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Darwin’s Backyard

Darwin’s Backyard: How Small Experiments Led to a Big Change

James T. Costa
W. W. Norton
2017
461 pp.
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At Down House in Kent, Charles Darwin is instructing his manservant Parslow to lower another dead pigeon into a foul-smelling pot. It is February 1856. Darwin is 47 years old. Endlessly curious, he has begun to suspect that the skeletons of different pigeon varieties will support his secretly held ideas about how species are related and have changed throughout history.

As James T. Costa details in the excellent Darwin’s Backyard, Darwin found the evidence he was searching for in the pigeon bones. He found it elsewhere, too: in the complex pollination of orchids and the social behaviors of ants, in the morphology of barnacles and earthworms, and in the movements of carnivorous plants.

Whenever possible, Darwin crowd-sourced his data, enlisting the help of his children (he had ten, three of whom died in childhood), for example. Often, they were sent across the Kentish fields with specific work orders: “Collect a hundred Lythrum plants and bring them home” or “Track the routes of the bees that criss-cross the clover-studded meadows.”

Parslow the manservant helped, too, as did Darwin’s long-suffering wife, Emma, who watched with dismay as he carpeted the hallway of Down House with paper covered in frog spawn. Catherine Thorley, the children’s governess, assisted in the completion of a painstaking plant survey of nearby meadows. Schoolmaster Ebenezer Norman tabulated all of Darwin’s data for him. The local vicar helped build beehives.

In Darwin’s Backyard, the famous naturalist strides across every page—collecting barnacles from the frigid water of the Firth of Forth, watching spiderlings float from the rigging of the Beagle, and investigating the cross-pollination of foxgloves in Wales. Detailed do-it-yourself experiments appear at the end of each chapter, allowing the reader to follow in Darwin’s footsteps, reproducing, for example, his seed-salting studies of 1855 or his earlier work on barnacle morphology.

With Darwin’s Backyard, Costa has written an intimate and big-hearted book. In its pages, young readers will discover the complicated man behind the revolutionary theory.

Editor’s Note: For a full-length review of Darwin’s Backyard, see “Darwin, the crowdsourcer,” Science 357, 6356 (2017).

About the author

The reviewer is the author of The Lost Species: Great Expeditions in the Collections of Natural History Museums (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2017).