Sunday, November 28, 2010

Book Review: Darwin and the Barnacle.

Several years ago I attended a discussion class reading On the Origin of Species, first edition. Like most biologists, I had never read the book (though thankfully more biologists have read it than the ICZN), and it was very enlightening to study the entire document as a group, chapter by chapter, and discuss the contents both in relation to science in the mid 1800s and today.

One of the little tidbits I learned about Charles during that class was his years of work on barnacles. He spent ten years of his life, prior to the publication of On the Origin of Species, studying barnacles just so he could place a single strange species into context. And at the time this seemed quite incredible, much like being told that George Washington cut down the cherry tree or Kerry Mullis discovered PCR during an acid trip. It was a historical myth, maybe true, a little factoid, a morsel, etc.

Rebecca Stott takes this morsel and explodes it into a full blown thanksgiving feast with a 20 lb. turkey and loads of mashed potatoes. She begins with Darwn's childhood experiences with marine invertebrates and works her way up to the discovery of what he called "Mr. Arthrobalanus" on a beach in Chile. What started as a 6 month project became a 10 year task, during which he published 4 large volumes on all known extinct and extant barnacles. Stott serves this through the gravy of interpretive biography, and while she is not a biologist she handles the biology quite nicely. Most people who try to tackle writing about Darwin screw it up by completely misunderstanding On the Origin, littering the text with references to "survival of the fittest", and other spoonfuls much like finding your piece of turkey is nothing but boney bits, or your cranberry sauce is full of seeds. Thankfully she had a full team of Darwin specialists aiding her research. There was only once I felt she mishandled the theory, and it was quickly forgotten with the tastiness of the rest.

Darwin and the Barnacle had me sitting up in bed late at night to finish it. This is the tale of what Darwin did BEFORE he published his main course. It is not dry in the least. It's the moist bird you had the pleasure of sharing with family last Thursday (I hope).

Also, I'm all out of Thanksgiving puns.

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