This Day in Earth Science

History of Earth Sciences

Agnarsdóttir, Anna 2003
"This Wonderful Volcano of Water": Sir Joseph Banks Explorer and Protector of Iceland 1772-1820. The Hakluyt Society, London. 31 pp.
The Annual Lecture of the Society in 2003. This is basically an expanded version of the chapter in Banks et al. (1994). Concentrates mainly on the Iceland section of the Sir Lawrence expedition, undertaken by Banks after he quarrelled with the Admiralty over the shipboard accommodation provided for his scientific party on the second South Pacific expedition. He wanted to make use of his team and so cast around for another achievable destination. He selected Iceland which wasn't well known scientifically at the time. His scientific party consisted of botanist Daniel Solander, physician James Lind (working as an astronomer), artists James and John Frederick Miller and John Clevely Jr., a gardener (unnamed), a French chef, Antoine Douez, two Swedish secretaries, and Uno von Toil, a Swedish linguist. The expedition was based in southwest Iceland at Hafnarfjörður. Unfortunately, as it was late in the season, the botanizing wasn't as good as Banks had hoped. They did make a long circuit inland, visiting, among other places, Thingvellir, site of the Icelandic parliament, and the Great Geysir, the "volcano of water" (similar to Yellowstone's Old Faithful) and the origin of the word geyser. They were impressed by this phenomenon and experimented with using the hot water to cook their food, including a ptarmigan. They climbed Mount Hekla, which wasn't erupting at the time. Various feasts and social events rounded out the activities. Banks and his party evidently made a favourable impression on his Icelandic contacts and hosts. And Banks was impressed by the Icelanders, to the extent that he took a benevolent interest in the country in later years and was able to influence British foreign policy towards the country during the Napoleonic Wars through his government connections. Much to the overall benefit of Iceland, concludes Agnarsdóttir. Most interestingly, the Sir Lawrence picked up some lava as ballast from the area around HHafnarfjörður, which was later (1773) used to form part of a rock garden at the Chelsea Physic Garden while other chunks were used as a moss-growing area at Kew Gardens (Minter, and also Torrens in Banks et al. 1994). Agnarsdóttir concludes that "Icelandic scholars owe Banks a huge debt" (p. 20) because of the preservation of Icelandic manuscripts he brought back (now in the British Museum), because of the illustrations done by his artists, because of the mineral collections he brought back, and because of his role in stimulating further research and collecting in Iceland. (03/Jul/2010)
Banks, R.E.R., B. Elliott, J. G. Hawkes, D. King-Hele, and G. Ll. Lucas (editors) 1994
Sir Joseph Banks: A Global Perspective. The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. ii + 235 pp.
Proceedings of a conference held at Kew Gardens in 1993 to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Banks' birth. Consists of 14 papers and six shorter contributions (posters). Papers cover major aspects of Banks' life, although surprisingly there is no paper dealing with the Newfoundland-Labrador expedition or the Endeavour voyage. Papers deal with his influence on science through the Royal Society, his influence on Kew Gardens and the development of horticulture, and his influence on foreign affairs, such as the setting up of the colony at Botany Bay in New South Wales, and sending out plant collectors to various parts of the world, especially Asia and China, and encouragement of exploration in West Africa. An interesting paper by Rüdiger Joppien deals with Banks and art, both his collection of art and his influence through commissioning of art, especially botanical art. The most interesting paper is by Hugh S. Torrens on "Patronage and Problems: Banks and the Earth Sciences". It also includes a paper by Anna Agnarsdóttir on Banks' travels in Iceland in 1772. Among other aspects, this charts Banks troubled relationship with the nascent Geological Society in 1807-1809 (when he resigned from it). Torrens indicates that Banks' interest in geology was generally not great but was stimulated by practical considerations related to the administration of his estate at Overton in Derbyshire. Part of the income from the estate came from the Gregory Mine, a lead mine. The need to find new lead sources to mine caused Banks' involvement with William Smith and his pupil John Farey, practical "mineral surveyors". It was Banks' support for them, Torrens argues, that was the root cause of tension with the Geological Society, which saw geology as a gentlemanly occupation and was resolutely opposed to involvement of the artisanal or trade classes. Banks, although from the landed class, saw the value of practical geological skills. Though it is notable that he also opposed the involvement of the lower classes in the Royal Society. He seems to have been somewhat inconsistent in his attitudes in the various spheres of his life. An interesting collection. (03/Jul/2010)
Barber, Lynn 1980
The Heyday of Natural History, 1820 - 1870. Doubleday and Co., New York. 320 pp.
The age when "Natural History" was all the rage. Taken up by everyone, enthusiastic amateurs. It was thought to be morally improving and educational and linked to religious teaching as a demonstration of Creation and God's Purpose. Barber traces the study of Natural History through its numerous upheavals culminating in the Darwinian controversy and the gradual divorce of professional scientists and amateur naturalists through increased knowledge and specialization. It was an age when knowledge was so limited that anyone could be an "expert" and anyone could make discoveries or find new species. With increased knowledge this was no longer possible and natural history was relegated to the classroom and schoolboys' collections of beetles or bird's eggs. Marks also a decline in religious feeling and the break between science and art and science and religion. Also a change from a very anthropomorphic view of the world to a much more atheistical and detached view. Illustrated by the biographies and careers of many prominent naturalists - Agassiz, Huxley, Buckland, Sedgwick, and Darwin - to make the point that even an amateur could be a naturalist but that the professional scientist almost had to have independent means to finance his studies. Excellent, well illustrated and entertainingly written. Very funny in places. (16/May/1982)
Bolles, Edmund Blair 1999
The Ice Finders: How a Poet, a Professor, and a Politician Discovered the Ice Age. Counterpoint, Washington DC. 257 pp.
Bolles concentrates on three people: Louis Agassiz, who promulgated the idea of glaciation and the Ice Age from evidence in the Swiss Alps; Charles Lyell who started out as a determined skeptic but who later became convinced and promoted the idea in his later writings; and Elisha Kent Kane, who travelled to the Arctic in search of the Franklin Expedition and a route to the open polar sea, found neither, but did discover the massive glaciers of the west Greenland coast. It was his evocative description of these ice masses, Bolles argues, that gave European and North American scholars the reality and imagery they needed to imagine the Ice Age. Kane provided them with a modern analogue. But Agassiz's concept of the Ice Age later became inflated, exposing him to ridicule, and delayed its acceptance, since his claims became so exaggerated and extreme. He wanted the inundation by ice to be a worldwide event, wiping out all life, after which life was created anew. Basically replacing the biblical flood with ice. To that end, Agassiz hunted for (and found, he thought) evidence for glaciers in the Amazon. Lyell was reluctant to accept the idea of inundation by ice for two reasons. First, it seems to posit a catastrophic event, something he was unwilling to admit to his interpretation of earth history. Second and perhaps more importantly, it adduced a mechanism for transport that breached Lyell's cardinal rule - that only presently observable processes could be used to explain events in the past. So he repeatedly advanced an alternate idea, that erratics (one of Agassiz's principal lines of evidence) were transported by rafting by icebergs and not transported directly by moving ice. Of course, ice berg rafting of debris does occur but this explanation was not sufficient to account for all occurrences and positions of mapped erratics. After Kane published his observations on Greenland glaciers, Lyell was forced to admit the reality of contemporary glacial transport processes on the large scale. From here, he was able to admit to their occurrence in the past. Agassiz eventually got tired of the adversarial situation in Europe and moved to the US, becoming a professor at Harvard. Here, as the sole geoscientist, surrounded by brilliant minds but in other non-science fields, he was able to be a "big fish in a small pond" for the rest of his career. Lyell's acceptance of glaciation was not entirely enthusiastic or wholehearted but he did have sufficient intellectual integrity to admit he was wrong and adopt the new ideas, incorporating them in later editions of Principles of Geology. The story is told in three parallel streams, which makes the narrative confusing in places, because events are not happening simultaneously. It cuts back and forth from Agassiz's work and pronouncements on the Ice Age in the 1820s and early 1840s, and his debates with Lyell and others, to Kane's voyage of exploration in the mid-1850s. This makes the tale difficult to follow. The lack of maps is also a challenge, especially for Kane's journey and the significance of his reports. Bolles uses this story to show how science is self-correcting. Showing how human intelligence differs from machine intelligence, where errors are perpetuated (garbage in, garbage out), barring a change in programming of course. The narrative is simple and straightforward and this makes for an interesting and quick read. It's interesting to read this right after Gould's Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle which deals with some of the same ideas, but with a very different treatment. (13/Jun/2010)
Browne, Janet 2006
Darwin's Origin of Species: A Biography. Douglas and McIntyre, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. x + 174 pp.
A volume in a series of books called 'Books that Shook the World'. The first few chapters describe Darwin's life and the development of his ideas, especially with respect to the voyage of the Beagle. The bulk of the book describes how he came to write the Origin of Species, including the arrival of the famous essay from Wallace. The concluding chapter describes some of the aftermath and consequences of the book's publication, including the impact on the direction of scientific research and discovery, especially the search for mechanisms of inheritance, and the rise of social darwinism with its concomitant links to eugenics and the unfortunate political distortion of ideas in the series of repressive regimes characteristic of the 20th century in particular. An interesting read and introduction. (17/May/2008, 10/Feb/2009) Reviewed in AASP Newsletter 42(2):20-21 (2009).
Bryson, Bill 2003
A Short History of Nearly Everything. Anchor, Canada. 544 pp.
Basically a geoscience book, despite the rather misleading title. A history of the earth and how life developed on it, up to the emergence of modern humans, interwoven with stories about how this information was found out and the scientists and others people who worked out the story. Written in a very entertaining and literate style, I spotted a few errors but generally seemed OK. (24/Aug/2007)
Cadbury, Deborah 2002
The Dinosaur Hunters: A Story of Scientific Rivalry and the Discovery of the Prehistoric World. Fourth Estate, London, UK. x + 374 pp.
Deborah Cadbury presents a study in circumstance and success of two men, both involved in the early days of dinosaur studies in nineteenth century England. Gideon Mantell (1790 - 1852), country doctor, epitomizes the enthusiastic avocational geologist. Richard Owen (1804 - 1892) foreshadows the professionalization of the discipline. In many ways, they had much in common. Both went through medical training, though Owen never became a practising physician. Both came from the tradesman class, though Owen's family was comparatively wealthy and Mantell's in reduced circumstances. Both were passionately interested in the emerging field of palaeontology. There the similarities end. Owen was socially successful; Mantell lived in relative obscurity. Owen had a long and productive life; Mantell died horrifically in late middle-age. Owen appears to have had a happy marriage and family life; Mantell's marriage was troubled and he was alienated from three of his children. Mantell is a minor player, usually relegated to a passing mention in the history of geology, whereas Owen coined the word "dinosaur" and is celebrated as a founder of dinosaur studies. And yet, in this highly readable account by Cadbury, Mantell sounds the more engaging character. (31/Jan/2003) Reviewed in Geoscience Canada 30(3):141-142 (2003).
Cone, Joseph 1991
Fire Under the Sea: The Discovery of the Most Extraordinary Environment on Earth - Volcanic Hot Springs on the Ocean Floor. Wm. Morrow, New York. 285 pp.
Written by a journalist, a survey of earth-science and in particular plate tectonics in the late 1980s. Concentrates mainly on US research and particularly along the Juan de Fuca ridge off the west coast. Shows some interesting sidelights, such as how the Reagan administration became interested when they thought there was money in ocean bed mining (e.g., manganese). Interesting. (10/Dec/1992)
Darwin, Charles 1839 (1959 edition)
The Voyage of the 'Beagle'. J. M. Dent and Sons, London, UK. 496 pp.
Darwin set off on the HMS Beagle as a naturalist and companion to Robert FitzRoy, the captain, in 1831 at Christmas, on a journey that was to last almost five years (he arrived back in England in October 1836). The objective of this mission was to survey the southern coasts of South America, but the ship also circumnavigated the world. Darwin went onshore and explored the places they landed at, collecting samples and objects, observing the geology. the wildlife and the vegetation, and gradually forming opinions on nature and biology that were to occupy his mind for the rest of his life. This is a great read, especially in the light of later history. To see flashes of ideas forming and some of the observations on which his later works were built is fascinating. (19/Apr/1984, 13/Dec/2005)
Fortey, Richard 2005
The Earth: An Intimate History. Harper Perennial, New York. 501 pp.
Fortey surveys some of the most significant sites in earth science, ones that are particularly significant in the development of thought in geology, especially with respect to the understanding of deep time and the development of the theory of plate tectonics. Hence he visits Etna in Italy, the Hawaiian islands, Iceland (to discuss seafloor spreading), some classic sections in the Alps, Newfoundland, parts of Scotland (especially to discuss faulting), Dartmoor (granites), San Andreas Fault and the Rift Valley, and the Grand Canyon. I liked the Italy (Etna) and Grand Canyon sections best, especially the description of the ride down into the Canyon on a mule which is quite evocative and sounds hair-raising. However, I found the text heavy-going and confusing in places. This is a book that cries out for more maps, even locational maps would have been helpful. Nevertheless, Fortey is to be commended for his efforts to popularize geology and its history. (10/Sep/2006)
Gould, Stephen Jay 1987
Time's Arrow, Time's Circle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time. Harvard University Press, Massachusetts. 222 pp.
Gould examines varying concepts of time in geological thought, mainly through the writings of some influential thinkers in geological history. Gould examines three of the foundation texts in geology, deconstructing them for their perspective on time. The first text is Thomas Burnet's volumes on the Sacred Theory of the Earth, published in 1681 and 1684. The frontispiece from his work is the cover illustration for Gould's book. He sees this as a metaphor for Burnet's view of time, which he argues is cyclical (Time's Cycle) with events repeating but slightly changed (destruction by water, then destruction by fire), so that history has directionality. Burnet's vision thus encompasses the beginning of the earth and time to the end of earth and time. The apical figure being Christ (Alpha and Omega, Beginning and End). Gould likens this to a wheel spinning down along a track. [I'm not sure I follow Gould's reasoning here because, to follow the imaged metaphor, it looks as if when the cycle reaches its apex (under Christ's right foot) then it repeats again in exactly the same form. In other words, this could be viewed as a cycle turning in place.] However, Gould argues that because of the directionality, Burnet has been somewhat maligned for his attempts to make observations on geology fit a biblically-derived or cosmologically-driven model. Then Gould examines James Hutton's ideas on time. He finds Hutton's ideas to have been misrepresented by John Playfair, and by extension by subsequent historians of science who have read Playfair but not Hutton in the original. In Playfair, Gould sees evidence of directionality in time; in other words, events follow each other sequentially. Whereas in Hutton, he says, any idea of progressive or sequential events is rigidly precluded. Things change but it's more like a seesaw, moving back and forth but staying put (my analogy here!). He notes that Hutton's writing excludes any language suggesting directionality or progress. In language, Hutton affirms the earth's perfection, therefore the idea of change is anathema, because perfection requires no change. That is, if change occurs, it denies the occurrence of perfection in the first place. Hutton, according to Gould, sees the world as a perfectly working and regulated machine. Hutton uses the analogy to the cosmic cycles of planetary motion enunciated by Newton. Just as planets perpetually cycle, so does the earth. Hutton presents the operation of this machine through the processes of erosion and deposition in a kind of balanced steady state. Gould notes that Hutton uses fossils only to deduce the origin of sediments (i.e., terrestrial or marine) and of cyclicity, not of directionality or "a vector of change". He also notes that Hutton has been lauded as the first field-based geologist, using empirical evidence to deduce the laws he saw. But Gould says Hutton only went to visit field localities after developing his ideas, in order to find some obvious evidentiary support. Thus the "abyss of time", celebrated in Playfair's writing at Hutton's Unconformity at Siccar Point, is Playfair's reading, not Huttton's. [This definitely seems to contradict biographical accounts read elsewhere - see Repcheck (2003)] Gould then goes on to deconstruct Charles Lyell who he again believes has been misinterpreted and has been falsely set up as the paragon of rational and empirical geology. Lyell essentially built on Hutton, again conceiving of a world that was in a kind of cycling steady-state, with no directionality. The denial of history, according to Gould, is the logical end point of uniformitarianism. If mountains gradually arise in one place, then they have to erode somewhere else. Gould notes the problem that this led Lyell into with the fossil record, which was becoming better known through the 1830s as he published his initial edition of his Principles of Geology. The fossils were showing clear evidence of directionality, something that emerged and was emphasized through the work of Darwin and which shows the clearest break between Darwin's and Lyell's ideas. Lyell therefore held the view, according to Gould, that all biological entities (possibly excepting man) had always existed. Lyell felt that fossil evidence of progress was illusory. The fact that mammals were not found in all sediments, especially those which the law of superposition showed were very old, simply reflected the fact that fewer of those sediments remained after erosion and that not enough searching had been done. These views became increasingly difficult to maintain in the light of increasing geological fieldwork and fossil evidence found through the 19th century. Lyell therefore espoused uniformities of rate and state. There was no place in his schema for processes that had no modern analogue of for abrupt changes of state (i.e., catastrophes). Hence the dichotomy and tension between uniformitarianism and catastrophism. Gould argues that most modern textbook views of Lyell are myths and are not based on a correct reading of his writings. [One can be cynical here and perhaps think that this is special pleading in part of justify a neo-catastrophist viewpoint, largely in support of Gould's own punctuated equilibrium ideas.] Gould's point is an obvious one: that both cyclicity and directionality are fundamental to explanation in geology. In this sense, the dichotomy between uniformitarianism and catastrophism is false. Both are needed to interpret the past and both can be inferred from geological evidence. Perhaps Hutton and Lyell aren't the heroes that geological myth has made them. But both were thoughtful men who struggled to make sense of the world around them. From this perspective, they remain important figures in the history of geology. It's interesting to read this again, more then twenty years since I first read it. With the benefit of more years of thought and study, I think I grasp Gould's arguments more clearly. (07/Jul/1988, 13/Jun/2010)
Hart, Matthew 2002
Diamond: The History of a Cold-blooded Love Affair. Penguin Books. 276 pp.
Concentrates on the 19th century development of the diamond industry, focussing on South Africa and the rise of De Beers and establishment of the cartel system. Follows the industry through the 20th century, especially the discovery and development of other diamond-producing areas (Russia, Australia, and northern Canada) and the struggle by De Beers to maintain a monopoly on the trade - a struggle that was usually successful. Hart also examines the marketing of diamonds, at which De Beers has been phenomenally successful, convincing the public that they should buy something that they really don't need and that has no real purpose. Hart's account concentrates on the jewelry end of the business. He does not really discuss the industrial or more practical uses of diamonds. Many of the people that Hart describes are truly obsessed by diamonds. Even the field geologists are obsessed by the search. Greed and desire for wealth animate this industry. It's an interesting read, though the account is rather disheartening. (30/May/2010)
Jaffe, Mark 2000
The Gilded Dinosaur. Crown Books, New York. 424 pp.
A retelling of the rivalry of Cope and Marsh, two palaeontologists who hated each other but who are forever coupled together in popular imagination. Marsh may be thought to have "won", since he had professional recognition and social status. Cope, as a Quaker, was more of an outsider and never had a regular position or place in society. Nevertheless, he was happier and more successful in his private and family life and had loyal colleagues and students. Jaffe shows that much of their science was suspect or at best slapdash, but their most enduring legacy is the trove of fossils that have been worked on by subsequent researchers. (23/Aug/2003)
Kerr, Aubrey 1988
Corridors of Time. Self published, Calgary. 331 pp.
This book was a disappointment. There's a lot of information in here but it's really poorly written and incoherent. It is definitely not for the outsider. The material deals with the development of the oil industry in Alberta over the last fifty years or so. Nothing is really explained well and much of it is incomprehensible. People are introduced and discussed as if they are important but there is often little or no contextual background given for them. The chapters are written in roughly chronologic order but the book does not form a cohesive narrative. This has some potential to be an interesting book. Some interesting characters and personalities with the conflict between private enterprise and public regulation discussed as well. (02/Aug/1990)
Larson, Edward J. 2001
Evolution's Workshop: God and Science on the Galapagos Islands. Basic Books Inc., New York. xiii + 370 pp.
This is an interesting book. When Darwin visited the islands in 1835 on the Beagle voyage, there was already some considerable knowledge about them and the islands had been visited sporadically for several centuries. The person who described them first in print was William Dampier, who visited them in 1684 and wrote about them in the book of his travels. Darwin had Dampier's book with him and esteemed his writing highly. Larson notes the ambivalent attitude towards the islands with Herman Melville, for instance, who also visited them when he was crew on a whaling ship, characterizing them as the Encantadas or Enchanted Islands, an epitome of everything lost and evil in the world. Melville's attitude was more common in the 19th century, when their barrenness and isolation made them seem as wasteland. Sailors appreciated them only as a source of food, especially the tortoises and turtles. An appreciation for wildlife came much later, after WWII and in recent years, the islands have been almost "loved to death" by ecotourists and more lately surfers and extreme adventurers who, according to Larson, appear to care nothing for wildlife. The constant remaking of the islands in popular and scholarly imagination is one of the most fascinating aspects of this story. (04/Jul/2006)
Lewis, C. L. E., and S. J. Knell (editors) 2009
The Making of the Geological Society of London. Geological Society Special Publication 317. Geological Society, London. xi + 471 pp.
A collection of papers that examines the history and early development of the Geological Society, arising from a two-day meeting convened in 2007 to celebrate its 200th anniversary. Examines the personalities and careers of many of the early members and some famous controversies, such as the treatment of William Smith. Takes the story as far as the early 20th century with a chapter dealing with the first women fellows of the Society. Fascinating if heavy-going in places. (02/Oct/2010)
Lewis, C. L. E., and S. J. Knell (editors) 2001
The Age of the Earth: from 4004 BC to AD 2002. Geological Society Special Publication 190. Geological Society, London. viii + 288 pp.
A series of 19 papers arising from a millennium conference convened by the History of Geology group and focussing on a very appropriate topic! Papers deal with topics ranging from mainly historical matters, such as William Smith's role in establishing stratigraphic principles (Torrens), to a survey of recent efforts to date the oldest rocks on earth (Kamber et al.), and concluding with the cosmogenic context (Rees). Most papers deal with history or with the rock record. Three deal with fossils as indicators of time, one on ammonites (Callomon), one on the evolution of life (Manning), and one on the hominid/human fossil record (Stringer). All the papers are interesting, but one of the more interesting papers is written by Bush. He outlines the discrepancy between the cosmologists' views on the age of the universe and geochronologists' views on the age of the earth in the early 20th century. In this comparison, the earth age estimates were "too old" in cosmologists' view. This discrepancy has now been resolved with cosmologists able to establish an older time scale for the universe (Dalrymple) into which age estimates for the earth fit conformably. An illuminating and thought-provoking set of papers. (23/Oct/2010)
Lyons, Sherrie L. 1999
Thomas Henry Huxley: The Evolution of a Scientist. Prometheus Books, Amherst, New York. 347 pp.
This was not quite what I expected. It is not a biography of Huxley but rather an examination of his thoughts and ideas in science, as shown through his writings, especially his lectures, papers and correspondence. Lyons situates Huxley within some of the major, if esoteric, debates of the day, in particular as to whether form follows function or vice versa, and whether biology or geology followed a gradualist or a saltationist progression - the latter debate being a particular point of difference between him and Darwin. Although well known to science history as "Darwin's Bulldog", Lyons shows that Huxley's biological ideas and thinking differed from Darwin's at many points. These points of difference stimulated considerable research on the part of each, especially Darwin's plant breeding experiments. Much of this concerns taxonomy and systematics. Huxley was sceptical as to whether varieties would ever become species. In other words, he was sceptical as to the way in which speciation occurred. This debate remains essentially unresolved to this day. The other major theme in Huxley's scientific life was his opposition to religion as explanation and his desire to take any religious ideas out of science. He was perhaps the strongest advocate of the complete separation of science and religion of his time. He was very diligent in ferreting out, exposing, and ridiculing religious beliefs masquerading as science. One can see why he has become a hero to many today. This makes him sound arrogant, but he doesn't seem to have been so, just formidably intelligent and unafraid to speak his mind. This is an interesting, if difficult, book. (23/Jul/2009)
Smith, Philip 1986
Harvest from the Rock: A History of Mining in Ontario. Macmillan of Canada. 346 pp.
Reviewed in Geolog 19(4):39-41 (1990).
Spalding, David A. E. 1993
Dinosaur Hunters: 150 Years of Extraordinary Discoveries. Key Porter Books, Toronto, Canada. 310 pp.
Concentrates on the people and what they found, though becoming rather overladen with multisyllabic names at times. Begins in the late 18th and early 19th centuries with discoveries in Europe (mainly Germany) and UK. Then to eastern North America, then moves to Canada and the western US where much of the recent story is concentrated. Also describes Andrews' expeditions to central Asia. Interesting stories and characters. (10/Aug/1998)
Taylor, James 2008
The Voyage of the "Beagle": Darwin's Extraordinary Adventure Aboard FitzRoy's Famous Survey Ship. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland, USA. 192 pp.
This is an interesting and attractive book - well illustrated and fairly well written, though I did notice some typos. Ii is interesting because it provides a good deal of background information on some of the other personalities on board ship, especially John Lort Stokes, John Clements Wickham, Bartholemew Sulivan, and Philip Gidley King. Taylor also gives more background on the two artists, Augustus Earle and Conrad Martens, that accompanied the expedition and the doctor, Robert McCormick, who left in high dudgeon in Brazil. Two main characters of course, Darwin and FitzRoy, are at the heart of the book. It also contains lots of fascinating background information about the Beagle itself and shipboard life. This account helps to fill out the picture provided by other more strictly biographical accounts. (10/Feb/2010)
Walsh, John Evangelist 1996
Unravelling Piltdown: The Science Fraud of the Century and its Solution. Random House, New York. xx + 279 pp.
A re-examination of the evidence for the Piltdown fraud. Concludes that Charles Dawson did this alone and without any help, mainly in a seeking for recognition and a craving for attention. Considers alternate views (e.g., Conan Doyle, de Chardin) and concludes that they are lacking sufficient evidence or motive. (03/Jul/2004, 04/Aug/2008)
Winchester, Simon 2005
A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906. Harper Collins. xiv + 462 pp.
Written in Winchester's usual florid overheated style, this book is more rambling and discursive than most. The earthquake is described in the first 22 pages and then there is along account of earthquakes, plate tectonics and the history of San Francisco and we don't return to the 1906 'quake until p. 243. This book seems hastily-written, not well-organized and rather repetitive. Still, the narrative is interesting and the account highlights the propensity of people to ignore and forget unpleasant events. (19/May/2008)
Winchester, Simon 2003
Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded August 27, 1883. Harper Collins. xvi + 435 pp.
I've read this several times and enjoyed it very much each time. It is long, verbose, rambling, but withal a very good read. Winchester puts in lots of explanation about plate tectonics and why the volcano is where it is. He examines the historical record of previous eruptions, which is sparse, and describes the events leading up to the climactic eruption and its devastating after- effects. His account makes it clear that the majority of the destruction and loss of life was caused not by the eruption itself but by the consequent tsunamis which devastated nearby coastal areas. His attempts to link the eruption with subsequent social upheavals is not particularly convincing. The book could have done with a good copy editor, because there are lots of obtrusive typos, including "vulcanologists"! [sic] Highly prescient in view of the 2004 tsunami. (13/Jul/2003, 24/May/2006, 25/May/2008, 29/Jul/2009)
Winchester, Simon 2001
The Map that Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology. Harper Collins. xix + 329 pp.
William Smith (1769 - 1839). Records the life of Smith, an uneducated (formally) but self-taught geologist, a very practical man concerned with drainage, ditches and canal works. But this experience gave him insight into bedrock and he was the first to deduce the order to the layers of rock, using their included fossils as a guide. Based on this, he determined to make a map of all England, showing geological strata, which he eventually completed. It was published in 1815 and almost immediately plagiarized by the luminaries of the Geological Society, who were reluctant to let this rude peasant take the credit for something that was really the purview of gentlemen. It wasn't until 1831 that redress was made, when the Geological Society awarded him the first Wollaston Medal in recognition of his efforts and his contributions. Smith's life was also marred by financial woes as injudicious property purchases led to him being briefly imprisoned for debt. A great read if rather florid in places. (30/Dec/2002)
Zaslow, Morris 1975
Reading the Rocks: The Story of the Geological Survey of Canada 1842-1972. Macmillan of Canada. 599 pp.
An interesting survey of the GSC. The first section of the book is more interesting with its emphasis on the personality of William Logan. The later 2/3 devolve rather more into summaries of major research projects and descriptions of the administrative structure. It conveys very little feel for the actual work of the Survey or the personalities of the staff members. (21/Oct/1988)

Biography and Memoir

Barlow, Nora (editor) 1969
The Autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809-1882. W. W. Norton and Co. 253 pp.
The text of the Autobiography appears here "with original omissions restored" by Nora Barlow, Darwin's granddaughter. A few parts of his text were not published in the original version, edited by his son, Francis Darwin, at the request of his wife, Emma. These were mostly sections dealing with Darwin's religious views. These seem fairly innocuous now - simply a statement of lack of belief - but were perhaps more disturbing at the time of original publication (1887). The Autobiography was written primarily for his children, mostly in 1876, with some additional pages added up to 1881, shortly before his death. This volume also contains some appendices. The lengthiest of these is an exposition of the so-called "Darwin-Butler Controversy", in which Samuel Butler (grandson of Darwin's former headmaster at Shrewsbury School) took exception to some remarks in a preface written by Darwin of a book about Erasmus Darwin, and attacked Darwin in print. This seems rather ludicrous now but evidently caused some considerable distress to Darwin and his family at the time. (23/Aug/2009)
Browne, Janet 2002
Charles Darwin: The Power of Place. Princeton University Press. 591 pp.
Continues the biography of Darwin from 1848 to his death in 1882. It opens as Darwin receives the manuscript from Alfred Russel Wallace and realizes that Wallace has essentially pre-empted his ideas. deals with the joint presentation, the aftermath, the work on Origin of Species and its publication and the aftermath of that event. Browne shows that Darwin's work was basically a crystallization or distillation of ideas that had been floating around for many years. It was, however, having the ideas brought together in such a well-argued and readable form that was Darwin's particular strength. Browne also makes it clear that Darwin did not face the post-publication storm alone and unaided. On the contrary, his social, familial and scientific colleagues network were to work on his behalf. Huxley was well known as his champion - and always relished a good scrap - but Hooker and Lyell were also part of this central coterie of support. Social networking is obviously not a new concept! Indeed, it was the network of advocates and defenders that shielded Darwin from the worst of the story and allowed him to continue working in Downe. His health was noticeably worse about this time - one has to wonder how much of this was psychosomatic. His life after that was definitely not anticlimactic but he remained productive and completed several major works in natural history, especially on plants, including carnivorous plants and orchids. At least one of his later books (The Descent of Man) was almost as controversial as Origins. In late life, he became a Grand Old Man of science, feted and honoured even by those who disagreed with his ideas. Both Oxford and Cambridge gave him honourary degrees. Darwin was most appreciative of the one from Cambridge, his alma mater. His final book (The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Earthworms) was published in October 1881, only six months before his death. This has always been, next to The Voyage of the Beagle, my favourite book of his but I hadn't realized that it was published so late in life. This is a great book about a Great Man. (08/Aug/2008)
Browne, Janet 1995
Charles Darwin: Voyaging. Princeton University Press. xiii + 605 pp.
This is brilliant! Takes the story of Darwin from his birth in 1809 to 1856 when he finally settles down to write Origin of Species, drawing on the various essay drafts and research that he'd done during the 20 yeas since the Beagle voyage. Although the account of that voyage is reasonably well known, the story of his youth and subsequent events is not. After the voyage, Darwin spent years writing up and publishing his notes and observations, as well as editing volumes of reports based on work done by other scholars on the specimens he'd brought back. Throughout this time, he was gradually working out his transmutationist ideas, on the mutability of species, and collecting much varied evidence, especially from the breeding of domestic livestock and pigeons. He also embarked on a long study of barnacles, investigating the diversity of forms, and especially reproductive strategies, in this one animal group. He was getting ready to write up and publish when in 1844, a book published anonymously called Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation burst upon the scene and put forward, although without good evidence, ideas about changing species. The book was greeted with an uproar, including thundering denunciations from clergymen and, worse yet, from scholars whom Darwin considered as colleagues. He realized that his ideas would be greeted with equal or worse vilification and so was put off the idea of publishing. But transmutation was in the air and his friends, especially Hooker and Huxley, were encouraging him to write and publish, knowing of his work and fearing that he might be pre-empted. So the book closes at the point where he is trying to expand on previous essays and put his ideas in book form. Occasionally, Browne is rather too prepared to forgive Darwin for his failings, especially his tendency to disregard and not acknowledge the help given to him by other people. taking it all for granted. Withal, this makes him more understandable and approachable as a human being. (27/Jul/2008)
Burkhardt, Federick, Samantha Evans, and Alison Pearn (editors) 2008
Evolution: Selected Letters of Charles Darwin 1860 - 1870. Cambridge University Press. xxii + 308 pp.
Another set of letters, again arranged chronologically. I enjoyed this set of letters more than Volume 1, because here we are given some of the letters that people wrote to Darwin, so it is much more like overhearing a conversation rather than listening in on one side of a 'phone call! These letters show Darwin still thinking and still working. He's continually making revisions to Origin of Species but also working on his other books, books which he intended to be part of his 'long argument' but which grew into works of their own. He's also very concerned with the age of the earth and geologic time, following closely the work of William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) and James Croll. The letters also show Darwin's concern for his friends and family, and his pride in their achievements. He often complains of illness and ill-health but his insatiable curiosity about the natural world overcomes his tendency to invalidism and drives him forward to conduct scientific enquiry all the time. (24/Aug/2009)
Burkhardt, Federick (editor) 2008
Origins: Selected Letters of Charles Darwin 1822 - 1859. Cambridge University Press. xxviii + 253 pp.
The letters are arranged chronologically, beginning with some that Darwin wrote in a notebook at the age of 12, and ending with one he wrote to Thomas Huxley shortly after the publication of the Origin of Species in 1859. These letters chart his life and changing pre-occupations. These letters range from the very formal to quick notes dashed off to family and friends. The letters to Joseph Hooker are the most revealing and most informal. They read like the mid-19th century equivalent of e-mail - often filled with short form discussion, punctuated by dashes, and showing evidence of good humour. Through these, we hear the authentic voice of Darwin himself. The only downside is that this is like hearing one side of a conversation because we don't have the letters that others wrote to him and to which he was replying. (08/Aug/2009)
Lyte, Charles 1980
Sir Joseph Banks: 18th Century Explorer, Botanist and Entrepreneur. David and Charles, Newton Abbot, England. 248 pp.
Joseph Banks (1743 -1820) was one of the most significant figures in 18th century British science. His stature arises from three main facets of his life: his participation in Cook's first voyage to the Pacific as botanist and, in particular, his collection of Australian plants; his long Presidency (1778 to 1820) of the Royal Society; his position as de facto dominions of Kew Gardens (from 1773 onwards). Banks was born to wealth but instead of becoming a rich idler, he used his wealth to pursue and fund his scientific interests as well as encourage those of others. His was appointment President of the Royal Society in his mid-30s, a very young age for such an influential post. This central role meant that he had great influence on the direction of science and scientific life in Britain. Among more positive aspects of his influence were his encouragement of voyages of scientific exploration and plant collecting. Perhaps less positive, he was an enthusiastic promoter of the settlement of Australia and advocated for the selection of Botany Bay as the site for a penal colony. He was not keen on the lower classes becoming members of the Royal Society. In his view, scientific scholarly merit had to be coupled with good breeding for him to approve new members. This helped to preserve the elitist outlook of the Society. He was also opposed to the establishment of other learned societies (such as the Geological Society, established in 1807), feeling that they would dilute the influence of the Royal Society. In personality, he seems to have been largely jovial and encouraging, fond of good living, and highly social. He played a significant role in James Cook's the Endeavour voyage (1769-1771), an expedition to the South Seas which circumnavigated the world. Banks made extensive botanical collections everywhere - his principal training was as a botanist - but he also made observations on other natural phenomena. After the Endeavour voyage, Banks made one more expedition, chartering the Sir Lawrence for a voyage to Iceland in 1772. As part of this expedition, Banks and his team visited the Isle of Staffa to inspect the columnar basalts and Fingal's Cave. His account of them served to popularize these attractions. Lyte's account of Banks' life is highly readable, though it concentrates mostly on the early part of his life, especially the Endeavour voyage, probably because this part of his life is best documented. Some time after Banks' death, all his papers and letters were dispersed through sale and hence knowledge of his activities during the later part of his life is somewhat less. His herbarium specimens, however, did go to the British Museum in 1827. Banks was a mentor to many younger scientists, including William Hooker, first appointed Director of Kew Gardens. Indeed, many of the people he selected to undertake collecting expeditions became respected botanists in their own right. Banks married but still shared his house with his sister, also a formidable personality, who assisted him greatly in his career. Yet even the Dictionary of National Biography sums up his life as predominantly that of a scientific administrator rather than a scientist. But perhaps to be a good mentor and facilitator is no bad thing. (24/Jun/1985, 12/Jun/2010)
Nichols, Peter 2003
Evolution's Captain: The Story of the Kidnapping that Led to Charles Darwin's Voyage Aboard the "Beagle". Harper Perennial, New York, USA. 336 pp.
Despite the title, this book is basically a biography of Robert FitzRoy, who was the captain of the Beagle but who was tremendously affected by the ideas of evolution advanced by Darwin and was filled with guilt at his own role in the development of these ideas by selecting Darwin as his companion on the voyage. Eventually, this and the sense that his own work had been discounted became too much for him and he committed suicide. Yet his work has remained of importance, in the coastal surveying he did in South America, and in his organization of the British Meteorological Office. An interesting character, a footnote to history, perhaps, but an important one. (18/Nov/2005, 22/Feb/2009) Reviewed in Geolog 38(2):25-26, (2009)
Quammen, David 2006
The Reluctant Mr Darwin: An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and the Making of the Theory of Evolution. W. W. Norton, New York, USA. 304 pp.
This is a popular biography of Darwin. It draws heavily on Janet Browne's two volume biography of Darwin but is written with Quammen's usual lucid and engaging style. He writes extremely well! The book does not contain any new information, other than the link to Crick's grandfather (of Watson and Crick DNA fame) at the end of Darwin's life. A succinct and highly readable survey. (13/Mar/2009)
Repcheck, Jack 2003
The Man Who Found Time: James Hutton and the Discovery of the Earth's Antiquity. Perseus Publishing, Cambridge, Massachusetts. 247 pp.
James Hutton (1726-1797) was a Scot who spent most of his life in and around Edinburgh. He went to University and began training in medicine, mainly because of his fascination with chemistry. However, he never completed these studies, heading overseas for a few years to avoid the consequences of getting a woman pregnant. Although he apparently supported his son, he never acknowledged him and his friends were astounded when the man turned up in Edinburgh on Hutton's death. Hutton decided to become a gentleman farmer and spent several years in Norfolk learning the latest scientific methods, which he applied on his own farm at Slighhouses, not far from Edinburgh. After a decade at this activity, he returned to live in Edinburgh in 1767 and lived there for the rest of his life. He was comfortably off, living on rents and other income from a business partnership. He was a member of the Scots intelligentsia. This was the time of the Scottish enlightenment, an extraordinary flowering of intellectual activity, including Adam Smith (author of Wealth of Nations) and David Hume (philosopher), and James Watt (inventor). Under the stimulus of friendships, Hutton drew his observations on erosion and development of the earth into a theory, which was presented to the Royal Society of Scotland in 1785 and was later put into book form. It was Hutton who remarked on 'no vestiges of a beginning, no trace of an end' and therefore adduced uniformitarianism in earth science. Although he published his ideas, he was not a fluid writer and his ideas did not gain widespread currency. It was his friend, John Playfair, whose 'Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory of the Earth' in 1802 and subsequent editions made the ideas wider known, However, it was not until the ideas were incorporated in Charles Lyell's 'Principles of Geology' that they gained widespread currency. This book was one that Darwin read on the 'Beagle' voyage and helped shape his ideas on deep time, which fed into the idea of evolution, i.e., small changes acting over unimaginably long intervals of time. This is an interesting, if rather superficial account. Hutton is best associated with the unconformity at Siccar Point - a world-famous geological site. (09/Mar/2006)
Stott, Rebecca 2003
Darwin and the Barnacle: The Story of One Tiny Creature and History's Most Spectacular Scientific Breakthrough. W. W. Norton and Co., New York. 390 pp.
Concentrates on eight years of Darwin's life (1846 - 1854), after he returned from the Beagle voyage. he has married his cousin, Emma, and started to produce a large family. His wealth, especially following the death of his father and his inheritance, means that he can work at his own pace and does not have to look for a job. He has bought Down House and settled down to research. He has distributed his Beagle specimens to various colleagues and institutions but he has some left and among them is an odd barnacle that he picked up in Chile. He knows that barnacle taxonomy is a wide open field and he knows that, before he can write up any of his ideas and be taken seriously, he must publish something in biology. And so he determines to sort out their taxonomy. In the end, it takes eight years. Years in which he establishes a network of contacts and correspondents that will stand him in good stead when his controversial Origin of Species is published, He is enabled to sharpen his ideas by correspondence, especially with Hooker but later with Huxley. This means that his writings when finally done will be stronger. During these years of obsessive study, Darwin suffers from ill-health (hypochondria?) and loses a beloved daughter (Anne) to consumption, the bane of the family and a major killer at that time. Darwin works slowly and thoroughly, which exasperates his friends at times, though they are very admiring of the final work. (04/Aug/2006)
Walters, S. M., and E. A. Stow 2001, reprinted 2009
Darwin's Mentor: John Stevens Henslow, 1796-1861. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England. xx + 338 pp.
The authors divide their account intro three parts: Origins, Cambridge, and Hitcham, reflecting the three main divisions of Henslow's life, as a child and young man, as an academic, and as a village vicar. His main accomplishments and legacy are his efforts to get a new Botanic Garden established at Cambridge University, his work on establishing a museum at Ipswich, and his devotion to teaching both at Cambridge and later at the village school at Hitcham. His life was driven throughout by a strong sense of duty, as is evident also in so many contemporaries. He comes across as a thoroughly decent and likable man, with a knack for encouraging others (Charles Darwin being the most famous example), capable of hard work but lacking a streak of originality. He seems to have dissipated his talents in a variety of endeavours and lacked that single-mindedness that makes a great scientist. No doubt he was intelligent and earnest. He had a real concern for public education as witness his support for museum endeavours and free access to all people. His life seems to have been singularly free from emotional turmoil or friction. He certainly was not a self-promoter. Henslow was well connected in scientific circles; one of his daughters married Joseph Dalton Hooker, who was also Darwin's close friend. One gets the impression that in middle age, after he left Cambridge to concentrate on his pastoral duties as a clergyman, he had rather gotten left behind by the pace of scientific development. The biographers conclude that Henslow's skills were valuable to science: "a flair for teaching which releases genius in others may be as important as genius itself. Without Henslows there are no Darwins" (p. 260). And, we might add, without Darwin, who now would even remember Henslow? His importance to modern history of science lies in his relationship to Darwin and not really on his own achievements. (26/Jun/2011)


Gould, Stephen Jay 1983
Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes: Further Reflections in Natural History. W. W. Norton and Co., New York. 413 pp.
A selection of essays on the oddities of biology and geology, strongly championing a Darwinian point of view and taking pot shots at sociobiologists and creationists along the way. (14/Nov/1983)
Gould, Stephen Jay 1977
Ever Since Darwin: Reflections in Natural History. W. W. Norton and Co., New York. 285 pp.
A series of essays inspired by the centennial of the publication of Origin of Species and exploring the way in which Darwinism has been worked out in contemporary biology/geology and in the history of science in our century. Witty and erudite essays. (05/Jun/1988)
Haupt, Lyanda Lynn 2006
Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent: The Importance of Everything and Other Lessons from Darwin's Lost Notebooks. Little, Brown and Company, Boston, USA. 276 pp.
Haupt is an ornithologist and so is interested in Darwin's observations on bird life. The book consists of a series of chapters, really a series of extended essays, which focus on the Beagle voyage and Darwin's life in England, especially his work with pigeon breeding and his interaction with pigeon fanciers. The chapters are arranged chronologically, following aspects of Darwin's life. I am not sure why she refers to "lost" notebooks - perhaps a lost reading or interpretation or a not hitherto highlighted perspective of the notebooks, but Darwin's notebooks are extant. Or perhaps she is meaning notebooks he never wrote? She tends to idolize Darwin rather too much and romanticizes his attention to birdlife, imagining incidents and what he may have thought and felt. These aspects of her essays are rather overdone. Nevertheless, she is a terrific writer and she has clearly thought deeply about the subject. The book really deals with becoming a naturalist. It's an enjoyable and thought-provoking read. (03/Feb/2009)
Irvine, William 1960
Thomas Henry Huxley. Longmans, Green & Co, London. 40 pp.
Begins with a brief biographical sketch of Huxley (1825 - 1895), taking his life up to the point where he got his first permanent appointment (as Professor of Natural History and Palaeontology at the London School of Mines in 1854). From then on, Irvine concentrates on the development of Huxley's ideas on science and education. He focusses particularly on Huxley's influence on reforming the education system, in particular his role in getting science accepted as part of the standard curriculum and his attempts to extend better education to working people. Huxley certainly comes across as a dynamic, charismatic and intelligent individual, both persuasive and combative. The pamphlet includes a great quote from H. G. Wells. Speaking of Darwin and Huxley he said: "These two were very great men. They thought boldly, carefully, and simply, they wrote fearlessly and plainly, they lived modestly and decently; they were mighty intellectual liberators." (from An Experiment in Autobiography, 1934). (23/May/2009)

At the Intersection of Biology and Palaeontology...

Dawkins, Richard 2004
The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution. Houghton Mifflin Co. xii + 673 pp.
This was interesting but very tough sledding. Took me a couple of attempts to get through it. Looks at biology and evolution from a genetic perspective, so there's a lot of terminology and technical detail which is hard to follow. The book starts from the premise that by looking back, evolution is seen as a linear pathway to humans, and humans are seen as the inevitable culmination of the process. This is a premise that Dawkins takes issue with, and his whole book is an argument against it. This is a hindsight view. At any point along that path there are branches that could have been taken. So Dawkins traces evolution backwards, like playing a film backwards, showing the progressive joining (instead of splitting) of life forms. His point is that all life forms are very closely related and that humans share most of their DNA and biological characteristics with the rest of living things. This is not new or news, but Dawkins presents plenty of evidence and discussion to emphasize the point. In other words, there's nothing special (biologically speaking) about humans. There are some quirky digressions and the writing becomes opinionated in places. The book is structured by using the conceit of the Canterbury Tales as a framework, meeting various "concestors" at rendezvous points leading back into the past, to the beginning of the evolutionary story at the molecular level. (11/Oct/2007).
Dawkins, Richard 1987
The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design. W. W. Norton, New York. xiii + 332 pp.
Dawkins' stated task in this book is to refute William Paley's argument from design (finding a watch on a heath, implies the existence of a watchmaker) by showing how natural selection can result in organized complexity. The book is basically a primer on evolutionary principles. Dawkins takes most of his arguments and examples from biology rather than palaeontology, although he does include a lengthy discussion and dismissal of Eldredge and Gould's "punctuated equilibrium" ideas. Literate and argumentative, and highly readable. (28/May/2009).
Dawkins, Richard 1976
The Selfish Gene. Granada Publishing Ltd, London, England. 224 pp.
Proposes the idea that bodies are merely containers or survival machines for genes. In other words, the fundamental unit of behaviour or evolution is the gene. Different animals are merely different expressions of gene survival strategies. Dawkins examines aspects of life behaviour - mate selection, parental nurturing etc. - as different ways genes have of ensuring their continuance. He especially discusses altruism, taking issue with the idea of altruistic behaviour as a way of ensuring group survival, but re- interpreting most apparent altruistic acts by animals as essentially selfish, from the gene's perspective (e.g., warning calls by birds, food sharing, predator distraction activities). He concludes with a discussion of "memes", making the analogy to genes, units of culture transmission. Recognizes that culture does make a difference. Enunciates what he thinks may a basic and universal law: "that all life evolves by differential survival of replicating entities". By this definition, both genes and memes can be subject to evolutionary processes. Deceptively simple writing but presents some difficult and complex ideas. (28/Mar/2009).
Prothero, Donald R. 2006
After the Dinosaurs: The Age of Mammals. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana, USA. xii + 362 pp.
An eminently readable book containing a straightforward account of the faunal changes of the Cenozoic (Tertiary and Quaternary). It concentrates mainly, as the title suggests, on mammals but also touches on other faunal groups, such as marine invertebrates, which also record substantial changes through this interval. Prothero pays some attention to changes in plant life, especially the rise of grasslands, which are correlated with faunal changes. He discusses extinction events and their causation at considerable length, including a lengthy summary of explanations for extinctions at or near the K-T boundary, with which the survey begins. He also touches on some of the history of discoveries and discoverers (e.g., Cuvier, Owen) although this is not a major focus of his book. The volume contains lots of photos and diagrams, though the quality of the images is often not great. The photos in particular are quite dark and have little contrast. Much of this story is familiar ground, but having it all pulled together in one book is very useful. The writing style is clear and at times quite conversational. It's a good read. (12/Jun/2009).
Shubin, Neil 2008
Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body. Vintage Books, New York. 237 pp.
This is a very easy read, written in a highly conversational style. A functional view of palaeontology. Begins with the discovery of the Tiktaalik from Ellesmere Island, a creature intermediate between fish and early land-living tetrapods. The fossil was remarkably complete. Shubin looks at various body structures - hands, arms and legs, teeth, structures for smelling, seeing and hearing - and shows how these are recorded in the fossil record and how the commonalties in development and structure are echoed in the embryos of modern related creatures, especially sharks, fish, and amphibians. Anatomy and embryology run throughout this account as major themes and Shubin emphasizes how similar embryos, including those of humans, are to each other. He also discusses new developments in genetics and especially discoveries about specific genes or groups of genes that "turn on" during stages of foetal development and control the growth and placement of specific body structures. Shubin shows how some of the elements of the human body plan - especially the symmetry - are very ancient and are recorded in some of the earliest fossils with bodies (as opposed to single-celled or multicelled organisms). This book is very good at showing how palaeontology has something very real to say about human growth and development. By cleverly finishing his survey by showing how some human illnesses and defects (hernias, hiccups, obesity) may have a link to our genetic past, he makes a good case for the continuing value of palaeontology. He packs a good deal of information - especially recent findings in genetics - into a deceptively simplified and engaging format. This is a great example of good science writing for the public. This book could be read and enjoyed by almost everyone, even those, I think, lacking a science background. (22/Mar/2009).

... and into Biology and Ecology

Wilson, Edward O. 1992
The Diversity of Life. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. 424 pp.
Here, Wilson meditates on biodiversity and its meaning, especially with respect to plant and invertebrate life, based partly on his own work and research. He surveys the concept of biodiversity and examines some biodiversity hotspots around the world, especially the Amazonian tropics, where he spent much of his career, primarily researching ants. Invertebrate life is a major focus of this book - the "hidden" diversity that keeps the ecosystem going. He does pay some attention to evolution and the development of increased biodiversity, in the sense of the growth in numbers of species through time. but the volume mostly concentrates on current biodiversity issues. Wilson paints a bleak and depressing picture of the prospects for much of the world's plant and animal life. He places much of the blame for the situation on the world's burgeoning human population but doesn't advocate population control. His interim solution is ecological reserves and alternative crops, which will likely only delay extinction for many organisms. His writing about the natural world is compelling and he is at his best when writing about biological matters. The book also contains some great illustrations, especially the two-page watercolours by artist Sarah Landry. (11/Aug/1998, 08/Jun/2009)
Wilson, Edward O. 1984
Biophilia: The Human Bond with Other Species. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. 157 pp.
Distinguished biologist Edward Wilson meditates on his career as a field biologist and considers what it has taught him about humanity's relationship to the natural world. He recalls some of his field experiences, especially those in tropical rain forests that emphasize the enormous diversity of nature and our great ignorance of most of it. Contains a good chapter on the way in which scientists, particularly mathematicians, think, comparing artistic and scientific modes of thought and finding them to be quite similar in many ways. This volume presages many of the ideas in his later books, using some of the same sources and even some very similar text. The main theme is that people do feel a bond with nature and their natural surroundings, even if it is resisted and cut off by modern urban life. The best writing is in the sections that concentrate on biology. Well-written and thought-provoking. (18/Apr/1988, 11/Aug/1998, 30/May/2009)


Chevalier, Tracy 2009
Remarkable Creatures. HarperCollins Publishers, London, England. 352 pp.
Loosely based on historical events, this is an account of the life of Mary Anning, The story concentrates on the friendship between Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpott, making them out to be soul-mates despite their age, class, and wealth differences. Elizabeth Philpott is an older spinster, living in genteel poverty in Lyme Regis with her two sisters, She develops an interest in fossil fish and makes a fine collection of them. Mary's fossil discoveries were taken over by others. In Chevalier's interpretation, Mary has a relationship with Colonel Birch whereas Henry de la Beche gets barely a mention. The characters here are not particularly complex and the writing style is very plain. (03/Jan/2011)
Kroetsch, Robert 1999
Badlands. Originally published in 1975. Stoddart, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 230 pp.
William Dawe leads an expedition to the Red Deer River valley in 1916 and floats down the river on a roughly-constructed raft, looking for dinosaur bones. He dreams of becoming famous from his discoveries, like Barnum Brown and the Sternbergs. He spends almost all his life in the field, returning home to Ontario just a couple of days a year, to visit his pro forma wife. Anna. His daughter, is born 11 years after that 1916 expedition. The tale is told in two voices. Dawe's, as reconstructed by Anna from his fieldnotes. And Anna herself at the age of 45 (in 1972). She decides to go visit the Badlands for herself, ten years after his death, to try to understand her father and make peace with his spirit. This is not a straightforward narrative but is complex and convoluted. Some sources for the story are obvious. Dawe has a hunchback; so did G. M. Dawson. And the rafting voyage is also out of dinosaur hunting legend. The book is difficult to read but certainly conjures up time and place very well and weaves real historical events with imaginative recreations. (25/Mar/2008) Reviewed in Geolog 37(3):20-21, (2008).
McDonald, Roger 1998
Mr. Darwin's Shooter. Penguin Books, New York. 365 pp.
This novel tells the tale of the Beagle voyage from the perspective of Syms Covington, the young man who was assigned to Darwin as his servant and technical assistant during the voyage and who subsequently helped Darwin sort out his collection when he got back to London. Born in Bedfordshire in 1816 and died in Pernambula, Australia, in 1861, at a comparatively young age. In this tale, Roger McDonald makes Covington out to be a restless and ambitious lad, only 15 when he and Darwin met, wanting to get ahead but with no real education. However, being brought up in Bedfordshire, he is deeply imbued with the mythos of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress and deep Christian faith. So he is horrified at the publication of Origin of Species when he realizes that the work he helped with could be seen as over-turning his beliefs and displacing the centrality of God to the understanding of the world. He feels deeply guilty but at the same time is offended that Darwin never acknowledges in print the help that he gave. In particular, in McDonald's interpretation, Covington gave Darwin some of his finch skins, which he was hoping to sell to other collectors, but which were labelled according to their island of origin, when Darwin realizes that he is missing that information. This is a richly-imagined work and Covington comes across as a vivid and dominant, if not entirely likeable, character. He is both attracted and repelled by Darwin, a situation that still exists for many people today, grappling with the difficulties of reconciling science and faith. (27/May/2006) Reviewed in Geolog 37(2):28-29, (2008).
Schwartz, Irwin 1994
The Piltdown Confession. St Martin's Press, New York. vi + 210 pp.
The Piltdown hoax is one of the darker episodes in palaeoanthropology. Though it happened almost a century ago, even people with little knowledge of the field will have heard of Piltdown Man, a person who never existed except as an ingenious fraud. Irwin Schwartz retells this story in a purported annotated confession by the man now thought by many to be the hoaxster, Charles Dawson, a middle-class lawyer and avocational geologist.Besides being a great read, The Piltdown Conspiracy highlights some painful truths. Scientists in search of career advancement and fame can, perhaps, be too eager to accept evidence at face-value, especially if it fits with some preconceived notion of how things should be or jives with a pet theory. Seniority and authority have a tyranny all their own. If an eminent scholar says it must be so, it takes courage to express scepticism or point out the lack of imperial vestiture. Furthermore, discoveries like this tend to have a bandwagon effect, especially when hustled along by media coverage. A more interesting question is why the Piltdown story continues to have such a hold on popular imagination. Perhaps it is because it is a mystery that can never be solved definitively. We will simply never know whodunit. Or perhaps it is because the perversion of science in this way is so rare (or so I naively believe) and we are fascinated by the aberrant. As Schwartz retells it, the Piltdown story serves as an object lesson: this you should never do. (25/08/1995, 01/02/2002) Reviewed in CAA Bulletin 22(2):16, (2002).
Stone, Irving 1980
The Origin. Doubleday and Co., New York. 743 pp.
A massive biography (fictionalized) of a very interesting and intriguing man - Charles Darwin. Doesn't really add much to the picture of Darwin that I had already. Also full of unhappy phrases and Americanisms (Darwin describing Welsh mountains as like "tumbleweed"!). However, the subject is so interesting that it does block out many of the deficiencies and awkwardness in the text. Finished at Cambridge and home in Shropshire, Darwin is unsure about his future except that he promised his father to go into the Church. When he is invited to accompany the Beagle surveying vessel on an expedition to South America as a naturalist. This voyage, which lasted almost five years, provided him with enough ideas and stimulus to keep him busy for the rest of his life. Amazingly fertile mind though not regarded by his contemporaries as particularly intelligent or brilliant. More of a plodder. But this persistence stood him in good stead when he undertook the thousands of hours or patient observation and writing that were to support his ideas and theories. The idea of evolution and natural selection was almost in the air at the time he was writing (cf. Wallace) but was still not formulated or accepted. It was a case of being in the right place at the right time and in with a group of people - Lyell, Hooker, Huxley - who stimulated and encouraged each other and backed each other up against the Establishment of the time. (22/Oct/1981)
Thomas, Joan 2010
Curiosity: A Love Story. McClelland and Stewart, Toronto, Ontario. 409 pp.
Based mostly on historical events, this fine historical novel is set mainly in Lyme Regis, southwest England, in the early 19th century and concerns the complex relationship between Mary Anning and Henry de la Beche. Mary is the daughter of a cabinetmaker and collects fossils or curiosities from the eroding cliffs to sell to the travellers and tourists who pass through the town. Trained by her father. she develops a remarkable eye for the fossils and finds some very large ones in the cliffs, which she is able to extract. These include a large Ichthyosaurus and a large Plesiosaur. These fossils are taken and described and named by others (Buckland and Conybeare respectively) and Mary gets no credit for her part in their discovery. However, as Thomas writes her, she becomes a skilled and intuitive anatomist basically through observation. We also see part of the story though the eyes of Henry de la Beche, an upper middle-class man whose income comes from a slave-worked sugar plantation in Jamaica. The plantation is failing but still provides him with a relatively comfortable life. He is an acute observer also and a good artist. Despite differences of class, gender and wealth, Mary and Henry become friends after a fashion as they meet and communicate over the fossils. Mary in this portrayal is a very intelligent and determined character and is quick to learn. Both are challenged in their beliefs by the implications of the fossil finds. The title - Curiosity - has many layers of meaning, from the objects collected, to the treasures displayed by the wealthy in their curio-cabinets, to the spirit of scientific enquiry. (01/Jan/2011)
Thompson, Harry 2006
This Thing of Darkness. Headline Review, London. 750 pp.
1828 - 1865. Covers these years in the life of Captain FitzRoy. The focus of the story is the voyages of the Beagle and the complicated relationship between FitzRoy and his chosen companion, Charles Darwin. Thompson clearly doesn't like Darwin, making him out to be a racist, and petty, mean and vindictive. He clearly is on FitzRoy's side and does recount his life with a great deal of sympathy, showing the many career disappointments that he suffered, which finally drove him to suicide. Much of the text reads a fictionalized biography with words taken from published works. Some things are taken out of context, such as Darwin's musings on marriage which supposedly occur in a shipboard conversation with FitzRoy but actually occurred after Darwin returned to England. And Thompson suggests the delay in writing On the Origin of Species was due to a promise he made to FitzRoy not to present these views - I have not seen any evidence of this suggested in biographical writings on Darwin. (07/Jun/2008) Reviewed in Geolog 37(4):17-18, (2008).

The remarks in black are my comments. Number of citations: 55

You may also view a list of some significant events in the chronology of earth sciences history, including biographical details of some major characters (such as Darwin) and dates of natural disasters (such as earthquakes).

This presentation has been compiled and is © 1998-2012 by
Alwynne B. Beaudoin (
Last updated July 12, 2012
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