Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Darwin and Botany

2009 is a big year for evolutionary biology. In a few weeks, on February 12, we will celebrate Charles Darwin's 200th birthday, and later this year marks the 150th anniversary of publication of the Origin of Species (such a smart man, I'm sure he planned it that way!). In honor of this fascinating scientist and person, I thought I would provide the best links for reading Darwin online, and mention the intersection of botany with his thinking and works.

First off, let me comment that it's not going too far to say I love Darwin; he is a fascinating person, both as a scientist and a man. His writings are an incredible treat to read, accessible and full of tremendous insight into the natural world. The first book of his that I read was the Voyage of the Beagle, and if you haven't read it, I recommend you race out immediately and buy a copy. It is an easy, fantastic, exciting, thought-provoking read. If you aren't inclined to buy, you'll enjoy the first of these links:
  • The Complete Works of Charles Darwin online  This treasure-trove is exactly what it claims to be: all of Darwin's writings. All of them. That means all of his major books, including the Origin, plus his numerous papers, many of which are botanical, and page-by-page images of his many notebooks and diaries.
  • The Darwin Correspondence Project   The DCP's goal is to publish all of the letters Darwin sent and received and that are extant (i.e. weren't lost or thrown out). The Correspondence is voluminous; Darwin had close to 2000 correspondents and wrote up to 500 letters a year in the years following 1859. This site has most of the letters that have been transcribed, as well as letter sets on various subjects, and guides to reading the letters of different people. It is fascinating to read his correspondence with critics and with his supporters as he fleshed out his theories.
I cannot say enough about the delight you will get from reading Darwin. He was a joyful observer of the natural world, and his enthusiasm is clear in his writings. Also clear are his modesty and desire to be understood by his reader. 

I admit that I (like most scientists) haven't read many of Darwin's less-famous papers and books, but a good many of them are on botanical subjects. Darwin suffered from illness and infirmity for most of his later life, and he took refuge in his experiments and wanderings at Down House, which he vastly preferred to the scientific fray in London. He relied on correspondence with his botanical friends for a huge amount of information in the Origin, particularly about biogeography and the immutability of species, and in his later years he increasingly turned to botanical experimentation and direct observation himself. He published books on the following botanical subjects: orchid fertilization, climbing plants, insectivorous plants, cross and self fertilization, flower forms, and plant movement, as well as dozens of papers on everything from variegated leaves to whether sea water kills seeds. All of these are available at the Complete Works of Darwin website listed above, and it is great fun to explore his writings and see the world through his eyes!

No comments: