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Darwin and the Barnacle by Stott, Rebecca (2004)

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  • Faber & Faber
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  • By M. R. Bischoff on February 20, 2013

    As another reviewer said, I really wanted to like this book. And for the most part, I did. I'm not a scientist but learning what went into the development of Darwin's theory was interesting.However, the book felt both a bit bloated and, curiously, unfinished. There is as much about Darwin's personal life and times as about his scientific work. Two random examples: the detailed descriptions of Leith harbor in the first chapter and of Dr. Gully's water cure later in the book could have been significantly shortened without damaging the narrative at all. And while it may sound heartless, I couldn't believe there was a whole chapter on the death of Darwin's daughter. Like the author's "Darwin's Ghosts", the sequel and companion volume, this book could have used sharper editing.At the same time I was left unsatisfied about the main point: how his work on barnacles fit into the development of his theory. The author is clear (to the point of unnecessary repetition) that Darwin felt he needed to prove himself as a meticulous scientist before venturing to publish his controversial idea about how species developed. And there are hints along the way about how the amazing diversity among members of this lowly species surprized even him.But we jump from the publication of his last book on barnacles to publication of "On the Origin of Species" with almost nothing to tie the two together. Yes, he felt pushed to get his theory into print because another scientist was developing a similar one. But (to quote another reviewer) his exploration of barnacles feels like a mystery story where the detective presents the solution without explaining how he figured it out.With these caveats, however, I recommend this book to anyone who wants to know more about Darwin and how he developed his theory. The story itself is one that few people know today. The description of his correspondence with other scientists to collect specimens and test his ideas is a good reminder that the theory that bears his name didn't spring fully formed from his brain alone. And even though she spends too many words on it, the author's evocation of the time in which he lived helps frame a truly remarkable piece of scientific history.

  • By Neal A. Wellons on November 22, 2011

    I have already read at least 15 books on Darwin and his life. I was ready for a study of the creatures that took up 8 years of his work and purchased this book thinking it would be mostly on his barnacle research. Maybe it is good that barnacles took up only a portion (perhaps less than half) of the book because Darwin and the Barnacle turned out to be an extremely readable and interesting addition to the many other available Darwin books. Unless you are actively studying barnacles, author Rebecca Stott includes enough relevant barnacle information to give a survey while adding a nice overview of his adventure on the Beagle, his relationships with his contemporaries, and his life in general. There is much more coverage than you may expect on his sickness and the "cures" but it is well-written and adds to the overall interest of the book.While the title may be somewhat misleading, it is still an excellent read both for anyone wanting an introduction into Darwin's life or alternately, for those who want to read still another author's viewpoint of a life that has been extensively covered.

  • By Steve R on June 18, 2003

    Read 'Darwin and the Barnacle' as a prequel, if you will, to Darwin's 'Origin of Species'. It was Darwin's work on barnacles that prepared him for 'Origin'--the one book for which he will be eternally known, and wherein he articulated his theory of species evolution by natural selection.Following Dava Sobel's 'Longitude,' the past few years have provided us with a flood of books on the theme of "the lone man of genius and his scientific discovery that changed the world." With rare exceptions, however, many of these have been less than profound or failed to make the case for the true relevance of their topic. Stott's 'Darwin and the Barnacle,' however, is a fine exception, and a book of a wholly different order. She forgoes the typical formula (misunderstood scientific hero fights haughty, blinkered scientific establishment to prove out his discovery that is destined to change the world). Instead, Stott's story provides a balance between exceptional narrative (the drama of scientific discoveries that truly do change the world, after all, makes great subjects for narrative), and solid, informed research.Best of all, Stott avoids the "lone scientific genius" syndrome, by demonstrating that Darwin, as he worked on his barnacles, became the center of a world-wide scientific network that took advantage of nineteenth-century social and technological advances (a postal system, railways), institutional developments (burgeoning scientific societies, and scientific professionalization), and European imperialism (colonized outposts, and voyages of scientific discovery).History of science is too often either popular (though shallow) drama, or thorough (though impenetrable) scholarship. `Darwin and the Barnacle' is the best of both worlds, with the pitfalls of neither. Substantial and entertaining, well written and well researched.


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