from Darwin at all (see: Six things Darwin never said – and one he did). And then, in the publisher’s description of the book on the inside of the dust jacket, there is “In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” And, “Intelligence is based on how efficient a species became at doing the things they need to survive.” Neither of these are from Darwin, either.

The contents of the book – at least that portion I read until I decided to not continue – include other non-Darwin quotes as well:

It is difficult to believe in the dreadful but quiet war lurking just below the serene facade of nature. – no source found, but not Darwin

Whilst Man, however well-behaved, at best is but a monkey shaved! – W.S. Gilbert (1884)

We stopped looking for monsters under our bed when we realized that they were inside us. – Jordyn Berner (poet)

While including quotes not from Darwin’s own pen make this collection problematic, it’s organization does injustice to the collection as well. Quotes are included from Darwin’s most well-known books and correspondence. But whether or not a particular quote is given its reference seems to have been completely at random. About half the quotes have a reference, while others have none despite being from the same works as others that are referenced. There is redundancy as well – one quote is even listed three times! Considering that all this was evident from my reading just the first third of the collection, I decided it was not worth my time to give the book a full reading. Surely no one put in the time to edit a worthy collection of quotes.

BOOK REVIEW, GUEST POST & GIVEAWAY: Ancient Earth Journal: The Early Cretaceous

Displaying AEJ_EC_banner-540x200_1.jpg

Artist Juan Carlos Alonso’s new book Ancient Earth Journal: The Early Cretaceous (Lake Forest, CA: Walter Foster Jr., 2015, 112 pp.), co-authored with paleoartist Gregory S. Paul, is unlike any dinosaur book for young readers I’ve seen.

It combines two things I really love: learning about dinosaurs and natural history illustration. Alonso introduces the reader to dinosaurs and other creatures from a 44 million year slice of Earth’s history. This is a welcome focus for a dinosaur book, since nearly every dinosaur book attempts to cover the whole period of dinosaur history, excluding bird evolution to the present (165 million years).


This slim approach allows the book to cover a more diverse group of creatures than would otherwise be possible, with new species names to learn. And the depiction of these dinosaurs, praised by paleontologists, is done in a nature journal fashion, as if the artist is encountering them as wildlife on a nature trip. This helps to see these animals as actual, living entities, and Alonso treats us to full size illustrations as well as close up examinations of interesting anatomy. The journal is organized by different dinosaur groups (Theropods, Sauropods, Ornithiscians, Pterosaurs, and First Birds), and an introduction nicely places this wildlife in context of Earth’s geologic history and discusses what kind of plants coexisted with dinosaurs of the Early Cretaceous.

Alonso was kind enough to write a guest post for The Dispersal of Darwin (for the book’s blog tour), which I share here:

As a child I was obsessed with dinosaurs. Their size, ferocity and the fact that they’re extinct all played into their mystique. They presented more questions than answers. Back then, they were much stranger than how they are viewed now. Dinosaurs were seen as massive lumbering monsters, angrily snapping at anything within their reach. Scientists believed that the very largest were too large to support their own bodies, so they were relegated to living in the water. Everything about them seemed unnatural. They were slow, dumb and doomed to be extinct – they were an evolutionary dead end. As a matter of fact, the very word dinosaur is synonymous with outdated or extinct. Movies, books and toys also did a pretty good job of confusing our perception of prehistory as well. It seemed every movie I ever watched as a child had all prehistoric beasts like Tyrannosaurus, Brontosaurus, saber-toothed tiger and sometimes man coexisting in one chaotic time period. The truth is much more interesting and complex.

For being called a “dead end” it turns out dinosaurs were around for a long time –165 million years to be precise. If you consider our species (Homo sapiens) has been around for about 200 thousand years that was a pretty successful run. As a matter of fact, there is a greater time span between Brontosaurus and Tyrannosaurus rex (83 million years) than there is between the last Tyrannosaurus and humans (65 million years). We now know that some modern birds are the descendants of the theropod dinosaurs, so they haven’t even become extinct.

As time passed, the strange unreal monsters that I knew as a child became as extinct as the dinosaurs themselves. Dinosaurs are, and always were animals. Animals that, like any today, ate, bred and fought to stay alive to ensure the species and bloodline would continue. The mystique I knew as a child was replaced by scientific curiosity as these “monsters” became even more intriguing to me. For me prehistoric life represents a perfect amalgamation of science, fantasy and art. All three work in unison to recreate wildlife long extinct using fact, research and some speculation based on living animals to fill in the gaps.

Seven years ago I became a father. I began to re-experience childhood wonder and curiosity through the eyes of my daughter as she grew older. It brought me back to my own childhood and inspired me to write Ancient Earth Journal: The Early Cretaceous. I set out to create drawings that represented an artist’s first-hand account of studying extinct animals through a naturalist’s notebook. Much like John James Audubon, documenting bird species from previously undiscovered lands. The intent was not only to bring these animals back to life, but also to capture a snapshot of life in a 38 million year window called the Early Cretaceous. By dedicating the book to half of one period of the Mesozoic, I was able to look closely at some species rarely featured in other books and illustrate details and features that make each unique. These are the types of books that sparked my interest in both science and art as a child and it is my goal to share my interest with children.

Ultimately, I hope to write and illustrate more books in the series, each dedicated to a specific time period. This will give perspective on how some species evolved into others and illustrate Earth’s rich history of past wildlife and how our animals came to be.

The next stop on the blog tour, on August 31, is at The Children’s Book Review. And the publisher has a neat little video about the book here. I am delighted to learn that Alonso plans to continue Ancient Earth Journal books for other time periods. My interest in dinosaurs started when I was 15 and led me to a broader interest in the history of science and Darwin and evolution. And now, the giveaway!

The giveaway:

To enter for a chance to win a signed copy of Ancient Earth Journal: The Early Cretaceous (courtesy of the publisher), please comment on this post telling me what your favorite prehistoric animal is or about an interesting museum experience dealing with paleontology. Giveaway open to residents of US or Canada only. From the entries I will randomly pick a winner. The contest will be open until Friday, September 4, midnight PST. If you would like to enter without commenting on the blog, you can send me an email at darwinsbulldog AT gmail DOT com. Good luck!

BOOK REVIEW: The Story of Life: A First Book about Evolution

Kid’s books about evolution are not in short supply. However, some are better than others, such as Catherine Barr and Steve Williams’ new book The Story of Life: A First Book about Evolution (London: Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, 2015, 40 pp.).

story of life by Catherine Barr

Geared toward younger elementary students, The Story of Life takes readers from a lifeless Earth billions of years ago to the present planet full of life, noting that humans are taking a toll on the rest of the Earth’s biological diversity. This story is told through the use of easy-to-understand language, whimsical illustrations by Amy Husband, and a little humor with animal quote bubbles (they have important information to share, too!).

Readers will learn, through text and art, about the possible origin of life, the first animals, habitats, how animal life moved onto land, extinction, the rise of the dinosaurs, natural selection, the evolution of flowers, the rise of mammals, and the evolution of humans from primate ancestors in Africa and further migration across the globe. That’s a lot of evolution to cover in 40 pages, but the authors (both with backgrounds in biology) do so in a simple, accessible manner that children and their fellow adult readers will enjoy. A glossary of terms is included at the end, and each page includes a bar at the bottom left showing when in time the events are happening. The book also had a scientific consultant from the Natural History Museum in London to check for accuracy.

I’ll be requesting that my local library order this book!

And the authors have a Facebook page for the book, too.

BOOK REVIEW: Prehistoric Predators & thoughts about Jurassic World

Last weekend my nine-year-old son and I went to the movies and saw Jurassic World, the fourth film in the Jurassic Park series (but really, a direct sequel to the original film). I was fifteen when I saw Jurassic Park in 1993, and became dino-obsessed. I devoured books and articles about paleontology. Reading about dinosaurs led to reading about evolution in general, and then to Darwin (and the rest is history, as they say). So while my son has seen the other films, I was excited to take him to see this new offering on the big screen. We loved it! The film was exactly what big movie theaters are for: suspenseful action in imagined worlds.


We enjoyed the film immensely despite its major drawback. As many paleontologists have shared since the movie’s trailers started appearing, Jurassic World does not do what Jurassic Park did in 1993: to share with the public the latest vision of what dinosaurs looked like (click here for a bunch of links to posts/articles from paleontologists on JW). In the twenty years since, a lot has changed; most notably, that many dinosaurs had feathers or feather-like structures. Not in Jurassic World. Even some representations of dinosaurs in the new film ignore how the other films got it right (the posture of Stegosaurus, for example). The new film also does not introduce film-goers to the wide variety of new species discovered in the last couple of decades, instead sticking with the familiar: Tyrannosaurus rex, Apatosaurus, Triceratops, and Velociraptor.

The amazing David Orr and I worked together on this comic (check out his site for more great paleo design). As the owner of two feisty parrots, I feel like feathered raptors are just as exciting as those scaly ones we grew up with.

We are introduced to a new dinosaur, however. Not a real species that paleontologists have found the bones of, but a genetically-engineered monstrosity that comprises the DNA of several dinosaurs and other critters. The carnivorous and unstoppable Indominus rex is the film’s antagonist. While her presence on screen is exciting, it’s disappointing that the film’s creators felt the need to invent a new dinosaur – “probably not a good idea” – when the annals of paleontology are full of awesome theropods that could have been amazing on-screen additions to the story.

I hope the new film will inspire a new generation of dinosaur fans, and that many of these young paleontologists will seek out reading material to satiate their curiosity, and in the process, learn a little about what dinosaurs really looked like and how they behaved. For those interested in carnivorous dinosaurs (theropods), I recommend a new book by dinosaur writer Brian Switek and beautifully illustrated by paleoartist Julius Csotonyi. In Prehistoric Predators (Kennebunkport, ME: Cider Mill Press, 2015, 104 pp.), Switek profiles and Csotonyi brings to life over 40 dinosaurs and other animals from the past that dined on the flesh of other creatures. Old favorites are here, such as Allosaurus, but the book offers a look at a variety of lesser-known or more recently discovered species, including many with feathers or feather-like structures and some flying reptiles. There is Cryolophosaurus, the Antarctic theropod with an Elvis-like head crest, and the early tyrannosaur Guanlong. Ever heard of Eocarcharia? How about Deltadromeus? Why create a fictional dinosaur when nature had so many to choose from?

The profiles are arranged chronologically, starting with the Permian Period (and thus predators that pre-date dinosaurs) and into the Mesozoic Era and its trio of periods, Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous, as well some marine reptiles and land mammals in the Cenozoic. The book lacks, however, some of the diversity of marine reptiles during the age of dinosaurs (there are no species of mosasaur or plesiosaur, for example). But for each entry, nothing is better than Csotonyi’s realistic renderings full of color, behavior, and feathers. The book also features a textured cover, with the sensation of touching dinosaur skin. The Jurassic Park series will never likely yield dinosaur depictions with feathers, but let’s hope in the near future that a studio green lights a dinosaur film that will. For now, enjoy Jurassic World for what it is, a science fiction movie, and check out some books, like Prehistoric Predators, and visit a local natural history museum, to learn more about the actual science.

Want more dinosaurs? The publisher of Prehistoric Predators has another book worth checking out. The whole dinosaur kingdom is featured in Discovering Dinosaurs (2014), by Bob Walters and Tess Kissinger. More encyclopedic, this volume is chock full of dino diversity. Great information and great art from a classic dinosaur artist.

BOOK REVIEW: Darwin’s Wild Pursuits Around Downe

Ewa Prokop, Darwin’s Wild Pursuits Around Downe (Nottingham, UK: JMD Media Ltd., 2014), 64 pp. Illustrated by Diana Catchpole.

Ewa Prokop, who previously published a book about her time studying the English landscapes that Darwin was very close to (in Shropshire for his youth and in Downe for married life until his death), has written a book for children that uses Darwin’s studies of flora and fauna around the village of Downe as a means to teach about evolution by natural selection. In Darwin’s Wild Pursuits Around Downe, she does this through fourteen short stories placing Darwin in conversation with various wildlife in the countryside surrounding his home of four decades, Down House. For an article on a UK website, Prokop said, “People often focus on the exotic species Darwin discovered when on his Beagle voyage, but I wanted to highlight the amazing range of wildlife that could, and can still, be found in south-east England in an area Darwin knew well and studied intensively.” Prokop dedicated this new book “To those who strive to teach children about British wildlife.” Many current advocates for connecting children to nature stress that children should learn more about the animals that live where they live, part of their home. Naturalist Robert Michael Pyle is known for asking, “What is the extinction of a condor to a child who has never seen a wren?”

Illustrations of a wren and her nest and a curious boy by Diana Catchpole

Coincidentally, one of the fourteen animals that converse with Darwin is a wren. In “Darwin & the Wren,” we find the naturalist exploring in a meadow behind Down House. He ponders the opening and closing of leaflets of plants in response to the intensity of the sun, and references research by Batalin (such observations are noted in Darwin’s 1880 book, The Power of Movement in Plants, where he cites the Russian plant physiologist Alexander Theodorowicz Batalin). Then, seeing from where a wren flew out of some bushes, he peeks in to discover its nest, with three eggs. The words exchanged between Darwin and the wren concern his interest in her colors and ability to camouflage and her distress over his having made her nest of notice to possible egg thieves. Darwin later brings a young boy to see the nest, much to the wren’s dismay, and he learns a lesson from the mother bird: not to collect her eggs!

What I like about this story with the wren is that it brings in actual observations Darwin made in Downe, and like he was with his own children, it shows how Darwin instilled a sense of wonder in nature with youth around him. Through all the stories, we see Darwin himself change, from a balding yet non-bearded younger man (and young father) to the sage of Down House, the classic image of Darwin as an old, wise, and classically Victorian-bearded gentleman. Yet in all the stories, he remains curious and active, constantly asking questions and exploring around his village. His observations and experiments discussed in these stories all matter in some sense to his larger project: evolution by natural selection. They show his thinking process concerning topics as varied as:

– cross-pollination in plants; a fox named Vulpes discusses with Darwin the forms of primroses and cowslips (The Different Forms of Flowers on Plants of the Same Species, 1877)

Illustration from <i>Darwin's Wild Pursuits Around Downe</i> by Diana Catchpole

Illustration of an inquisitive fox by Diana Catchpole

– struggle for existence; a field mouse informs Darwin how the existence of predatory mammals such as cats, via a food chain through field mice and bumble bees, might determine the growth of red clover (On the Origin of Species, 1859, chapter 3)

Illustration of Darwin and a field mouse by Diana Catchpole

– adaptation; a lizard named Lacerta discusses with Darwin the insectivorous sundew plant Drosera, showing how environmental conditions can lead to new adaptations in organisms (Insectivorous Plants, 1875)

Illustration of Darwin studying Drosera by Diana Catchpole

– and geographical distribution; a duck named Anas helps Darwin to understand how organisms can carry seeds and assist in propagating other species in new areas (On the Origin of Species, 1859, chapter 7)

Illustration of Darwin and a duck by Diana Catchpole

Ten more talkative animals (including the wren, and many named by their genus name) and ten more topics of import to Darwin’s life-long pursuit of understanding the origin of new species (all based on actual observations and experiments conducted by Darwin), along with Diana Catchpole’s charming illustrations, make up the rest of Darwin’s Wild Pursuits Around Downe. There is a lot to like about this little book, from the presentation of Darwin as a naturalist and mentor to youth and details of his research, to the likeable countryside critters and importance placed on exploring in local nature.

Prokop wrote Darwin’s Wild Pursuits Around Downe for children ages 9-11, and has provided much more material on her website Mad About Charles Darwin about the stories and resources for teachers (in the UK specifically, but I don’t see why teachers elsewhere couldn’t benefit from her efforts to teach more kids about nature and Charles Darwin). Facts regarding each story – when it takes place, Darwin’s actual research, etc. – are shared in The Truth Behind the Fiction (PDF), and evolution curriculum resources for teachers are listed by story here.

BOOK REVIEW: The Galapagos: A Natural History

This would be no surprise to anyone: I hope to visit the Galapagos someday. It won’t happen in the near future, so for now I’ll settle for reading books about the famous islands, and get jealous of my uncle-in-law who recently posted photos from his travels in South America to his Facebook page, including the Galapagos. He did bring me back this t-shirt, however! 10359073_10154320780050249_1253261699024635731_o I mentioned reading books about the Galapagos, and I recently finished a new one: The Galapagos: A Natural History by science journalist Henry Nicholls (who previously wrote Lonesome George: The Life and Loves of a Conservation Icon). It’s not a very long book – the reading pages (minus acknowledgments and an appendix) come in at just 144 pages – yet Nicholls packs a wealth of information very succinctly in ten chapters that can each be read in short bursts (perfect for a father of young children like me!). So, what does a slim book like The Galapagos: A Natural History give the reader? The answer: a delightful overview of interesting natural history topics that serve as a general introduction of the islands. This is not a field guide, however, and Nicholls does not discuss every species of plant or animal to be found on “The Encantadas” but rather describes what visitors are likely to see or be interested in knowing more about. Also, he peppers these descriptions with history, culture, politics, and economics of the islands to flesh out the context of their natural offerings. He describes scientific observations of the past – much more than Darwin’s five weeks – and present, and the work of the many organizations on the islands which seek to protect and conserve its natural history.

Nicholls begins with two chapters looking at geographical aspects of the islands: their geologic origin and their place in the Pacific Ocean, both of which have much to do with the insular flora and fauna to be found there. He then moves on to oceanic bird species before tackling plants, invertebrates, and land birds (where we learn about the island’s famous finches and perhaps more important mockingbirds). Iguanas of various types and the well-known Galapagos tortoises are discussed in a chapter about reptiles. The final three chapters are devoted to humans – the discovery and history of exploration of the islands; conservation work being done there (to counter the environmental destruction laid upon the native plants and animals); the tourism industry; local culture and politics; and more.

The Galapagos: A Natural History is an enjoyable read. For someone with more than a passing interest in the islands, by picking this book up and rereading a chapter here and there, Nicholls will allow me to daydream of visiting the Galapagos.

My friend John Riutta also posted about this book on his website The Well-Read Naturalist.

BOOK REVIEW: Plesiosaur Peril

About a year ago I posted about two children’s books that combine interesting stories, beautiful illustrations, and factual information about dinosaurs and other extinct animals: Ankylosaur Attack and Pterosaur Trouble. Moving on to another group of extinct reptile, Daniel Loxton rounds out this trilogy in the Tales of Prehistoric Life series: Plesiosaur Peril (Tonawanda, NY: Kids Can Press, 2014, 32 pp.).

Plesiosaur Peril

Again combining beautiful digital illustrations with landscape photography (or should I say, seascape photography) by Loxton and Jim W.W. Smith, this book recounts the “day in the life” of a family of ocean-dwelling Cryptoclidus as they evade the hungry jaws of a much larger plesiosaur, Liopleurodon. Young readers will enjoy the action, while parents will appreciate the theme of family bonds. Educators will enjoy the current paleontological information (paleontologist Darren Naish was a consultant, and he posted on his blog a lot of information about plesiosaurs and the process of working on the book), while everyone will enjoy the beautiful rendering of plesiosaurs, ammonites, ichthyosaurs, and belemnites (squid-like creatures). This trilogy is perfect for science-minded kids, and would be great set of books to have on elementary school library shelves.

Spread from Plesiosaur Peril, from Kids Can Press. Art by Daniel Loxton with Jim W.W. Smith. All rights reserved.

Spread from Plesiosaur Peril, from Kids Can Press. Art by Daniel Loxton with Jim W.W. Smith. All rights reserved.

Spread from Plesiosaur Peril, from Kids Can Press. Art by Daniel Loxton with Jim W.W. Smith. All rights reserved.


BOOK REVIEW: Darwin and His Children: His Other Legacy

There is much to take in on Darwin – a constant barrage of books, journal articles, magazine features, blog posts, podcasts, videos on YouTube, etc. It can be a daunting task to keep up with it all and stay current with what historians and writers are discussing about Darwin: his life, his scientific work, and his legacy which permeates many fields beyond those sciences in which he worked. Sometimes new work takes an unexplored avenue, other times rehashing worn territory. A new book by biologist and previous Darwin biographer Tim Berra explores Darwin’s life from a different angle but with largely familiar subject matter. If you’ve read about Darwin at length before, then you likely know that he and his wife Emma had a large family and that Darwin was very involved in raising their children. In Darwin and His Children: His Other Legacy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013; 272 pp.), Berra describes the lives, careers, and achievements of the Darwin children, who, Berra shares, “were devoted to their father and mother, intensely loyal to the family and to each other, and protective of their father’s reputation.”

Darwin and His Children

The book is organized chronologically by their birth years, beginning with a chapter on Darwin’s life and work (a summary, essentially), and a chapter on his marriage to Emma. The following ten chapters cover each child, so there tends to be some repetition of information, but the book is nicely organized. Illness in the family is a thread throughout the chapters, and this was a constant source of anxiety for Darwin (he felt that marriage to his first cousin may have created weakened offspring).

Darwin and Emma’s first son, William (1839-1914), “my little animalcule of a son,” he wrote to Captain Fitzroy, became a subject of infant behavior, and information from this was included in The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). He was a banker, helped Darwin with mathematical calculations in a botanical study, and was an avid amateur photographer. Anne, or Annie (1841-1851), Darwin’s favorite, died young and this tore her father apart. Mary (1842-1842) only lived for 23 days, her cause of death unknown. Henrietta (1843-1927), or Etty, did much to help her father with his work. She assisted in pigeon breeding experiments, corrected proofs for The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication (1868), and edited book manuscripts, including The Descent of Man (1871). She also edited a collection of family letters and biography of Emma. George (1845-1912) was a mathematician and became a world authority on tides. He befriended Lord Kelvin, who disagreed with Darwin on evolution, and defended his father against critique from St. George Jackson Mivart, speaking freely about his views on prayer and other religious matters (as opposed to Darwin’s avoidance of making public his views on religion). Elizabeth (1847-1926), or Bessy, was the Darwins’ eccentric daughter, and was helpful to her mother in household duties and caring for her father during his illnesses, and helped to raise her nephew Bernard. Francis (1848-1925) was an accomplished plant physiologist, was an assistant to his father on plant experiments, helped with his massive daily correspondence, and edited The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin (1887) and, with A.C. Seward, More Letters of Charles Darwin (1903). Leonard (1850-1943) was a military engineer, politician, and economist who is most remembered for his work in eugenics (a term coined by Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton). Berra notes: “The negative eugenics advocated by Leonard is shocking to today’s sensibilities, but it was a product of the times.” Horace (1851-1928), their ninth child, was an intelligent child (Darwin wrote in a letter about Horace’s grasp of natural selection when age 11). He was founder and director of the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company, which succeeded due to World War I, a public servant in a variety of matters, and elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (joining his father and brothers George and Francis). Charles Waring (1856-1858), their tenth and last child, was their third to die in childhood. His funeral allowed Darwin to avoid the joint reading of his and Wallace’s papers on natural selection at the Linnean Society in July 1858.

However enjoyable this book is, I can’t help but point out the many myths about Darwin that continue to remain in popular treatment of the subject (this is not to blame Berra, of course, for it will be some time before corrections to these myths become mainstream). Darwin was not knighted, because “he was much too controversial for Queen Victoria’s taste (but Darwin did not carry out work in service of the British government, for which knighthoods were given). Darwin kept his ideas private, “except to broach them to his closest scientific colleagues” (Berra lists Lyell, Hooker, and Gray, however the list of who Darwin shared with is much longer). However, Berra rightly notes that Darwin was indeed the appointed naturalist on HMS Beagle, and that the common story of the Huxley-Wilberforce debate in 1860 is exaggerated. 

Berra’s sources are already published: Darwin’s Life and Letters volumes, his autobiography, reminiscences from some of the children as well as Darwin’s granddaughter Gwen Raverat. Given this, there are no grand revelations here. This is straightforward narrative history, and here Berra provides a charming, detailed narrative that gives due credit to Darwin’s children, whom he loved and shared in their griefs and successes in life. “Darwin” continued to be a very recognizable name in England, if not for Darwin’s own work, but the achievements of his descendants. An important takeaway from Darwin and His Children is how involved they were, from youth to adulthood in the case of some, with Darwin’s science: as editors, experimentalists, subjects of study, ambassadors (George and Francis traveled to the United States in 1871), and a variety of other roles. Several became respected scientists themselves, not too surprising given the nature-rich atmosphere and encouragement in which they were raised. The Darwins were truly a scientific family. 


Scan book store and library shelves, and you’ll see scores of books for children about scientific topics – space, cool animals, field guides, science experiments, gross science, etc. Yet how many of those books stress the importance of wonder in thinking about science? A new book does just that, and does so beautifully.

I Wonder Cover

Annaka Harris, I Wonder (Four Elephants Press: 2013), 32 pp. Illustrated by John Rowe.

Eva takes a walk with her mother and encounters a range of mysteries: from gravity, to life cycles, to the vastness of the universe. She learns that it’s okay to say “I don’t know,” and she discovers that there are some things even adults don’t know—mysteries for everyone to wonder about together! I Wonder is a book that celebrates the feelings of awe and curiosity in children, as the foundation for all learning.

As a parent, I strive to introduce my children to the natural side of the world they live in. But doing so can sometimes turn into looking at what we know, and if we don’t know something, it feels like we aren’t succeeding. But science would not be a human endeavor if scientists had everything all figured out! The exciting thing is that we don’t know it all, and reading I Wonder helps in recognizing that perhaps most important attribute of living a life that embraces the importance of science: knowing that it is continuous and changing. What I love even more about this book is that in every illustration, Eva and her mother are outside: in the woods, at a beach, in the clouds, and in space (using their imaginations, of course). A first step to instilling an interest in science in a child is to step out the front door. A second step is to read and be read to, and a parent and a child cannot go wrong with getting comfortable under a tree and reading I Wonder together.

BOOK REVIEW: The Big Golden Book of Dinosaurs

I’ve posted before about a some great books about prehistoric creatures. For adults, there’s The Complete Dinosaur and Pterosaurs (reviews here and here). For kids, I reviewed Ankylosaur Attack and Pterosaur Trouble (here). Add to these a new book:

Robert T. Bakker, The Big Golden Book of Dinosaurs (New York, NY: Random House Children’s Books, 2013), 64 pp. Illustrated by Luis Rey.

Dinosaurs. No other creatures are more exciting – or mysterious. Some were as big as tow dozen elephants duct-taped together. Others were as tiny as kittens. Some had jaws so strong they could bite through a school bus. There were even dinosaurs that could fly. Join renowned paleontologist Dr. Robert T. Bakker on a safari through time and watch the evolution of dinosaurs and the animals that lived beside them – including our own distant ancestors! With stops along the way to look at monster bugs, ferocious fin-backs, fluffy dinosaurs, sea monsters, and much more, this is a journey readers will never forget!

Many current paleontologists had as children the 1960 book, Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Reptiles (A Giant Golden Book), by Jane Werner Watson and illustrated by Rudolph Zallinger (whose mural of dinosaurs at the Yale Peabody Museum remains a classic piece of paleo art). But our understanding of the lives of dinosaurs has changed dramatically over the last half-century. So, this new edition is a remake, intended to update young readers on the science of dinosaur paleontology. Luis Rey posted on his blog a comparison of the covers, old and new:


From swamp-dwelling to self-supporting sauropods to feathered theropods, this book covers the entire span of dinosaur time, from the rise of dinosaurs from their reptilian ancestors to their extinction. Toward the end of the book, a very neat tree of life shows where dinosaurs and humans both fit in the evolution of life, stressing that without the demise of dinosaurs, we would not have evolved. Pterosaurs and sea-going reptiles are included, too, as well as a section on the history of the discovery of dinosaurs and changes in the field over the last two centuries. Bakker’s text is active and appropraite for a younger audience, and Luis Rey’s artwork, a combination of traditional paintings and digital illustration, is vibrant, action-packed, and wonderfully brings to life these exciting and mysterious creatures. I highly recommend The Big Golden Book of Dinosaurs not only for younger readers, but adults as well!

BOOK REVIEW: Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science

Christoph Irmscher, Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013), 448 pp.

There is no lack of books about the nineteenth-century naturalist Louis Agassiz. He had considerable influence in his scientific endeavors (most notably, the creation of Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology). He studied glaciation, fossil fish, and jellyfish. He was a great public speaker. And he is perhaps best known for his anti-evolution stance and views about race. All of this is covered in previous biographies and treatments: Lurie’s Louis Agassiz: A Life in Science (1960), Winsor’s Reading the Shape of Nature: Comparative Zoology at the Agassiz Museum (1991), and Menand’s The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America (2001). So why the need for a new biography of Agassiz? Paleontologist Kevin Padian wrote a review of Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science for Nature in which he basically stated that there was no need for Irmscher to pen a new biography, for those others mentioned above give “a fuller perspective of the man and his influence.” For me, the book’s audience is perhaps a good reason why. Lurie’s book is over half a century old, and while a standard in the field and useful to historians, it is dated for a popular treatment of Agassiz. Winsor’s book is very specific, and Menand’s, while including much about Agassiz, is not centered on him.

Irmscher’s offering, while being a great introduction to non-historians or others who want a good biography all in one place, also brings to the table interesting aspects of Agassiz’s life. He discusses gender and science issues, regarding the role of Agassiz’s wife Elizabeth in Agassiz’s publications. There are priority disputes and distinctions to be made between professional and amateur, for while Agassiz pursued collaborative science, he was greedy with having only his name attached to publications and research, while students of his would simply do the work. (Irmscher devotes considerable pages to the lives of several of Agassiz’s students/assistants; perhaps to some readers these sections will seem tangential and long-winded, but they allow a window into Agassiz’s thoughts and motivations from those who worked closely with him, as Agassiz himself did not record much in diaries or letters about his own feelings.) We go along with Agassiz on a trip to the Galapagos to examine God’s creation, a final attempt to counter Darwin. We get a fresh perspective on the “racist” Agassiz’s views on race and slavery. And, (my favorite chapter), we are treated to a wonderful examination of science and art through the illustrations made for Agassiz’s publications. Irmscher is not a historian, but a an English professor, and his detailed descriptions and analysis of Agassiz’s doings are a pleasure to read. Toward the beginning of the book I got the impression that Irmscher intended to remove Agassiz from the world of Darwin, but he fails to keep Darwin out of every turn, at many points comparing some aspect of Agassiz’s life or work to that of Darwin’s.

That Agassiz lost the battle (and Darwin won) and had unsettling views on race seems reason enough for Padian that Agassiz as a historical character is not much of interest. But to who? Why should any historical figure be of interest? Padian is presentist in his notions, and we must consider Agassiz in his time. We may consider him racist today, but he fell in line with a lot of Americans at the time, but was perhaps just more publicly vocal about his views. There is no doubt that he had the attention of many, in his personal life, his research, the museum, the scientific community, social circles. Padian writes in his review, “The biologist today who doesn’t read Agassiz misses some great treatments of glaciology, invertebrates and fishes. The biologist who doesn’t read On the Origin of Species knows nothing about how evolution works.”* Should the story of Agassiz be relegated to whether or not it is useful to only biologists? Surely not. But I think biologists, historians, and others with interest in science, nature, or history will find interest in Irmscher’s Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science.

* It is interesting that Padian lacks a sensitivity toward historical interest when reviewing a book about the lesser known creationist Agassiz, but wrote an essay for a facsimile edition of the also lesser known and creation-minded anatomist Richard Owen’s On the Nature of Limbs.

BOOK REVIEW: Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten Our Future

In July 2013, former model and actress Jenny McCarthy was announced as a new cohost of ABC’s daytime talk show, The View. Soon after, geologist and paleontologist Donald Prothero wrote a post for Skeptiblog, an online column from Skeptic magazine, arguing why the decision to give McCarthy – who pushes the notion that child vaccinations cause autism – a public platform is irresponsible – and dangerous In “Lethal nonsense on ‘The View’,” Prothero writes: “McCarthy’s false ideas are more than just another idiot talking head blathering on about stuff they don’t understand on TV. As the leading celebrity spokesperson for the anti-vaxx movement, she is a symbol of this form of virulent anti-science, and everything she says (even if she never speaks a word about anti-vaxx on the show) is colored by that perception.” Then in August Prothero reviewed the latest book about intelligent design from The Discovery Institute, Stephen C. Meyer’s Darwin Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design, and wrote: “Almost every page of this book is riddled by errors of fact or interpretation that could only result from someone writing in a subject way over his head, abetted by the creationist tendency to pluck facts out of context and get their meaning completely backwards. But as one of the few people in the entire creationist movement who has actually taken a few geology classes (but apparently no paleontology classes), he is their “expert” in this area, and is happy to mislead the creationist audience that knows no science at all with his slick but completely false understanding of the subject.”

The common theme here, and similarly with many of Prothero’s pieces for Skeptic, is that the public more often trusts celebrities or non-experts than scientists when it comes to scientific knowledge. McCarthy nor Meyer fully understand their subjects, yet one continues to speak out falsely about vaccines (and in so doing, some parents are not vaccinating their children, and this has unfortunate consequences) and the other publishes a book that many will see on a shelf and mistake for a proper book about science. Not knowing how to tell the difference between science and pseudoscience surely contributes to the general lack of science literacy in the United States, but it also speaks to the influence that politics, religion, fame, and money have on the public understanding of science (just think of The Discovery Channel’s recent show that made countless Americans believe that the giant prehistoric Megalodon shark still swam the seas or earlier in 2013, Animal Planet’s program on the existence of mermaids). Scientific topics which are influenced by nonscientific ideologies are the core of Prothero’s new book.


Donald R. Prothero, Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten Our Future (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013), 392 pp.

The battles over evolution, climate change, childhood vaccinations, and the causes of AIDS, alternative medicine, oil shortages, population growth, and the place of science in our country—all are reaching a fevered pitch. Many people and institutions have exerted enormous efforts to misrepresent or flatly deny demonstrable scientific reality to protect their nonscientific ideology, their power, or their bottom line. To shed light on this darkness, Donald R. Prothero explains the scientific process and why society has come to rely on science not only to provide a better life but also to reach verifiable truths no other method can obtain. He describes how major scientific ideas that are accepted by the entire scientific community (evolution, anthropogenic global warming, vaccination, the HIV cause of AIDS, and others) have been attacked with totally unscientific arguments and methods. Prothero argues that science deniers pose a serious threat to society, as their attempts to subvert the truth have resulted in widespread scientific ignorance, increased risk of global catastrophes, and deaths due to the spread of diseases that could have been prevented.

The value I find in Reality Check is that Prothero brings together important scientific information along with descriptions of the groups of people that deny the scientific evidence for each topic. He counters each groups falsehoods and biases with accurate science, and provides useful resources. In the second chapter, Prothero discusses what science is (noting that it is never “the final truth” and clarifying for the reader what “theory” in science means). But he notes that “science is also a human enterprise.” Mistakes and errors happen; so does fraud. Yet such things get weeded out by the scientific process: “science is checked against an external reality that other scientists can check.” Experiments are checked for accuracy and the process of peer review keeps what is good and throws out that which is bad. Yet, nonscientific ideas persist in the public perception of what constitutes science. “[I]t is often hard to tell who is telling the truth, and who is just a shill for a powerful industry or political faction or religious group,” Prothero writes.

In the following ten chapters, he details the most pervasive scientific topics that some groups of people deny the scientific evidence for: the link between cigarettes and cancer, environmental topics such as acid rain and DDT, climate change, evolution versus creationism, the modern anti-vaccination movement, AID denialism, alternative medicine, astrology, oil and nature resources, and human overpopulation. I won’t go through each of the chapters specifically, for I believe that’s part of the fun of reading Prothero’s book (if it can be “fun,” because much of it is rather a sad state of affairs). I was already very familiar with a couple of the topics (evolution and creationism, DDT) but got a lot out of other chapters (anti-vaccination, climate change) with which I was not very familiar. Prothero applies what Carl Sagan called a “baloney detection kit” to all of the claims made by science deniers, and gives some of the most common examples of ways that scientific information is misrepresented, distorted, and at risk of influence: quote-mining; not having expertise in the topic being discussed; conflicts of interest; not placing the burden of proof on the dissenter; the use of subjective anecdotes over objective data, not understanding that correlation does not imply causation, and using ad hoc explanations. One can find these in all of the cases set out in Reality Check. In others, the public relations strategy to push doubt on the public’s mind that a claim is true or not is often used, such as in the tobacco industry.

I particular liked this sentence: “Scientists are human, they are not perfect, and they can be misled by their own biases and ideologies, but in most cases, the harsh scrutiny of other scientists soon weeds out the bad data and gives us some basis on which to decide whether an idea has merit. Scientists are not immune to cultural forces, but by and large they are not openly ideological, either.” However, perhaps Prothero’s disdain for religious conservatism (which is fine with me, by all means) paints a picture of the history of science that is less accurate than “reality” (or, this speaks to an unfortunate lack of “history of science literacy”). In his second chapter, Prothero rightly notes that “[s]cience and technology have produced the practical benefits of our modern society,” but continues erroneously with “which were held back for the entire Dark Ages while religious dogma held thrall over the human mind.” The lack of inquiry and knowledge through the Dark Ages is a notion not held by historians of science (see myth 2 in Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion, “That the Medieval Christian Church Suppressed the Growth off Science”).

Prothero’s final chapter bring it all together to consider the state of science literacy in the United States, and how the denial of science is dangerous. He notes the increasingly recognized notion that simply pushing more evidence into the faces of deniers is likely to counter the goal of persuading someone that something is true. Showing more evidence of evolution by common descent to a creationist most likely will urge them to hold on to their cherished beliefs. And the media does not help, what Prothero calls the “Science TV Wasteland.” I grew up watching The Discovery Channel and The Learning Channel, and am saddened by what those channels have become. For now, I will stick to watching BBC documentaries for science and nature programming, either online or DVDs from the library, for I don’t have a TV at home (perhaps that’s the key: get rid of your TV!). Prothero then discusses reasons for why a significant portion of the American population can’t or refuse to accept scientific evidence for a wide variety of topics. There’s the influence of politics and ideology, lack of science education, and lack of critical thinking skills. The influence of media, the sorry budgets given to scientific research, and the short attention spans of American youth. Prothero also shows that the acceptance of evolution within a country is “a very strong predictor of overall science literacy.” You have probably seen graphs over the last few years that show the United States very low in a list of countries for either science literacy or acceptance of evolution. We’re always down at the bottom, one up from Turkey. Prothero notes the influence of all those other things above, “but they all miss the elephant in the room… the stultifying influence of creationism in U.S. science education.”

But why is this important? My children are exposed to all manner of science learning (some at school; but mostly through my parental initiative). Should I be concerned about what others’ kids – and their parents – are learning? The obvious answer is Yes. If someone pushes creationism in my son’s school, that affects us. If someone does not vaccinate their kid and sends them to a public school, that might affect us. If children don’t learn the importance of our environment and the effect our consumer lifestyle has on the planet, that will affect us all. So, for all those antievolutionists, anti-vaxxers, and anti-climate change advocates, the science is clear. Stop denying and get a reality check!

If interested, you can listen to Prothero discussing his new book on a podcast with Indiana University Press, here.

BOOK: Island: A Story of the Galápagos

In Redwoods, author and illustrator Jason Chin transported a boy from a big city subway to a redwood forest in California, and imaginations ran wild as a library transformed into an undersea world in Coral Reefs. Now, in his third book, Chin takes the reader on a six million year journey to witness the birth and life of a chain of volcanic islands off the coast of eastern South America.

Island: A Story of the Galápagos (New York: Roaring Brook Press, 2012) is a visual treat for young science and nature enthusiasts (and adults, too!). As an introduction to the geologic history and natural history of the Galápagos, focusing on how the islands were populated by the usual suspects – tortoises, land and marine iguanas, frigates and finches, and boobies and cormorants – Island is factual and compelling. We learn about how landscape and life go together, most importantly for volcanic islands and how they can form and disappear, and then require their inhabitants to seek new islands to call home. The framing of the narrative is storyboard-like, which gives it an active, fast-paced feel. I particularly enjoyed how, to perhaps counter the general conception that people may have when they consider the Galápagos as a place that humans visit and observe wildlife, that the majority of the story takes place before humans. As much as I appreciate children’s books about Darwin, he is a minor character here, and only shows up in an Epilogue, a reminder that life and land on our planet has existed and thrived long before a species evolved that could think about their geological origin and the plants and animals that live on them. Following the narrative, Chin ends with a few pages of more detailed information about Darwin (including a fabulous illustration of a young Darwin), the geology of the islands, and endemic species (those inhabiting only the Galápagos).

Chin’s vivid watercolors instill in me a desire to visit the Galapagos more than any photograph or video footage has:

As with his previous books, Chin has beautifully melded science and story in Island. My son and I enjoyed reading this together immensely. In 2014, Chin will leave Earth and continue his adventures in Gravity.

BOOK REVIEW: Dispelling the Darkness: Voyage in the Malay Archipelago and the Discovery of Evolution by Wallace and Darwin

In the history of science, one of the most famous of tales told is that which explains how Charles Darwin was urged to write and publish On the Origin of Species when he received at Down House a letter from the younger naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, who while a world away collecting butterflies and birds of paradise in the Malay Archipelago, developed the same theory of evolution by natural selection. The story is full of misinformation, however, and historian of science John van Wyhe seeks to provide a factual narrative in a book published during the centennial of Wallace’s death (November 7, 2013).

John van Wyhe, Dispelling the Darkness: Voyage in the Malay Archipelago and the Discovery of Evolution by Wallace and Darwin (Singapore: World Scientific, 2013).

Darwin is one of the most famous scientists in history. But he was not alone. Comparatively forgotten, Wallace independently discovered evolution by natural selection in Southeast Asia. This book is based on the most thorough research ever conducted on Wallace’s voyage. Closely connected, but worlds apart, Darwin and Wallace’s stories hold many surprises. Did Darwin really keep his theory a secret for twenty years? Did he plagiarise Wallace? Were their theories really the same? How did Wallace hit on the solution, and on which island? This book reveals for the first time the true story of Darwin, Wallace and the discovery that would change our understanding of life on Earth forever.

Van Wyhe is well equipped to tell this story. He is the force behind Darwin Online and Wallace Online, and so is very familiar with both historical figures and what has been written about them. And a good chunk of the papers he has published deal with dispelling myths about Charles Darwin (such as whether Darwin was an atheist; if he was the naturalist or gentleman companion to the captain aboard HMS Beagle; whether the death of his daughter Annie affected his acceptance of Christianity; and why Darwin “delayed” publishing his theory of natural selection). Earlier this year, he published an article with Kees Rookmaaker (“A new theory to explain the receipt of Wallace’s Ternate Essay by Darwin in 1858,” PDF) that shows that any conspiracy claim that Darwin was dishonest about when he received Wallace’s letter and essay because he stole Wallace’s ideas for his own work is complete bunk. They do this simply by using historical sources, not conjecture (like Roy Davies). This debunking is shared again in Dispelling the Darkness. Van Wyhe does not take bullshit from conspiracy theorists, and while this is a necessary part of the story to correct, having to do so unfortunately detracts from telling the story of Wallace and his achievements.

The title of Dispelling the Darkness comes from Thomas Henry Huxley; he wrote in “On the Reception of the Origin of Species” (1887): “The facts of variability, of the struggle for existence, of adaptation to conditions, were notorious enough; but none of us had suspected that the road to the heart of the species problem lay through them, until Darwin and Wallace dispelled the darkness.” This dispelling the darkness forms one part of three narratives that van Wyhe uses: a narrative of Wallace’s travels and collecting in the Malay Archipelago, a narrative of Darwin and Wallace each developing their theories, and contextual sections on the history, economics, and culture of the places that Wallace visited.

Some important points – among many! – made in the book:

– the claim that Wallace has been overlooked in history because of his lower class status than Darwin is unsubstantiated;

– SE Asia should be considered the field site of the discovery of the theory of natural selection, because, unlike Darwin and the Galapagos, Wallace actually developed his theory while in the field. Also, several species of tiger beetle he collected were an “unsung inspiration for Wallace’s evolutionary breakthrough;”

– debunks the claim that Darwin intended his draft essay to be published after he died an old man;

– Wallace was poor on recollecting dates for when he visited places or sent letters, leading to confusion over where he was and when he sent his fateful letter and essay to Darwin in 1858, “one of the most contentious, contorted, and intractable mysteries in the history of science;”

– Wallace’s notes do not support the image of his being “on a quest for the Holy Grail of biology.” He traveled to the Malay Archipelago to collect natural history specimens, not in search of evolution;

– it is inaccurate to claim that Wallace was somehow short-shrifted, that credit was stolen from him. In fact, following the joint announcement of Darwin and Wallace’s ideas at the Linnean Society in 1858, for the rest of his life Wallace referred to Darwin’s theory, clarified that Darwin was far ahead of him and had done more with his theory, and even titled his book on evolution Darwinism (interestingly, Wallace referred to Charles Darwin’s natural selection in a letter to a journal even before On the Origin of Species);

– the claim that Darwin kept his theory absolutely secret and told no one but a select few (such as Joseph Dalton Hooker) is false;

– the image of Wallace as a superhuman collector of thousands upon thousands of specimens that he sent back to England overlooks the many assistants he hired to do collecting and preparing for him.

In Dispelling the Darkness, van Wyhe gives the in-depth treatment to Wallace’s 1854-1862 voyage through the islands of the Malay Archipelago that has always been afforded to Darwin’s Beagle voyage, and in so doing reveals a lot of detail taken from his journals and notes, giving a clearer picture of Wallace the collector and Wallace the co-discoverer with Charles Darwin of the theory of natural selection. I highly recommend this book for not only its impressive historical detail, but for van Wyhe’s obvious enthusiasm for the subject, which comes out on the pages. This is an important contribution in the history of science, and I think, if I had to weed my collection of books on Darwin and the history of evolution to just a few titles, Dispelling the Darkness would be among them.

BOOK REVIEW: The Complete Dinosaur

In 1993, the movie Jurassic Park and Michael Crichton’s novel of the same name sent me into a dinosaur frenzy. Over the next decade I visited most of the museums in southern California that had dinosaur displays, and attended many museum lectures with paleontologists. I checked out scores of books on dinosaurs from public libraries, and read through them like a mad man. I cherished a 1993 issue of National Geographic about changing theories in dinosaur science and eagerly awaited new issues of AMNH’s Natural History. I recorded episodes of PaleoWorld from The Learning Channel onto VHS (you know, when you could actually “learn” something from that station). And I joined the now defunct Dinosaur Society. I was a dinosaur nerd, in high school. It is through this concentrated must-read everything-I-can-about-dinosaurs-as-soon-as-possible phase that I became familiar with Charles Darwin and evolution. Many of the dinosaur books I read gave at least passing mention to them, if not a more devoted section about how times were changing in the nineteenth century, and how dinosaurs and other fossil remains fit in with this new evolutionary perspective. A decade later, I abandoned my plans to major in paleontology at Montana State University in Bozeman and was convinced to switch over to the history department. I majored in history, focusing on the history of science, especially Darwin and evolution. But living in Bozeman always afforded me a closeness to dinosaurs. On campus was the Museum of the Rockies, and while going to school there I was able to see the museum move on from older displays to a new dinosaur hall. And I took my son there – many times (many). He has scores of dinosaur figurines and books, talks about different species of dinosaurs, and we’re big fans of Dinosaur Train on PBS (thank you, Dr. Scott). While I did not become a paleontologist like I thought I would – but perhaps Patrick might – dinosaurs had not gone extinct in my life. Perhaps this is why I find value in the release of a second edition of The Complete Dinosaur. It is the perfect guide to dinosaurs for someone like me. I am not a trained paleontologist, so the mostly non-technical language in the book works nicely (unlike that of another large dinosaur reference book, The Dinosauria); but I am not foreign to some anatomical jargon (I did take several science courses, including one on dinosaur paleontology), so when some of the authors refer to fossae and trochanters, I am not in the dark.

The Complete Dinosaur

The Complete Dinosaur, edited by M.K. Brett Surman, Thomas R. Holtz, Jr., and James O. Farlow (and published by Indiana University Press, 2012), consists of 45 chapters by different authors in five parts: The Discovery of Dinosaurs, the Study of Dinosaurs, the Clades of Dinosaurs (think different groups), the Paleobiology of Dinosaurs, and Dinosaur Evolution in the Mesozoic. That first section on discovery attracts me the most, as a history buff and major. Chapters discuss early discoveries (it’s great to see reference to work from Adrienne Mayor on ancient civilizations’ perceptions of fossil bones), the anatomist Richard Owen and his creation of the term and group “dinosaur,” and four chapters on dinosaur discoveries in Europe, North America, Asia, and the southern continents. In the study section are chapters on bones, muscles, classification, geologic time, how technology advances the study of dinosaurs, museum exhibits, and how artists reconstruct dinosaurs. The middle section on different dinosaur groups is pretty straight forward. Choose a chapter to learn about dinosaurian ancestors, early dinosaurs, theropods (the meat-eaters), birds (yes, they get their own chapter!), prosauropods, sauropods (long-necked dinosaurs), stegosaurs, ankylosaurs, Marginocephalia (pachycephalosaurs and ceratopsians like Triceratops), and ornithopods (including the duck-billed dinosaurs). In the paleobiology section, one can brush up on dinosaur food and dung, sex, eggs, growth, disease, movement (as evidenced through trackways), metabolic physiology, among other topics – essentially, how dinosaurs lived.

The final section on evolution covers biogeography, faunas, extinction, and in the final chapter, “Dinosaurs and Evolutionary Theory,” the authors of which show how dinosaurs have not been utilized in evolutionary theories. Although Darwin surely knew of new fossil discoveries and Owen’s work on forming the new group of animals, there does not seem to be any significant mention of dinosaurs in his correspondence. While Padian and Burton suggest that Darwin steered clear of discussing dinosaurs as not to ruffle Owen’s feathers (for he thought differently than Darwin on evolutionary mechanisms), they are wrong to state that “Darwin does not mention dinosaurs in his published work, the watershed of evolutionary theory in Victorian times” (p. 1063). In later editions of On the Origin of Species (1859), Darwin refers to “dinosaurians” twice while discussing extinction in his chapter “On the Geological Succession of Organic Beings” (the first mention is in his third edition of 1861 and the second mention is his fifth edition of 1869). Historical quibble aside, the final chapter is an interesting overview of the role that dinosaurs as a group of extinct animals have played – or not played – in evolutionary thinking. For such a large book devoted to mostly science, it’s nice to see that science embedded by appreciation for the history of the field of dinosaur paleontology on both ends.

Throughout the book are scientific illustrations and other images, as well as a central section of colored plates of dinosaur art. Throw in individual chapter reference lists, an appendix on dinosaur websites, a glossary, and a very detailed 30 page 3-columned index, and you have a rather “complete dinosaur” book. May my son and I reference it often!

BOOKS: Three-part series on our cosmic, earth, and evolution stories

Dawn Publications specializes in science and nature books for kids. Their series of evolution books by Jennifer Morgan and beautifully illustrated by Dana Lynne Anderson capture for young curious minds the wonder of our connection to the natural world. They tell, from the perspective of the Universe, our cosmic, earth, and evolution stories. Each book contains at the end a section with further detail of topics featured in the story, a glossary, and suggested readings and other resources.

Born with a Bang

Born With a Bang: The Universe Tells Our Cosmic Story, by Jennifer Morgan and illustrated by Dana Lynne Anderson (Nevada City, CA: Dawn Publications, 2002), 48 pp.

Get ready to hear the Universe tell its own life story of chaos and creativity. Time after time the Universe nearly perishes, then bravely triumphs and turns itself into new and even more spectacular forms—like the Sun and Earth. It even turns itself into Earthling scientists who help the Universe discover more about itself. This is a science story from the inside. It’s a story about you, from the time you were really born—about 13 billion years ago. First in a trilogy, this illustrated book ends as the Universe forms a young Earth.

From Lava to Life: The Universe Tells Our Earth Story

From Lava to Life: The Universe Tells Our Earth Story, by Jennifer Morgan and illustrated by Dana Lynne Anderson (Nevada City, CA: Dawn Publications, 2003), 48 pp.

Settle in with your favorite pillow while the Universe tells the thrilling story of Earth. It’s a story about the beginning of life, and how Earth triumphs over crisis to become bacteria… jellyfish… flowers… dinosaurs! It’s a science story that is your story, too, the story of your living Earth and the unbroken chain that connects you to the very first life that began to twitch in the sea four billion years ago.

Mammals Who Morph

Mammals Who Morph: The Universe Tells Our Evolution Story, by Jennifer Morgan and illustrated by Dana Lynne Anderson (Nevada City, CA: Dawn Publications, 2006), 48 pp.

This remarkable illustrated evolution series, narrated by the Universe itself, concludes with Book Three, the amazing story of mammals. It picks up with the extinction of dinosaurs, and tells how tiny mammals survived and morphed into lots of new Earthlings… horses, whales and a kind of mammal with a powerful imagination—you! It’s a story of chaos, creativity and heroes—the greatest adventure on Earth! And it’s a personal story… about our bodies, our minds, our spirits. It’s our story.

Some seem to think these books, through personification of the Universe as storyteller, are masquerading as creationism/intelligent design. I don’t think so. The intention here is to provide a grand story of sorts for children about the origins of our universe, earth, and life. Some call this the Epic of Evolution or The Great Story. If you’re religious, you can take these books as you will. If you’re secular, you can read these books in a wholly secular tone. As the author notes in the third book, in response to queries about where God is in these books, “The word ‘God’ is purposefully not in the story so that it can be embraced by people of all religious traditions, or of none at all.” What is important is that children are being offered good science through the stories, and that is the case with Born with a Bang, From Lava to Life, and Mammals Who Morph.

BOOK: An Anthology of Nineteenth-Century American Science Writing


Last year, Anthem Press published An Anthology of Nineteenth-Century American Science Writing (Anthem Nineteenth-Century Series), edited by C. R. Resetarits:

This volume is a brief anthology of the most influential writing by American scientists between 1800 and 1900. Arranged thematically and chronologically to highlight the progression of American science throughout the nineteenth century – from its beginnings in self-taught classification and exploration to the movement towards university education and specialization – it is the first collection of its kind. Each section begins with a biography, putting human faces to each time period, and introducing such notable figures as Thomas Jefferson and Louis Agassiz.

It’s a really nice collection of primary sources, one the editor felt was very needed in the literature of nineteenth-century science (you can find plenty of analyses of science in America of the period, and even a collection of private documents of nineteenth-century American scientists; but no collections of solely works meant for public consumption). The over-representation of European science in any anthologies looking at science of the nineteenth century as a whole downplayed the role of American scientists. Of course, they were there. And they were doing plenty of science across the Atlantic.

The selections are split into three sections. The first section, “Naturals and Naturalists,” covering the period 1800-1846, provides pieces on natural history and the physical sciences, from Thomas Jefferson’s write up on the Megalonyx fossil to Joseph Henry’s take “On the Production of Currents and and Sparks of Electricity from Magnetism.” The second section (1846-1876) deals with paleontology and evolution, aptly titled “Warriors.” Here we get pieces about Darwin and the American response to On the Origin of Species (Agassiz, Asa Gray), and others from participants in the Bone Wars (Marsh, Cope) and other paleontologists. In the last section, “Scientists” (1876-1900), the pieces reflect a more specialized, academic scientific community. One might notice the lack of contributions from women scientists, and Resetarits rightly comments on this and provides sources for anyone looking to learn more about the role of women.

With a $99 cover price, this would be a book to ask your library (public or academic) to purchase, unless you’re a historian or extreme history buff, then this would be a handsome volume on your shelf.

BOOK REVIEW: Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic

Things happen when humans mess with the environment. It’s a simple statement, cause and effect. What happens to tiny animal-dwelling organisms (viruses and bacteria) when humans encroach into the territories of their host animals, kill them, and even eat them? They can jump to humans and cause all manner of unpleasant infectious diseases. This jumping over is called spillover, and such infectious diseases are known as zoonotic diseases (or individually as a zoonosis). The complex story of how zoonotic diseases have emerged and are affecting animal and human populations across the globe is the subject of nature writer David Quammen’s new book, Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic.

Quammen brings his usual style to Spillover: his global travels as a writer, the story of current research, and the history of science. All melded together, they make for an engrossing read. Spillover is, honestly, a scientific thriller (but nonfiction!), and I really had a hard time putting it down. He took me to Africa, Australia, Asia, Europe, and parts of North America I’ve never been. He introduced me to scores of epidemiologists and disease ecologists who work tirelessly to make sense of disease outbreaks, constantly risking their own lives by exposing themselves to pathogens (Quammen, on the other hand, noted several times in Spillover that he is just writing about this stuff: “I didn’t intend to let anyone hand me a Nipah-dripping bat if I could reasonably avoid it”). He brought me close to those bats, as well as pigs, civets, horses, mosquitoes, gorillas, chimpanzees, and somewhat unexpectedly, caterpillars.

While I am happy to know much more about the zoonotic diseases that Quammen focuses on – Hendra, Ebola, Malaria, SARS, Q fever, Psittacosis, Lyme disease, Herpes B, SFV, Nipah, and AIDS – it is the larger, overall message that he shares that I find important. “Shake a tree,” he writes, “and things fall out.” In the last chapter of the book, Quammen offers a long list (he is prone to listing in his writing) of human actions that affect our connectivity to the natural world, and disease. And from those actions will likely come the Next Big One, as it is called by those working on emerging diseases, comparable to the Black Death (bubonic plague) in Europe in the fourteenth century, smallpox brought to the North American continent in the sixteenth century and killing millions of native peoples, the 1918-19 influenza pandemic, polio (in America), also in the nineteenth century, and the current AIDs crisis worldwide. And as the case has been made clear in Spillover, it will jump from an animal to humans. Should it not be imperative that we think about how we treat animal populations around the globe, especially those that harbor zoonotic diseases? Here Quammen raises the question, but does not have much time to go into how to solve the problem. Raising that question and describing the problem in such detail makes Quammen’s Spillover a must read. To me, with its emphasis on the relationship between humans and other organisms, and with its stressing of the importance of biogeography, evolution, and ecology, this book took me back to Quammen’s two other long-researched books, The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction and Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind; and it will take a place next to those on my shelf.

Spillover will be released by W.W. Norton & Company on October 1, 2012. Here’s a trailer (yes, a trailer!) for the book:

Hopefully soon I can make that a signed copy to have on my shelf, as Quammen will be in Portland on October 22nd for an OMSI Science Pub. Full details here.

While I received a review copy from the publisher, I should note that David Quammen is a friend. He lives in Bozeman, MT (queue the caterpillars in the book!) where I went to school. He was well connected to the history department there and so I often heard about his research for the book and places that he had been. He also gave lectures at the Museum of the Rockies on this topic, and wrote several articles as well. I saw him last when I was in Montana in June for the John Tyndall Correspondence Project conference as he was on the home stretch with his manuscript. Congratulations on a wonderful book, David.

Tyndall Conference at 320 Ranch in Big Sky, Montana

BOOK REVIEW: Trees of Life: A Visual History of Evolution by Theodore W. Pietsch

Here at The Dispersal of Darwin, any mention of a tree of life stirs up the well-used image of Darwin’s sketch from 1837 (from Notebook B on transmutation, p. 36):

Writing “I think” above his sketch, Darwin likened the evolutionary relationships between species like that of branches on a tree (common ancestry from a central trunk, continued diversity resulting from many new branches forming, extinction when some branches cease). He wrote in On the Origin of Species (1859, p. 130): “The affinities of all the beings of the same class have sometimes been represented by a great tree. I believe this simile largely speaks the truth… As buds give rise by growth to fresh buds, and these, if vigorous, branch out and overtop on all sides many a feebler branch, so by generation I believe it has been with the great Tree of Life, which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever branching and beautiful ramifications.” Darwin also included an evolutionary tree in Origin, and in his transmutation notebook reflected on his studies of coral: “The tree of life should perhaps be called the coral of life, base of branches dead; so that passages cannot be seen. — this again offers contradiction to constant succession of germs in progress no only makes it excessively complicated” (Notebook B, p. 25).

The idea of branching as characteristic of relationships of organisms did not begin – nor end – with Darwin. While it has been argued that Darwin’s was indeed the first to show evolutionary relationships, taxonomic and developmental trees appeared long before.

This is the subject of a new book by Theodore W. Pietsch, Professor of Aquatic & Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington and Curator of Fishes at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture (both in Seattle). In Trees of Life: A Visual History of Evolution (John Hopkins, 2012), Pietsch shares and provides context for 230 trees of life and similar diagrams (bracketed tables, maps, webs/networks, and other visual representations of the relationships between organisms). They cover the sixteenth century to the present, and range from depictions of single groups of organisms (types of plants, fish, birds, etc.) to larger categories (kingdoms, phyla, or the whole of life on earth). This book is largely, as he notes in the Preface, “a celebration of the manifest beauty, intrinsic interest, and human ingenuity revealed in trees of life through time” (ix).

The book is organized chronologically, while some chapters deviate from this because of how a particular tree(s) fit into Pietsch’s categories. Among categories defined by botany, the rule of five, time periods, cladistics, molecular biology, and universality, some chapters are devoted to the trees of individual scientists: Darwin, Ernst Haeckel, Alfred S. Romer, and William K. Gregory. The chapter entitled “The First Evolutionary Tree” deals with the work of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. Pietsch, as does Wheelis (2009), claim that Lamarck’s 1809 tree (or, as he called it, “table, serving to demonstrate the origin of the different animals”) from Philosophie zoologique predates Darwin’s as the first representing an evolutionary framework. Others disagree, such as biologist Mark Pallen (in a blog post listed below), but I guess that’s what makes this book such a useful resource. It brings together many examples of images of interest to researchers, and provides a worthy bibliography and set of notes for those needing to look deeper into the sources of these images. Each chapter also includes a several page commentary by Pietsch about the images representing that chapter.

Trees of Life is a beautiful book, and the diversity of beautiful images within its pages should be of interest to historians of science, biologists, folks working at the intersection of science and art, and, honestly, anyone with a genuine interest in science and the study of the natural world. This is a taxonomy of trees of life, if you will.

Resources (all are from 2009, which while being the Darwin bicentenary was also the 200th anniversary of the publication of Lamarck’s 1809 Philosophie zoologique):

Genetic Future: Lamarck beat Darwin to the tree
The Rough Guide to Evolution (Mark Pallen): Lamarck, Darwin and the Tree of Life
J. David Archibald: “Edward Hitchcock’s Pre-Darwinian (1840) ‘Tree of Life'” (pdf)
KPBS: Perceptions of the Tree of Life Before and After Darwin (with Archibald)
Mark A. Ragan: “Trees and networks before and after Darwin” (pdf)
Mark Wheelis: Darwin: Not the First to Sketch a Tree

BOOK REVIEW: The Humblebee Hunter

In books for children, Charles Darwin is generally depicted as an old man, a wise and respected gentleman. In more recent years, there have been many books that focus on Darwin during the voyage of HMS Beagle, and they show him as a curious young man, an explorer and collector, traversing exotic locales. For those wishing for a book about Darwin as he was in between young and old, as a middle-aged man at the time he wrote On the Origin of Species, then you must check out The Humblebee Hunter, Inspired by the Life & Experiments of Charles Darwin and his Children, written by Deborah Hopkinson and illustrated by Jen Corace.

This is not just a book about Charles Darwin, however. He is a peripheral figure in the story, for the main character is his daughter Henrietta, or Etty for short. The story is told from her perspective.

We are to take this story as a typical day in the life of Darwin and his children. Darwin, however, was not a typical father for his time. He is involved in the affairs of his children. The historical record captures this aspect of his character. In this story, Darwin calls on his children for help in a scientific experiment, as he did in real life. Although this story is fictional, Darwin did indeed receive help from his children in his experimental endeavours. Most important, they did this science at home.

This book shows Darwin as a diligent worker and as nature lover, Darwin as a devoted father and Darwin as a curious mind. Also, Darwin as storyteller; he recounts his beetle-collecting days and his time on the Galapagos. Etty describes some of the many researches she and her siblings helped their father with. But today, her father is interested in bees: “I am wondering… just how many flowers a humblebee might visit in a minute.” And thus we have our story, simply told and warmly illustrated.

The Humblebee Hunter is a wonderful addition to children’s books not only about Darwin and the history of science, but about curiosity and the love of nature, and of getting children outside (Etty remarks toward the beginning as she helps her mother in the kitchen, “More than anything, I wanted to be outside”). It is always great to see strong female characters interested in science and nature.

Note: all images except the book cover image were taken from the illustrator’s website, here. For an interesting take on children’s books about Darwin, read this post by historian of science Katherine Pandora. I received a copy of this book from the author herself, and she inscribed the book to my son, “To Patrick, Ask questions!” Wonderful!

The Humblebee Hunter

BOOK REVIEW: A Universe From Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing by Lawrence M. Krauss

A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing. By Lawrence M. Krauss. New York: Free Press, 2011. 256 pp. $24.99 (hardcover).

For a book that has a lot to say about nothing, there is quite a lot in it. Lawrence Krauss, a cosmologist and Foundation Professor and Director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University, and an increasingly recognized spokesperson for atheism, gives a sweeping overview of the state of cosmology, with plenty of historical tidbits and open-ended questions for the curious. The overall argument is that the statement that “something cannot come from nothing” (that is, how can the Big Bang have occurred from nothing?) collapses under recent theoretical and observational research in astrophysics. Beyond providing the science and making it comprehensible to a nonphysicist such as myself, Krauss offers that these new explanations make religious explanations (God, gods, other deities, or what have you) increasingly unnecessary to explain the origin of the universe. This is not a science book, but rather a science and religion book, and Krauss proudly promotes atheism. Fine by me, but it is something readers should be aware of.

The book stems from a very successful YouTube video of Krauss’ lecture by the same name (currently, it has over 1,187,000 views). I’ve enjoyed the video several times, and there are great lines from it, so I was excited to hear that Krauss was extending his lecture into a book. I recently read Lisa Randall’s 2011 book Knocking on Heaven’s Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World (which I reviewed for the Portland Book Review), and she states that recent work in cosmology aims to “ultimately tell us about who we are and where we came from.” Krauss certainly does this in A Universe From Nothing, and here are some quotables:

The universe is the way it is, whether we like it or not. (xii)

One of the most poetic facts I know about the universe is that essentially every atom in your body was once inside a star that exploded. Moreover, the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than did those in your right. We are all, literally, star children, and our bodies are made of stardust. (17)

Over the course of the history of our galaxy, about 200 million stars have exploded. These myriad stars sacrificed themselves, if you wish, so that one day you could be born. I suppose that qualifies them as much as anything else for the role of saviors. (19) [in the lecture, Krauss stated it this way: “So, forget Jesus. The stars died so that you could be here today.”]

If we are all stardust, as I have written, it is also true, if inflation happened, that we all, literally, emerged from quantum nothingness. (98)

If the universe were any other way, we could not live in it. (136)

If we wish to draw philosophical conclusions about our own existence, our significance, and the significance of the universe itself, our conclusions should be based on empirical knowledge. A truly open mind means forcing out imaginations to conform to the evidence of reality, and not vice versa, whether or not we like the implications. (139)

But no one has ever said that the universe is guided by what we, in our petty myopic corners of space and time, might have originally thought was sensible. It certainly seems sensible to imagine that a priori, matter cannot spontaneously arise from empty space, so that something, in this sense, cannot arise from nothing. But when we allow for the dynamics of gravity and quantum mechanics, we find that this commonsense notion is no longer true. This is the beauty of science, and it should not be threatening. Science simply forces us to revise what is sensible to accommodate the universe, rather than vice versa. (151)

A universe without purpose or guidance may seem, for some, to make life itself meaningless. For others, including me, such a universe is invigorating. It makes the fact of our existence even more amazing, and it motivates us to draw meaning from our own actions and to make the most of our brief existence in the sun, simply because we are here, blessed with consciousness and with the opportunity to do so. Bronowski’s point, however, it that it doesn’t really matter either way, and what we would like for the universe is irrelevant. (181)

There is much to ponder here for those like me who see wonder and awe in the physical world, whether in nature and its “endless forms” or in the universe.

I’ll share one more quote from the book. Krauss provides a quote from Darwin at the beginning of chapter 5, in which he discusses the expanding and accelerating universe and dark energy and its unknown origin: “It is mere rubbish, thinking at present of the origin of life; one might as well think of the origin of matter.” This comes from a letter by Darwin to Joseph Dalton Hooker (March 29, 1863). After sharing with Hooker that he regretted using the word “Creator” in the last paragraph of On the Origin of Species, Darwin stated that he meant creator as a “some wholly unknown process.” Darwin never claimed to explain the origin of life itself. Later, Krauss uses this quote again, and unfortunately it is used poorly:

The metaphysical “rule,” which is held as ironclad conviction by those whom I have debated the issue of creation, namely that “out of nothing nothing comes,” has no foundation in science. Arguing that it is self-evident, unwavering, and unassailable is like arguing, as Darwin falsely did, when he made the suggestion that the origin of life was beyond the domain of science by building an analogy with the incorrect claim that matter cannot be created or destroyed. (174)

This is a rather unfair remark about Darwin. As one might expect from a scientist, here history is being determined by what is known in the present. We may very well know things about the origin of life and origin of matter now, but, as Darwin clearly stated, “thinking at present,” – meaning 1863, not 2011 – the state of scientific knowledge then did not include such things. The domains of science separated by 150 years would surely be different. This is presentism, and it does a disservice to understanding the past.

BOOK REVIEW: Bang! How We Came to Be

There are many books about evolution for children, but Bang! How We Came to Be stands out for its beautiful paintings of ancient life and a detailed yet engaging narrative of “how we came to be.” Written and illustrated by Michael Rubino, and published by Prometheus Books (70 pages, paperback, 2011), the text in this book is geared not for the kindergarten child – like my son – but for older elementary children. However, anyone with an interest in science and art should take a look.

Rubino starts with the oft-quoted “From so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved” (Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species, 1859). Here it works great because he soon offers almost 30 gorgeous color paintings of endless forms. The first few are astronomical and geological in nature, and then it moves on chronologically to the biological lineage leading to humans. While this may seem to favor humans over other forms of life, Rubino does well to describe what other lineages of organisms were up to at the time.

Highly recommended (, and I look forward to reading this with Patrick when he is a little older, but for now we can enjoy the beautiful reconstructions of our ancient ancestors.