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Darwin and the Barnacle: Rebeca Stott

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My first non fiction book of the year. I've always had an interest in Darwin's Theory of Evolution and how it changed the way in which we view the natural world and ourselves as a part of it. Last year I picked up a novel The Darwin Conspiracy, a fictional tale proposing that Darwin stole his theory from The HMS Beagle's Surgeon. It was light but enjoyable historical fiction and it re-stoked my interest in Darwin. (The author is Charles Darnton if you are so inclined)

 

Darwin and the Barnacle (The Story of One Tiny Creature and History's Most Spectacular Scientific Breakthrough)

Rebecca Stott

 

 

Eighteen years passed between Darwin's famous voyage aboard the HMS Beagle and the publishing of his Origin of Species. For 18 years the notes and outlines of his revolutionary idea remained in a sealed envelope, locked in his study desk with instructions to his wife as to what she should do with them should he die before unlocking the drawer. What was happening for all of that time? As this work explains almost 10 of those years was dedicated to the research and writing of an ambitious 4 volume set categorizing all families of barnacles and one unique, tiny specimen affectionately named Mr. Arthrobalanus, A specimen that sparked an idea which grew and grew. After sailing the world Darwin settled at Bound House in England and for nearly ten years with a tenacity difficult even to imagine he studied, dissected and described his barnacles from the confines of a small personal study to which he was as cemented as many of the barnacles he loved. Darwin came to see the "universe in a barnacle shell" and from that universe he saw everything.

 

Stott's book describes with insight how Darwin's research solidified his radical theory and leant authority to what otherwise might have dismissed as "Munchausen Science" (Darwin's own term), castles in the air with no foundation in solid research. In the early and mid 1800's the idea of evolution wasn't completely new and as the years passed Darwin lived in constant fear that someone would "beat him to the punch" with a theory similar or even superior to his own. He stuck to his microscope however, and after a silence of 18 years he not only published his theory on the mutability of species but also explained and demonstrated the how and most importantly the why. With his army of infinitely varied barnacles to back him up Darwin illuminated the gossamer line linking and separating novel species. Darwin, famous for his finches, owes far much more to the barnacle.

 

Hardly a dry biography Stott also paints a lovely picture of Darwin the man. Coloring and fleshing out Darwin with details of a satisfying and fulfilling family life, Stott share's with the reader Darwin's love for his wife and many children (one whom he helplessly watched die of consumption), his well worn and affectionately cultivated friendships, and his struggle, questioning, and eventual abandonment of faith during the death of his father a, confirmed non-believer. Stott invites, you quite successfully, to like Darwin the man.

 

A very good read!

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