BOOK: Creatures of Cain: The Hunt for Human Nature in Cold War America

A recently published book of possible interest to followers here is Creatures of Cain: The Hunt for Human Nature in Cold War America by Erika Milam (Princeton University Press, 2019):


Publisher’s description After World War II, the question of how to define a universal human nature took on new urgency. Creatures of Cain charts the rise and precipitous fall in Cold War America of a theory that attributed man’s evolutionary success to his unique capacity for murder. Drawing on a wealth of archival materials and in-depth interviews, Erika Lorraine Milam reveals how the scientists who advanced this “killer ape” theory capitalized on an expanding postwar market in intellectual paperbacks and widespread faith in the power of science to solve humanity’s problems, even to answer the most fundamental questions of human identity. The killer ape theory spread quickly from colloquial science publications to late-night television, classrooms, political debates, and Hollywood films. Behind the scenes, however, scientists were sharply divided, their disagreements centering squarely on questions of race and gender. Then, in the 1970s, the theory unraveled altogether when primatologists discovered that chimpanzees also kill members of their own species. While the discovery brought an end to definitions of human exceptionalism delineated by violence, Milam shows how some evolutionists began to argue for a shared chimpanzee-human history of aggression even as other scientists discredited such theories as sloppy popularizations. A wide-ranging account of a compelling episode in American science, Creatures of Cain argues that the legacy of the killer ape persists today in the conviction that science can resolve the essential dilemmas of human nature.

Milam was interviewed about her research on the podcast Time to Eat the Dogs, and she wrote an essay for Aeon based on her book.

[Amazon|Powell’s|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound]

New book provides wide overview of the history of natural history

Worlds of Natural History

On the left you have the 1996 volume Cultures of Natural History (edited by N. Jardine, J.A. Secord, and E.C. Spary), a well-respected overview of the history of natural history. Almost a quarter century later, Cambridge University Press has published a follow up volume, while adding a fourth editor: Worlds of Natural History on the right. I found the first volume very useful when an undergraduate student in history, and likewise from a perusal of the table of contents of the new volume will find much to enjoy and use. The press has made available for free PDFs of nine chapters from Cultures and two from Worlds. Click here for these downloads!

Here’s the publisher information for the new volume:

H.A. Curry, N. Jardine, J.A. Secord, and E.C. Spary, eds., Worlds of Natural History (Cambridge University Press, 2019), 682 pp.

Description From Aztec accounts of hibernating hummingbirds to contemporary television spectaculars, human encounters with nature have long sparked wonder, curiosity and delight. Written by leading scholars, this richly illustrated volume offers a lively introduction to the history of natural history, from the sixteenth century to the present day. Covering an extraordinary range of topics, from curiosity cabinets and travelling menageries to modern seed banks and radio-tracked wildlife, this volume draws together the work of historians of science, of environment and of art, museum curators and literary scholars. The essays are framed by an introduction charting recent trends in the field and an epilogue outlining the prospects for the future. Accessible to newcomers and established specialists alike, Worlds of Natural History provides a much-needed perspective on current discussions of biodiversity and an enticing overview of an increasingly vital aspect of human history.


New graphic novels about Humboldt’s and Darwin’s travels

Humboldt & Darwin graphic novels

Two recent books take the world travels of two of the most important figures in the history of science and digest them into readable and visually appealing formats. As graphic novels, these books have the potential to reach audiences who would not necessarily pick up Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of America: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World or Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle.

Andrea Wulf and Lilian Melcher (illustrator), The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt (Pantheon, 2019), 272 pp. [Amazon|Powell’s|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound]

Publisher’s description Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) was an intrepid explorer and the most famous scientist of his age. His restless life was packed with adventure and discovery, but his most revolutionary idea was a radical vision of nature as a complex and interconnected global force that does not exist for the use of humankind alone. His theories and ideas were profoundly influenced by a five-year exploration of South America. Now Andrea Wulf partners with artist Lillian Melcher to bring this daring expedition to life, complete with excerpts from Humboldt’s own diaries, atlases, and publications. She gives us an intimate portrait of the man who predicted human-induced climate change, fashioned poetic narrative out of scientific observation, and influenced iconic figures such as Simón Bolívar, Thomas Jefferson, Charles Darwin, and John Muir. This gorgeous account of the expedition not only shows how Humboldt honed his groundbreaking understanding of the natural world but also illuminates the man and his passions.

Links: reviews from Nature, Publishers Weekly, and Kirkus; an animation for the book; story on Science Friday (and excerpt)

Fabien Grolleau and Jérémie Royer (illustrator), Darwin: An Exceptional Voyage (Nobrow, 2019), 184 pp. [Amazon|Powell’s|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound]

Publisher’s description This sweeping, intelligent and immersive biographical graphic novel from award-winning creators, joins legendary scientist Charles Darwin as a young man, as he embarks on his voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle. ~ It is the year 1831. A gifted but distracted young man named Charles Darwin has been offered a place aboard the H.M.S. Beagle, in a chain of events that will change both his life and the course of modern science. Join him on an epic journey of thrilling discovery as he explores remote corners of the natural world and pieces together the very beginnings of his revolutionary theory of evolution.

Links: review from Multiversity Comics; excerpt from The Comics Journal

ARTICLES: Evolution and Film Censorship, was Huxley “Darwin’s Bulldog”?, and the Struggle for Coexistence

Here are a few items of possible interest to readers here:

In Osiris:

Darwin on the Cutting-Room Floor: Evolution, Religion, and Film Censorship

David A. Kirby

Abstract In the mid-twentieth century, film studios sent their screenplays to the Hays Office, Hollywood’s official censorship body, and to the Catholic Church’s Legion of Decency for approval and recommendations for revision. This essay examines how filmmakers crafted stories involving evolutionary biology and how religiously motivated movie censorship groups modified these cinematic narratives in order to depict what they considered to be more appropriate visions of humanity’s origins. I find that censorship groups were concerned about the perceived impact of science fiction cinema on the public’s belief systems and on the wider cultural meanings of evolution. By controlling the stories told about evolution in science fiction cinema, censorship organizations believed that they could regulate the broader cultural meanings of evolution itself. But this is not a straightforward story of “science” versus “religion.” There were significant differences among these groups as to how to censor evolution, as well as changes in their attitudes toward evolutionary content over time. As a result, I show how censorship groups adopted diverse perspectives, depending on their perception of what constituted a morally appropriate science fiction story about evolution.

In The Linnean (PDF here):

Why there was no ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’: Thomas Henry Huxley’s Famous Nickname

John van Wyhe

Summary “It is true that Huxley was widely known as a defiant defender of Darwinism. But imagining that he was widely acknowledged as ‘Darwin’s bulldog’ obscures some of the historical reality, such as the fact that he had his own (non-Darwinian) ideas about evolution and was long tentative about the efficacy of natural selection. Appreciating that he was not known as ‘Darwin’s bulldog’ should lead to a more nuanced recognition of who he was and what he really did. If one of the most widely known, enjoyed and unquestioned nicknames in the history of science is incorrect, what other undisputed facts might also be wrong?”

And a PhD dissertation (PDF here):

The Struggle for Coexistence: Peter Kropotkin and the Social Ecology of Science in Russia, Europe, and England, 1859-1922

Eric Michael Johnson

Summary This dissertation follows the history and intellectual development of Peter Kropotkin whose scientific theory of mutual aid showed how Darwinian evolution could explain cooperation and the origin of morality. By following his journey from prince to naturalist to political radical, it reveals that Kropotkin was part of a transnational network of scientific and political thinkers whose perspective can be defined as Socialist Darwinism. Those figures that would later be defined as representing Social Darwinism originated in their opposition to Socialist Darwinism and through an ongoing debate with them. This demonstrates that political and scientific ideas about evolutionary change were influenced by each other in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.


ARTICLE: Why there was no ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’: Thomas Henry Huxley’s Famous Nickname

New from The Linnean (April 2019):

Why there was no ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’: Thomas Henry Huxley’s Famous Nickname

John van Wyhe

[No abstract, but here’s a very short description from the author: “TH Huxley was not known as Darwin’s bulldog during the 19th century as thousands of books, articles, websites etc. have been saying for almost a hundred years.”]

Here’s a PDF of the article! And as someone has already asked me, does this mean I must change my Twitter handle?


ARTICLE: Charles Darwin, Richard Owen, and Natural Selection: A Question of Priority

From the Journal of the History of Biology (March 2019):

Charles Darwin, Richard Owen, and Natural Selection: A Question of Priority

Curtis N. Johnson

Abstract No single author presented Darwin with a more difficult question about his priority in discovering natural selection than the British comparative anatomist and paleontologist Richard Owen. Owen was arguably the most influential biologist in Great Britain in Darwin’s time. Darwin wanted his approbation for what he believed to be his own theory of natural selection. Unfortunately for Darwin, when Owen first commented in publication about Darwin’s theory of descent he was openly hostile (Edinb. Rev. vol. 111, Article VIII, 1860, pp. 487–533, anonymous). Darwin was taken off-guard. In private meetings and correspondence prior to 1860 Owen had been nothing but polite and friendly, even helping Darwin in cataloguing and analyzing Darwin’s zoological specimens from the Beagle voyage. Every early indication predicted a life-long friendship and collaboration. But that was not to be. Owen followed his slashing review with a mounting campaign in the 1860s to denounce and discredit both Darwin and his small but ascendant circle of friends and supporters. But that was not enough for Owen. Starting in 1866, perhaps by now realizing Darwin had landed the big fish, Owen launched a new campaign, to claim the discovery of “Darwin’s theory” for himself. Darwin naturally fought back, mainly in the “Historical Sketch” that he prefaced to Origin starting in 1861. But when we peel back the layers of personal animus and escalating vituperation we discover in fact their quarrel was generated more by mutual misunderstanding than scientific disagreement. The battle ended only when Darwin finally penetrated to the crux of the matter and put an end to the rivalry in 1872, in the final version of the Sketch.


Darwin, evolution & science books for holiday gift giving (2018)

‘Tis the season for holiday gift giving (to others or to yourself, no shame there), so I thought I’d share about some recent books about evolution and related topics that might strike in you a desire to spread the good news (of science!).



Rebecca Stefoff and Teagan White (illustrator), Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species: Young Readers Edition (New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2018, 176. pp.) ~ As she has done for other books (Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee, and Charles C. Mann’s 1493), Stefoff has taken an important book and adapted it for a younger audience, using more accessible language and including copious illustrations and photographs, and while remaining true to Darwin’s chapter structure, has provided updated information on topics that have, well, evolved since Darwin’s time. If On the Origin of Species continues to be a book that everyone has an opinion about yet have never actually read (it can be a challenging read), perhaps they can start with this handsome large format edition. It surely deserves a place on the shelves of middle and high school libraries. Order Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species: Young Readers Edition: Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

Grandmother Fish

Jonathan Tweet and Karen Lewis (illustrator), Grandmother Fish (New York: Feiwel & Friends, 2016, 32 pp.) ~ This fantastic book about evolution for preschool-aged kids is not new, but I shared about it previously and it is worth mentioning again! Order Grandmother Fish: Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

One Iguana, Two Iguanas

Sneed B. Collard III, One Iguana, Two Iguanas: A Story of Accident, Natural Selection, and Evolution (Thomaston, ME: Tilbury House, 2018, 48 pp.) ~ I have not looked at a copy of this book myself, but Greg Laden has. Here’s the publisher’s description: “Natural selection and speciation are all but ignored in children’s nonfiction. To help address this glaring deficiency, award-winning children’s science writer Sneed Collard traveled to the Galapagos Islands to see for himself, where Charles Darwin saw, how new species form. The result is this fascinating story of two species of iguana, one land-based and one marine, both of which developed from a single ancestor that reached the islands millions of years ago. The animals evolved in different directions while living within sight of one another. How is that possible?” Geared toward upper elementary and middle grade readers. Order One Iguana, Two Iguanas: A Story of Accident, Natural Selection, and Evolution: Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

Stuff of Stars, The.jpeg

Marion Dane Bauer and Ekua Holmes, Ekua (illustrator), The Stuff of Stars (Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press, 2018, 40 pp.) ~ Going further back that biological evolution, this book puts the Sagan-esque notion of everything being made of “star stuff” – that all the matter that makes up every organism, including humans, was first created in the furnaces of stars billions of years ago – into a beautiful presentation of words and art. For some science-minded people who live without religion, appreciating our elemental connection to the universe can serve as a secular spirituality, and The Stuff of Stars serves as a perfect introduction of this idea. Order The Stuff of Stars: Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.


Ince, Martin, Continental Drift: The Evolution of Our World from the Origins of Life to the Future (Blueprint Editions, 80 pp.; titled Drift in the UK for WeldonOwen Publishing) ~ It is difficult to discuss the evolution of animals on Earth without bringing in geology: how plates of earth’s crusts moving around the globe over millions of years has had a major effect on the evolutionary lineages of organisms. Continental Drift by science writer Martin Ince, begins with the formation of Earth 4.5 billions years ago and the formation of land around 3.4 bya, and then passes through periods of geologic time (Cambrian, Devonian, Permian, Jurassic, Cretaceous, Paleogene, Anthropocene, etc.), describing the movement of plates and evolution of organisms during those periods. Copiously illustrated with drawings and photographs, as well as large maps showing how the earth’s land appeared in each period, this book is perfect for upper elementary and middle grade students wishing to learn more about the history of our planet and its life. In fact, curious adults will find value in pouring through its pages. Order Drift: Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

When the Whales Walked

Dougal Dixon and Hannah Bailey (illustrator), When the Whales Walked: And Other Incredible Evolutionary Journeys (London: words & pictures, 2018, 64 pp.) ~ I have not seen a copy of this book yet, but it looks like an important one to teach readers about transitional fossils. The publisher’s description: “Step back in time and discover a world where whales once walked, crocodiles were warm-blooded and snakes had legs! Meet terrifying giant birds, and tiny elephants living on islands in this fascinating creature guide like no other. Learn how whales once walked on four legs before taking to the oceans; how dinosaurs evolved into birds; and how the first cats were small and lived in trees. Featuring a stunning mix of annotated illustrations, illustrated scenes and family trees, evolution is explained here in a captivating and novel style that will make children look at animals in a whole new way.” Order When the Whales Walked: Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

Galapagos Girl

Marsha Diane Arnold and Angela Dominguez (illustrator), Galápagos Girl/Galapagueña (New York: Lee & Low Books, 2018, 40 pp.) ~ This is a charming picture book about a young girl born and raised on Floreana island in the Galápagos, who grew up among its unique animals and has made a life of researching, protecting, and educating about the Galápagos and its wildlife. Her name is Valentina Cruz, and through her story readers will learn about what it means to spend time in nature and value protecting it. The publisher’s description: “For Valentina, living on the Galápagos islands means spending her days outside, observing the natural world around her. She greets sea lions splashing on the shore, scampers over lava rocks with Sally-lightfoot crabs, and swims with manta rays. She is a Galápagos girl, and there is no other place she’d rather be! But this wondrous world is fragile, and when Valentina learns her wild companions are under threat, she vows to help protect them and the islands. Whimsical illustrations by Pura Belpré Honoree Angela Dominguez transport readers to the unique Galápagos islands, which shelter a number of diverse plant and animal species that can be found nowhere else on the planet. Come discover this beautiful world with Valentina and her animal friends!” The book is presented in both English and Spanish, and Mr. Darwin only receives a single mention, in a note at the end of the book about finches. This book is, after all, about Valentina, not Charles, as there are many persons connected to the history of these islands. Order Galápagos Girl/Galapagueña: Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.



Unnatural Selection

Katrina von Grouw, Unnatural Selection (Princeton University Press, 2013, 304 pp.) ~ This book came out in the summer, but I shared about it previously and it is worth mentioning again! Order Unnatural Selection: Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

Life on Earth (1)

David Attenborough, Life on Earth: The Greatest Story Ever Told (London: William Collins, 2018, 352 pp.) ~ A classic, updated. From the publisher: “David Attenborough’s unforgettable meeting with gorillas became an iconic moment for millions of television viewers. Life on Earth, the series and accompanying book, fundamentally changed the way we view and interact with the natural world setting a new benchmark of quality, influencing a generation of nature lovers. Told through an examination of animal and plant life, this is an astonishing celebration of the evolution of life on earth, with a cast of characters drawn from the whole range of organisms that have ever lived on this planet. Attenborough’s perceptive, dynamic approach to the evolution of millions of species of living organisms takes the reader on an unforgettable journey of discovery from the very first spark of life to the blue and green wonder we know today. Now, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the book’s first publication, David Attenborough has revisited Life on Earth, completely updating and adding to the original text, taking account of modern scientific discoveries from around the globe. He has chosen beautiful, completely new photography, helping to illustrate the book in a much greater way than was possible forty years ago. This special anniversary edition provides a fitting tribute to an enduring wildlife classic, destined to enthral the generation who saw it when first published and bring it alive for a whole new generation.” Order Life on Earth: Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

Darwin's Most Wonderful Plants

Ken Thompson, Darwin’s Most Wonderful Plants: Darwin’s Botany Today (London: Profile Books, 2018, 256 pp.) ~  In five chapters Thompson takes a look at Darwin’s seven books that cover botanical topics, from his first on orchids in 1862 to The Power of Movement in Plants in 1880. From the publisher: “Ken Thompson sees Darwin as a brilliant and revolutionary botanist, whose observations and theories were far ahead of his time – and are often only now being confirmed and extended by high-tech modern research. Like Darwin, he is fascinated and amazed by the powers of plants – particularly their Triffid-like aspects of movement, hunting and ‘plant intelligence’. This is a much needed book that re-establishes Darwin as a pioneering botanist, whose close observations of plants were crucial to his theories of evolution.” Order Darwin’s Most Wonderful Plants: Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

Tangled Tree, The.JPG

David Quammen, The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018, 480 pp.) ~ Currently making my way through this new offering from one of the best science writers we have. Quammen tells the intriguing story of how molecular biologists rewrote the tree of life, centering on the work of Carl Woese (billed as one of the most important biologists of the 20th century that you’ve never heard of) but including Lynn Margulis and a great many others. Quammen blends science with storytelling in such a fashion that one feels as if they are witnessing science at work as it is happening – it’s ups and downs, its triumphs and lesser moments. With plenty of Darwin to start the narrative off. Highly recommended. Order The Tangled Tree: Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

Wall of Birds, The

Jane Kim and Thayer Walker, The Wall of Birds: One Planet, 243 Families, 375 Million Years – A Visual Journey (New York: Harper Design, 2018, 224 pp.) ~ Ever since I first saw social media posts showing the work in progress for a mural on a wall at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology‘s office, I have been in awe of Jane Kim’s bird and other scientific illustrations. They are absolutely gorgeous, and this new book by Kim shares her experience doing the mural and about all the birds presented, including dinosaurs! Order The Wall of Birds: Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound. More info about the wall here, and Jane’s website here.

Cruisin' the Fossil Coastline

Kirk Johnson and Ray Troll (artist), Cruisin’ the Fossil Coastline: The Travels of an Artist and a Scientist along the Shores of the Prehistoric Pacific (Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing, 2018, 290 pp.) ~ A follow up to Johnson and Troll’s Cruisin’ the Fossil Freeway: An Epoch Tale of a Scientist and an Artist on the Ultimate 5,000-mile Paleo Road Trip (2007), which followed the author and artist through the American West in search of fossils and paleontologists, Cruisin’ the Fossil Coastline does the same for the stretch of coastline from southern California up north into Alaska. Johnson is a fine writer, and Troll’s unique art style never disappoints. Order Cruisin’ the Fossil Coastline: Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

Galapagos Life in Motion.jpeg

Walter Perez and Michael Weisberg, Galápagos: Life in Motion (Princeton University Press, 2018, 208 pp.) ~ For someone who hopes to visit the Galápagos in their lifetime but is not sure if it will happen, this book of photographs by Walter Perez is an antidote to waiting for such an opportunity. From the publisher: “The Galápagos Islands are home to an amazing variety of iconic creatures, from Giant Tortoises, Galápagos Sea Lions, Galápagos Penguins, and Ghost Crabs to Darwin’s finches, the Blue-footed Booby, and Hummingbird Moths. But how precisely do these animals manage to survive on―and in the waters around―their desert-like volcanic islands, where fresh water is always scarce, food is often hard to come by, and finding a good mate is a challenge because animal populations are so small? In this stunning large-format book, Galápagos experts Walter Perez and Michael Weisberg present an unprecedented photographic account of the remarkable survival behaviors of these beautiful and unique animals. With more than 200 detailed, close-up photographs, the book captures Galápagos animals in action as they feed, play, fight, court, mate, build nests, give birth, raise their young, and cooperate and clash with other species.” Order Galápagos: Life in Motion: Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

Charles Darwin - A Reference Guide to His Life and Works

J. David Archibald, Charles Darwin: A Reference Guide to His Life and Works (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2018, 232 pp.) ~ I have yet to view a copy of this book, but I have liked Archibald’s other books about Darwin and evolution so I expect this to serve as a useful resource. Here is the publisher’s description: “Charles Darwin: A Reference Guide to His Life and Works provides an important new compendium presenting a detailed chronology of all aspects Darwin’s life. The extensive encyclopedia section includes many hundreds of entries of various kinds related to Darwin – people, places, institutions, concepts, and his publications. The bibliography provides a comprehensive listing of the vast majority of Darwin’s works published during and after his lifetime. It also provides a more selective list of publications concerning his life and work.” Order Charles Darwin: A Reference Guide to His Life and Works: Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

On the bookshelf: Evolution, anthropology, geology, philosophy of paleontology, and early 20th century activism for birds


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!

Efram, Sera-Shriar (ed.), Historicizing Humans: Deep Time, Evolution, and Race in Nineteenth-Century British Sciences (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018, 320 pp.) ~ The publiher’s description reads: “A number of important developments and discoveries across the British Empire’s imperial landscape during the nineteenth century invited new questions about human ancestry. The rise of secularism and scientific naturalism; new evidence, such as skeletal and archaeological remains; and European encounters with different people all over the world challenged the existing harmony between science and religion and threatened traditional biblical ideas about special creation and the timeline of human history. Advances in print culture and voyages of exploration also provided researchers with a wealth of material that contributed to their investigations into humanity’s past. Historicizing Humans takes a critical approach to nineteenth-century human history, as the contributors consider how these histories were shaped by the colonial world, and for various scientific, religious, and sociopolitical purposes. This volume highlights the underlying questions and shared assumptions that emerged as various human developmental theories competed for dominance throughout the British Empire.” Readers interested in Darwin specifically will want to check out chapter 6 – Gregory Radick on “How and Why Darwin Got Emotional about Race.” Radick delves into Darwin’s writing in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) as a means to understand Darwin’s thoughts on human evolution and suggests that Expression provides more evidence in Darwin’s mind of man’s animal ancestry than what he offered in On the Origin of Species (1859) or The Descent of Man (1871). Order Historicizing Humans: Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

Kieran D. O’Hara, A Brief History of Geology (Cambridge University Press, 2018, 274 pp.) ~ “Geology as a science has a fascinating and controversial history. Kieran D. O’Hara’s book provides a brief and accessible account of the major events in the history of geology over the last two hundred years, from early theories of Earth structure during the Reformation, through major controversies over the age of the Earth during the Industrial Revolution, to the more recent twentieth-century development of plate tectonic theory, and on to current ideas concerning the Anthropocene. Most chapters include a short ‘text box’ providing more technical and detailed elaborations on selected topics. The book also includes a history of the geology of the Moon, a topic not normally included in books on the history of geology. The book will appeal to students of Earth science, researchers in geology who wish to learn more about the history of their subject, and general readers interested in the history of science.” Order A Brief History of GeologyAmazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

Peter R. Grant and B. Rosemary Grant, 40 Years of Evolution: Darwin’s Finches on Daphne Major Island (Princeton University Press, 2014, 432 pp.) ~ One of the very first books I read about evolution when the topic grabbed me as a teenager was The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner (1995), which told the story of the Grants’ lengthy study of finches on the Galapagos islands. Jump two decades later and their research in the field continues, as they describe in this newer book. From the publisher: “Renowned evolutionary biologists Peter and Rosemary Grant have produced landmark studies of the Galápagos finches first made famous by Charles Darwin. In How and Why Species Multiply [2008], they offered a complete evolutionary history of Darwin’s finches since their origin almost three million years ago. Now, in their richly illustrated new book, 40 Years of Evolution, the authors turn their attention to events taking place on a contemporary scale. By continuously tracking finch populations over a period of four decades, they uncover the causes and consequences of significant events leading to evolutionary changes in species. The authors used a vast and unparalleled range of ecological, behavioral, and genetic data–including song recordings, DNA analyses, and feeding and breeding behavior–to measure changes in finch populations on the small island of Daphne Major in the Galápagos archipelago. They find that natural selection happens repeatedly, that finches hybridize and exchange genes rarely, and that they compete for scarce food in times of drought, with the remarkable result that the finch populations today differ significantly in average beak size and shape from those of forty years ago. The authors’ most spectacular discovery is the initiation and establishment of a new lineage that now behaves as a new species, differing from others in size, song, and other characteristics. The authors emphasize the immeasurable value of continuous long-term studies of natural populations and of critical opportunities for detecting and understanding rare but significant events. By following the fates of finches for several generations, 40 Years of Evolution offers unparalleled insights into ecological and evolutionary changes in natural environments.” Order 40 Years of EvolutionAmazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

Tessa Boase, Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather: Fashion, Fury and Feminism – Women’s Fight for Change (Aurum Press, 2018, 336 pp.) ~ Women’s suffrage in Britain began in 1918, when certain woman over the age of 30 were granted the right to vote, but the effort to reach such a point had begun decades earlier. Social historian Tessa Boase tells the story of how the women’s suffrage movement was intertwined with the movement to protect British birds. The publisher’s description: “When Mrs Pankhurst stormed the House of Commons with her crack squad of militant suffragettes in 1908, she wore on her hat a voluptuous purple feather. This is the intriguing story behind that feather. Twelve years before the suffragette movement began dominating headlines, a very different women’s campaign captured the public imagination. Its aim was radical: to stamp out the fashion for feathers in hats. Leading the fight was a character just as heroic as Emmeline Pankhurst, but with opposite beliefs. Her name was Etta Lemon, and she was anti-fashion, anti-feminist – and anti-suffrage. Mrs Lemon has been forgotten by history, but her mighty society lives on. Few, today, are aware that Britain’s biggest conservation charity, the RSPB, was born through the determined efforts of a handful of women, led by the indomitable Mrs Lemon. While the suffragettes were slashing paintings and smashing shop windows, Etta Lemon and her local secretaries were challenging ‘murderous millinery’ all the way up to Parliament. This gripping narrative explores two singular heroines – one lionised, the other forgotten – and their rival, overlapping campaigns. Moving from the feather workers’ slums to the highest courtly circles, from the first female political rally to the first forcible feeding, Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather is a unique journey through a society in transformation. This is a highly original story of women stepping into the public sphere, agitating for change – and finally finding a voice.” Order Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple FeatherAmazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

Peter Ward, Lamarck’s Revenge: How Epigenetics Is Revolutionizing Our Understanding of Evolution’s Past and Present (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018, 288 pp.) ~ “In the 1700s, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck first described epigenetics to explain the inheritance of acquired characteristics; however, his theory was supplanted in the 1800s by Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection through heritable genetic mutations. But natural selection could not adequately explain how rapidly species re-diversified and repopulated after mass extinctions. Now advances in the study of DNA and RNA have resurrected epigenetics, which can create radical physical and physiological changes in subsequent generations by the simple addition of a single small molecule, thus passing along a propensity for molecules to attach in the same places in the next generation! Epigenetics is a complex process, but paleontologist and astrobiologist Peter Ward breaks it down for general readers, using the epigenetic paradigm to reexamine how the history of our species–from deep time to the outbreak of the Black Plague and into the present–has left its mark on our physiology, behavior, and intelligence. Most alarming are chapters about epigenetic changes we are undergoing now triggered by toxins, environmental pollutants, famine, poor nutrition, and overexposure to violence. Lamarck’s Revenge is an eye-opening and controversial exploration of how traits are inherited, and how outside influences drive what we pass along to our progeny.” Order Lamarck’s RevengeAmazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

Adrian Currie, Rock, Bone, and Ruin: An Optimist’s Guide to the Historical Sciences (MIT Press, 2018, 376 pp.) ~ I’ve read lots of books about dinosaurs and paleontology over the years, but this one suggests to not necessarily take everything a paleontologist says for granted. From the publisher: “The ‘historical sciences’—geology, paleontology, and archaeology—have made extraordinary progress in advancing our understanding of the deep past. How has this been possible, given that the evidence they have to work with offers mere traces of the past? In Rock, Bone, and Ruin, Adrian Currie explains that these scientists are ‘methodological omnivores,’ with a variety of strategies and techniques at their disposal, and that this gives us every reason to be optimistic about their capacity to uncover truths about prehistory. Creative and opportunistic paleontologists, for example, discovered and described a new species of prehistoric duck-billed platypus from a single fossilized tooth. Examining the complex reasoning processes of historical science, Currie also considers philosophical and scientific reflection on the relationship between past and present, the nature of evidence, contingency, and scientific progress. Currie draws on varied examples from across the historical sciences, from Mayan ritual sacrifice to giant Mesozoic fleas to Mars’s mysterious watery past, to develop an account of the nature of, and resources available to, historical science. He presents two major case studies: the emerging explanation of sauropod size, and the ‘snowball earth’ hypothesis that accounts for signs of glaciation in Neoproterozoic tropics. He develops the Ripple Model of Evidence to analyze ‘unlucky circumstances’ in scientific investigation; examines and refutes arguments for pessimism about the capacity of the historical sciences, defending the role of analogy and arguing that simulations have an experiment-like function. Currie argues for a creative, open-ended approach, ’empirically grounded’ speculation.” Order Rock, Bone, and Ruin: AmazonPowell’s, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound.

ARTICLE: Darwin among the Philosophers: Hull and Ruse on Darwin, Herschel, and Whewell

A new Darwin article in the HOPOS: The Journal of the International Society for the
History of Philosophy of Science:

Darwin among the Philosophers: Hull and Ruse on Darwin, Herschel, and Whewell

Phillip Honenberger

Abstract In a series of articles and books published in the 1970s, David Hull (1935–2010) and Michael Ruse (1940–) proposed interpretations of the relation between nineteenth-century British philosophy of science, on the one hand, and the views and methods of Charles Darwin, on the other, that were incompatible or at least in strong interpretive tension with one another. According to Hull, John Herschel’s and William Whewell’s philosophies of science were logically incompatible with Darwin’s revolutionary theory. According to Ruse, however, Darwin discovered and developed his theory through direct adherence to those philosophies. Here, I reconstruct Hull’s and Ruse’s interpretations of the Herschel-Whewell-Darwin relationship and then, drawing on Hull’s and Ruse’s published record and archival correspondence in the years 1968–76—particularly regarding reduction, laws, and species—I offer an explanation for their differences, namely, their different orientations to logical empiricism.


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: Louis Agassiz’s Introduction to the Study of Natural History (Classic Texts in the Sciences)

A new series of books from Springer aims to publish important papers/lectures from the history of science, with supplemental information about the original author and their work. Of the five titles so far, one may be of interest to readers here: naturalist Louis Agassiz’s series of lectures given in Boston in the fall of 1846. It is edited and annotated by Agassiz biographer Christoph Irmscher, who published Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science in 2013.


Louis Agassiz,  Introduction to the Study of Natural History (Classic Texts in the Sciences). Edited and annotated by Christoph Irmscher (Basel, Switzerland: Birkhäuser Basel/Springer, 2017), 135 pp.

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Publisher’s description This book features Louis Agassiz’s seminal lecture course in which the Swiss-American scientist, a self-styled “American Humboldt,” summarized the state of zoological knowledge in his time. Though Darwin’s theory of evolution would soon dismantle his idealist science, Agassiz’s lectures are nonetheless modern in their insistence on the social and cultural importance of the scientific enterprise. An extensive, well-illustrated introduction by Agassiz’s biographer, Christoph Irmscher, situates Agassiz’s lectures in the context of his life and nineteenth-century science, while also confronting the deeply problematic aspects of his legacy. Profusely annotated, this edition offers fascinating insights into the history of science and appeals to anyone with an interest in zoology and natural history.

Given the high cost of this volume ($150), it is surely a title intended for libraries, so do indeed request your library purchase it if it will be useful to you or history of science students at your university.

ARTICLE: Charles Darwin, Richard Owen, and Natural Selection: A Question of Priority

In the the Journal of the History of Biology:

Charles Darwin, Richard Owen, and Natural Selection: A Question of Priority

Curtis N. Johnson (author of Darwin’s Dice)

Abstract No single author presented Darwin with a more difficult question about his priority in discovering natural selection than the British comparative anatomist and paleontologist Richard Owen. Owen was arguably the most influential biologist in Great Britain in Darwin’s time. Darwin wanted his approbation for what he believed to be his own theory of natural selection. Unfortunately for Darwin, when Owen first commented in publication about Darwin’s theory of descent he was openly hostile (Edinb. Rev. vol. 111, Article VIII, 1860, pp. 487–533, anonymous). Darwin was taken off-guard. In private meetings and correspondence prior to 1860 Owen had been nothing but polite and friendly, even helping Darwin in cataloguing and analyzing Darwin’s zoological specimens from the Beagle voyage. Every early indication predicted a life-long friendship and collaboration. But that was not to be. Owen followed his slashing review with a mounting campaign in the 1860s to denounce and discredit both Darwin and his small but ascendant circle of friends and supporters. But that was not enough for Owen. Starting in 1866, perhaps by now realizing Darwin had landed the big fish, Owen launched a new campaign, to claim the discovery of “Darwin’s theory” for himself. Darwin naturally fought back, mainly in the “Historical Sketch” that he prefaced to Origin starting in 1861. But when we peel back the layers of personal animus and escalating vituperation we discover in fact their quarrel was generated more by mutual misunderstanding than scientific disagreement. The battle ended only when Darwin finally penetrated to the crux of the matter and put an end to the rivalry in 1872, in the final version of the Sketch.

ARTICLE: “This Wonderful People”: Darwin, the Victorians, and the Greeks

In the latest issue of the Journal of Modern Greek Studies:

“This Wonderful People”: Darwin, the Victorians, and the Greeks

Ageliki Lefkaditou

Abstract Studies of Victorian appropriations of the ancient world have allowed us to appreciate the pervasive influence of classical Greece on aesthetics and education, as well as religious, moral, and philosophical discourses. Celebrations of ancient Greek genius also prompted scientific interpretations of the past, present, and future of human society. For Charles Darwin (1809–1882), along with his correspondents Charles Lyell (1797–1875), Francis Galton (1822–1911), and William Rathbone Greg (1809–1881), the ancient Greeks were a race that had never been intellectually surpassed. Classical Athens therefore served as a precautionary tale of the multiple biological, sociopolitical, and geographical factors that may inhibit social progress. Their complementary, or even conflicting, understandings of the causes that prevented humankind from surpassing the ancient Greeks demonstrate subtle differences in their evolutionary perspectives. Against the Enlightenment faith in moral and intellectual improvement, Darwin’s thesis that evolutionary progress was “no invariable rule” was used to explain why empires of the past had declined, serving also as a guide for how Victorian Britain should address concerns such as migration, morality, and social order.

Recent journal articles about Darwin

In the Journal of the History of Biology:

Darwin’s two theories, 1844 and 1859

Derek Partridge

Abstract Darwin’s first two, relatively complete, explicit articulations of his theorizing on evolution were his Essay of 1844 and On the Origin of Species published in 1859. A comparative analysis concludes that they espoused radically different theories despite exhibiting a continuity of strategy, much common structure and the same key idea. Both were theories of evolution by means of natural selection. In 1844, organic adaptation was confined to occasional intervals initiated and controlled by de-stabilization events. The modified descendants rebalanced the particular “plant and animal forms … unsettled by some alteration in their circumstances.” But by 1859, organic adaptation occurred continuously, potentially modifying the descendants of all organisms. Even natural selection, the persistent core of Darwin’s theorizing, does not prove to be a significant basis for theory similarity. Consequently, Darwin’s Origin theory cannot reasonably be considered as a mature version of the Essay. It is not a modification based on adjustments, further justifications and the integration of a Principle of Divergence. The Origin announced a new “scientific paradigm” while the Essay did little more than seemingly misconfigure the operation of a novel mechanism to extend varieties beyond their accepted bounds, and into the realm of possible new species. Two other collections of Darwin’s theorizing are briefly considered: his extensive notes of the late 1830s and his contributions to the famous meeting of 1 July 1858. For very different reasons, neither constitutes a challenge to the basis for this comparative study. It is concluded that, in addition to the much-debated social pressures, an unacknowledged further reason why Darwin did not publish his theorizing until 1859, could have been down to his perceptive technical judgement: wisely, he held back from rushing to publish demonstrably flawed theorizing.

In the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society:

Comparing the respective transmutation mechanisms of Patrick Matthew, Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace

Joachim L Dagg

Abstract A comparison of the evolutionary mechanisms of Patrick Matthew, Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace highlights their differences. In Matthew’s scheme, catastrophes initiate periods of radiation and speciation until a fully stocked environment enters into stasis. Catastrophes first need to exterminate competing species before the survivors can radiate into free niches and diversify into new species. In Darwin’s early theory, conditions of life, such as those prevailing under domestication, first need to increase the variability of a species before natural selection can transform it. In Darwin’s mature theory, competition replaces conditions as the main drive behind evolutionary change, and sympatric speciation becomes possible. Wallace’s theory differs from both Matthew’s and Darwin’s. Interspecific competition is not a brake halting transmutation (as in Matthew’s theory) nor is intraspecific competition a sufficient drive for it. Although each theory integrated natural selection with variability, competition and changed conditions in distinct ways, each allowed for species transmutation somehow. The result was similar (transmutation), but the mechanisms yielding that result (the integration of natural selection with variability, competition and change in conditions) differed significantly.

Additional thoughts from the author of the above article here.

And in Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences, an essay review by Richard Bellon of the books Darwin and the Making of Sexual Selection by Evelleen Richards, Darwinism and Religion: What Literature Tells Us About Evolution by Michael Ruse, Masculinity and Science in Britain, 1830-1918 by Heather Ellis, and Orchids: A Cultural History by Jim Endersby.


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

BOOK: Buckets from an English Sea: 1832 and the Making of Charles Darwin

Here’s a new Darwin title that takes a very focused view on his life, just a single year…


Louis B. Rosenblatt, Buckets from an English Sea: 1832 and the Making of Charles Darwin (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 216 pp.

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Publisher’s description Darwin did not discover evolution. He didn’t trip over it on the way to somewhere else the way Columbus discovered the New World. Like the atom, planetary orbits, and so many other scientific constructs, evolution was invented in order to explain striking phenomena. And it has been most successful. A century and a half has not simply confirmed Darwin’s work, it has linked evolution to the mechanisms of life on the molecular scale. It is what life does. Where Darwin had drawn his theories from forest and field, we now set them in the coiling and uncoiling of twists of DNA, linking where they might, with a host of molecular bits and pieces scurrying about. Darwin, himself, however, has been a closed story. A century and a half of study of the man and his work, including close readings of his books, his notebooks and letters, and even the books he read, has led to a working appreciation of his genius. The ‘success’ of this account has, however, kept us from seeing several important issues: most notably, why did he pursue evolution in the first place? Buckets from an English Sea offers a new view of what inspired Darwin and provoked his work. Stunning events early in the voyage of the Beagle challenged his deeply held conviction that people are innately good. This study of 1832 highlights the resources available to the young Darwin as he worked to secure humanity’s innate goodness.

ARTICLE: ‘Great is Darwin and Bergson his poet’: Julian Huxley’s other evolutionary synthesis

A new article in the journal Annals of Science:

‘Great is Darwin and Bergson his poet’: Julian Huxley’s other evolutionary synthesis

Emily Herring

Abstract In 1912, Julian Huxley published his first book The Individual in the Animal Kingdom which he dedicated to the then world-famous French philosopher Henri Bergson. Historians have generally adopted one of two attitudes towards Huxley’s early encounter with Bergson. They either dismiss it entirely as unimportant or minimize it, deeming it a youthful indiscretion preceding Huxley’s full conversion to Fisherian Darwinism. Close biographical study and archive materials demonstrate, however, that neither position is tenable. The study of the Bergsonian elements in play in Julian Huxley’s early works fed into Huxley’s first ideas about progress in evolution and even his celebrated theories of bird courtship. Furthermore, the view that Huxley rejected Bergson in his later years needs to be revised. Although Huxley ended up claiming that Bergson’s theory of evolution had no explanatory power, he never repudiated the descriptive power of Bergson’s controversial notion of the élan vital. Even into the Modern Synthesis period, Huxley represented his own synthesis as drawing decisively on Bergson’s philosophy.


“Wallace and Darwin – Voyages to Evolution Map” poster available

Operation Wallacea has the poster “Wallace and Darwin – Voyages to Evolution Map” available for free for educational use:



To mark the 100th anniversary of Alfred Russel Wallace’s death Operation Wallcea produced a poster showing the voyages of Wallace and Darwin and how they both developed the idea of evolution by natural selection. This map was produced in association with the Wallace Memorial Fund and forms part of the Wallace100 celebrations.

An email to send a request is at this link.


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.

A look at the Rhea County Courthouse in Dayton, TN, location of the 1925 Scopes “Monkey” Trial

My friend Catherine L. Cummins, a life science instructor at LSU Laboratory School in Baton Rouge, has shared some photos of her visit to the Rhea County Courthouse in Dayton, TN, location of the 1925 Scopes “Monkey” Trial. She was kind to let me share with my readers. Has anyone else ever visited this historic site?

ARTICLE: Charles Darwin’s Theory of Moral Sentiments: What Darwin’s Ethics Really Owes to Adam Smith

In the Journal of the History of Ideas for October 2017:

Charles Darwin’s Theory of Moral Sentiments: What Darwin’s Ethics Really Owes to Adam Smith

Greg Priest

Abstract When we read the Origin, we cannot help but hear echoes of the Wealth of Nations. Darwin’s “economy of nature” features a “division of labour” that leads to complexity and productivity. We should not, however, analyze Darwin’s ethics through this lens. Darwin did not draw his economic ideas from Smith, nor did he base his ethics on an economic foundation. Darwin’s ethics rest on Smith’s notion from the Theory of Moral Sentiments of an innate human faculty of sympathy. Darwin gave this faculty an evolutionary interpretation and built on this foundation an ethics far removed from what is commonly supposed.



BOOK: Origins of Darwin’s Evolution: Solving the Species Puzzle Through Time and Space

A few years ago biologist J. David Archibald wrote a book about trees of life, Aristotle’s Ladder, Darwin’s Tree: The Evolution of Visual Metaphors for Biological Order. His newest book is a detailed look at the often downplayed role of geographical distribution (or biogeography) in the development of Darwin’s theory of evolution. I look forward to this read, as an undergraduate paper I wrote dealt with an aspect of this topic (and was the origin of this blog’s name).


J. David Archibald, Origins of Darwin’s Evolution: Solving the Species Puzzle Through Time and Space (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), 208 pp.

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Publisher’s description Historical biogeography—the study of the history of species through both time and place—first convinced Charles Darwin of evolution. This field was so important to Darwin’s initial theories and line of thinking that he said as much in the very first paragraph of On the Origin of Species (1859) and later in his autobiography. His methods included collecting mammalian fossils in South America clearly related to living forms, tracing the geographical distributions of living species across South America, and sampling peculiar fauna of the geologically young Galápagos Archipelago that showed evident affinities to South American forms. Over the years, Darwin collected other evidence in support of evolution, but his historical biogeographical arguments remained paramount, so much so that he devotes three full chapters to this topic in On the Origin of Species. Discussions of Darwin’s landmark book too often give scant attention to this wealth of evidence, and we still do not fully appreciate its significance in Darwin’s thinking. In Origins of Darwin’s Evolution, J. David Archibald explores this lapse, showing how Darwin first came to the conclusion that, instead of various centers of creation, species had evolved in different regions throughout the world. He also shows that Darwin’s other early passion—geology—proved a more elusive corroboration of evolution. On the Origin of Species has only one chapter dedicated to the rock and fossil record, as it then appeared too incomplete for Darwin’s evidentiary standards. Carefully retracing Darwin’s gathering of evidence and the evolution of his thinking, Origins of Darwin’s Evolution achieves a new understanding of how Darwin crafted his transformative theory.

BOOK: Orchid: A Cultural History

A new book by historian of science Jim Endersby (A Guinea Pig’s History of Biology, Imperial Nature: Joseph Hooker and the Practices of Victorian Science) will interest not only historians, but plant enthusiasts, anyone with a general interest in natural history, and, although he is just part but not the focus of this book, Darwin aficionados. I am in the midst of reading it now, and enjoying its fluid narrative and wide range of content all centered on one type of plant, the orchid. Chapter 5 deals specifically with Darwin’s experiments on orchids and his 1862 book On the Various Contrivances by which British and Foreign Orchids are fertilised by insects, and on the good effects of intercrossing.


Jim Endersby, Orchid: A Cultural History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 288 pp. 

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Publisher’s description At once delicate, exotic, and elegant, orchids are beloved for their singular, instantly recognizable beauty. Found in nearly every climate, the many species of orchid have carried symbolic weight in countless cultures over time. The ancient Greeks associated them with fertility and thought that parents who ingested orchid root tubers could control the sex of their child. During the Victorian era, orchids became deeply associated with romance and seduction. And in twentieth-century hard-boiled detective stories, they transformed into symbols of decadence, secrecy, and cunning. What is it about the orchid that has enthralled the imagination for so many centuries? And why do they still provoke so much wonder? Following the stories of orchids throughout history, Jim Endersby divides our attraction to them into four key themes: science, empire, sex, and death. When it comes to empire, for instance, orchids are a prime example of the exotic riches sought by Europeans as they shaped their plans for colonization. He also reveals how Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution became intimately entangled with the story of the orchid as he investigated their methods of cross-pollination. As he shows, orchids—perhaps because of their extraordinarily diverse colors, shapes, and sizes—have also bloomed repeatedly in films, novels, plays, and poems, from Shakespeare to science fiction, from thrillers to elaborate modernist novels. Featuring many gorgeous illustrations from the collection of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Orchid: A Cultural History tells, for the first time, the extraordinary story of orchids and our prolific interest in them. It is an enchanting tale not only for gardeners and plant collectors, but anyone curious about the flower’s obsessive hold on the imagination in history, cinema, literature, and more.

Reviews of Orchid: H-Net; Times Literary Supplement
Radio programs about Orchid: Ideas (CBC Radio); WICN (90.5 FM in New England)
Endersby on orchids elsewhere: Cambridge Core blog;