In 2009 we celebrated the 200th
anniversary of Darwin’s birth. We
also celebrated the 150th anniversary
of the publication of his most
famous book, On the Origin of
Species. Indeed, if you were to ask
most people about Darwin and
what he wrote, the only work
they’re likely to remember is the
Origin — with good reason. It was
the Origin, after all, in which
Darwin laid out the evidence for
descent with modification and for
evolution by natural selection. If you
pressed, some people might remember
the Voyage of the Beagle or,
Steve Jones wants readers to remember that there were many other books as well, from On the Various Contrivances by which Orchids are Fertilized by Insects to On the Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms. And he wants them to remember that these books draw largely on original observations he made on plants and animals in “the garden of England” referred to in the subtitle. He wants to convince you that “[t]he great naturalist’s lifelong labours generated an archipelago of information; a set of connected observations that together form a harmonious whole.”
He succeeds. For there is a constant thread running through Darwin’s work. Even when Darwin is writing about the Power of Movement in Plants, the thread of common ancestry is never far from the surface. Darwin couldn’t have known that the signal proteins allowing a sensitive plant (Mimosa pudica) to respond to touch are related to signal proteins in the human body promoting the production of certain hormones, but even so Darwin couldn’t stop himself from writing that “[i]t is impossible not to be struck with the resemblance between the foregoing movements of plants and many of the actions performed unconsciously by the lower animals.”
But Jones’s object is not merely to describe what Darwin wrote. Rather, he uses each of Darwin’s books as a springboard to introduce readers to a wide range of discoveries in modern biology, from signaling proteins to DNA paternity testing to homeobox genes, and to show how this vast diversity can all be understood as a consequence of the two fundamental processes Darwin identified: descent with modification and evolution by natural selection.
The book is not perfect. In discussing The Effects of Cross- and Self-Fertilization in the Vegetable Kingdom, Jones first argues that the death of Darwin’s first daughter, Annie, “may … in part have been due to her parents’ marital history” (Charles and Emma Darwin were first cousins), though the immediate cause was tuberculosis. A few pages later he writes that “[t]he great man’s concern about the possible damage to his own children was not justified.” Small contradictions like this may be difficult to avoid when telling an engaging story, but they are distracting.
As Jones points out, Darwin wrote to Huxley a few years after publication of the Origin that “I sometimes think that general and popular Treatises are almost as important for the progress of science as original work.” Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, in Unscientific America, and Randy Olson, in Don’t Be Such a Scientist, have made similar pleas, and science would benefit if more of us paid attention — as Steve Jones has done for more than two decades. Already a popular author and commentator in Great Britain, in Darwin’s Island he introduces a wide audience to Darwin’s other books, books that specialists know well but that few others even realize exist. In doing so he reminds us all of the great fabric that is modern biology and of its warp and weft, which is evolutionary theory.