Recent Books

Lewis Dartnell’s Origins: How Earth’s History Shaped Human History is hard to put down. He’s a determinist, arguing that our species have been ruled by Milankovitch cycles; climate change; plate tectonics; and geology, among other physical factors. Some of this is probably too superficial and glib, but it sure makes for fascinating reading. By the way, you’re reading this on a screen controlled by microchips made of silicon dioxide, which is also the basis of glass, and, back in the Stone Age, a major component of the kinds of rock (chert, flint, obsidian) used to make tools. The more things change…?

Speaking of geology, Sandra Herbert’s Charles Darwin, Geologist reminds us that young Darwin went out on the Beagle as a geologist. In fact, he wasn’t even the ship’s naturalist initially. He shipped as the gentleman companion to the captain, Robert FitzRoy (who later turned fundamentalist), who couldn’t socialize with his crew and needed someone of his own class to dine with. The ship’s official naturalist (and surgeon, the two tasks often went together) was Robert McCormick, who quit after seeing Darwin in action. Darwin also paid his own way, or rather his father did: £600 for outfitting for the journey and £1200 or so during.

Everybody remembers “Darwin’s finches,” except Darwin, who bollixed his collecting of these birds on the Galapagos. Ornithologist John Gould sorted out the bird specimens, realizing the mixed-up birds from the islands were all finches. In the Galapagos archipelago, it was different types of mockingbirds (and turtles) that got Darwin seriously wondering about transmutation. For four decades now Peter and Rosemary Grant have been documenting how the islands’ birds evolve in real time in relation to the climate.

Noted:
With Extinction Rebellion making headlines, Keith Makoto Woodhouse’s The Ecocentrists: A History of Radical Environmentalism may be premature.
Sprout Lands by William Logan.

What are you reading in natural history (writ large) lately?

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