BOOK: Collecting Evolution: The Galapagos Expedition that Vindicated Darwin

I am very excited for Matthew to see his book published! I’ve got a copy checked out from my library and hope to delve into it soon…

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Matthew J. James, Collecting Evolution: The Galapagos Expedition that Vindicated Darwin (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017),  304 pp.

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Publisher’s description In 1905, eight men from the California Academy of Sciences set sail from San Francisco for a scientific collection expedition in the Galapagos Islands, and by the time they were finished in 1906, they had completed one of the most important expeditions in the history of both evolutionary and conservation science. These scientists collected over 78,000 specimens during their time on the islands, validating the work of Charles Darwin and laying the groundwork for foundational evolution texts like Darwin’s Finches. Despite its significance, almost nothing has been written on this voyage, lost amongst discussion of Darwin’s trip on the Beagle and the writing of David Lack.

In Collecting Evolution, author Matthew James finally tells the story of the 1905 Galapagos expedition. James follows these eight young men aboard the Academy to the Galapagos and back, and reveals the reasons behind the groundbreaking success they had. A current Fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, James uses his access to unpublished writings and photographs to provide unprecedented insight into the expedition. We learn the voyagers’ personal stories, and how, for all the scientific progress that was made, just as much intense personal drama unfolded on the trip. This book shares a watershed moment in scientific history, crossed with a maritime adventure. There are four tangential suicides and controversies over credit and fame. Collecting Evolution also explores the personal lives and scientific context that preceded this voyage, including what brought Darwin to the Galapagos on the Beagle voyage seventy years earlier. James discusses how these men thought of themselves as “collectors” before they thought of themselves as scientists, and the implications this had on their approach and their results.

In the end, the voyage of the Academy proved to be crucial in the development of evolutionary science as we know it. It is the longest expedition in Galapagos history, and played a critical role in cementing Darwin’s legacy. Collecting Evolution brings this extraordinary story of eight scientists and their journey to life.

Check out these radio interviews with James about his new book: The Avid Reader Show and Gulf Coast Live on WGCU

BOOK REVIEW: Tiny Thinkers: Charlie and the Tortoise

The first title in a new book series for kids called Tiny Thinkers – where real life scientists are depicted as kids – is about Charles Darwin.

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In Tiny Thinkers: Charlie and the Tortoise (Garland, TX: Secular Media Group, 2015, 40 pp.), written by M.J. Mouton and illustrated by Jezreel S. Cuevas, a Beagle named Hitch (perhaps a reference to atheist Christoper Hitchens, given the name of the publisher) accompanies a young Darwin on his famous voyage around the world. They land in the Galapagos Islands, and Darwin of course loves all the plants and animals there are to study. The illustrations are cute and the text given in rhyming form.

Charlie and the Tortoise unfortunately continues the notion that Darwin recognized a group of birds with varying beak sizes and shapes and eating habits as all different species of finches. He did not know they were all finches until an ornithologist in London examined specimens following the Beagle‘s return. Also, another group of birds were more instrumental in his thinking about variation and adaptation, the archipelago’s mockingbirds. Scientific myths remain hard to abandon. (See Frank Sulloway’s 1982 paper on Darwin’s finches and this essay from John van Wyhe.) As an historian of science, such details are important. I am not sure if this new book series has any history consultants. If not, they should. Not only should science books for kids get the science right, they should get the history right, too. I do give credit to the author, however, for not writing that Darwin had a Eureka moment about evolution on the Galapagos – that’s what usually follows his apparent observation of the different species of finches.

BOOK REVIEW: The Adventures of Piratess Tilly

My kids and I have enjoyed a new children’s book that combines adventure, the natural world, and poetry, with a little Darwin thrown in.

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The Adventures of Piratess Tilly (Newburyport, MA: White Wave Press, 2014, 32 pp), by Elizabeth Lorayne with beautiful watercolor illustrations by Karen Watson, follows Tilly aboard the ship Foster, with her crew of sailors and a rescued koala named Yuki, on adventures across the globe. Tilly patches her own clothes, reads books for inspiration, and examines and sketches natural history specimens. Yuki navigates while the crew handles the ship. In these pages, their destination is the Galapagos Islands, but they come across pirates kidnapping baby tortoises and must intervene!

The text of the story is given as descriptive and action-filled haiku, one per page, and feels to me like what a group of children playing might conjure up with their imaginations. It’s fun, visually appealing, and charming. And, much to the book’s benefit, Darwin is given a nod in two of the haiku – “Staterooms full of books / Darwin and Potter inspire / Lofty dreams unfold” & “Many days passing / Best used for examining / What would Darwin think?” – and a portrait on the cabin wall. Darwin would think, how cool to have a female-led adventure! Will Tilly’s adventures continue? I hope so.

Check out the book’s website for lots of info, and an active Facebook page.

BOOK REVIEW: The Galapagos: A Natural History

This would be no surprise to anyone: I hope to visit the Galapagos someday. It won’t happen in the near future, so for now I’ll settle for reading books about the famous islands, and get jealous of my uncle-in-law who recently posted photos from his travels in South America to his Facebook page, including the Galapagos. He did bring me back this t-shirt, however! 10359073_10154320780050249_1253261699024635731_o I mentioned reading books about the Galapagos, and I recently finished a new one: The Galapagos: A Natural History by science journalist Henry Nicholls (who previously wrote Lonesome George: The Life and Loves of a Conservation Icon). It’s not a very long book – the reading pages (minus acknowledgments and an appendix) come in at just 144 pages – yet Nicholls packs a wealth of information very succinctly in ten chapters that can each be read in short bursts (perfect for a father of young children like me!). So, what does a slim book like The Galapagos: A Natural History give the reader? The answer: a delightful overview of interesting natural history topics that serve as a general introduction of the islands. This is not a field guide, however, and Nicholls does not discuss every species of plant or animal to be found on “The Encantadas” but rather describes what visitors are likely to see or be interested in knowing more about. Also, he peppers these descriptions with history, culture, politics, and economics of the islands to flesh out the context of their natural offerings. He describes scientific observations of the past – much more than Darwin’s five weeks – and present, and the work of the many organizations on the islands which seek to protect and conserve its natural history.

Nicholls begins with two chapters looking at geographical aspects of the islands: their geologic origin and their place in the Pacific Ocean, both of which have much to do with the insular flora and fauna to be found there. He then moves on to oceanic bird species before tackling plants, invertebrates, and land birds (where we learn about the island’s famous finches and perhaps more important mockingbirds). Iguanas of various types and the well-known Galapagos tortoises are discussed in a chapter about reptiles. The final three chapters are devoted to humans – the discovery and history of exploration of the islands; conservation work being done there (to counter the environmental destruction laid upon the native plants and animals); the tourism industry; local culture and politics; and more.

The Galapagos: A Natural History is an enjoyable read. For someone with more than a passing interest in the islands, by picking this book up and rereading a chapter here and there, Nicholls will allow me to daydream of visiting the Galapagos.

My friend John Riutta also posted about this book on his website The Well-Read Naturalist.

Darwin Sign Project

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Today I learned about a fun project at the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos:

Those who have visited Galapagos will know that the sign outside the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS) is a popular spot to have your photograph taken. In recognition of the 50th anniversary of the research station, the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF) and the Friends of Galapagos Organisations are asking you to send in your photos beside the sign to contribute to a giant montage that will go on display at the new visitor centre. It is a great opportunity for you to become a part of Galapagos history!

Submissions will be accepted until 20 January 2015 (when the CDRS turns 51 years old) and all eligible participants will be notified via email to view the final photo collection online.

A voluntary donation with each photo submission will be put towards building repairs and maintenance of the research station, helping to keep CDF at the forefront of Galapagos conservation science for years to come.

If you’ve got such a photo, head here to submit it! Wish I had such a photo…

BOOK: Island: A Story of the Galápagos

In Redwoods, author and illustrator Jason Chin transported a boy from a big city subway to a redwood forest in California, and imaginations ran wild as a library transformed into an undersea world in Coral Reefs. Now, in his third book, Chin takes the reader on a six million year journey to witness the birth and life of a chain of volcanic islands off the coast of eastern South America.

Island: A Story of the Galápagos (New York: Roaring Brook Press, 2012) is a visual treat for young science and nature enthusiasts (and adults, too!). As an introduction to the geologic history and natural history of the Galápagos, focusing on how the islands were populated by the usual suspects – tortoises, land and marine iguanas, frigates and finches, and boobies and cormorants – Island is factual and compelling. We learn about how landscape and life go together, most importantly for volcanic islands and how they can form and disappear, and then require their inhabitants to seek new islands to call home. The framing of the narrative is storyboard-like, which gives it an active, fast-paced feel. I particularly enjoyed how, to perhaps counter the general conception that people may have when they consider the Galápagos as a place that humans visit and observe wildlife, that the majority of the story takes place before humans. As much as I appreciate children’s books about Darwin, he is a minor character here, and only shows up in an Epilogue, a reminder that life and land on our planet has existed and thrived long before a species evolved that could think about their geological origin and the plants and animals that live on them. Following the narrative, Chin ends with a few pages of more detailed information about Darwin (including a fabulous illustration of a young Darwin), the geology of the islands, and endemic species (those inhabiting only the Galápagos).

Chin’s vivid watercolors instill in me a desire to visit the Galapagos more than any photograph or video footage has:

As with his previous books, Chin has beautifully melded science and story in Island. My son and I enjoyed reading this together immensely. In 2014, Chin will leave Earth and continue his adventures in Gravity.