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

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



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


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


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



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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

For more book ideas, see:

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

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

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

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



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

Grandmother Fish

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

One Iguana, Two Iguanas

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

Stuff of Stars, The.jpeg

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


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

When the Whales Walked

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

Galapagos Girl

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



Unnatural Selection

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

Life on Earth (1)

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

Darwin's Most Wonderful Plants

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

Tangled Tree, The.JPG

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

Wall of Birds, The

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

Cruisin' the Fossil Coastline

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

Galapagos Life in Motion.jpeg

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

Charles Darwin - A Reference Guide to His Life and Works

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

Recent journal articles about Darwin

In the Journal of the History of Biology:

Darwin’s two theories, 1844 and 1859

Derek Partridge

Abstract Darwin’s first two, relatively complete, explicit articulations of his theorizing on evolution were his Essay of 1844 and On the Origin of Species published in 1859. A comparative analysis concludes that they espoused radically different theories despite exhibiting a continuity of strategy, much common structure and the same key idea. Both were theories of evolution by means of natural selection. In 1844, organic adaptation was confined to occasional intervals initiated and controlled by de-stabilization events. The modified descendants rebalanced the particular “plant and animal forms … unsettled by some alteration in their circumstances.” But by 1859, organic adaptation occurred continuously, potentially modifying the descendants of all organisms. Even natural selection, the persistent core of Darwin’s theorizing, does not prove to be a significant basis for theory similarity. Consequently, Darwin’s Origin theory cannot reasonably be considered as a mature version of the Essay. It is not a modification based on adjustments, further justifications and the integration of a Principle of Divergence. The Origin announced a new “scientific paradigm” while the Essay did little more than seemingly misconfigure the operation of a novel mechanism to extend varieties beyond their accepted bounds, and into the realm of possible new species. Two other collections of Darwin’s theorizing are briefly considered: his extensive notes of the late 1830s and his contributions to the famous meeting of 1 July 1858. For very different reasons, neither constitutes a challenge to the basis for this comparative study. It is concluded that, in addition to the much-debated social pressures, an unacknowledged further reason why Darwin did not publish his theorizing until 1859, could have been down to his perceptive technical judgement: wisely, he held back from rushing to publish demonstrably flawed theorizing.

In the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society:

Comparing the respective transmutation mechanisms of Patrick Matthew, Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace

Joachim L Dagg

Abstract A comparison of the evolutionary mechanisms of Patrick Matthew, Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace highlights their differences. In Matthew’s scheme, catastrophes initiate periods of radiation and speciation until a fully stocked environment enters into stasis. Catastrophes first need to exterminate competing species before the survivors can radiate into free niches and diversify into new species. In Darwin’s early theory, conditions of life, such as those prevailing under domestication, first need to increase the variability of a species before natural selection can transform it. In Darwin’s mature theory, competition replaces conditions as the main drive behind evolutionary change, and sympatric speciation becomes possible. Wallace’s theory differs from both Matthew’s and Darwin’s. Interspecific competition is not a brake halting transmutation (as in Matthew’s theory) nor is intraspecific competition a sufficient drive for it. Although each theory integrated natural selection with variability, competition and changed conditions in distinct ways, each allowed for species transmutation somehow. The result was similar (transmutation), but the mechanisms yielding that result (the integration of natural selection with variability, competition and change in conditions) differed significantly.

Additional thoughts from the author of the above article here.

And in Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences, an essay review by Richard Bellon of the books Darwin and the Making of Sexual Selection by Evelleen Richards, Darwinism and Religion: What Literature Tells Us About Evolution by Michael Ruse, Masculinity and Science in Britain, 1830-1918 by Heather Ellis, and Orchids: A Cultural History by Jim Endersby.


BOOK: Orchid: A Cultural History

A new book by historian of science Jim Endersby (A Guinea Pig’s History of Biology, Imperial Nature: Joseph Hooker and the Practices of Victorian Science) will interest not only historians, but plant enthusiasts, anyone with a general interest in natural history, and, although he is just part but not the focus of this book, Darwin aficionados. I am in the midst of reading it now, and enjoying its fluid narrative and wide range of content all centered on one type of plant, the orchid. Chapter 5 deals specifically with Darwin’s experiments on orchids and his 1862 book On the Various Contrivances by which British and Foreign Orchids are fertilised by insects, and on the good effects of intercrossing.


Jim Endersby, Orchid: A Cultural History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 288 pp. 

Order through Powell’s City of BooksOrder through Amazon.com

Publisher’s description At once delicate, exotic, and elegant, orchids are beloved for their singular, instantly recognizable beauty. Found in nearly every climate, the many species of orchid have carried symbolic weight in countless cultures over time. The ancient Greeks associated them with fertility and thought that parents who ingested orchid root tubers could control the sex of their child. During the Victorian era, orchids became deeply associated with romance and seduction. And in twentieth-century hard-boiled detective stories, they transformed into symbols of decadence, secrecy, and cunning. What is it about the orchid that has enthralled the imagination for so many centuries? And why do they still provoke so much wonder? Following the stories of orchids throughout history, Jim Endersby divides our attraction to them into four key themes: science, empire, sex, and death. When it comes to empire, for instance, orchids are a prime example of the exotic riches sought by Europeans as they shaped their plans for colonization. He also reveals how Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution became intimately entangled with the story of the orchid as he investigated their methods of cross-pollination. As he shows, orchids—perhaps because of their extraordinarily diverse colors, shapes, and sizes—have also bloomed repeatedly in films, novels, plays, and poems, from Shakespeare to science fiction, from thrillers to elaborate modernist novels. Featuring many gorgeous illustrations from the collection of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Orchid: A Cultural History tells, for the first time, the extraordinary story of orchids and our prolific interest in them. It is an enchanting tale not only for gardeners and plant collectors, but anyone curious about the flower’s obsessive hold on the imagination in history, cinema, literature, and more.

Reviews of Orchid: H-Net; Times Literary Supplement
Radio programs about Orchid: Ideas (CBC Radio); WICN (90.5 FM in New England)
Endersby on orchids elsewhere: Cambridge Core blog; iNews.co.uk

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

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

Deceived by orchids: sex, science, fiction and Darwin

Jim Endersby

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

ARTICLE: Emily Lawless and Charles Darwin: an Irish mystery

From the Archives of Natural History:

Emily Lawless and Charles Darwin: an Irish mystery

E. Charles Nelson

Abstract While no original autograph letters between the Hon. Miss Emily Lawless and Charles Darwin are known, Darwin was impressed by her observations and encouraged her to submit to Nature a manuscript account of fertilization of plants. This manuscript cannot be traced, nor can her note hypothesizing about the role of the transparent burnet moth in pollination in The Burren, County Clare, which apparently prompted Darwin to make contact with her.

ARTICLE: “Plants that Remind Me of Home”: Collecting, Plant Geography, and a Forgotten Expedition in the Darwinian Revolution

A new article in the Journal of the History of Biology:

“Plants that Remind Me of Home”: Collecting, Plant Geography, and a Forgotten Expedition in the Darwinian Revolution

Kuang-chi Hung

Abstract In 1859, Harvard botanist Asa Gray (1810–1888) published an essay of what he called “the abstract of Japan botany.” In it, he applied Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory to explain why strong similarities could be found between the flora of Japan and that of eastern North America, which provoked his famous debate with Louis Agassiz (1807–1873) and initiated Gray’s efforts to secure a place for Darwinian biology in the American sciences. Notably, although the Gray–Agassiz debate has become one of the most thoroughly studied scientific debates, historians of science remain unable to answer one critical question: How was Gray able to acquire specimens from Japan? Making use of previously unknown archival materials, this article scrutinizes the institutional, instrumental, financial, and military settings that enabled Gray’s collector, Charles Wright (1811–1885), to travel to Japan, as well as examine Wright’s collecting practices in Japan. I argue that it is necessary to examine Gray’s diagnosis of Japan’s flora and the subsequent debate about it from the viewpoint of field sciences. The field-centered approach not only unveils an array of historical significances that have been overshadowed by the analytical framework of the Darwinian revolution and the reception of Darwinism, but also places a seemingly domestic incident in a transnational context.

BOOK: Darwin’s Sciences

This new book is so far my favorite Darwin book this year. Darwin’s Sciences (full title: Darwin’s Sciences:  How Charles Darwin voyaged from rocks to worms in his search for facts to explain how the earth, its geological features, and its inhabitants evolved) does not offer some new groundbreaking thesis about Darwin’s life, work, or legacy, but rather pulls together a lot of information about the various branches of the natural sciences Darwin studied into a detailed and readable account. An introduction looks over Darwin’s life, and then chapters on geology, zoology, botany, and the social sciences give an overview of Darwin’s studies and major publications, utilizing his journals, correspondence, and autobiography to place things in context. The bibliography for this book is in itself a treasure of references and Darwin scholarship. While I have only read into the chapter on zoology (note that each page has about perhaps twice the text as most other books, with a small font size), I recommend Darwin’s Sciences for anyone interested in a more than superficial look at what Darwin accomplished in science.


Duncan M. Porter and Peter W. Graham, Darwin’s Sciences (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015), 264 pp.

Publisher’s description A complete scientific biography of Darwin that takes into account the latest research findings, both published and unpublished, on the life of this remarkable man. Considered the first book to thoroughly emphasize Darwin’s research in various fields of endeavor, what he did, why he did it, and its implications for his time and ours. Rather than following a strictly chronological approach – a narrative choice that characteristically offers an ascent to On the Origin of Species (1859) with a rapid decline in interest following its publication and reception – this book stresses the diversity and full extent of Darwin’s career by providing a series of chapters centering on various intellectual topics and scientific specializations that interested Darwin throughout his life. Authored by academics with years of teaching and discussing Darwin, Darwin’s Sciences is suited to any biologist who is interested in the deeper implications of Darwin’s research.

Chapter 1, the Introduction, can be read online here.

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: Darwin’s Orchids: Then and Now

An academic volume has resulted from a a day-long symposium held within the International Botanical Congress in Melbourne, Australia in 2011. The research in the book serves as a comparison of Darwin’s work and books on orchids (2012 was the 150th anniversary of the publication of Fertilisation of Orchids) in the mid-nineteenth century to research conducted by scientists since then.

Image from Amazon.com

Retha Edens-Meier and Peter Bernhardt, eds. Darwin’s Orchids: Then and Now (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 384 pp.

Publisher’s description For biologists, 2009 was an epochal year: the bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of a book now known simply as The Origin of Species. But for many botanists, Darwin’s true legacy starts with the 1862 publication of another volume: On the Various Contrivances by Which British and Foreign Orchids Are Fertilised by Insects and on the Good Effects of Intercrossing, or Fertilisation of Orchids. This slim but detailed book with the improbably long title was the first in a series of plant studies by Darwin that continues to serve as a global exemplar in the field of evolutionary botany. In Darwin’s Orchids, an international group of orchid biologists unites to celebrate and explore the continuum that stretches from Darwin’s groundbreaking orchid research to that of today. Mirroring the structure of Fertilisation of Orchids, Darwin’s Orchids investigates flowers from Darwin’s home in England, through the southern hemisphere, and on to North America and China as it seeks to address a set of questions first put forward by Darwin himself: What pollinates this particular type of orchid? How does its pollination mechanism work? Will an orchid self-pollinate or is an insect or other animal vector required? And how has this orchid’s lineage changed over time? Diverse in their colors, forms, aromas, and pollination schemes, orchids have long been considered ideal models for the study of plant evolution and conservation. Looking to the past, present, and future of botany, Darwin’s Orchids will be a vital addition to this tradition.

The table of contents can be viewed here.

BOOK: A Garden of Marvels

Readers of this blog might find this new book of interest, as chapters 25 and 28 (they’re short chapters!) look at Darwin’s “botanophilia,” specifically his studies of orchids and plant reproduction, climbing plants, and carnivorous plants.

Ruth Kassinger, A Garden of Marvels: How We Discovered that Flowers Have Sex, Leaves Eat Air, and Other Secrets of Plants (New York: William Morrow, 2014), 416pp.

In the tradition of The Botany of Desire and Wicked Plants, a witty and engaging history of the first botanists interwoven with stories of today’s extraordinary plants found in the garden and the lab.

In Paradise Under Glass, Ruth Kassinger recounted with grace and humor her journey from brown thumb to green, sharing lessons she learned from building a home conservatory in the wake of a devastating personal crisis.

In A Garden of Marvels, she extends the story. Frustrated by plants that fail to thrive, she sets out to understand the basics of botany in order to become a better gardener. She retraces the progress of the first botanists who banished myths and misunderstandings and discovered that flowers have sex, leaves eat air, roots choose their food, and hormones make morning glories climb fence posts. She also visits modern gardens, farms, and labs to discover the science behind extraordinary plants like one-ton pumpkins, a truly black petunia, a biofuel grass that grows twelve feet tall, and the world’s only photosynthesizing animal. Transferring her insights to her own garden, she nurtures a “cocktail” tree that bears five kinds of fruit, cures a Buddha’s Hand plant with beneficial fungi, and gets a tree to text her when it’s thirsty.

Intertwining personal anecdote, accessible science, and untold history, the ever-engaging author takes us on an eye-opening journey into her garden—and yours.

The author was interviewed about her book on the podcast Science for the People. Listen here!

ARTICLE: Botanical Smuts and Hermaphrodites: Lydia Becker, Darwin’s Botany, and Education Reform

In the latest issue of Isis (June 2013):

Botanical Smuts and Hermaphrodites: Lydia Becker, Darwin’s Botany, and Education Reform

Tina Gianquitto

Abstract In 1868, Lydia Becker (1827–1890), the renowned Manchester suffragist, announced in a talk before the British Association for the Advancement of Science that the mind had no sex. A year later, she presented original botanical research at the BAAS, contending that a parasitic fungus forced normally single-sex female flowers of Lychnis diurna to develop stamens and become hermaphroditic. This essay uncovers the complex relationship between Lydia Becker’s botanical research and her stance on women’s rights by investigating how her interest in evolutionary theory, as well as her correspondence with Charles Darwin, critically informed her reform agendas by providing her with a new vocabulary for advocating for equality. One of the facts that Becker took away from her work on Lychnis was that even supposedly fixed, dichotomous categories such as biological sex became unfocused under the evolutionary lens. The details of evolutionary theory, from specific arguments on structural adaptations to more encompassing theories on heredity (i.e., pangenesis), informed Becker’s understanding of human physiology. At the same time, Becker’s belief in the fundamental equality of the sexes enabled her to perceive the distinction between inherent, biological differences and culturally contingent ones. She applied biological principles to social constructs as she asked: Do analogous evolutionary forces act on humans?

BOOK: The Darwin Archipelago: The Naturalist’s Career Beyond Origin of Species

The Darwin Archipelago: The Naturalist’s Career Beyond Origin of Species, by Steve Jones (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011), 248 pp.

Charles Darwin is of course best known for The Voyage of the Beagle and The Origin of Species. But he produced many other books over his long career, exploring specific aspects of the theory of evolution by natural selection in greater depth. The eminent evolutionary biologist Steve Jones uses these lesser-known works as springboards to examine how their essential ideas have generated whole fields of modern biology.

Earthworms helped found modern soil science, Expression of the Emotions helped found comparative psychology, and Self-Fertilization and Forms of Flowers were important early works on the origin of sex. Through this delightful introduction to Darwin’s oeuvre, one begins to see Darwin’s role in biology as resembling Einstein’s in physics: he didn’t have one brilliant idea but many and in fact made some seminal contribution to practically every field of evolutionary study. Though these lesser-known works may seem disconnected, Jones points out that they all share a common theme: the power of small means over time to produce gigantic ends. Called a “world of wonders” by the Times of London, The Darwin Archipelago will expand any reader’s view of Darwin’s genius and will demonstrate how all of biology, like life itself, descends from a common ancestor.

The National Center for Science Education has a free preview of The Darwin Archipelago: The Naturalist’s Career Beyond Origin of Species, here.

Get to Know Darwin

Carl Zimmer blogged about some new resources from the Darwin Correspondence Project, “Creating Young Darwins.” Based on a university course at Harvard, “Get to Know Darwin” equips educators (and parents!) curriculum for teaching students (or children!) about Darwin’s many experiments. Through some of his papers and letters, they can learn why Darwin did them, how they were conducted, his results, and the context of their connection to his theoretical work.

Integrating Darwin’s correspondence with exercises in experimental science and study of his published work has been a great success. For students in the course, reading the letters enriched their understanding of Darwin’s life and work. The letters provided “a glimpse of his thought process” and “brought the other works we were looking at to life, and gave much context to who Darwin was from childhood to old age, as a father and a husband, and ultimately as a scientist.” They showed students “what excited him, what his hobbies were, and what went on in his daily life.” This kind of historical texture was not merely incidental to students’ learning. As one student in the course put it, “These details may not be present in On the Origin of Species, but they are, in my opinion, an integral part of the full comprehension of it. Knowing that Darwin was a devoted family man, meticulous observer, and a charming individual is more than just interesting – it gives his published work more purpose.”

Here’s the list of available topics: Early Days, Barnacles, Biogeography, Variation Under Domestication, Orchids, Instinct and the Evolution of Mind, Insectivorous Plants, Climbing Plants, Floral Dimorphism, Power of Movement in Plants, and Earthworms.

Bringing the history of science alive for education. I love it!

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

Linnaeus apostles book project

If you’re interested in Linnaeus, or even the history of natural history generally, you should now about this project, which is nearing completion. It’s an eight volume (11 book) publication called The Linnaeus Apostles: Global Science and Adventure:

THE GREATEST RESEARCH AND PUBLISHING PROJECT EVER – on the chosen few who came to be known as the LINNAEUS APOSTLES. During the 18th century, the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) was to inspire 17 of his scholars to travel to distant corners of the world to document local nature and culture. They travelled on their own or with expeditions across land and sea – their travels covered every continent between the years 1745 and 1799.

Although Linnaeus and some of his apostles are known internationally, several of the apostles are relatively unknown despite their global pioneering work in the service of science and mankind. The publication of their journals – several of them now made available for the very first time – will for a long time to come stimulate fresh research, new thinking and not least provide exciting reading about cultures, landscapes and people of a bygone era.

The publication of a major international series of eight volumes – in all 11 books and over 5,500 pages – which has been in preparation since the late 1990s under the overall title of The Linnaeus Apostles – Global Science & Adventure. All the accounts of the apostles’ journeys to every continent have been published for the first time in English; those of the apostles who left no travel journals are described through their correspondence or other sources. In the introductory and concluding volumes world experts in various subject fields will provide accounts of the 18th century, of Linnaeus, of travelling and the hardships of field work, together with biographies and a index to volumes One to Eight, which contains more than 125,000 classified search terms.

All the 17 apostles’ complete texts, illustrations and maps have been published in the oeuvre mainly based on the original journals and, as an alternative where no such exist, previously printed old material or correspondence is used. This is the very first time this interesting and important material – about bygone horizons – is made public in its entirety; to the joy not only of interdisciplinary researchers into natural and cultural history, but also of everybody with a general interest in these subjects.

Even though the main authors of the six volumes of this oeuvre (Vol. 2-7) are THE 17 APOSTLES (C. F. Adler, A. Afzelius, A. Berlin, J. P. Falck, P. Forsskål, F. Hasselquist, P. Kalm, P. Osbeck, P. Löfling, D. Rolander, A. Rolandsson Martin, G. Rothman, D. Solander, A. Sparrman , C. P. Thunberg, O. Torén and C. Tärnström) we also present a number of leading scientific writers (G. Broberg, R. Edberg, U. Ehrensvärd, A. Ericsson, G. Eriksson, K. Grandin, V. Hansen, S. Helmfrid, C. Linnaeus, B. Nordenstam, H. Smethman, P. Sörbom and S. Sörlin) in the introductory (Vol. 1) and concluding (Vol. 8) volumes. Volume 1 (INTRODUCTION) will be the descriptive volume. Here the reader will get a deeper understanding of the world in which Linnaeus and his apostles lived. The 18th century was both like and unlike our world today. It was during this era that the modern world first saw the light of day.

The concluding volume 8 (ENCYCLOPÆDIA) will include maps, a categorised index for all the volumes, biographical fact files of each apostle and a list of the most important collections of scientific material in museums, archives and libraries connected to the apostles. Finally, an introduction to “iLINNAEUS” the global workshop to promote natural & cultural history inspired by the Linnaeus Apostles.

Much more detail about this series in this PDF. A purchase you should suggest to your university library…

ARTICLE: The secret life of plants: Visualizing vegetative movement, 1880–1903

In the journal Early Popular Visual Culture (10:1, 2012):

The secret life of plants: Visualizing vegetative movement, 1880–1903

Oliver Gaycken

Abstract As devices of motion analysis were introduced into botanical research in the late nineteenth century, Charles and Francis Darwin, Wilhelm Pfeffer, and investigators at the Marey Institute used a variety of techniques to visualize plant movements whose slowness rendered them otherwise imperceptible. These ‘time-lapse’ images provided novel visual records that initially were seen as providing evidence of an evolutionary link between the plant and animal kingdoms. While time-lapse plant growth images ultimately could not provide proof that plants are evolutionarily related to animals, time-lapse images did remain useful as a means to demonstrate the remarkable vitality of plants to students and lay audiences, and Oskar Messter’s exhibition of a time-lapse plant growth film was the first of a long tradition of time-lapse plant growth films that circulated in popular culture.

ARTICLE: Inspiration in the Harness of Daily Labor: Darwin, Botany, and the Triumph of Evolution, 1859–1868

From the journal Isis (September 2011):

Inspiration in the Harness of Daily Labor: Darwin, Botany, and the Triumph of Evolution, 1859–1868

Richard Bellon

Abstract Charles Darwin hoped that a large body of working naturalists would embrace evolution after the Origin of Species appeared in late 1859. He was disappointed. His evolutionary ideas at first made painfully little progress in the scientific community. But by 1863 the tide had turned dramatically, and within five years evolution became scientific orthodoxy in Britain. The Origin‘s reception followed this peculiar trajectory because Darwin had not initially tied its theory to productive original scientific investigation, which left him vulnerable to charges of reckless speculation. The debate changed with his successful application of evolution to original problems, most notably orchid fertilization, the subject of a well‐received book in 1862. Most of Darwin’s colleagues found the argument of the Origin convincing when they realized that it functioned productively in the day‐to‐day work of science—and not before. The conceptual force of the Origin, however outwardly persuasive, acquired full scientific legitimacy only when placed “in the harness of daily labour.”

Did Darwin respond to Wallace regarding pitcher plants?

UPDATE (9/14): It dawned on me yesterday that while I have provided here at The Dispersal of Darwin many examples of anti-evolutionists claiming Darwin said something when he did not (quote-mining), this post is an example of Darwin having written something and then it being claimed that he did not. Interesting.


In 1875 Darwin published his book about plants that eat insects, Insectivorous Plants. It was rather technical in nature, so did not receive the popular readership as did his Journal of Researches (1839, later The Voyage of the Beagle), On the Origin Of Species (1859), or the later (and last book) The Formation of Vegetable Mould, through the Action of Worms (1881). Like many of his books, Insectivorous Plants was a continuation of Darwin’s theory of transmutation project. Specifically, the book is a study of the adaptations of such plants to impoverished conditions. Darwin wrote of it in his autobiography:

During subsequent years, whenever I had leisure, I pursued my experiments, and my book on Insectivorous Plants was published July 1875,—that is sixteen years after my first observations. The delay in this case, as with all my other books, has been a great advantage to me; for a man after a long interval can criticise his own work, almost as well as if it were that of another person. The fact that a plant should secrete, when properly excited, a fluid containing an acid and ferment, closely analogous to the digestive fluid of an animal, was certainly a remarkable discovery.

A remarkable discovery indeed, but a fellow naturalist, whom Darwin shared the discovery of the theory of natural selection with, was concerned that some would not find natural selection a suitable explanation for the adaptations of carnivorous plants. In a letter to Darwin on July 21, 1875, Alfred Russel Wallace wrote:

Dear Darwin,–Many thanks for your kindness in sending me a copy of your new book [Insectivorous Plants]. Being very busy I have only had time to dip into it yet. The account of Utricularia is most marvellous, and quite new to me. I’m rather surprised that you do not make any remarks on the origin of these extraordinary contrivances for capturing insects. Did you think they were too obvious? I daresay there is no difficulty, but I feel sure they will be seized on as inexplicable by Natural Selection, and your silence on the point will be held to show that you consider them so! The contrivance in Utricularia and Dionaea, and in fact in Drosera too, seems fully as great and complex as in Orchids, but there is not the same motive force. Fertilisation and cross-fertilisation are important ends enough to lead to any modification, but can we suppose mere nourishment to be so important, seeing that it is so easily and almost universally obtained by extrusion of roots and leaves? Here are plants which lose their roots and leaves to acquire the same results by infinitely complex modes! What a wonderful and long-continued series of variations must have led up to the perfect “trap” in Utricularia, while at any stage of the process the same end might have been gained by a little more development of roots and leaves, as in 9,999 plants out of 10,000!

Is this an imaginary difficulty, or do you mean to deal with it in future editions of the “Origin”?–Believe me yours very faithfully,

Letters to and from Darwin of 1875 are not yet available through the Darwin Correspondence Project, but this letter can be found on pages 233-34 of Alfred Russel Wallace: Letters and Reminiscences (edited by James Marchant, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1916). Wallace’s words in this letter have been taken up by intelligent design proponents as a way to criticize Darwin. Remember, Wallace is the new poster boy for the Discovery Institute. In “Carnivorous plants eat Darwin” (August 18, 2011), Denyse O’Leary (also blogging about this at The ID Report) writes for Uncommon Descent:

University of Bonn geneticist Wolf-Ekkehard Lönnig will soon have a new book out, on the 200-year-old headache that carnivorous plants pose for Darwinism. Briefly, how does a plant evolve in slow, Darwinian steps, toward making insects part of its normal diet? Like the pitcher plant, for example.

O’Leary quotes Granville Sewall in the post:

In every family of the plant and animal kingdoms there are species whose sudden appearances and whose irreducibly complex features pose problems for neo-Darwinism. But certain carnivorous plants pose these problems in such a spectacular way that they are a focal point of the Darwinism debate, ever since Alfred Wallace warned Darwin about the problems posed by Utricularia, saying “I feel sure they will be seized on as inexplicable by Natural Selection” and implored him to address these difficulties in a future edition of his book “On the Origin of Species.”

These words are indeed from Wallace, in the letter to Darwin above. The way they are being used, however, seems to imply that Wallace finds natural selection an unconvincing explanation, whereas he is only stating that others might criticize Darwin for this (Wallace remarked, “I daresay there is no difficulty”). Moreoever, O’Leary writes in her post, in response to Wallace imploring Darwin “to deal with it in future editions of the Origin,” that “Darwin never did.” To state that Darwin never responded to Wallace’s question in a later edition is to imply that Darwin gave no response at all.

If one were to look in the historical record more deeply, they would find that Darwin did indeed respond to Wallace. On July 22, 1875, one day after Wallace’s letter about Utricularia, Darwin wrote to Wallace that he had “thrown some light on the acquirement of the power of digestion in Droseraceae,” another group of carnivorous plants (unfortunately there is no full text of the letter available until the DCP publishes the 1875 letters; they are currently readying 1871 for print). Darwin is referring to pages 361-63 of Insectivorous Plants:

The six genera of the Droseraceae very probably inherited this power from a common progenitor, but this cannot apply to
Pinguicula or Nepenthes, for these plants are not at all closely related to the Droseraceae. But the difficulty is not nearly so great as it at first appears. Firstly, the juices of many plants contain an acid, and, apparently, any acid serves for digestion. Secondly, as Dr. Hooker has remarked in relation to the present subject in his address at Belfast (1874), and as Sachs repeatedly insists, the embryos of some plants secrete a fluid which dissolves albuminous substances out of the endosperm; although the endosperm is not actually united with, only in contact with, the embryo. All plants, moreover, have the power of dissolving albuminous or proteid substances, such as protoplasm, chlorophyll, gluten, aleurone, and of carrying them from one part to other parts of their tissues. This must be effected by a solvent, probably consisting of a ferment together with an acid.† Now, in the case of plants which are able to absorb already soluble matter from captured insects, though not capable of true digestion, the solvent just referred to, which must be occasionally present in the glands, would be apt to exude from the glands together with the viscid secretion, inasmuch as endosmose is accompanied by exosmose. If such exudation did ever occur, the solvent would act on the animal matter contained within the captured insects, and this would be an act of true digestion. As it cannot be doubted that this process would be of high service to plants growing in very poor soil, it would tend to be perfected through natural selection. Therefore, any ordinary plant having viscid glands, which occasionally caught insects, might thus be converted under favourable circumstances into a species capable of true digestion. It ceases, therefore, to be any great mystery how several genera of plants, in no way closely related together, have independently acquired this same power.

So when asked by Wallace how to account for the evolution of one particular group of carnivorous plants, Darwin responded that his thoughts about another group should answer the question, it is understandable that Darwin need not have addressed this issue in a future edition of On the Origin of Species.

In his book, available as a PDF here, Lönnig quotes Wallace on page 145, and states (this is a Google translation from German), “I am not aware that Darwin has replied…” Well, to set the record straight, he did reply.

As I am not one to go into the actual biology of this issue, see Nick Matzke’s comments on O’Leary’s post and two others about carnivorous plants. The Darwin Correspondence Project has many letters to and from Darwin on carnivorous plants (Drosera and Utricularia), and some from Mary Treat about Utricularia have been published online ahead of print as part of the project’s Darwin and Gender initiative.

Darlingtonia californica

Darlingtonia californica

Photo: Darlingtonia State Natural Site, north of Florence, Oregon, August 7, 2011
Illustrations: Francis Ernest Lloyd, The Carnivorous Plants (New York: Dover, 1976 [1942]), plate 5.

We went camping last weekend on the Oregon coast and made a quick stop to see these pitcher plants. When we got home I pulled out this copy of The Carnivorous Plants that my grandfather owned and found some neat illustrations of Darlingtonia. So I thought I’d put a photo with the illustrations. You can view more photos here.

Darwin made just one mention of Darlingtonia in his Insectivorous Plants (1875, p. 453), when summarizing in the very last paragraph the three classes of such plants:

There is a second class of plants which, as we have just seen, cannot digest, but absorb the products of the decay of the animals which they capture, namely, Utricularia and its close allies; and from the excellent observations of Dr. Mellichamp and Dr. Canby, there can scarcely be a doubt that Sarracenia and Darlingtonia may be added to this class, though the fact can hardly be considered as yet fully proved.

Darlingtonia was described by John Torrey (1796-1873) in 1853 and named after William Darlington (1782–1863), a botanist in Philadelphia.

Darlingtonia State Natural Site

Recent articles of interest

From the journal The Plant Cell:

Charles Darwin and the Origins of Plant Evolutionary Developmental Biology

William E. Friedman and Pamela K. Diggle

Abstract Much has been written of the early history of comparative embryology and its influence on the emergence of an evolutionary developmental perspective. However, this literature, which dates back nearly a century, has been focused on metazoans, without acknowledgment of the contributions of comparative plant morphologists to the creation of a developmental view of biodiversity. We trace the origin of comparative plant developmental morphology from its inception in the eighteenth century works of Wolff and Goethe, through the mid nineteenth century discoveries of the general principles of leaf and floral organ morphogenesis. Much like the stimulus that von Baer provided as a nonevolutionary comparative embryologist to the creation of an evolutionary developmental view of animals, the comparative developmental studies of plant morphologists were the basis for the first articulation of the concept that plant (namely floral) evolution results from successive modifications of ontogeny. Perhaps most surprisingly, we show that the first person to carefully read and internalize the remarkable advances in the understanding of plant morphogenesis in the 1840s and 1850s is none other than Charles Darwin, whose notebooks, correspondence, and (then) unpublished manuscripts clearly demonstrate that he had discovered the developmental basis for the evolutionary transformation of plant form.

From Earth Sciences History:

Religious assumptions in Lord Kelvin’s estimates of the Earth’s age

Leonard G. Wilson

Abstract Lord Kelvin’s estimates of the Earth’s age were not necessary consequences of his physics. Religion influenced his physics and his arguments for a limited age of the Earth. Kelvin’s primary aim was to destroy Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection by attacking the uniformitarian geology on which Darwin’s theory was founded. His calculations of the age of the Earth contained a fundamental contradiction. He assumed that the Earth began as a hot liquid sphere, but Fourier’s mathematics, which he used to calculate the rate of cooling, applied only to heat conducted through a solid. Kelvin’s assumption of an initially hot liquid Earth was a necessary consequence of his thermodynamics. Energy could neither be created nor destroyed. The heat within the Earth must, therefore, be derived from its first creation by God. Kelvin never admitted the contradiction between the original hot liquid Earth and his calculation of its cooling on the assumption that the Earth was solid throughout, but in 1897 his imagined account of the initial Earth was a search for a solid Earth amenable to his calculations. The heat flow through the solid crust was very small in proportion to the total internal heat of the Earth. If Kelvin had included the total internal heat in his calculations, he would have arrived at much higher figures for the age of the Earth.

From the Journal of the History of Biology:

Karl Beurlen (1901–1985), Nature Mysticism, and Aryan Paleontology

Olivier Rieppel

Abstract The relatively late acceptance of Darwinism in German biology and paleontology is frequently attributed to a lingering of Lamarckism, a persisting influence of German idealistic Naturphilosophie and Goethean romanticism. These factors are largely held responsible for the vitalism underlying theories of saltational and orthogenetic evolutionary change that characterize the writings of many German paleontologists during the first half of the 20th century. A prominent exponent of that tradition was Karl Beurlen, who is credited with having been the first German paleontologist to present a full-fledged theory of saltational evolution and orthogenetic change. A review of Beurlen’s writings reveals motives and concerns far more complex, however, and firmly rooted in contemporary völkisch thought and Aryan Science. Beurlen’s mature theory of evolution can indeed be understood as his own contribution to Aryan Geology and Biology, tainted as it was with National-Socialist ideology. Evolutionary biologists of the time who opposed the theories of Beurlen and like-minded authors, i.e., idealistic morphology, typology, saltational change, orthogenesis and cyclism did so on Darwinian principles, which ultimately prevailed. But at the time when the battle was fought, their adherence to the principle of natural selection was likewise ideologically tainted, namely in terms of racial theory. National-Socialist ideology was unable to forge a unity of evolutionary theory in Germany even amongst those of its proponents who endorsed this ideology.

From the British Journal for the History of Science:

Charles Darwin’s use of theology in the Origin of Species

Stephen Dilley

Abstract This essay examines Darwin’s positiva (or positive) use of theology in the first edition of the Origin of Species in three steps. First, the essay analyses the Origin‘s theological language about God’s accessibility, honesty, methods of creating, relationship to natural laws and lack of responsibility for natural suffering; the essay contends that Darwin utilized positiva theology in order to help justify (and inform) descent with modification and to attack special creation. Second, the essay offers critical analysis of this theology, drawing in part on Darwin’s mature ruminations to suggest that, from an epistemic point of view, the Origin‘s positiva theology manifests several internal tensions. Finally, the essay reflects on the relative epistemic importance of positiva theology in the Origin‘s overall case for evolution. The essay concludes that this theology served as a handmaiden and accomplice to Darwin’s science.

Also from the British Journal for the History of Science:

By design: James Clerk Maxwell and the evangelical unification of science

Matthew Stanley

Abstract James Clerk Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory famously unified many of the Victorian laws of physics. This essay argues that Maxwell saw a deep theological significance in the unification of physical laws. He postulated a variation on the design argument that focused on the unity of phenomena rather than Paley’s emphasis on complexity. This argument of Maxwell’s is shown to be connected to his particular evangelical religious views. His evangelical perspective provided encouragement for him to pursue a unified physics that supplemented his other philosophical, technical and social influences. Maxwell’s version of the argument from design is also contrasted with modern ‘intelligent-design’ theory.

Some book recommendations…

Here are some books I have had sitting on the shelf next to my desk for sometime:

Niles Eldredge and Susan Pearson. Charles Darwin and the Mystery of Mysteries (2010) – This is a great biography for a younger audience (middle-school) from the man behind the traveling Darwin exhibit.

Charles H. Smith & George Beccaloni, Natural Selection and Beyond: The Intellectual Legacy of Alfred Russel Wallace (2008) – No other book on Wallace covers such a wide range of his scientific and social interests. I do wish it contained a chapter counter the anti-evolutionist claim that Darwin stole ideas from Wallace.

Eugenie C. Scott, Evolution vs. Creationism: An Introduction, 2nd Edition (2009, 2nd ed.) – Looking to brush up on the current state of the conflict, look no further than this comprehensive summary from the executive director of the National Center for Science Education. Includes discussion of latest tactics from anti-evolutionists (teach the controversy, academic freedom).

Adrian Desmond & James Moore, Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution (2009) – One of the more significant contributions in the Darwin year from historians of science, this book looks at the debatable – as I’ve read in many reviews – thesis that Darwin’s ideas about human evolution were largely driven by his abolitionist tendencies, placing this in context of abolitionist and pro-slavery movements on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

Mark Laxer, The Monkey Bible: A Modern Allegory; includes The Line, a Companion Music CD by Eric Maring (2010) – This book of fiction follows the story of a young man who finds out who he really is. While the story is full of talk about transgenic organisms, ecotourism, religion, evolution, and morality- and an effort to bridge opposing viewpoints – there is far too little character development for the too many female characters. While I agree that it is important to bring the teaching of biodiversity, conservation, and evolution together, The Monkey Bible tells the reader way too fast what it should have taken the lead character the whole book to find out, only to learn that what he found out is only fiction itself.

Mary Gribbin & John Gribbin, Flower Hunters (2008) – From longtime science biographers comes a collection of shorter biographies of eleven “adventurous botanists” from the mid seventeenth century through the end of the nineteenth century, dispelling the notion of botany as a “soft” science. Not filled with history of science-shattering ideas, but a nice book to familiarize yourself with folks like Linnaeus, Banks, David Douglas, Richard Spruce, and Joseph Dalton Hooker. One female botanist is included, Marianne North.

Update on “A History of the Ecological Sciences”

Over two-and-a-half years ago I posted the links to a series of articles in the Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America: “A History of the Ecological Sciences.” Then there were 27 installments, all by Frank N. Egerton, and now he’s up to #36 (Update: I added #37-42 on July 30, 2012):

1. A History of the Ecological Sciences. Early Greek Origins. Volume 82(1): 93–97. January 2001

2. A History of the Ecological Sciences, Part 2: Aristotle and Theophrastos. Volume 82(2):149–152. April 2001

3. A History of the Ecological Sciences, Part 3: Hellenistic Natural History. Volume 82(3):201–205. July 2001

4. A History of the Ecological Sciences, Part 4: Roman Natural History. Volume 82(4):243–246. October 2001

5. A History of the Ecological Sciences, Part 5: Byzantine Natural History. Volume 83(1):89–94. January 2002

6. A History of the Ecological Sciences, Part 6: Arabic Language Science—Origins and Zoological Writings. Volume 83(2):142–146. April 2002

7. A History of the Ecological Sciences, Part 7: Arabic Language Science—Botany, Geography, and Decline. Volume 83(4):261–266. October 2002

8. A History of the Ecological Sciences, Part 8: Fredrick II of Hohenstaufen: Amateur Avian Ecologist and Behaviorist. Volume 84(1):40–44. January 2003

9. A History of the Ecological Sciences, Part 9: Albertus Magnus, a Scholastic Naturalist. Volume 84(2):87–91. April 2003

10. A History of the Ecological Sciences, Part 10: Botany During the Renaissance and the Beginnings of the Scientific Revolution. Volume 84(3):130–137. July 2003

11. A History of the Ecological Sciences, Part 11: Emergence of Vertebrate Zoology During the 1500s. Volume 84(4):206–212. October 2003

12. A History of the Ecological Sciences, Part 12: Invertebrate Zoology and Parasitology During the 1500s. Volume 85(1):27–31. January 2004

13. A History of the Ecological Sciences, Part 13: Broadening Science in Italy and England, 1600–1650. Volume 85(3):110–119. July 2004

14. A History of the Ecological Sciences, Part 14: Plant Growth Studies in the 1600s. Volume 85(4):208–213. October 2004

15. A History of the Ecological Sciences, Part 15: The Precocious Origins of Human and Animal Demography and Statistics in the 1600s. Volume 86(1):32–38. January 2005

16. A History of the Ecological Sciences, Part 16: Robert Hooke and the Royal Society of London. Volume 86(2):93–101. April 2005

17. A History of the Ecological Sciences, Part 17: Invertebrate Zoology and Parasitology During the 1600s. Volume 86(3):133–144. July 2005

18. A History of the Ecological Sciences, Part 18: John Ray and His Associates Francis Willughby and William Derham. Volume 86(4):301–313. October 2005

19. A History of the Ecological Sciences, Part 19: Leeuwenhoek’s Microscopic Natural History. Volume 87(1):47–58. January 2006

20. A History of the Ecological Sciences, Part 20: Richard Bradley, Entrepreneurial Naturalist. Volume 87(2):117–127. April 2006

21. A History of the Ecological Sciences, Part 21: Réaumur and His History of Insects. Volume 87(3):212–224. July 2006

22. A History of the Ecological Sciences, Part 22: Early European Naturalists in Eastern North America. Volume 87(4):341–356. October 2006

23. A History of the Ecological Sciences, Part 23: Linnaeus and the Economy of Nature. Volume 88(1):72–88. January 2007

24. A History of the Ecological Sciences, Part 24: Buffon and Environmental Influences on Animals. Volume 88(2):146–159. April 2007

25. A History of the Ecological Sciences, Part 25:American Naturalists Explore Eastern North America: John and William Bartram. Volume 88(3):253–268. July 2007

26. A History of the Ecological Sciences, Part 26. Gilbert White, Naturalist Extrordinaire. Volume 88(4):385–398. October 2007.

27. A History of the Ecological Sciences, Part 27: Naturalists Explore Russia and the North Pacific During the 1700s. Volume 89(1):39–60. January 2008

28. A History of the Ecological Sciences, Part 28: Plant Growth Studies During the 1700s. Volume 89(2);159–175. April 2008

29. A History of the Ecological Sciences, Part 29: Plant Disease Studies During the 1700s. Volume 89(3). July 2008

30. A History of the Ecological Sciences, Part 30: Invertebrate Zoology and Parasitology During the 1700s. Volume 89(4). October 2008.

31. A History of the Ecological Sciences, Part 31: Studies of Animal Populations During the 1700s. Volume 90(2). April 2009.

32. A History of the Ecological Sciences, Part 32: Humboldt, Nature’s Geographer. Volume 90(3). July 2009.

33. A History of the Ecological Sciences, Part 33: Naturalists Explore North America, mid-1780s–mid-1820s. Volume 90(4). October 2009.

34. A History of the Ecological Sciences, Part 34: A Changing Economy of Nature.Volume 91(1). January 2009.

35. A History of the Ecological Sciences, Part 35: The Beginnings of British Marine Biology: Edward Forbes and Philip Gosse. Volume 91(2). April 2010.

36. A History of the Ecological Sciences, Part 36: Hewett Watson, Plant Geographer and Evolutionist. Volume 91(3). July 2010.

37. A History of Ecological Sciences, Part 37: Charles Darwin’s Voyage on the Beagle. Volume91(4), October 2010.

38a. A History of Ecological Sciences, Part 38A: Naturalists Explore North America, mid-1820s to about 1840. Volume 92(1), January 2011.

38b. A History of Ecological Sciences, Part 38B: Naturalists Explore North America, 1838–1850s. Volume 92(2), April 2011.

39. A History of Ecological Sciences, Part 39: Henry David Thoreau, Ecologist. Volume 92(3), July 2011.

40. A History of the Ecological Sciences, Part 40: Darwin’s Evolutionary Ecology. Volume 92(4), October 2011.

41. A History of Ecological Sciences, Part 41: Victorian Naturalists in Amazonia—Wallace, Bates, Spruce. Volume 93(1), January 2012.

42. A History of Ecological Sciences, Part 42: Victorian Naturalists Abroad—Hooker, Huxley, Wallace. Volume 93(2), April 2012.