“The Origin of Species is without a doubt the most famous book in science…but to remember Darwin for that magnum opus alone would be as foolish as to celebrate Shakespeare only as the author of Hamlet. His lifelong labours — six million words in nineteen published works, hundreds of scientific papers, and fourteen thousand letters — generated an archipelago of information, a set of connected observations that together form a harmonious whole. Biology emerged from that gargantuan effort as a unitary subject, linked by the idea of common ancestry, of evolution.” — from The Darwin Archipelago by Steve Jones.
Even the most famous of lives resists easy analysis and final judgments. Truth be told, all lives are endlessly illusive and far richer than we can imagine. That might explain why we especially love these two books on Charles Darwin, one of the most studied-over, written-about figures in modern times.
While acknowledging Darwin’s most famous book, evolutionary biologist Steve Jones instead focuses on Darwin’s neglected later works, in his just published book, The Darwin Archipelago: The Naturalist’s Career Beyond Origin of Species. Darwin’s later works (& obsessions!) were distinct, and seemingly unconnected: The Descent of Man, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms, with Observations on Their Habits. Yet Jones sees the connection:
“His literary canon makes sense only when considered as a whole. At first sight it’s subjects seem disconnected…but in truth all share a theme: the power of small means, given time, to produce gigantic ends.”
But before there can be a literary canon, there’s the days of exploration, of stumbling around, of slowly finding your way, right? If The Darwin Archipelago tells the story of Darwin’s later years, luckily there’s an equally fascinating recent book that describes the step-by-step unplanned evolution of a young naturalist with a whole world ahead of him: Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent: The Importance of Everything and Other Lessons from Darwin’s Lost Notebooks. Haupt is a gifted writer, and her fresh insights into Darwin as a young, uncertain man made her book one of the all-time favorites of the Land Library’s monthly Book Club. Here’s a glimpse at the unique contributions of Haupt’s book:
“Darwin’s very personal scientific methods grew out of the observations contained in his field notes, and in their creases he foists upon us his strict but beautiful maxim. Nothing in the natural world is beneath our notice — he almost whacks us on the head with it. Nothing.”
Over the years, the Land Library’s selection of books by (and about) Charles Darwin have grown from a couple of shelves to well over two bookcases. There’s no good way to represent those books here, except to highlight two recent volumes, published during Darwin’s 2009 bicentennial year, both excellent places to begin your explorations!
From So Simple a Beginning: Darwin’s Four Great Books (The Voyage of the Beagle, The Origin of Species, The Descent of Man, The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals), with an introduction by E.O. Wilson, and Darwin’s Universe: Evolution from A to Z by Richard Milner, a 500-page compendium of all-things Darwin, and the scientific revolution he helped ignite.