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: Darwin’s First Theory: Exploring Darwin’s Quest to Find a Theory of the Earth

This new book about Darwin will surely interest those who appreciate his work in geology, can’t get enough of the Beagle voyage, or like to follow along a current geologist as he travels in the footsteps of Darwin in South America.


Rob Wesson, Darwin’s First Theory: Exploring Darwin’s Quest to Find a Theory of the Earth (New York: Pegasus Books, 2017), 384 pp. 

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Publisher’s description Everybody knows—or thinks they know—Charles Darwin, the father of evolution and the man who altered the way we view our place in the world. But what most people do not know is that Darwin was on board the HMS Beagle as a geologist—on a mission to examine the land, not flora and fauna. Retracing Darwin’s footsteps in South America and beyond, geologist Rob Wesson treks across the Andes, cruises waters charted by the Beagle, hunts for fossils in Uruguay and Argentina, and explores sites of long vanished glaciers in Scotland and Wales. As he follows Darwin’s path—literally and intellectually—Wesson experiences the land as Darwin did, engages with his observations, and tackles the same questions Darwin had about our ever-changing Earth. Upon his return from his five-year journey aboard the Beagle, after examining the effects of earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, and more, Darwin conceived his theory of subsidence and uplift‚—his first theory. These concepts and attitudes—the vastness of time; the enormous cumulative impact of almost imperceptibly slow change; change as a constant feature of the environment—underlie Darwin’s subsequent discoveries in evolution. And this peculiar way of thinking remains vitally important today as we enter the human-dominated Anthropocene age. Expertly interweaving science and adventure, Darwin’s First Theory is a riveting and revelatory journey around the world with one of the greatest scientific minds in history.

Brief reviews of Darwin’s First Theory from Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, and Nature.

ARTICLE: Darwin the geologist in southern South America

New in Earth Sciences History:

Darwin the geologist in southern South America

Robert H. Dott, Jr. and Ian W. D. Dalziel

Abstract Charles Darwin was a reputable geologist before he achieved biological fame. Most of his geological research was accomplished in southern South America during the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle (1831–1836). Afterward he published four books and several articles about geology and coral atolls and became active in the Geological Society of London. We have followed Darwin’s footsteps during our own researches and have been very impressed with his keen observations and inferences. He made some mistakes, however, such as appealing to iceberg rafting to explain erratic boulders and to inundations of the sea to carve valleys. Darwin prepared an important hand-colored geological map of southern South America, which for unknown reasons he did not publish. The distributions of seven map units are shown. These were described in his books wherein he also documented multiple elevated marine terraces on both coasts of South America. While exploring the Andean Cordillera in central Chile and Argentina, he discovered two fossil forests. Darwin developed a tectonic theory involving vertical uplift of the entire continent, which was greatest in the Andes where magma leaked up from a hypothetical subterranean sea of magma to form volcanoes and earthquakes. The theory had little impact and was soon eclipsed by theories involving lateral compression of strata. His and other contemporary theories suffered from a lack of knowledge about the earth’s interior. Finally with modern plate tectonic theory involving intense lateral compression across the Andean Cordillera we can explain satisfactorily the geology so carefully documented by Darwin.

BOOK: The Last Volcano: A Man, a Romance, and the Quest to Understand Nature’s Most Magnificent Fury

John Dvorak, The Last Volcano: A Man, a Romance, and the Quest to Understand Nature’s Most Magnificent Fury (New York: Pegasus Books, 2015), 356 pp.

Publisher’s description Volcanoes have fascinated—and terrified—people for ages. They have destroyed cities and ended civilizations. John Dvorak, the acclaimed author of Earthquake Storms, looks into the early scientific study of volcanoes and the life of the man who pioneered the field, Thomas Jaggar. Educated at Harvard, Jaggar went to the Caribbean after Mount Pelee exploded in 1902, killing more than 26,000 people. Witnessing the destruction and learning about the horrible deaths these people had suffered, Jaggar vowed to dedicate himself to a study of volcanoes. What followed was fifty years of global travel to eruptions in Italy, Alaska, Central America, Japan and the Pacific. In 1912, he built a small science station at the edge of a lake of molten lava at Kilauea volcano in the Hawaiian Islands, with the goal of solving the mystery of why volcanoes erupt and how they could be predicted. Jaggar found something else at Kilauea: true love. She was Isabel Maydwell, a widowed school teacher who came to Kilauea to restart her life. For more than twenty ears, she and Jaggar ran the science station, living in a small house at the edge of a high cliff that overlooked the lava lake. Maydwell would quickly becoming one of the world’s most astute observers of volcanic activity. Mixed with tales of myths and rituals, as well as the author’s own experiences and insight into volcanic activity, The Last Volcano reveals the lure and romance of confronting nature in its most magnificent form—the edge of a volcanic eruption.

BOOK: Darwin’s Sciences

This new book is so far my favorite Darwin book this year. Darwin’s Sciences (full title: Darwin’s Sciences:  How Charles Darwin voyaged from rocks to worms in his search for facts to explain how the earth, its geological features, and its inhabitants evolved) does not offer some new groundbreaking thesis about Darwin’s life, work, or legacy, but rather pulls together a lot of information about the various branches of the natural sciences Darwin studied into a detailed and readable account. An introduction looks over Darwin’s life, and then chapters on geology, zoology, botany, and the social sciences give an overview of Darwin’s studies and major publications, utilizing his journals, correspondence, and autobiography to place things in context. The bibliography for this book is in itself a treasure of references and Darwin scholarship. While I have only read into the chapter on zoology (note that each page has about perhaps twice the text as most other books, with a small font size), I recommend Darwin’s Sciences for anyone interested in a more than superficial look at what Darwin accomplished in science.


Duncan M. Porter and Peter W. Graham, Darwin’s Sciences (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015), 264 pp.

Publisher’s description A complete scientific biography of Darwin that takes into account the latest research findings, both published and unpublished, on the life of this remarkable man. Considered the first book to thoroughly emphasize Darwin’s research in various fields of endeavor, what he did, why he did it, and its implications for his time and ours. Rather than following a strictly chronological approach – a narrative choice that characteristically offers an ascent to On the Origin of Species (1859) with a rapid decline in interest following its publication and reception – this book stresses the diversity and full extent of Darwin’s career by providing a series of chapters centering on various intellectual topics and scientific specializations that interested Darwin throughout his life. Authored by academics with years of teaching and discussing Darwin, Darwin’s Sciences is suited to any biologist who is interested in the deeper implications of Darwin’s research.

Chapter 1, the Introduction, can be read online here.