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.

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

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.

Today in Science History

Died this day:

Elizabeth Gertrude Knight Britton (Died 25 Feb 1934; born 9 Jan 1858). American botanist known for her lasting contributions to bryology, the study of mosses. She went on numerous botanical expeditions to the West Indies and in wilderness areas of the Adirondacks. A visit to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, near London, England, made a great impression on Britton and she determined that New York City should have its own botanical garden. She was the driving force in the establishment of the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx. The original 250 acre garden was incorporated in 1891. Through publications, lectures, and correspondence, Britton also raised public interest in conservation issues and promoted legislation for the protection of endangered native plants.

Charles Edwin Bessey (Died 25 Feb 1915; born 21 May 1845). American botanist who created the first U.S. undergraduate botanical experimental laboratory at Iowa State University, where he held several positions (1870-84) and inaugurated the systematic study of plant morphology in the U.S. He devised a classification of angiosperm (flowering plant) taxa based on Candolle’s theory of differentiation to emphasize the evolutionary divergence of primitive forms. He moved to become Dean of Agriculture at the University of Nebraska (1884-1915). While in Nebraska, he started a tree planting experiment (1902) that initiated the Nebraska National Forest, the first man-made national forest in the world. He helped influence federal legislation to preserve the giant sequoia trees in California.

Died This Day: John Needham, naturalist, and Robert Boyle, natural philosopher

From Today in Science History:

John Needham (Died 30 Dec 1781; born 10 Sept 1713). John Turberville Needham was an English naturalist and Roman Catholic priest, born in London. He experimented, with Buffon, on the idea of spontaneous generation of life. After boiling mutton broth and sealing it in sealed it in glass containers which were stored for a few days, then reopened, he found numerous microorganisms therein. His conclusion was that the organisms had arisen from non-living matter. (However, two decades later, Spallanzani indicated this was invalid since some spores could still survive the short period of boiling temperature Needham used.) He was the first clergyman of his faith to become a member of the Royal Society of London (1768).

Robert Boyle (Died 30 Dec 1691; born 25 Jan 1627). Anglo-Irish chemist and natural philosopher noted for his pioneering experiments on the properties of gases and his espousal of a corpuscular view of matter that was a forerunner of the modern theory of chemical elements. He was a founding member of the Royal Society of London. From 1656-68, he resided at Oxford where Robert Hooke, who helped him to construct the air pump. With this invention, Boyle demonstrated the physical characteristics of air and the necessity of air for combustion, respiration, and the transmission of sound, published in New Experiments Physio-Mechanical, Touching the Spring of the Air and its Effects (1660). In 1661, he reported to the Royal Society on the relationship of the volume of gases and pressure (Boyle’s Law).

CBC Radio’s series Ideas: How To Think About Science recently featured Simon Schaffer discussing his book, Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life, and here is the podcast for it.

TV: PBS’s Nature: "The Seedy Side of Plants" & NPR Podcast on Strange Experiments

Airing tomorrow evening on PBS’s Nature: “The Seedy Side of Plants”:

They’re cunning and manipulative, and will do anything to get what they want. No, it’s not the cast of your favorite daytime soap. We’re speaking of the ubiquitous plant life that covers our planet, relentlessly evolving elaborate schemes to disperse its seeds and ensure the continuation of its almost limitless species.

I guess this is a documentary from 1999, but I haven’t seen it, and am curious to see if Darwin’s seed dispersal experiments (see 1, 2, and 3) are mentioned in the program.

And head over to NPR to listen to a podcast about “History’s Strangest Science Experiments” (12/28/2007).

PODCAST: The Discovery of Oxygen – feuds and revolutions at the birth of modern chemistry

BBC’s In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg this week is about the discovery of oxygen:

In 1772, the British chemist, Joseph Priestley, stood in front of the Royal Society and reported on his latest discovery: “this air is of exalted nature…A candle burned in this air with an amazing strength of flame; and a bit of red hot wood crackled and burned with a prodigious rapidity. But to complete the proof of the superior quality of this air, I introduced a mouse into it; and in a quantity in which, had it been common air, it would have died in about a quarter of an hour; it lived at two different times, a whole hour, and was taken out quite vigorous.” Priestley had discovered Oxygen, or had he? Soon a brilliant French chemist, Antoine Lavoisier, would claim the gas for himself. And so began a rancorous dispute between the British and French chemical establishments, undertaken as chemistry itself was in the process of being rediscovered, even revolutionised.

Simon Schaffer, Professor in History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge
Jenny Uglow, Honorary Visiting Professor at the University of Warwick
Hasok Chang, Reader in Philosophy of Science at University College London

Listen to this program here, and explore further here.

"What’s New" at Darwin Online

These were added to The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online on September 28, 2007:

Charles Robert Darwin [with photographic portrait]. In Reeve, L. and Edward Walford eds. 1866. Portraits of men of eminence in literature, science, and art with biographical memoirs. The photographs from life, by Ernest Edwards, B. A. London: Lovell Reeve & Co., vol. 5, pp. 49-52. Text Images Text & images

[Darwin, C. R.] 1880. [Letter of thanks to the Yorkshire Naturalists’ Union]. The naturalist 6, No. 65 (December): 65-68. Text Images Text & images

Oliver, Daniel. 1855. Memoranda of plants, collected by the Coquet, in 1855. Transactions of the Tyneside Naturalists’ Field Club 3, part 2 (Read 15 November): 67. Images

Galton, Francis. 1871. Experiments in pangenesis, by breeding from rabbits of a pure variety, into whose circulation blood taken from other varieties had previously been transfused. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London 19 (Read 30 March): 393-410. Images

"What’s New" at Darwin Online

This was added to The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online on September 21, 2007:

Sharper images of: Questions & experiments [1839-1844]. Images

Darwin’s “Questions & experiments” notebook (1839-1844) contained sort of “notes to
self” for doing experiments. He noted that he should shoot birds and examine dogs to find
methods of dispersal. “Kill sparrow after feeding on oats,” he wrote, “give body to hawk & sow
pellet. Ejected. Done.” Most importantly, he jotted down an idea for an ambitious experiment. “Soak all kinds of seeds for week in salt. Artificial water.” Dispersal would have to wait, however, for in the next few years Darwin published the second edition of his Journal of Researches and two geological texts on volcanic islands and South America. The following eight years, from 1846 to 1854, were tied up with one of his most ambitious scientific tasks: barnacles.

A bit blurry, but that says, “Soak all kinds of seeds for week in salt. Artificial water.”

"What’s New" at Darwin Online

These were added to The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online on August 7, 2007:

Darwin, C. R. n.d. [Printed acknowledgment of correspondence]. np: np. [post 1868, c. 1860s-1870s] Text Images Text & images

Darwin, C. R. [1859]. Manual of geology. London: William Clowes printed. (Extracted from the Admiralty manual of scientific enquiry, Third edition, 1859). Images

Gray, Asa. 1861. Natural selection not inconsistent with natural theology : a free examination of Darwin’s treatise on the origin of species, and of its American reviewers. London: Trübner & Co.; Boston: Ticknor & Fields. Images

Darwin, C. R. 1881. Correspondence with Charles Darwin LL.D., F.R.S., on experimenting upon living animals. London: William Pickering. 2d edition. Images

Mega-Post: Post-Third Week of Internship

This is my avatar from the The Simpson’s movie website

July 9th: Sir George Darwin (second son of Charles Darwin) born in 1845; Loren Eisley (author of Darwin’s Century and Darwin and the Mysterious Mr. X) died in 1977.
July 12th: Josiah Wedgewood (Darwin’s grandfather, not his father-in-lae/uncle) born in 1730.

Afarensis: Darwin and His Seeds, and On the Theory of Natural Selection (quote)
The Beagle Project Blog on Darwin and Fitzroy
Influences on Darwin: Maer Hall and environs at The Red Notebook
Richard Carter, FCD’s Down House photos
Richard Carter, FCD’s favorite Wellcome image is a [pirate-y] walking stick once owned by Darwin (Pharyngula liked it, too)
Richard Carter, FCD informs us of a Darwin coin slated for 2009
Sandwalk: What is Darwinism?
Book Dragon reviews David Quammen’s The Boilerplate Rhino
Nature: Linnaeus and taxonomy in Japan (subscription required)
eBook: Asa Gray’s Darwiniana: essays and reviews pertaining to Darwinism

Dalhousie University: Evolutionary biology has moved past Darwin’s model
Mano Singham’s Web Journal: 7th, 8th and 9th posts in a series on evolution
Sandwalk’s favorite Wellcome image is a telegram to Francis Crick imforming him of receiving the Nobel Prize
Sandwalk comments on Pharyngula’s image post about Crick
The Struggle for Existence/Belief in Evolution at The Frontal Cortex
Red State Rabble: Carl Sagan explaining evolution

A funny cartoon at Pharyngula
Greg Laden wants you to join the National Center for Science Education
Evolution News & Views: Another Dirty Little Secret in the History of Darwinism
NOVA’s Judgement Day: Intelligent Design on Trial
Kenneth Miller on The Colbert Report
Thoughts in a Haystack provides quotes/photos about the Scopes Monkey Trial (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6)

Journal of Social History: Museum Manners: The Sensory Life of the Early Museum
Galileo’s Finger at the Museum of the History of Science in Florence, Italy
EADT: Platform for history at ‘online’ museum

Latest issue of Isis table of contents
An old Tangled Bank on 18th century science
My advisor at MSU (Michael Reidy) is going on a sabbatical to research the relationship between mountaineering and the advancement of science
Religion and Science at Evolving Thoughts
SHOTnews links to The History of Science and Technology in the Northwest and Science and Law (also see earth forum for links)
Laelaps favorite Wellcome Image is of a plesiosaur (some history of paleontology)
Diary of a Dandelion Diva reviews Dava Sobel’s The Planets
Discover Magazine‘s The 7 Most Exciting Moments in Science
Scott Gerard‘s thoughts on studying the history of science
Laelaps on books: Nothing like some good ‘ol 19th century science
Bookyards Author For Today Is The Astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus

Darwin and His Worms

The blog Afarensis has a Darwin-related quote, and another post on a Darwin experiment, this time Darwin and His Worms.

Here are a few paragraphs from a paper I wrote when I started as a history undergraduate in 2005:

“Having begun his studies of earthworms early in his career, and publishing a paper, “On the Formation of Mould,” in the Proceedings of the Geological Society of London in 1838[1], Darwin continued to study earthworms until 1882. Much correspondence the world over filled his mailbox from people sharing their studies and ideas on earthworms. It is well established that, after moving to Down House in 1842, Darwin found earthworms an easily accessible subject of study, for there was a multitude of them in his yard and surrounding grounds. Further, his sickness that tormented him all his adult life necessitated an easily accessible subject of study.

Historians have stated that there are possibly other reasons that Darwin resorted to studying earthworms. Janet Browne indirectly suggests that as Darwin neared the end of his life, studying earthworms became a way for him to prepare himself for a secular afterlife, in which he would return to that he loves most, nature.[2] A cartoon from the magazine PUNCH illustrates this thinking, with Darwin biting his fingernail as if contemplating death, while an earthworm presents itself welcoming Darwin to an underground life. The presence of a casket in the background is no coincidence. (see figure 1) Figure 1. PUNCH cartoon from 1881.

A more likely scenario is given in Adrian Desmond and James Moore’s 1991 biography Darwin:
‘While Mivart worried over the highest member of creation, Darwin worked at the lowest, the worm. With ‘the little strength left in me,’ he was turning to uncontentious subjects.’[3] They attribute Darwin’s fascination with earthworms as a result of his previous work. Darwin found in earthworms retreat from the controversial topics that were typical of his career, such as evolution. What could possibly be controversial about earthworms? His studies of barnacles and orchids would easily join earthworms into what Desmond and Moore call “uncontentious subjects:” small studies that bear no controversial significance.”

[1] Charles Darwin. “On the Formation of Mould.” Proceedings of the Geological Society of London, 2(52) 1838, p. 574-576.
[2] Janet Browne. Charles Darwin: The Power of Place. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002), p. 479.
[3] Adrian Desmond and James Moore. Darwin. (New York: Warner Books, 1991), p. 592.