Darwin's Backyard: How Small Experiments Led to a Big Theory (Hardcover)

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Having read a few books about Charles Darwin over the years, I began James Costa’s book, “Darwin’s Backyard: How Small Experiments Led to a Big Theory”, slightly worried I’d soon find myself skimming pages of familiar anecdotes . As it turned out, my concerns were entirely unfounded, for the Darwin I met in the pages of Costa’s delightful book seemed revived and reinvigorated.

The effect produced is partially due to Costa’s lively and, at times, playful prose, but equal credit should go to his refreshing approach to the subject.  He doesn’t dawdle in the company of hand-wringing Darwin, dyspeptic Darwin, or the famous Darwin in mourning.  As the subtitle suggests, Costa celebrates the tireless experimentalist who possessed an almost preternatural gift for shedding preconceptions and seeing the world as it actually was!

— From Brian's Picks


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.

Includes directions for eighteen hands-on experiments, for home, school, yard, or garden.

Product Details
ISBN: 9780393239898
ISBN-10: 0393239896
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Publication Date: September 5th, 2017
Pages: 464
Language: English