BOOK: The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World

The winner of this year’s Royal Society Insight Investment science book prize, which is awarded annually to a work of science writing intended for a non-specialist audience, went to Andrea Wulf for her fantastic biography of Prussian naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt. Humboldt has long been a character of interest to me: not only is “Humboldtian science” a standard topic one learns about in history of science courses (especially Michael Dettelbach’s chapter in Cultures of Natural History), but, as readers here may know, Humboldt was an important influence on Darwin.


Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World (New York: Vintage Books, 2015), 552 pp.

Publisher’s description Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) was the most famous scientist of his age, a visionary German naturalist and polymath whose discoveries forever changed the way we understand the natural world. Among his most revolutionary ideas was a radical conception of nature as a complex and interconnected global force that does not exist for the use of humankind alone. In North America, Humboldt’s name still graces towns, counties, parks, bays, lakes, mountains, and a river. And yet the man has been all but forgotten. In this illuminating biography, Andrea Wulf brings Humboldt’s extraordinary life back into focus: his prediction of human-induced climate change; his daring expeditions to the highest peaks of South America and to the anthrax-infected steppes of Siberia; his relationships with iconic figures, including Simón Bolívar and Thomas Jefferson; and the lasting influence of his writings on Darwin, Wordsworth, Goethe, Muir, Thoreau, and many others. Brilliantly researched and stunningly written, The Invention of Nature reveals the myriad ways in which Humboldt’s ideas form the foundation of modern environmentalism—and reminds us why they are as prescient and vital as ever.

In October I had the pleasure of attending a talk that Wulf gave about Humboldt for the Oregon Hardy Plant Society:


For similar talks, check out the recording below…

Purchase The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World through the independent Powell’s City of Books [hardcover/paperback] or Amazon [hardcover/paperback] (affiliate links).


Journal special issue on “Replaying the Tape of Life: Evolution and Historical Explanation”

A whole issue of the journal Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences is devoted to the topic “Replaying the Tape of Life: Evolution and Historical Explanation.” The contents are as follows:

Introduction: Evolution and historical explanation
Peter Harrison, Ian Hesketh

What was historical about natural history? Contingency and explanation in the science of living things
Peter Harrison

The “History” of Victorian Scientific Naturalism: Huxley, Spencer and the “End” of natural history
Bernard Lightman


Theological presuppositions of the evolutionary epic: From Robert Chambers to E. O. Wilson
Allan Megill


What are narratives good for?
John Beatty


Counterfactuals and history: Contingency and convergence in histories of science and life
Ian Hesketh

The spontaneous market order and evolution
Naomi Beck

Contingency and the order of nature
Nancy Cartwright


Freedom and purpose in biology
Daniel W. McShea


“Replaying Life’s Tape”: Simulations, metaphors, and historicity in Stephen Jay Gould’s view of life
David Sepkoski

A case study in evolutionary contingency
Zachary D. Blount


Can evolution be directional without being teleological?
George R. McGhee Jr.

Evolutionary biology and the question of teleology
Michael Ruse

Contingency, convergence and hyper-astronomical numbers in biological evolution
Ard A. Louis


It all adds up …. Or does it? Numbers, mathematics and purpose
Simon Conway Morris

BOOK REVIEW: Evolution: A Visual Record

A notable feature of the November 2004 National Geographic cover story about evolution is the photographs that accompany nature writer David Quammen‘s text. I’ve had this issue since it came out and it is one of the few issues of NG that I haven’t gotten rid of (one of the others being the January 1993 issue on dinosaurs that came out six months before the release of Jurassic Park in theaters).

The photographs remind us that, at least until genetics showed the relatedness between species and provided compelling evidence for common ancestry, evolution was largely a visual science. It was the physical features of present day and prehistoric animals that were a crucial aspect of Darwin’s thinking on transmutation. And it was the variety of domesticated animals and their plasticity that gave Darwin insight into natural selection. Photographer Robert Clark‘s depictions of museum specimens, some collected by Darwin himself, acted as visceral evidence of evolution to anyone reading the article (except for biased creationists, of course). Clark went on to photograph for Quammen’s 2008 article on the co-discoverer of natural selection Alfred Russel Wallace and a variety of articles since.

Clark’s photographs for National Geographic have been compiled into a wonderful book:


Joseph Wallace (text) and Robert Clark (photographs), Evolution: A Visual Record (New York: Phaidon Press, 2016), 240 pp. 

Publisher’s description Evidence of evolution is everywhere. Through 200 revelatory images, award-winning photographer Robert Clark makes one of the most important foundations of science clear and exciting to everyone. Evolution: A Visual Record transports readers from the near-mystical (human ancestors) to the historic (the famous ‘finches’ Darwin collected on the Galápagos Islands that spurred his theory); the recently understood (the link between dinosaurs and modern birds) to the simply astonishing.

The book organizes Clark’s photos into sections on ancient history (geology and early life), birds, cold-blooded vertebrates, plants, insects, mammals, human evolution, and finally extinction and the impact that humans are having on the natural world. While Quammen provides his always-engaging insight in a foreword, and Joseph Wallace’s text (at the beginning of each section, the photo captions, and a chapter on Wallace) provides important context, it is Clark’s images that really speak to the beautiful ideas of evolution and deep time.


Pitta specimens collected by Wallace in Borneo and Sumatra in 1850s (Photo: Robert Clark)

From images of rock strata, where animal remains are preserved as fossils, and human footprints preserved in lakeside sediment in Tanzania; to images of specimens of insects and birds collected by Darwin and Wallace, and portraits of a male orangutan and the human-like hands of a gorilla, the variety of life displayed in Evolution: A Visual Record captures the beauty of Darwin’s last words in On the Origin of Species (1859): “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”


A gorilla’s hands (Photo: Robert Clark)

Endless forms most beautiful, indeed – captured in photographs most beautiful by Robert Clark. You can check out some of the images included in this collection on the National Geographic website, here. And Robert Clark posts many of his stunning images on Instagram.

Looking for a gift for a friend of family member with a love for nature and science? A budding biologist in the family? Evolution: A Visual Record would be a great gift this holiday season. You can order this attractive, hardcover book through Amazon for a little under $30 (affiliate link) or from the publisher for $39.95.


ARTICLE: “rolls up like Armadillo”: Darwin’s forgotten encounters with ceratocanthine beetles (Coleoptera: Hybosoridae)

A recent “short note” in Archives of Natural History:

“rolls up like Armadillo”: Darwin’s forgotten encounters with ceratocanthine beetles (Coleoptera: Hybosoridae) 

Alberto Ballerio and Andrew B. T. Smith

No Abstract

BOOK:Darwin’s Man in Brazil: The Evolving Science of Fritz Müller

A new book from the late biologist David A. West at Virginia Tech promises to fill in a gap in Darwin scholarship – that of the role played by the German naturalist Fritz Müller in the history of evolutionary biology and his relationship with Darwin through correspondence. As West shares in his introduction, Darwin’s son Francis wrote in 1887, “My impression is that of all his unseen friends Fritz Müller was the one for whom he had the strongest regard” (p. 2). It seems then an account of their intellectual friendship as well as an appreciation for Müller’s discoveries is worth a full treatment. Müller, for which Müllerian mimicry is named, appears a couple of times in Desmond and Moore’s Darwin and Janet Browne’s Charles Darwin: The Power of Place; and Browne shares that Darwin wrote to Müller in 1864 in praise of his book Für Darwin: “What an admirable illustration it affords of my whole doctrine!” (p. 260). I thus look forward to learning more about “Darwin’s Man in Brazil.”


David A. West, Darwin’s Man in Brazil: The Evolving Science of Fritz Müller (Gainesville: University Press of Florida , 2016), 344 pp.

Publisher’s description Fritz Müller (1821-1897), though not as well known as his colleague Charles Darwin, belongs in the cohort of great nineteenth-century naturalists. Recovering Müller’s legacy, David A. West describes the close intellectual kinship between Müller and Darwin and details a lively correspondence that spanned seventeen years. The two scientists, despite living on separate continents, often discussed new research topics and exchanged groundbreaking ideas that unequivocally moved the field of evolutionary biology forward. Müller was unique among naturalists testing Darwin’s theory of natural selection because he investigated an enormous diversity of plants and animals, corresponded with prominent scientists, and published important articles in Germany, England, the United States, and Brazil. Darwin frequently praised Müller’s powers of observation and interpretation, counting him among those scientists whose opinions he valued most. Despite the importance and scope of his work, however, Müller is known for relatively few of his discoveries. West remedies this oversight, chronicling the life and work of this remarkable and overlooked man of science.

BOOK REVIEW, GUEST POST & GIVEAWAY: Ancient Earth Journal: The Early Cretaceous

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Artist Juan Carlos Alonso’s new book Ancient Earth Journal: The Early Cretaceous (Lake Forest, CA: Walter Foster Jr., 2015, 112 pp.), co-authored with paleoartist Gregory S. Paul, is unlike any dinosaur book for young readers I’ve seen.

It combines two things I really love: learning about dinosaurs and natural history illustration. Alonso introduces the reader to dinosaurs and other creatures from a 44 million year slice of Earth’s history. This is a welcome focus for a dinosaur book, since nearly every dinosaur book attempts to cover the whole period of dinosaur history, excluding bird evolution to the present (165 million years).


This slim approach allows the book to cover a more diverse group of creatures than would otherwise be possible, with new species names to learn. And the depiction of these dinosaurs, praised by paleontologists, is done in a nature journal fashion, as if the artist is encountering them as wildlife on a nature trip. This helps to see these animals as actual, living entities, and Alonso treats us to full size illustrations as well as close up examinations of interesting anatomy. The journal is organized by different dinosaur groups (Theropods, Sauropods, Ornithiscians, Pterosaurs, and First Birds), and an introduction nicely places this wildlife in context of Earth’s geologic history and discusses what kind of plants coexisted with dinosaurs of the Early Cretaceous.

Alonso was kind enough to write a guest post for The Dispersal of Darwin (for the book’s blog tour), which I share here:

As a child I was obsessed with dinosaurs. Their size, ferocity and the fact that they’re extinct all played into their mystique. They presented more questions than answers. Back then, they were much stranger than how they are viewed now. Dinosaurs were seen as massive lumbering monsters, angrily snapping at anything within their reach. Scientists believed that the very largest were too large to support their own bodies, so they were relegated to living in the water. Everything about them seemed unnatural. They were slow, dumb and doomed to be extinct – they were an evolutionary dead end. As a matter of fact, the very word dinosaur is synonymous with outdated or extinct. Movies, books and toys also did a pretty good job of confusing our perception of prehistory as well. It seemed every movie I ever watched as a child had all prehistoric beasts like Tyrannosaurus, Brontosaurus, saber-toothed tiger and sometimes man coexisting in one chaotic time period. The truth is much more interesting and complex.

For being called a “dead end” it turns out dinosaurs were around for a long time –165 million years to be precise. If you consider our species (Homo sapiens) has been around for about 200 thousand years that was a pretty successful run. As a matter of fact, there is a greater time span between Brontosaurus and Tyrannosaurus rex (83 million years) than there is between the last Tyrannosaurus and humans (65 million years). We now know that some modern birds are the descendants of the theropod dinosaurs, so they haven’t even become extinct.

As time passed, the strange unreal monsters that I knew as a child became as extinct as the dinosaurs themselves. Dinosaurs are, and always were animals. Animals that, like any today, ate, bred and fought to stay alive to ensure the species and bloodline would continue. The mystique I knew as a child was replaced by scientific curiosity as these “monsters” became even more intriguing to me. For me prehistoric life represents a perfect amalgamation of science, fantasy and art. All three work in unison to recreate wildlife long extinct using fact, research and some speculation based on living animals to fill in the gaps.

Seven years ago I became a father. I began to re-experience childhood wonder and curiosity through the eyes of my daughter as she grew older. It brought me back to my own childhood and inspired me to write Ancient Earth Journal: The Early Cretaceous. I set out to create drawings that represented an artist’s first-hand account of studying extinct animals through a naturalist’s notebook. Much like John James Audubon, documenting bird species from previously undiscovered lands. The intent was not only to bring these animals back to life, but also to capture a snapshot of life in a 38 million year window called the Early Cretaceous. By dedicating the book to half of one period of the Mesozoic, I was able to look closely at some species rarely featured in other books and illustrate details and features that make each unique. These are the types of books that sparked my interest in both science and art as a child and it is my goal to share my interest with children.

Ultimately, I hope to write and illustrate more books in the series, each dedicated to a specific time period. This will give perspective on how some species evolved into others and illustrate Earth’s rich history of past wildlife and how our animals came to be.

The next stop on the blog tour, on August 31, is at The Children’s Book Review. And the publisher has a neat little video about the book here. I am delighted to learn that Alonso plans to continue Ancient Earth Journal books for other time periods. My interest in dinosaurs started when I was 15 and led me to a broader interest in the history of science and Darwin and evolution. And now, the giveaway!

The giveaway:

To enter for a chance to win a signed copy of Ancient Earth Journal: The Early Cretaceous (courtesy of the publisher), please comment on this post telling me what your favorite prehistoric animal is or about an interesting museum experience dealing with paleontology. Giveaway open to residents of US or Canada only. From the entries I will randomly pick a winner. The contest will be open until Friday, September 4, midnight PST. If you would like to enter without commenting on the blog, you can send me an email at darwinsbulldog AT gmail DOT com. Good luck!

BOOK: Naturalists in Paradise: Wallace, Bates and Spruce in the Amazon

Some of my readers may be interested in this new book:

Book Cover

John Hemming, Naturalists in Paradise: Wallace, Bates and Spruce in the Amazon (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2014), 368 pp.

Its author John Hemming, a former Director of the Royal Geographical Society in London, sent along this description:

It was an extraordinary coincidence that three young naturalists, who were destined to be the foremost British scientists in South America throughout the nineteenth century, went to Brazil together in 1848/49. Alfred Russel Wallace, Henry Bates and Richard Spruce had much in common. Each came from a modest provincial English family, each left school at thirteen or fourteen, each was self-taught to a remarkable standard, and each became a passionate and skilled naturalist. Although they decided to collect in different parts of the vast Amazon basin, they each spent many years there: Wallace four years followed by eight in South-east Asia; Bates eleven years; Spruce fifteen years (half of them in the western Amazon and Andes). They had many adventures; each explored and mapped a river; they did pioneering ethnographic work on rarely visited indigenous peoples and their rock art; they were in the forests and rivers every day; but they never hyped up dangers of the tropical forests which they described as a naturalist’s paradise. These were true explorers, too modest to realize how tough they were, and largely disinterested in their prodigious scientific research.

Wallace lost many of his collections on the shipwreck during his return voyage. But his years in Brazil taught him the skills and passions of collecting, preparing specimens, taxonomy, rainforest ecology, and how to operate in tropical rivers and forests. He started to develop theories of animal behaviour, species distribution, biogeography and evolution that led to his later successes in the Wallace Line and the paper on evolution by natural selection that he sent to Darwin in 1858 – although he never claimed primacy for the momentous theory. Bates collected almost 15,000 species, of which some 8,000 were new to science. He discovered Batesian Mimicry whereby innocuous creatures survive predation by mimicking inedible ones. Darwin was delighted that Bates – whose eleven years of fieldwork were unrivalled – immediately espoused his views on evolution. Darwin became a mentor to the young scientist, encouraging him to write his highly successful The Naturalist on the River Amazons, recommending him as the first paid chief executive of the Royal Geographical Society – a job that Bates did brilliantly for three decades – and maintaining a lifelong correspondence and friendship. Spruce, a consummate botanist, identified scores of genera and species, ranging from rainforest giants to tiny mosses and liverworts, and did pioneering work on hallucinogenic plants. Spruce’s herbarium collections are venerated in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and some of his botanical publications are still valid to this day. He was asked to try to get seeds and saplings of the species of Cinchona whose bark has the malaria-palliative quinine from the Andes for replanting in India. After two years of meticulous work, Spruce succeeded in this difficult and delicate task that would have defeated any other botanist. Richard Evans Schultes of Harvard, the finest Amazonian botanist of the twentieth century, wrote that Spruce was ‘undoubtedly one of the greatest explorers of all times’. The three subjects of this book Naturalists in Paradise each earned accolades, medals, and fame that dramatically belied their primary-school education and humble origins.

My first perusal of Hemming’s book shows a detailed narrative, handy reference maps of areas of the Amazon the naturalists worked in, and quality color photos throughout.