Friday, October 22, 2010

Darwin's Garden: Down House & The Origin of Species by Michael Bolter

A year has passed since the Charles Darwin bicentennial, but I am still working my way through my reading list. On my recent trip to see family in Texas, I took Darwin's Garden: Down House & The Origin of Species by Michael Boulter. It was not exactly what I expected. It had fewer personal details about life at Down House and less about Darwin's efforts to write his important books than I expected; especially in the back half of the book, it dealt more with the work of Darwin's contemporaries and the scientists who have followed his lead into the 21st century. There is a reason the book is shelved on the science aisle, not with the biographies at my library.

While not as entertained as I hoped to be, I found plenty of interesting science in Darwin's Garden. Each of the chapters in Part Two deals with a concept related to evolution and survival of species, topics about which there have been heated debates since Darwin wrote in the mid-19th century. Readers learn that Darwin had many ideas that he was really unable to test effectively with the scientific instruments of his time. Most importantly, there was no way to prove that the genes that he claimed were in every organism truly existed; he had no electron microscopes to see the tiny structures that dictate bodily development. He also puzzled over long term animal migrations; no one in his time knew about continental drift. While a bit of his speculation has proven false, his large ideas have mostly been supported.

While not the page-turner I wanted, Darwin's Garden was a good book to issue for the bicentennial, as it assessed scientific progress since Darwin's time. Identifying top scientists and major discoveries of the past 150 years, it can still serve as a good introduction to the study of evolution. For high school, college, and larger public libraries.

Boulter, Michael. Darwin's Garden: Down House & The Origin of Species. Counterpoint, 2009. ISBN 9781582434711

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