On the bookshelf: Darwin, dinosaurs, and Victorian science


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: AmazonPowell’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: AmazonPowell’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: AmazonPowell’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: AmazonPowell’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 & NobleIndiebound.


BOOK: Reading the Rocks: How Victorian Geologists Discovered the Secret of Life

I am a few chapters into Reading the Rocks, a new book about the history of geology in the nineteenth century. I am enjoying Maddox’s writing style, and so far think this book would serve great as a good overview of the topic for those who don’t wish to delve into the much lengthier works of Martin Rudwick (that the author is much familiar with). I did spot two errors in the first chapter, which I hope is not indicative of pages to come – it’s a shame it wasn’t spotted!*

Reading the Rocks

Brenda Maddox, Reading the Rocks: How Victorian Geologists Discovered the Secret of Life (New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2017), 272 pp. 

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Publisher’s description The birth of geology was fostered initially by gentlemen whose wealth supported their interests, but in the nineteenth century, it was advanced by clergymen, academics, and women whose findings expanded the field. Reading the Rocks brings to life this eclectic cast of characters who brought passion, eccentricity, and towering intellect to the discovery of how Earth was formed. Geology opened a window on the planet’s ancient past. Contrary to the Book of Genesis, the rocks and fossils dug up showed that Earth was immeasurably old. Moreover, fossil evidence revealed progressive changes in life forms. It is no coincidence that Charles Darwin was a keen geologist. Acclaimed biographer and science writer Brenda Maddox’s story goes beyond William Smith, the father of English geology; Charles Lyell, the father of modern geology; and James Hutton, whose analysis of rock layers unveiled what is now called “deep time.” She also explores the lives of fossil hunter Mary Anning, the Reverend William Buckland, Darwin, and many others–their triumphs and disappointments, and the theological, philosophical, and scientific debates their findings provoked. Reading the Rocks illustrates in absorbing and revelatory details how this group of early geologists changed irrevocably our understanding of the world.

* In the first chapter (pp. 14-15) is the following passage: “… scientists estimate the age of the earth at roughly 4.6 billion years. The encompassing solar system is believed to have emerged around 13.7 billion years ago as a result of the ‘Big Bang’ – the collapse of a fragment of a giant molecular cloud.” The encompassing solar system would have been formed roughly the same time as did earth, 4.6 billion years ago. Our solar system did not form as a direct result of the Big Bang. Further, on p. 15, Maddox states incorrectly that life first emerged an estimated 540 million years ago, “first as single cells deep in the ocean, then as creatures with head, tails and segments.” It was the Cambrian explosion that occurred roughly 540 million years ago, not when life first evolved – the earliest fossils of life are from about 3.5 billion years ago.

Check out reviews of Reading the Rocks from Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, Wall Street Journal (paywall), Washington Post, and theartsdesk.com.

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

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


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

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

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

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

BOOK: Discovering the Mammoth: A Tale of Giants, Unicorns, Ivory, and the Birth of a New Science

My friend John J. McKay, self-described “underemployed, grumpy, and aging liberal who lives in the Great Northwest” who blogs here and here, has recently published his first book on the history of how discoveries of mammoth bones (or what some people thought they were before the idea of a mammoth came about) influenced the developing science of paleontology.


John J. McKay, Discovering the Mammoth: A Tale of Giants, Unicorns, Ivory, and the Birth of a New Science (New York: Pegasus, 2017), 256 pp.

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Publisher’s description Today, we know that a mammoth is an extinct type of elephant that was covered with long fur and lived in the north country during the ice ages. But how do you figure out what a mammoth is if you have no concept of extinction, ice ages, or fossils? Long after the last mammoth died and was no longer part of the human diet, it still played a role in human life. Cultures around the world interpreted the remains of mammoths through the lens of their own worldview and mythology. When the ancient Greeks saw deposits of giant fossils, they knew they had discovered the battle fields where the gods had vanquished the Titans. When the Chinese discovered buried ivory, they knew they had found dragons’ teeth. But as the Age of Reason dawned, monsters and giants gave way to the scientific method. Yet the mystery of these mighty bones remained. How did Enlightenment thinkers overcome centuries of myth and misunderstanding to reconstruct an unknown animal? The journey to unravel that puzzle begins in the 1690s with the arrival of new type of ivory on the European market bearing the exotic name “mammoth.” It ends during the Napoleonic Wars with the first recovery of a frozen mammoth. The path to figuring out the mammoth was traveled by merchants, diplomats, missionaries, cranky doctors, collectors of natural wonders, Swedish POWs, Peter the Great, Ben Franklin, the inventor of hot chocolate, and even one pirate. McKay brings together dozens of original documents and illustrations, some ignored for centuries, to show how this odd assortment of characters solved the mystery of the mammoth and, in doing so, created the science of paleontology.

I am happy to see this book out, and am looking forward to reading it! In the meantime, here are some plugs/reviews online: Greg Laden’s Blog, NatureChristian Science Monitor, Twilight Beasts blog, Richard Conniff for the Wall Street Journal (paywall), Publisher’s Weekly, and Library Journal.

ARTICLE: Progress in life’s history: Linking Darwinism and palaeontology in Britain, 1860–1914

A new Darwin article in the journal Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences:

Progress in life’s history: Linking Darwinism and palaeontology in Britain, 1860–1914

Chris Manias

Abstract This paper examines the tension between Darwinian evolution and palaeontological research in Britain in the 1860–1914 period, looking at how three key promoters of Darwinian thinking – Thomas Henry Huxley, Edwin Ray Lankester and Alfred Russell Wallace – integrated palaeontological ideas and narratives of life’s history into their public presentations of evolutionary theory. It shows how engagement with palaeontological science was an important part of the promotion of evolutionary ideas in Britain, which often bolstered notions that evolution depended upon progress and development along a wider plan. While often critical of some of the non-Darwinian concepts of evolution professed by many contemporary palaeontologists, and frequently citing the ‘imperfection’ of the fossil record itself, Darwinian thinkers nevertheless engaged extensively with palaeontology to develop evolutionary narratives informed by notions of improvement and progress within the natural world.

ARTICLE: ‘Darwin was Wrong.’ The International Media Coverage of the Oreopithecus’ Reinterpretation (1956–1959)

An article in a 2016 issue of the journal Centaurus looks at an interesting moment in the history of evolutionary thought:

‘Darwin was Wrong.’ The International Media Coverage of the Oreopithecus’ Reinterpretation (1956–1959)

Clara Florensa

Abstract ‘Darwin was wrong’ was a headline that made news around the world in March 1956. Johannes Hürzeler, a Swiss palaeontologist, had just made public his theory that Oreopithecus bambolii, a fossil thus far classified as an extinct Old World monkey, was in fact a 12-million-year old hominid. That was 10 million years (!) older than the oldest hominids accepted at the time. Two years later he unearthed a complete skeleton of Oreopithecus in Italy. The echo of this discovery in the media was enormous yet the newspaper coverage in different western countries followed distinctive patterns. This paper will show these differences and point out possible explanations that go far beyond scientific disagreement. It will be argued that the press is a privileged source for comparing simultaneous reactions to the same scientific fact around the globe and for helping us discover national and supranational patterns of scientific discourse while linking them to their contexts. This paper also highlights the role of the news pieces as ‘supports of knowledge.’ Just like bones or scientific articles, news items circulate prompting in turn the circulation of other ‘supports of knowledge’ such as fossil remains or scientists.

The whole issue is devoted to articles on the construction of prehistoric knowledge.

BOOK: The Story of Life in 25 Fossils

Donald Prothero, paleontologist, prolific writer, and recipient of this year’s Gregory Service Award from the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, has added to his list of numerous books another that relates the wonderful world of fossils to the public:

Donald R. Prothero, The Story of Life in 25 Fossils: Tales of Intrepid Fossil Hunters and the Wonders of Evolution (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), 408 pp.

Publisher’s description Every fossil tells a story. Best-selling paleontology author Donald R. Prothero describes twenty-five famous, beautifully preserved fossils in a gripping scientific history of life on Earth. Recounting the adventures behind the discovery of these objects and fully interpreting their significance within the larger fossil record, Prothero creates a riveting history of life on our planet. The twenty-five fossils portrayed in this book catch animals in their evolutionary splendor as they transition from one kind of organism to another. We witness extinct plants and animals of microscopic and immense size and thrilling diversity. We learn about fantastic land and sea creatures that have no match in nature today. Along the way, we encounter such fascinating fossils as the earliest trilobite, Olenellus; the giant shark Carcharocles; the “fishibian” Tiktaalik; the “Frogamander” and the “Turtle on the Half-Shell”; enormous marine reptiles and the biggest dinosaurs known; the first bird, Archaeopteryx; the walking whale Ambulocetus; the gigantic hornless rhinoceros Paraceratherium, the largest land mammal that ever lived; and the Australopithecus nicknamed “Lucy,” the oldest human skeleton. We meet the scientists and adventurers who pioneered paleontology and learn about the larger intellectual and social contexts in which their discoveries were made. Finally, we find out where to see these splendid fossils in the world’s great museums. Ideal for all who love prehistoric landscapes and delight in the history of science, this book makes a treasured addition to any bookshelf, stoking curiosity in the evolution of life on Earth.

Chapter 1, “Planet of the Scum: The First Fossils,” can be read online here.