I’m doing a bunch of reading trying to balance science with non-science (the latter mostly fiction). Click on the book cover reproductions to go to the Amazon links.
Science: Flights of Fancy by Richard Dawkins. It’s a good book and I learned a lot, though it’s centered more on the adaptation of flight than on concepts. However, Richard does bring in a lot of the ideas (the genic viewpoint, adaptive compromise, the necessity of step-by-step adaptation, and so on) from his earlier works. I’m wondering if this isn’t Richard’s equivalent of Darwin’s book on earthworms, where he instantiated with worms his idea that even small changes can add up to big results over a long period of time. The book seems to be written for young adults, but I enjoyed it and learned a lot. Nota bene: there will be an “event”
More science: A lot of stuff on the Galápagos to prepare me for lecturing in February. (I prepare well in advance!) It’s good to revisit the old stuff, so I reread these books:
I haven’t read The Voyage of the Beagle for decades, and it was instructive to go through it again. The section on the Galápagos is very short, and I’d forgotten that it didn’t contribute much to The Origin. Reading this and other sources, it’s clear that Darwin did not have an “aha moment” in the islands, and in fact only used them trivially in constructing his big theory. One reason is that he messed up his collecting notes, especially for finches and tortoises, and thus was unable to suss out their meaning until others (notably the ornithologist John Gould) properly classified the species. I was also surprised at how judgmental Darwin was about animals, finding them “odious”, “horrible” and “ugly” (he has very few kind words to say about the marine iguanas!). But he was young: only 22 when he embarked on the 5-year voyage. The book is alternatingly boring and absorbing, the latter when he comes close to thoughts about evolution (he was a creationist on the trip). There is far too much geology, since Darwin was more engaged with geology than biology when he went aboard.
It’s interesting to contrast the sickly Darwin of his later years with the robust youth described in his journal, a time when he’d camp out in the snow in a blanket and ride all day through swamps in the rain, not to mention hiking up every mountain he saw.
Beagle, which made Darwin’s reputation as a naturalist, was published three years after his return to England, and within five years after that he was a full-fledged advocate of evolution and natural selection. But he was timorous, and only published his ideas when forced to by Wallace’s coincidental discovery of natural selection in 1858. The Origin, which came out in 1859, was published fully 23 years after the Beagle returned to port.
Here’s a good book on the influence of the Galápagos on biological thought, beginning with the discovery of the uninhabited islands in the 16th century and continuing on to the present day. Darwin’s own trip to the archipelago occupies about 1.5 chapters.
And I went back to the Galápagos section of Janet Browne’s magisterial two-volume biography of Darwin: Voyaging and The Power of Place. The first book ends as he arrives home on the Beagle, never to leave England again. This is truly the definitive biography of Darwin, and I was amazed, on rereading the Beagle section, at how much scholarship Browne managed to sneak into a biography that is truly a page turner. You MUST read this book: both volumes.
Fiction: I once again started Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, but for some reason found it unreadable: the writing seemed too self-conscious to me. Only rarely do I start a book and not finish it, so I’ll never know how it comes out.
On the advice of two friends, I got the book below instead, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2015—a year after Tartt’s book won the same prize. I’ve just started it, but it’s a parallel narrative of two young people: a blind French girl who flees Paris for Saint-Malo with her father, and a German youth who’s destined to fight for the Nazis. As I’m only a wee bit into it, I can’t pass final judgment, but it hooked me instantly, and I can see why it was so lauded. This one I know I’ll finish.
This is, of course, your impetus to tell us all what you are reading, and whether you recommend it.