Darwin’s Backyard – James T. Costa
Darwin’s Backyard – How Small Experiments Led to a Big Theory.
James T. Costa takes readers on a journey from Darwin’s childhood through his voyage on the HMS Beagle where his ideas on evolution began. We then follow Darwin to Down House, his bustling home of forty years, where he kept porcupine quills at his desk to dissect barnacles, maintained a flock of sixteen pigeon breeds in the dovecote, and cultivated climbing plants in the study, and to Bournemouth, where on one memorable family vacation he fed carnivorous plants in the soup dishes.
Using his garden and greenhouse, the surrounding meadows and woodlands, and even taking over the cellar, study, and hallways of his home-turned-field-station, Darwin tested ideas of his landmark theory of evolution with an astonishing array of hands-on experiments that could be done on the fly, without specialized equipment.
He engaged naturalists, friends, neighbors, family servants, and even his children, nieces, nephews, and cousins as assistants in these experiments, which involved everything from chasing bees and tempting fish to eat seeds to serenading earthworms. From the experiments’ results, he plumbed the laws of nature and evidence for the revolutionary arguments of On the Origin of Species and his other watershed works.
Beyond Darwin at work, we accompany him against the backdrop of his enduring marriage, chronic illness, grief at the loss of three children, and joy in scientific revelation. This unique glimpse of Darwin’s life introduces us to an enthusiastic correspondent, crowd-sourcer, family man, and, most of all, an incorrigible observer and experimenter.
“[Costa] has done something very important with this new book: He has brought Darwin fully to life. . . . Costa has written an intimate and big-hearted book. In its pages, readers will discover the real Darwin, a complicated man behind a revolutionary theory.”
– Christopher Kemp, Science
– David Dobbs, New York Times Book Review
“A passionate but balanced celebration of [Darwin’s] lifelong obsession with enquiry and how the fields and meadows around his home were a microcosm of the wider world. . . . Costa more than achieves his stated goals of revealing the evolution of Darwin’s insights and the relevance of his methods now.”
– Henry Nicholls, Nature
“Readers will enjoy the tales Costa tells and the experience of re-creating some of the famous naturalist’s most enlightening work.”
– Sid Perkins, Science News
“So much more than a biography. . . . [Darwin’s Backyard] is accessible and fun.”
– Booklist (starred review)
“[Darwin’s Backyard] takes readers on a journey . . . revealing how [Darwin] found universal evolutionary truths in simple yet ingenious homespun experiments.”
– Publishers Weekly
“An unusual look at the daily creative life of a great scientist, with opportunities to dig in and observe the workings of nature first hand using methods very similar to his own.”
– Shelf Awareness
“The immense library available on Darwin’s life and contributions may seem exhaustive. James T. Costa, writing only as a modern naturalist of the first rank can, shows us how drastically wrong that perception has been. If you’ve ever fantasized walking and conversing with the great scientist on the subjects that consumed him, and now wish to add the fullness of reality, read this book.”
– Edward O. Wilson, author of Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life
Jim Costa is Executive Director of the Highlands Biological Station (Highlands, North Carolina, USA) and Professor of Biology at Western Carolina University (Cullowhee, North Carolina, USA), where he has been on the faculty since 1996. An entomologist with a special interest in social evolution, he has studied insect social behavior widely from the southern Appalachians to Latin America and Europe. Through his entomological work Jim is also a long-time Research Associate in Entomology at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, and in 2004-2005 was named Jean Rosselet Fellow at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, where he completed his first book, ‘The Other Insect Societies’ (Harvard University Press, 2006).
Jim has taught genetics, biogeography, entomology, Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species,’ and field courses in Highlands, Hawai’i, and the desert southwest. His interest in Darwin and the history of evolutionary biology takes him to England each summer, where he teaches ‘On the Origin of Species’ in Harvard’s summer program at the University of Oxford. Jim also lectures widely in the US and Europe on social evolution, early naturalist-explorers such as William Bartram, and Darwin, Wallace, and the history of evolutionary thinking. He is a regular expedition leader in the Galápagos Islands for the Harvard Museums of Science & Culture, lecturing on Darwin, Wallace, and island ecology and evolution.
In 2009 Harvard University Press published ‘The Annotated Origin,’ Jim’s annotated edition of ‘On the Origin of Species,’ designed to help readers better understand the historical context, structure, and content of Darwin’s masterwork. In 2012-2013 Jim and his family spent a year-long sabbatical year in Berlin, Germany, where Jim was a Fellow of the Berlin Institute for Advanced Study — the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin. There he completed his latest books, celebrating Alfred Russel Wallace, the renowned tropical explorer and collector, founder of the field of evolutionary biogeography, and co-discoverer with Darwin of natural selection in 1858. ‘On the Organic Law of Change’ (Harvard, 2013) is an annotated transcription of the most important field notebook kept by Wallace during his southeast Asian explorations in the 1850s. This notebook provides new insights into the development of Wallace’s evolutionary thinking though this formative period. In the companion volume ‘Wallace, Darwin, and the Origin of Species’ (Harvard, 2014) Jim analyzes Wallace’s ideas on evolution in the notebook period in comparison with Darwin’s thinking, and examines the relationship between these two giants of evolutionary biology.
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