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!

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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