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 Origin; On 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.
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.”
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).
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)
- 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.