Careful observations surrounding the 19th century’s most famous naturalist (reposting)

Rob Jackson
Director, Institute for Classical Education

If you find yourself with more time to observe the natural world–taking walks and hikes at sufficient social distance–you might also be interested in some careful observations surrounding the 19th century’s most famous naturalist, Charles Darwin.

From David Quammen’s NYRB review of three new books on Darwin, we discover that botany was definitely the focus of Darwin’s later years, with special emphasis on orchids. (Did you know that Darwin’s follow up to On the Origin of Species was an entire volume dedicated to his study of orchids?) As chronicled in Ken Thompson’s Darwin’s Most Wonderful Plants, such methodical observations of plants provided the engine for the renowned naturalist’s evolutionary theory: “Of course, any fool can be impressed by a Venus flytrap,” says Thomas, but “Darwin’s genius was to see the wonder, and the significance, in the ordinary and mundane.”

But, where does the very idea of evolution come from, amid the Naturalists’ Project, prior to and throughout the 19th century? That’s the question Bill Jenkins seeks to answer in his Evolution Before Darwin. Jenkins closely scrutinizes the intellectual and academic environs of the University of Edinburgh, Darwin’s first post-secondary home, where he studied medicine from 1825-1827, before transferring to Cambridge University and leaving the medical profession for the life of a gentleman naturalist. Jenkins’ volume provides a close look at the dynamic, even radical intellectuals of Edinburgh, who were cultivating the seeds of proto-evolution under the guise of Lamarckian transformism.

So, if you wish to know the intellectual sources of evolutionary theory or to learn more of the man whose name is synonymous with that theory, start with Quammen’s beautifully written review–and then return to the parks and fields where the natural flora is all aglow with ordinary wonders.

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