New from The Linnean (April 2019):
Why there was no ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’: Thomas Henry Huxley’s Famous Nickname
John van Wyhe
[No abstract, but here’s a very short description from the author: “TH Huxley was not known as Darwin’s bulldog during the 19th century as thousands of books, articles, websites etc. have been saying for almost a hundred years.”]
‘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!).
FOR YOUNGER READERS
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
FOR OLDER READERS
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The following titles are some of the books I have been reading or have recently obtained that readers here are likely to find of interest. Ordering links follow the descriptions of each book, but I recommend also checking your local bookstore or library!
Efram, Sera-Shriar (ed.), Historicizing Humans: Deep Time, Evolution, and Race in Nineteenth-Century British Sciences (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018, 320 pp.) ~ The publiher’s description reads: “A number of important developments and discoveries across the British Empire’s imperial landscape during the nineteenth century invited new questions about human ancestry. The rise of secularism and scientific naturalism; new evidence, such as skeletal and archaeological remains; and European encounters with different people all over the world challenged the existing harmony between science and religion and threatened traditional biblical ideas about special creation and the timeline of human history. Advances in print culture and voyages of exploration also provided researchers with a wealth of material that contributed to their investigations into humanity’s past. Historicizing Humans takes a critical approach to nineteenth-century human history, as the contributors consider how these histories were shaped by the colonial world, and for various scientific, religious, and sociopolitical purposes. This volume highlights the underlying questions and shared assumptions that emerged as various human developmental theories competed for dominance throughout the British Empire.” Readers interested in Darwin specifically will want to check out chapter 6 – Gregory Radick on “How and Why Darwin Got Emotional about Race.” Radick delves into Darwin’s writing in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) as a means to understand Darwin’s thoughts on human evolution and suggests that Expression provides more evidence in Darwin’s mind of man’s animal ancestry than what he offered in On the Origin of Species (1859) or The Descent of Man (1871). Order Historicizing Humans: Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.
Kieran D. O’Hara, A Brief History of Geology (Cambridge University Press, 2018, 274 pp.) ~ “Geology as a science has a fascinating and controversial history. Kieran D. O’Hara’s book provides a brief and accessible account of the major events in the history of geology over the last two hundred years, from early theories of Earth structure during the Reformation, through major controversies over the age of the Earth during the Industrial Revolution, to the more recent twentieth-century development of plate tectonic theory, and on to current ideas concerning the Anthropocene. Most chapters include a short ‘text box’ providing more technical and detailed elaborations on selected topics. The book also includes a history of the geology of the Moon, a topic not normally included in books on the history of geology. The book will appeal to students of Earth science, researchers in geology who wish to learn more about the history of their subject, and general readers interested in the history of science.” Order A Brief History of Geology: Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.
Peter R. Grant and B. Rosemary Grant, 40 Years of Evolution: Darwin’s Finches on Daphne Major Island (Princeton University Press, 2014, 432 pp.) ~ One of the very first books I read about evolution when the topic grabbed me as a teenager was The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner (1995), which told the story of the Grants’ lengthy study of finches on the Galapagos islands. Jump two decades later and their research in the field continues, as they describe in this newer book. From the publisher: “Renowned evolutionary biologists Peter and Rosemary Grant have produced landmark studies of the Galápagos finches first made famous by Charles Darwin. In How and Why Species Multiply , they offered a complete evolutionary history of Darwin’s finches since their origin almost three million years ago. Now, in their richly illustrated new book, 40 Years of Evolution, the authors turn their attention to events taking place on a contemporary scale. By continuously tracking finch populations over a period of four decades, they uncover the causes and consequences of significant events leading to evolutionary changes in species. The authors used a vast and unparalleled range of ecological, behavioral, and genetic data–including song recordings, DNA analyses, and feeding and breeding behavior–to measure changes in finch populations on the small island of Daphne Major in the Galápagos archipelago. They find that natural selection happens repeatedly, that finches hybridize and exchange genes rarely, and that they compete for scarce food in times of drought, with the remarkable result that the finch populations today differ significantly in average beak size and shape from those of forty years ago. The authors’ most spectacular discovery is the initiation and establishment of a new lineage that now behaves as a new species, differing from others in size, song, and other characteristics. The authors emphasize the immeasurable value of continuous long-term studies of natural populations and of critical opportunities for detecting and understanding rare but significant events. By following the fates of finches for several generations, 40 Years of Evolution offers unparalleled insights into ecological and evolutionary changes in natural environments.” Order 40 Years of Evolution: Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.
Tessa Boase, Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather: Fashion, Fury and Feminism – Women’s Fight for Change (Aurum Press, 2018, 336 pp.) ~ Women’s suffrage in Britain began in 1918, when certain woman over the age of 30 were granted the right to vote, but the effort to reach such a point had begun decades earlier. Social historian Tessa Boase tells the story of how the women’s suffrage movement was intertwined with the movement to protect British birds. The publisher’s description: “When Mrs Pankhurst stormed the House of Commons with her crack squad of militant suffragettes in 1908, she wore on her hat a voluptuous purple feather. This is the intriguing story behind that feather. Twelve years before the suffragette movement began dominating headlines, a very different women’s campaign captured the public imagination. Its aim was radical: to stamp out the fashion for feathers in hats. Leading the fight was a character just as heroic as Emmeline Pankhurst, but with opposite beliefs. Her name was Etta Lemon, and she was anti-fashion, anti-feminist – and anti-suffrage. Mrs Lemon has been forgotten by history, but her mighty society lives on. Few, today, are aware that Britain’s biggest conservation charity, the RSPB, was born through the determined efforts of a handful of women, led by the indomitable Mrs Lemon. While the suffragettes were slashing paintings and smashing shop windows, Etta Lemon and her local secretaries were challenging ‘murderous millinery’ all the way up to Parliament. This gripping narrative explores two singular heroines – one lionised, the other forgotten – and their rival, overlapping campaigns. Moving from the feather workers’ slums to the highest courtly circles, from the first female political rally to the first forcible feeding, Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather is a unique journey through a society in transformation. This is a highly original story of women stepping into the public sphere, agitating for change – and finally finding a voice.” Order Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather: Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.
Peter Ward, Lamarck’s Revenge: How Epigenetics Is Revolutionizing Our Understanding of Evolution’s Past and Present (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018, 288 pp.) ~ “In the 1700s, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck first described epigenetics to explain the inheritance of acquired characteristics; however, his theory was supplanted in the 1800s by Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection through heritable genetic mutations. But natural selection could not adequately explain how rapidly species re-diversified and repopulated after mass extinctions. Now advances in the study of DNA and RNA have resurrected epigenetics, which can create radical physical and physiological changes in subsequent generations by the simple addition of a single small molecule, thus passing along a propensity for molecules to attach in the same places in the next generation! Epigenetics is a complex process, but paleontologist and astrobiologist Peter Ward breaks it down for general readers, using the epigenetic paradigm to reexamine how the history of our species–from deep time to the outbreak of the Black Plague and into the present–has left its mark on our physiology, behavior, and intelligence. Most alarming are chapters about epigenetic changes we are undergoing now triggered by toxins, environmental pollutants, famine, poor nutrition, and overexposure to violence. Lamarck’s Revenge is an eye-opening and controversial exploration of how traits are inherited, and how outside influences drive what we pass along to our progeny.” Order Lamarck’s Revenge: Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.
Adrian Currie, Rock, Bone, and Ruin: An Optimist’s Guide to the Historical Sciences (MIT Press, 2018, 376 pp.) ~ I’ve read lots of books about dinosaurs and paleontology over the years, but this one suggests to not necessarily take everything a paleontologist says for granted. From the publisher: “The ‘historical sciences’—geology, paleontology, and archaeology—have made extraordinary progress in advancing our understanding of the deep past. How has this been possible, given that the evidence they have to work with offers mere traces of the past? In Rock, Bone, and Ruin, Adrian Currie explains that these scientists are ‘methodological omnivores,’ with a variety of strategies and techniques at their disposal, and that this gives us every reason to be optimistic about their capacity to uncover truths about prehistory. Creative and opportunistic paleontologists, for example, discovered and described a new species of prehistoric duck-billed platypus from a single fossilized tooth. Examining the complex reasoning processes of historical science, Currie also considers philosophical and scientific reflection on the relationship between past and present, the nature of evidence, contingency, and scientific progress. Currie draws on varied examples from across the historical sciences, from Mayan ritual sacrifice to giant Mesozoic fleas to Mars’s mysterious watery past, to develop an account of the nature of, and resources available to, historical science. He presents two major case studies: the emerging explanation of sauropod size, and the ‘snowball earth’ hypothesis that accounts for signs of glaciation in Neoproterozoic tropics. He develops the Ripple Model of Evidence to analyze ‘unlucky circumstances’ in scientific investigation; examines and refutes arguments for pessimism about the capacity of the historical sciences, defending the role of analogy and arguing that simulations have an experiment-like function. Currie argues for a creative, open-ended approach, ’empirically grounded’ speculation.” Order Rock, Bone, and Ruin: Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.
A new article in the journal Endeavour:
Abstract From his earliest student days through the writing of his last book, Charles Darwin drew diagrams. In developing his evolutionary ideas, his preferred form of diagram was the tree. An examination of several of Darwin’s trees—from sketches in a private notebook from the late 1830s through the diagram published in the Origin—opens a window onto the role of diagramming in Darwin’s scientific practice. In his diagrams, Darwin simultaneously represented both observable patterns in nature and conjectural narratives of evolutionary history. He then brought these natural patterns and narratives into dialogue, allowing him to explore whether the narratives could explain the patterns. But Darwin’s diagrams did not reveal their meaning directly to passive readers; they required readers to engage dynamically with them in order to understand the connections they disclosed between patterns and narratives. Moreover, the narratives Darwin depicted in his diagrams did not represent past sequences of events that he claimed had actually occurred; the narratives were conjectural, schematic, and probabilistic. Instead of depicting actual histories in all their particularity, Darwin depicted narratives in his diagrams in order to make general claims about how nature works. The conjunction of these features of Darwin’s diagrams is central to how they do their epistemic work.
In 2011 I reviewed the The Darwin Experience: The Story of the Man and His Theory
of Evolution by John van Wyhe (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Press, 2008) for the Reports of the National Center for Science Education (PDF), calling the book a “wonderful window into the life and work of Charles Darwin, suitable for newcomers to the topic as well as those already familiar because of its display-like presentation and the illustrations and facsimile documents.” It was a large format book and came in a sleeve, its 64 pages and removable documents meant to be touched and poured over in a different manner than just reading a traditional book. While I still enjoy occasionally perusing that book, I am finding the newly published version for the Natural History Museum in London – Darwin: The Man, His Great Voyage, and His Theory of Evolution (London: Carlton/André Deutsch, 2018, 160 pp.) – to be a more rewarding reading experience.
While van Wyhe’s text is the same, I find the the new publisher’s presentation of images and documents to be more pleasant. The scans of the primary documents are placed on the pages, and are reproduced much better than those of the first version of the book. I highly recommend this new version for Darwin aficionados, and it would have been the perfect book for me when I first became interested in Darwin as a teenager.* Here are a few photos from inside the book:
* If I recall correctly, the first book I read about Darwin (around 1995), was Roy Gallant’s Charles Darwin: The Making of a Scientist (1972), because this was available in my high school library.
The following titles are some of the books I have been reading or have recently obtained that readers here are likely to find of interest. Ordering links follow the descriptions of each book, but I recommend also checking your local bookstore or library!
Alistair Sponsel, Darwin’s Evolving Identity: Adventure, Ambition, and the Sin of Speculation (University of Chicago Press, 2018, 336 pp.) ~ When I attended (and presented) at the Darwin in the Field conference in Cambridge, England in 2009, I met Alistair Sponsel, then a post-doctoral fellow with the Smithsonian Institution Archives. At this conference, Sponsel re-examined Darwin’s claim that he developed his theory of coral reef formation on the west coast of South America, arguing that Darwin only developed the theory after leaving South America (a “eureka” moment on the island of Tahiti). Almost a decade later, Sponsel has published his book on Darwin’s coral reef theory. From the several chapters I’ve enjoyed so far, this is undoubtedly the most academic of books presented in this post. Sponsel has meticulously surveyed Darwin’s writings to reassess many aspects of Darwin’s coral reef studies during the voyage of HMS Beagle and his subsequent publications on the topic. While it is undoubtedly enough to flesh out a valuable contribution to Darwin studies, Sponsel goes further to give new light on the question of why Darwin delayed the publication of On the Origin of Species. Rather than fear of the religious backlash to a book about evolution keeping Darwin from publishing his theory, Sponsel aims to show that Darwin was concerned with how theories should be presented, and his caution stemmed from the critical response to his geological publications of the 1840s. His efforts to gain as much evidence in support of evolution by natural selection was to avoid the “sin of speculation,” as he felt about his coral reef work. I look forward to the rest of the chapters in Sponsel’s book. Anyone interested in how Humboldt influenced Darwin will want to check this one out. Order Darwin’s Evolving Identity: Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.
Roland Jackson, The Ascent of John Tyndall: Victorian Scientist, Mountaineer, and Public Intellectual (Oxford University Press, 2018, 608 pp.) ~ Later this year the sixth volume of The Correspondence of John Tyndall, for which I was a co-editor, will be published. And this July, I will begin work as a co-editor for the tenth volume with Roland Jackson, who this year published this biography of Tyndall. Having worked on Tyndall’s letters in graduate school and over the last couple of years, as well as writing about Tyndall and Darwin for my graduate paper, I am familiar with the major points of his life and scientific career. Yet I’ve only focused on narrow ranges of his lifetime – there is much more to learn about this towering figure of science in the nineteenth-century that most people have likely not heard of. Almost halfway into this biography, I’ve found Jackson’s narrative style to my liking; and it will be a great resource for information when working on my next volume of Tyndall letters. Order The Ascent of John Tyndall: Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.
Richard O. Prum, The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World – And Us (Anchor Books/Penguin, 2018, 448 pp.) ~ I have not yet delved into this paperback edition of Prum‘s well-received book (Doubleday, 2017), one of the New York Times ten best books of the year, but I certainly will when I have finished other books in this post. Here is the publisher’s description: “In the great halls of science, dogma holds that Darwin’s theory of natural selection explains every branch on the tree of life: which species thrive, which wither away to extinction, and what features each evolves. But can adaptation by natural selection really account for everything we see in nature? Yale University ornithologist Richard Prum—reviving Darwin’s own views—thinks not. Deep in tropical jungles around the world are birds with a dizzying array of appearances and mating displays: Club-winged Manakins who sing with their wings, Great Argus Pheasants who dazzle prospective mates with a four-foot-wide cone of feathers covered in golden 3D spheres, Red-capped Manakins who moonwalk. In thirty years of fieldwork, Prum has seen numerous display traits that seem disconnected from, if not outright contrary to, selection for individual survival. To explain this, he dusts off Darwin’s long-neglected theory of sexual selection in which the act of choosing a mate for purely aesthetic reasons—for the mere pleasure of it—is an independent engine of evolutionary change. Mate choice can drive ornamental traits from the constraints of adaptive evolution, allowing them to grow ever more elaborate. It also sets the stakes for sexual conflict, in which the sexual autonomy of the female evolves in response to male sexual control. Most crucially, this framework provides important insights into the evolution of human sexuality, particularly the ways in which female preferences have changed male bodies, and even maleness itself, through evolutionary time. The Evolution of Beauty presents a unique scientific vision for how nature’s splendor contributes to a more complete understanding of evolution and of ourselves.” Here are some videos of recent lectures Prum has given on this topic for the Chicago Humanities Festival, Heyman Center for the Humanities, and the American Philosophical Society. It is worth noting that 2017 also saw the publication of Evelleen Richards’ Darwin and the Making of Sexual Selection (University of Chicago Press), “a comprehensive and meticulously researched account of Darwin’s path to its formulation—one that shows the man, rather than the myth, and examines both the social and intellectual roots of Darwin’s theory.” Order The Evolution of Beauty: Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.
Adrian Lister, Darwin’s Fossils: The Collection that Shaped the Theory of Evolution (Smithsonian Books, 2018, 160 pp.) ~ Before I had a copy of this book myself, I read a review of it on the website Massive, where it states, “Darwin’s Fossils is overall a dry and dull book. The first chapter or two is lively, pulling together Darwin and a cast of characters, either scientists waiting in Britain for crates filled with samples Darwin mailed back or the crew of the Beagle. That’s just the introduction though, and when Darwin’s Fossils gets to the meat of the text, it’s nothing but data and figures. It’s the worst caricature of science writing made flesh. The illustrations are worthwhile, but little else is.” I am not sure where this reviewer finds that the bulk of the text is just data and figures. Yes, the measurements of the variety of fossils Darwin discovered are included, and the book is chock full of illustrations, photographs, and maps, but what would you expect from a book that’s purpose is to describe “Darwin’s fossils”? But, such data hardly constitutes the bulk of the text. So far, a third of the way into the book, I find the author‘s style to be enjoyable as he not only describes the fossils as Darwin would have found them, but gives the readers an idea of how they fit into Darwin’s developing theory but also what the modern thinking is about the animals these bones came from. The book is split into chapters on how Darwin came to be a naturalist, giant mammal fossils, petrified forests, marine fossils, and coral reefs, with a final chapter on Darwin’s theory development. I look forward to continuing this read (it sits on my nightstand), and think anyone interested in Darwin, paleontology, or travel in the pursuit of science would likewise enjoy it. The author, Adrian Lister at the Natural History Museum, London, has also organized the digitization of Darwin’s fossils to be made public online (here). Order Darwin’s Fossils: Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.
Steve Brusatte, The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World (William Morrow, 2018, 416 pp.) ~ My gateway into learning about Darwin and evolution was through books about dinosaur paleontology, my fascination with the prehistoric beasts spurred by seeing the film Jurassic Park (1993) when I was 15 (the film came out 25 years ago this month!). Two of the first dinosaur books I read were wide-ranging, covering what was known about a variety of dinosaurs by examining recent discoveries and theories, across the globe and with scores of paleontologists. John Noble Wilford’s The Riddle of the Dinosaur (1985) and Don Lessem’s Kings of Creation (1992), copies of which both still sit on my bookshelf, grabbed my attention from cover to cover. Brusatte, a paleontologist with at the University of Edinburgh, likewise brings readers up to date on the current thinking about the lives of that group of vertebrates that ruled the planet for more than 150 million years, why they went extinct, and about the evolution of birds from theropod dinosaurs (where Darwin gets a mention when Archaeopteryx is discussed). Although I never went on to get a degree in paleontology like I originally intended, I always look forward to a good book about dinosaurs. Order The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.