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 Amazon.com 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.

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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 Amazon.com), “shows how a routine walk in the countryside is enhanced by an appreciation of science, history, and natural history.”

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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 Amazon.com or Powell’s City of Books).

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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.

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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!

LECTURE: “Charles Darwin the Experimental Botanist”

From the APS Museum:

Lecture: Karen Snetselaar, “Charles Darwin the Experimental Botanist”
MARCH 23, 2010

Charles Darwin is recognized world-wide for developing and disseminating ideas on evolution and natural selection.  His work as an experimental scientist is less well-known.  As a botanist, Darwin carried out a number of elegant experiments directed at understanding such wide-ranging topics as plant movement in response to light, mechanisms by which plants prevent self-fertilization, and responses of insectivorous plants to different food sources.  As a gentleman scientist, Darwin did many of his experiments in his house or on the surrounding grounds, often involving his children in the activities.  This talk will describe some of these botanical experiments and their impact on future plant biologists.

Dr. Karen Snetselaar is Professor and Chair of Biology at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.  She is a botanist whose research is focused on plant symbiosis and fungi and has published extensively in science journals. In addition to her teaching responsibilities at Saint Joseph’s University, Dr. Snetselaar directs a program that brings hands-on science into Philadelphia elementary school classrooms.  She has been teaching for the Wagner Institute since 1997 as a member of the adult education faculty and through the GeoKids program, a partnership with four elementary schools.

This lecture is hosted in collaboration with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society

5:00 – 6:15pm – view Dialogues with Darwin in Philosophical Hall, 104 South Fifth Street
6:30pm – Karen Snetselaar lecture in Franklin Hall, 427 Chestnut St.

After the lecture, APS Museum Director and Curator Sue Ann Prince will offer a curatorial tour of the exhibit and refreshments will be served.

Fee: $10 PHS members and Friends of the APS, $20 non-members.

To register and purchase tickets, please contact Carol Dutill at 215-988-8869 orcdutill@pennhort.org

Youngsters dredge Darwin’s pond

From the News Shopper (UK, 5 Dec. 2009):

CUDHAM: Youngsters dredge Darwin's pond

Rose Garnson, 6, with fellow pupils

CUDHAM: Youngsters dredge Darwin’s Pond

YOUNGSTERS spent the day replicating Charles Darwin’s experiments to mark 150 years since the scientist published his most famous work.

Pupils at Cudham Primary School collected mud samples from the same pond used by Darwin which still exists in their school grounds.

The samples were then taken back to the classroom to see if plants can grow from seeds in the pond mud.

A spokesman for Bromley Council’s world heritage team said: “Cudham Primary School will be linking up with schools in the Galapagos who are also investigating and comparing the observations and experiments that Darwin carried out in their local area.”

Youngsters also visited Down House in Downe to mark 150 years since Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species.

First Conference?

Today I submitted an abstract for a paper to give at a conference in March: “Darwin’s Legacy: Evolution’s Impact on Science and Culture” — a multidisciplinary student conference to be held March 19-21, 2009, at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, hosted by The Evolution Learning Community.

The conference will be a unique opportunity for undergraduate and graduate students in the natural sciences, social sciences, humanities, and arts who are conducting research or creative endeavors related to evolution to present their research, investigate graduate study opportunities, network, enhance their CVs, and enrich the body of knowledge surrounding evolution. 

I submitted an abstract for a paper I did as an undergrad, for the session on “species in space and time”:

“For I Have Not the Means”: Charles Darwin, Transoceanic Dispersal, and the Geography of Science

Michael D. Barton

Thinking about the geographical distribution of plants and animals in relation to his theory of evolution in the 1850s, Charles Darwin tested the germination abilities of seeds after immersion in artificial sea-water. The idea of transoceanic dispersal – that plants and animals can survive long distances over oceans by floating, catching rides on detritus, or being carried by winds or birds – was crucial to Darwin’s theory, and he spent several years doing experiments for validation. Other naturalists, such as Darwin’s botanist friend Joseph Dalton Hooker, had other ideas about the movement of plants and animals. They theorized and “invoked” land bridges and continental extensions where oceans now exist. Plants and animals moved by their own powers across land, rather than being passively dispersed. The botanist Hooker resorted to geology, whereas geologist Darwin relied on the dispersal power of plants.

In debating questions of geographical distribution, however, Darwin and Hooker were debating geographical contexts of science itself. Whereas the history of science has been understood in its social and political contexts, recently historians have sought to understand science’s geographical context. This paper seeks to understand the debate between Darwin and Hooker by examining the social context of Darwin’s life and the spaces in which he experimented. His illness allowed him time and isolation for extensive reading, research, correspondence, observation, and experimentation. Darwin conducted his work differently than how Hooker envisioned professional science to be conducted. Although Darwin was limited in how and where he could conduct his seed experiments, that he conducted them at home and not at a professional institution may have given to Hooker’s reluctance in accepting Darwin’s views on dispersal. The different roles which Darwin and Hooker played in science, Darwin the sedentary naturalist and Hooker the traveling botanist, may shed light on their stances in the seed dispersal debate.

I will be informed of acceptance or not on, of all days, February 12th. Wish me luck!

BBC’s In Our Time: Life After the Origin

As mentioned here, BBC – Radio 4 will have several shows about Charles Darwin. In Our Time, hosted by Melvyn Bragg, continues with a 4-part series with “Life After the Origin”:

Part 4 is set in Down House where Darwin lived out the final years of his life and which became both family home and experiment lab.

In Our Time’s website is here and a direct link to the mp3 here.

Darwin’s Garden: Exhibit and Related Symposium in New York

What happens while I lay in bed sound asleep? Well, Karen of The H.M.S. Beagle Project beats me (she’s six hours ahead of me) to posting about another Darwin exhibit and event. Honestly, I planned to post it this morning anyways, when I saw it advertised in the latest Natural History magazine last night while listening about the Beagle Project on Atheists Talk (mp3 direct link).

Curated by Darwin historian David Kohn (The Darwinian Heritage, Darwin on Evolution), Darwin’s Garden: An Evolutionary Adventure opens at the New York Botanical Garden on April 25 (until June 15). From the website:

Charles Darwin is best known for his theory of evolution and other natural history achievements, but little is known about his enduring and insightful work with plants and the important role they played in formulating his ideas. Yet from cradle to grave, botany played a pivotal role in Darwin’s life. From counting peonies and playing under the apple trees in his father’s garden as a boy to collecting “all the plants in flower” on his famous voyage to the Galápagos as a young man and testing the sex and sensitivity of plants at his home, Down House, in his later years, plants were a lifelong preoccupation for Darwin.

Darwin’s Garden: An Evolutionary Adventure explores the untold story of Darwin’s botanical influences, his research, and his contribution to our understanding of plants, and ultimately, of life in general. The exhibition is featured in three Botanical Garden venues and includes an “evolutionary tour” of living plants that demonstrate key points on the tree of life, which links all living beings through a common ancestry.

Along with the formal exhibit, there is reproduction of Darwin’s garden, a symposium in early May, and an interactive children’s exhibit (with activity).

Damn, New York is way over on the east coast, and I am in the middle of the continent… If anyone goes to see the exhibits or symposia, please share….

For anyone interested in Darwin and his botanical work, due out in this spring is The Aliveness of Plants: The Darwins at the Dawn of Plant Science by Peter Ayres. From the publisher:

The Darwin family was instrumental in the history of botany. For Erasmus (1731–1802), it was a hobby, for Charles (1809–1882) an inspiration, and for Francis (1848–1925), a profession. Their experiences illustrate the growing specialization and professionalization of science throughout the nineteenth century. Ayres shows how botany escaped the burdens of medicine, feminization and the sterility of classification and nomenclature to become a rigorous laboratory science.