Darwin's Backyard

Darwins backyardJames T Costa
WW Norton & Company, £19.99

Yet another book about Darwin! In this one, however, the author accompanies our hero in his day-to-day life at Down House as he experimented there with his family in tow.

I have visited Down many times over the years and can attest to the author’s empathy with Darwin’s life and times, including the joys and sorrows of his family life. Most of us are aware of Darwin’s studies of honeybees and earthworms at Down, but these are naturally overshadowed by accounts of his voyage aboard the Beagle, and the subsequent emergence of his evolutionary theories.

Preparing and publishing The Origin of Species was just one of the many activities in which Darwin was engaged. After his return to England, he was busy establishing himself as a reputable natural scientist, and he did this largely by publishing the results of his detailed dissections of barnacles.

These were interspersed with work on the geology and natural history from the Beagle expedition, studies of bumblebees, honeybees and honeycomb structure, seed germination, fertilisation in orchids and other flowers, and the habits of climbing and insectivorous plants, all of which James Costa describes in considerable detail – he even includes Darwin’s experiments so that we can repeat them ourselves.

As well as expounding the ideas of the time, the author has unearthed fascinating stories about Darwin’s friends, associates and relatives, and how they were enlisted to help him gather information during any investigation on which his enquiring mind happened to lead him. When next I stroll along ‘the sandwalk’, the experience will be all the richer having read Costa’s book.

Graham Godfrey CBiol FRSB

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