Everybody knows that Charles Darwin circled the world as a young man on the HMS Beagle, visited the Galapagos Islands and returned home to England, ready to turn the world on its head by suggesting that humans are really just naked apes. But what did the world’s most famous biologist do with the rest of his life? Of wealthy means, the man spent countless days at his Down House estate, exploring the natural world and writing about it, in the process founding numerous different fields within the sphere of modern biology. In The Darwin Archipelago, author Steve Jones explores Darwin the homebody, attempting to resurrect Darwin’s collection of lesser known works.
Jones, a genetics professor at University College London, argues that while Darwin’s most famous works will always be The Voyage of the Beagle and The Origin of Species, his other publications deserve similar acclaim. In nine chapters Jones presents a different biological topic, each time using one of Darwin’s lesser known works as starting point.
Discussing Darwin’s experimental efforts, often in great detail, Jones reveals a host of fascinating subjects, demonstrating the great naturalist’s expansive genius. Any aspiring scientist could find more than enough material to make a career out of even one of these topics, yet somehow Darwin was able to break new ground in all of them, often creating whole new branches of biology with his efforts. Soil science, comparative psychology, experimental botany and developmental biology can all trace their origins to Darwin’s unrelenting efforts. In addition, his labors led to a deeper understanding of the evolutionary significance of sex, animal and plant domestication and the bizarre lives of insectivorous plants.
I found Jones’ take on these topics to be thoroughly entertaining. Initially discussing Darwin’s approach to various obstacles, he then goes on to update each topic, filling in many of the gaps that have been explored over the subsequent 150 years. He balances the historical and scientific details with skill, making for a quick 200 page read that is overflowing with an abundance of amazing details.
Covering a wide array of topics, Jones touches on how vines “think”, why domesticated animals tend to become spotted, how barnacles “find” their way onto a humpback whale and how a Venus flytrap “knows” when to close its “mouth”. I was continuously entertained by Jones’ storytelling skills and found his closing remarks on how Homo sapiens – the world’s most successful “weed” species – has changed Darwin’s biological world to be very interesting.
The Darwin Archipelago is highly recommended for anyone interested in history of science and gave me new respect for the true genius of Britain’s greatest naturalist.
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