Three new books for the Darwin aficionado in your life…

Here are three books which I think any Darwin aficionado would appreciate receiving as a gift.*

First, I have been reading with great interest the new book by biologist James T. Costa (The Annotated OriginOn the Organic Law of Change: A Facsimile Edition and Annotated Transcription of Alfred Russel Wallace’s Species Notebook of 1855-1859; and Wallace, Darwin, and the Origin of Species). Titled Darwin’s Backyard: How Small Experiments Led to a Big Theory (W.W. Norton, 2017; order from or Powell’s City of Books), Costa describes in stunning detail experiments that seem to me to be rather large in scope. The dedication that Darwin put into seeking answers for a wide variety of questions that related to his theory of natural selection, all while writing and publishing other books, keeping up a vast correspondence, and devoting time to being a husband and father, is simply astounding. Granted many of our modern distractions were not around, I sometimes find it difficult to comprehend just how much he accomplished.


Darwin’s Backyard explores nine avenues of experimental research that Darwin carried out, from barnacles and bees to orchids and earthworms. Many of the experiments occurred simultaneously, with some extending through the years (Darwin would sometimes begin an experiment, have to put it on hold because of family life, publishing, or some other distraction, and get back to it a year or more later – on p. 128, Costa refers to Darwin’s “stick-to-itiveness”). Throughout the chapters, he reiterates the importance of Darwin’s reliance on other people for his research, especially for specimen collection (including children, his own and others), and crowd-sourcing for information through queries in various publications, such as the Gardener’s Chronicle. I particular enjoyed the chapter titled “A Grand Game of Chess,” on Darwin’s seed dispersal experiments to determine if plants could spread across great distances around the globe via ocean currents. Readers in education will find value in each chapter’s suggested activities, recreating some of Darwin’s own or conducting similar ones. While many Darwin books discuss aspects of his various experiments, Darwin’s Backyard will find a place on my bookshelf for its incredible detail on the experiments themselves, analysis of what the experiments were accomplishing (or not) for Darwin’s theory, his use of primary sources such as Darwin’s letters and notebooks, and the way in which Costa intertwines Darwin’s scientific work with his family life. You can listen to Costa discuss his book in this program from North Carolina Public Radio, his talk for Google in September, and on the podcast In Defense of Plants.

The second book is written by a friend, Richard Carter of The Friends of Charles Darwin, whom I met on a 2009 trip to Cambridge, England. Richard campaigned for Darwin to be depicted on a Bank of England bank note (which he was, until just recently that is). Richard’s first book, On the Moor: Science, History and Nature on a Country Walk (2017; , order from, “shows how a routine walk in the countryside is enhanced by an appreciation of science, history, and natural history.”


I look forward to delving into his writing, which includes plenty to think about regarding Darwin, and a little on my favorite Darwin supporter, John Tyndall (I am currently co-editing volume 6 of Tyndall’s correspondence with Janet Browne and Ken Corbett; and next summer will begin work on volume 10 with Roland Jackson).

Third, several years ago I half-reviewed a book of Darwin quotations that unfortunately missed the mark. I commented that such a book would be best tackled by an historian of science, and since then one has indeed been produced by not just a stellar historian of science, but Darwin’s most delightful biographer, Janet Browne. In the style of their successful quotation book for Albert Einstein, Princeton University Press has published The Quotable Darwin (2017; order from or Powell’s City of Books).

Darwin, The Quotable.jpg

Browne’s expertise from her years working on the Darwin Correspondence Project followed by her two-volume biography (Voyaging and The Power of Place) lends to a properly compiled selection of words. Browne writes in her preface, “This volume of quotations from Darwin’s writings digs into the historical records to show the remarkable contrasts of his life and times in his own words and in the words of his friends, contemporaries, and family. In print, Darwin was not much given to aphoristic turns of phrase, and he was cautious in the way he expressed his scientific ideas… However, his private letters and notebooks reveal his thoughts as bold and incisive.” The collection is organized by theme, which is also roughly chronological, the main sections being Early Life and the Voyage of the Beagle, Marriage and Scientific Work, Origin of Species, Mankind, On Himself, and Friends and Family. Each quotation includes a citation for the book, notebook, letter, etc. from where it comes. A chronology of his life at the beginning of the book is useful, as are a variety of portraits of Darwin interspersed throughout, providing a visual of his own transformation. An extensive index makes finding quotations on a particular topic an easy task. The final quotation in the collection – “It is not the strongest of the species  that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is most adaptable to change” – is rightly cited as “Misattributed to Darwin.” You can view of selection of quotes here, and enjoy these images from Princeton University Press’s Twitter feed (click each image to enlarge):

Finally, here some other recent Darwin and evolution titles I suggest for holiday gift giving:

  • Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters (2nd ed.) by Donald Prothero (Powell’s/Amazon)
  • Collecting Evolution: The Galapagos Expedition that Vindicated Darwin by Matthew J. James (Powell’s/Amazon)
  • How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog): Visionary Scientists and a Siberian Tale of Jump-Started Evolution by Lee Alan Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut (Powell’s/Amazon)
  • The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World – and Us by Richard O. Prum (Powell’s/Amazon)
  • Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of Evolution by Jonathan B. Losos (Powell’s/Amazon)
  • Darwin and Women: A Selection of Letters edited by Samantha Evans (Powell’s/Amazon)
  • Darwin’s First Theory: Exploring Darwin’s Quest for a Theory of Earth by Rob Wesson (Powell’s/Amazon)
  • Origins of Darwin’s Evolution: Solving the Species Puzzle Through Time and Place by J. David Archibald (Powell’s/Amazon)
  • Charles Darwin’s Life With Birds: His Complete Ornithology by Clifford B. Frith (Powell’s/Amazon)
  • Debating Darwin by Robert J. Richards and Michael Ruse (Powell’s/Amazon)
  • Darwin and the Making of Sexual Selection by Evelleen Richards (Powell’s/Amazon)
  • God’s Word or Human Reason?: An Inside Perspective on Creationism
    by Jonathan Kane,‎ Emily Willoughby, and T. Michael Keesey (Amazon)
  • Discovering the Mammoth: A Tale of Giants, Unicorns, Ivory, and the Birth of a New Science by John J. McKay (Powell’s/Amazon)

For kids:

  • Grandmother Fish: A Child’s First Book of Evolution by Jonathan Tweet (Powell’s/Amazon)
  • Charles Darwin’s Around-the-World Adventure by Jennifer Thermes (Powell’s/Amazon)

* Links to Amazon and Powell’s Books are affiliate links.


A look at the Rhea County Courthouse in Dayton, TN, location of the 1925 Scopes “Monkey” Trial

My friend Catherine L. Cummins, a life science instructor at LSU Laboratory School in Baton Rouge, has shared some photos of her visit to the Rhea County Courthouse in Dayton, TN, location of the 1925 Scopes “Monkey” Trial. She was kind to let me share with my readers. Has anyone else ever visited this historic site?

ARTICLE: The evolving spirit: morals and mutualism in Arabella Buckley’s evolutionary epic

In the Royal Society’s journal Notes and Records for December 2017:

The evolving spirit: morals and mutualism in Arabella Buckley’s evolutionary epic

Jordan Larsen

Abstract Contemporaries of Charles Darwin were divided on reconciling his theory of natural selection with religion and morality. Although Alfred Russel Wallace stands out as a spiritualist advocate of natural selection who rejected a natural origin of morality, the science popularizer and spiritualist Arabella Buckley (1840–1929) offers a more representative example of how theists, whether spiritualist or more orthodox in their religion, found reconciliation. Unlike Wallace, Buckley emphasized the lawful evolution of morality and of the soul, drawing from the theological tradition of traducianism. Significantly, Buckley argued for a mutualistic and deeply theistic interpretation of Darwinian evolution, particularly the evolution of morals, without sacrificing the uniformity of natural law. Though Buckley’s understanding of the evolutionary epic has been represented as emphasizing mutualism and spiritualist theology, here I demonstrate that her distinctive addition to the debate lies in her unifying theory of traducianism. In contrast to other authors, I argue that through Buckley we better understand Victorian spiritualism as more of a religion than an occult science. However, it was a conception of religion that, through her evolutionary traducianism, bridged science and spiritualism. This offers historians a more complex but satisfying image of the Victorian worldview after Darwin.

BOOK: Origins of Darwin’s Evolution: Solving the Species Puzzle Through Time and Space

A few years ago biologist J. David Archibald wrote a book about trees of life, Aristotle’s Ladder, Darwin’s Tree: The Evolution of Visual Metaphors for Biological Order. His newest book is a detailed look at the often downplayed role of geographical distribution (or biogeography) in the development of Darwin’s theory of evolution. I look forward to this read, as an undergraduate paper I wrote dealt with an aspect of this topic (and was the origin of this blog’s name).


J. David Archibald, Origins of Darwin’s Evolution: Solving the Species Puzzle Through Time and Space (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), 208 pp.

Order through Powell’s City of BooksOrder through

Publisher’s description Historical biogeography—the study of the history of species through both time and place—first convinced Charles Darwin of evolution. This field was so important to Darwin’s initial theories and line of thinking that he said as much in the very first paragraph of On the Origin of Species (1859) and later in his autobiography. His methods included collecting mammalian fossils in South America clearly related to living forms, tracing the geographical distributions of living species across South America, and sampling peculiar fauna of the geologically young Galápagos Archipelago that showed evident affinities to South American forms. Over the years, Darwin collected other evidence in support of evolution, but his historical biogeographical arguments remained paramount, so much so that he devotes three full chapters to this topic in On the Origin of Species. Discussions of Darwin’s landmark book too often give scant attention to this wealth of evidence, and we still do not fully appreciate its significance in Darwin’s thinking. In Origins of Darwin’s Evolution, J. David Archibald explores this lapse, showing how Darwin first came to the conclusion that, instead of various centers of creation, species had evolved in different regions throughout the world. He also shows that Darwin’s other early passion—geology—proved a more elusive corroboration of evolution. On the Origin of Species has only one chapter dedicated to the rock and fossil record, as it then appeared too incomplete for Darwin’s evidentiary standards. Carefully retracing Darwin’s gathering of evidence and the evolution of his thinking, Origins of Darwin’s Evolution achieves a new understanding of how Darwin crafted his transformative theory.

BOOK: God’s Word or Human Reason?: An Inside Perspective on Creationism

My way into learning about Darwin and evolution was through dinosaurs. Specifically, that 1993 movie where genetically-engineered dinosaurs run amok on a tropical island. I read book after book about paleontology following seeing that movie when I was 15, and then eventually started coming across books that offered a different view as to what those fossils in the ground meant (including What Is Creation Science? by Henry M. Morris and Gary E. Parker, gifted to me from a friend in my high school chemistry class). I’ve long followed the conflict between supporters of evolution (ya know, science!) and those who supplant their religious-based perspective on the fossil record: creationists of the young earth variety (you know, pseudoscience!). There are some good books out there that give an overview of why the fossil record supports an evolutionary interpretation (for example, Donald Prothero’s Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters and two chapters in Richard Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution). Where this new book differs is that the evidence is shown in favor of the evolutionary perspective by five former young earth creationists. Chapters cover creationist arguments in the topics of the fossil record in relation to a worldwide flood, the age of the Earth through radiometric dating, the evolution of birds from dinosaurs, human anatomy, and perspectives on reconciling an old earth and evolution with an acceptance of the Bible. The book also features wonderful dinosaur art from Emily Willoughby.


Jonathan Kane, Emily Willoughby, and T. Michael Keesey, God’s Word or Human Reason?: An Inside Perspective on Creationism (Portland, OR : Inkwater Press, 2016), 424 pp.

• Order through Powell’s City of Books • Order through •

Publisher’s description God gave humans the ability to reason, but the Bible commands that we have faith in Him. According to Answers in Genesis, the largest and most influential creationist organization in the United States, the conclusions of human reason must be rejected if they contradict our understanding of the Bible. What are the implications of this worldview, and is it the best one for a Christian to live by?

In God’s Word or Human Reason?, five former young-Earth creationists explore the topics of science and Biblical exegesis with the goal of showing that the scientific method does more to glorify God than to denigrate Him. Instead of providing a broad-level overview of the evidence for evolution and an old Earth, this book takes a new approach that considers the detailed expanse of creationist technical literature. The six main chapters provide an in­ depth examination of these arguments in a few key areas, including stratigraphy, radiometric dating, the origins of birds and of humans, and the meaning of the book of Genesis.

Although all five authors once were young-Earth creationists, today they represent a diversity of beliefs: two atheists, two Christians, and one deist. Each has included a personal account of their experiences growing up or participating in the creationist community, as well as the factors that played into their eventually leaving. As an interfaith project, God’s Word or Human Reason? represents the common ground that people of many religious affiliations can find in their appreciation of reason as a means to understand the world.

More articles on Darwin and paleontology

I’ve recently shared some notices of new articles on Darwin and paleontology (here and here), and have since learned that they and three more are all part of a special issue devoted to the topic. Here are the three others, in the journal Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences:

Introduction: Towards a global history of paleontology: The paleontological reception of Darwin’s thought

David Sepkoski and Marco Tamborini

Highlights Paleontology had an important role in the reception of Darwinian evolutionary ideas / The reception of Darwin by paleontologists varied significantly by national tradition / This special issue is a first step towards a global history of paleontology

American Palaeontology and the reception of Darwinism

Peter J. Bowler

Highlights Outlines the varying responses of American paleontologists to Darwinism / Explores the complexity of O. C. Marsh’s support for natural selection / Shows how neo-Lamarckians developed an alternative to Darwinism

“How nationality influences Opinion”: Darwinism and palaeontology in France (1859–1914)

Claudine Cohen

Highlights Analyzes different aspects of 19th century French anti-Darwinism, their causes and effects / Describes the emergence of transformist views in French late 19th-Century palaeontology / Examines the specificity of French Neo-Lamarckian thought / Studies the reference to Darwin’s thought in 19th century French palaeontological works (Gaudry, Saporta, Deperet, F. Bernard) / Studies evolutionary concepts involved in the approach to Human evolution

Two new journal articles on the reception of Darwin in paleontology

I’ve seen notice of two new journal articles on the reception of Darwin in paleontology, both in Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences:

Chinese paleontology and the reception of Darwinism in early twentieth century

Xiaobo Yu

Abstract The paper examines the social, cultural and disciplinary factors that influenced the reception and appropriation of Darwinism by China’s first generation paleontologists. Darwinism was mixed with Social Darwinism when first introduced to China, and the co-option of Darwinian phrases for nationalistic awakening obscured the scientific essence of Darwin’s evolutionary theory. First generation Chinese paleontologists started their training in 1910s–1920s. They quickly asserted their professional identity by successfully focusing on morphology, taxonomy and biostratigraphy. Surrounded by Western paleontologists with Lamarckian or orthogenetic leanings, early Chinese paleontologists enthusiastically embraced evolution and used fossils as factual evidence; yet not enough attention was given to mechanistic evolutionary studies. The 1940s saw the beginning of a new trend for early Chinese paleontologists to incorporate more biological and biogeographical components in their work, but external events such as the dominance of Lysenkoism in the 1950s made the Modern Synthesis pass by without being publicly noticed in Chinese paleontology. Characterized by the larger goal of using science for nation building and by the utilitarian approach favoring local sciences, the reception and appropriation of Darwinism by first generation Chinese paleontologists raise important questions for studying the indigenizing efforts of early Chinese scientists to appropriate Western scientific theories.


The reception of darwin in late nineteenth-century German paleontology as a case of pyrrhic victory

Marco Tamborini

Abstract This paper investigates German-speaking paleontologists’ reception of Darwin’s thought and the ways in which they negotiated their space of knowledge production accordingly. In German-speaking regions, the majority of paleontologists welcomed Darwin’s magnum opus, since it granted paleontology an independent voice within biology, and thus a new institutional setting. However, in the process of negotiating the features of paleontology within the Darwinian framework, German paleontologists constrained their practices too narrowly, for fear of leaving open possible results at odds with the burgeoning Darwinian biological community. In doing so, they also limited the further development of German paleontology. In other words, paleontologists Karl Alfred von Zittel (1839–1904) and Melchior Neumayr (1845–1890) advocated for a handmaid’s role for paleontology, which increased biologists’ dependence on paleontologists for empirical evidence, but which limited paleontologists’ theoretical autonomy. By analyzing both the institutional strategies and the methodology of German-speaking paleontology at the end of the nineteenth century, this paper shows the importance of scientists’ ability to enter into and negotiate their place within the broader biological community.