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Darwin and the Barnacle [Paperback]

Rebecca Stott
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
RRP: £10.99
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Book Description

4 Mar 2004
It is 1846. Darwin is poised to publish "The Origin of the Species" and blow the scientific world apart. But one small creature makes him hesitate. First, he decides to solve the riddle of a tiny barnacle the picked up on teh shores of southern Chile, the last of his Beagle specimens. The investigation takes eight years and tests his theory to the limit. "Darwin and the Barnacle" is the fascinating story of how genius sometimes proceeds through indirection - and how one small item of curiosity contributed to history's most spectacular scientific breakthrough.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Faber & Faber; New Ed edition (4 Mar 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0571216099
  • ISBN-13: 978-0571216093
  • Product Dimensions: 12.6 x 19.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 82,113 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


Perfect reading for your next beach holiday; you'll never look at a barnacle, or at Darwin, the same way again.--James A. Secord, author of "Victorian Sensation"

From the Back Cover

In 1846, Charles Darwin has a secret: an essay, sealed in an envelope and locked in his study drawer, which will overturn human understanding of time and nature for ever. Now he must publish and take the consequences. But he hesitates.
First, Darwin decides to undertake just one final task: to solve the riddle of a tiny barnacle he picked up on the shores of Southern Chile, the last of his 'Beagle' specimens. As it turns out, he could not have made a more fateful choice.
Barnacles are common to almost every shoreline in the world, but this barnacle doesn't fit established definitions or accepted archetypes. Darwin knows such aberrant creatures are often the key to understanding the processes of natural selection within a particular species. He promises himself a month or so studying this creature, this potential key. But eight years later, his study filled with hundreds of barnacle specimens in labelled pillboxes posted from around the world, the case is still unclosed. Darwin's eyes are fixed to a microscope, his mind preoccupied with the evolutionary and anatomical history of these bizarre sea creatures.
Was Darwin hesitating? Or was he testing his 'dangerous idea' to destruction? Beautifully written and superbly told, 'Darwin and the Barnacle' is the fascinating story of how genius sometimes proceeds through indirection - and how one small item of curiosity contributed to history's most spectacular scientific breakthrough. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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January 1822. Leith, the harbour town of Edinburgh. Read the first page
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Customer Reviews

3.9 out of 5 stars
3.9 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
By emma who reads a lot TOP 500 REVIEWER VINE VOICE
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I put off reading this book because of bad reviews here at Amazon, and I'm sorry I did because it is absolutely fantastic. Amazing descriptions of Darwin's work and domestic existence and precise details of the wider Victorian context; a truly evocative account of the eight years Darwin spent working on the barnacles (and procrastinating about publishing his species theory).

My only quibble is the one which reviewers here have raised - there is very little barnacle biology in the book. At the end of it, I literally couldn't tell you one thing about barnacles that I didn't know at the beginning -except that some females harbour tiny microscopic males within their own flesh. Fair enough, Stott is not a biologist, but I could have enjoyed a little detail of the species themselves à la Steve Jones. But that is a minor quibble really, as that's not what the book is about. (Watch out too for the over-the-top descriptions of foetuses - Stott does get a bit carried away with them...)

All in all though a wonderful and evocative biographical book about what working on barnacles meant to Darwin. Lovely section on the Voyage of the Beagle too, my favourite of anything I've read on that journey I think.
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19 of 23 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Extremely Disappointing 8 Sep 2003
This book has several problems, the most noticeable one being that it doesn't live up to its own subtitle- "The Story Of One Tiny Creature And History's Most Spectacular Scientific Breakthrough". I think that, based on that subtitle, it is a reasonable assumption that the book is going to link Darwin's study of barnacles to his theory of evolution by natural selection. Well, I read all 261 pages of this book and let me state categorically that the author never makes the connection. We get a lot of information about barnacles, no doubt about it. We find out about barnacles that secrete their own shells, barnacles that burrow into other creatures' shells, barnacles that attach themselves to flesh, etc. We also get to know about hermaphroditical, bisexual, and unisexual barnacles. But the author never goes into specifics regarding why these variations developed, nor does she explain how the study of barnacles helped Darwin to further develop, or fine tune, his theory of evolution by natural selection. As I kept reading this book, I said to myself that the author must have a reason for barraging us with all of this barnacle minutiae. Must be she'll have a chapter near the end where she'll explain the specific biological/environmental reasons for the variations and show how this helped Darwin to clarify his thinking. Well, sorry to say, there is no such chapter in the book. Another problem with the book is that the narrative flow is interrupted by some very bizarre analogies. For example, a developing fetus in Emma Darwin (Charles's wife) is compared to a barnacle attaching itself to a host; and Charles undergoing an examination of his stomach is compared to a dissected barnacle being studied under a microscope. There are many more similar examples scattered throughout the book. Read more ›
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
By Sebastian Palmer TOP 1000 REVIEWER VINE VOICE
In this wonderful book Rebecca Stott relates the tale of Darwin's foray into marine biology; how it came about and where it lead, setting it all in a beautifully rendered portrait of Darwin's personal, family, and socio-cultural context.

Connecting the various epochs of Darwin's life, Stott skilfully tells a fantastic story, of how the disaffected ex-medical student, embarked on studies for a career as a clergyman, instead pursued his natural-historical instincts, 'transmutating' himself (and indeed all of us) in the process.

Little did Darwin's father realise, when he finally acquiesced to uncle Josiah Wedgewood's support for Charles' wish to join the Beagle expedition - "Natural History ... is very suitable to a Clergyman" - where it would all lead.

As another reviewer notes, the barnacles themselves aren't quite as prominent in this book as the title might lead one to expect, but they do nonetheless provide a fantastic central theme from which to tell a really very engaging story about what amounts to almost the whole of Darwin's life and work, but from a new and refreshing perspective.

I loved reading this, and found it exciting, engaging, informative, entertaining, well-written, and just plain good old-fashioned fun!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The trials and triumphs of a genius 27 July 2012
This book was published almost 9 years before I read it, but that did not matter. Professor Stott has written such a warm-hearted partial biography of Charles Darwin, his work and his family, spanning a period in his life that has been overshadowed by his later "Origin of Species". In places Stott's book reads almost like a novel, until one realises how carefully every statement has been researched: there are 433 endnotes to support her story, not to mention 11 pages of bibliographic references.

Are people of genius obsessives? Not necessarily, but Darwin's self-imposed goal of examining, dissecting and classifying almost all known barnacles, both living and fossil, must be regarded as obsessive. In his case it was essential, because it had to provide a respected background to his later more philosophical work. It was a prelude to his writings on the mutability of species. It was the long apprenticeship in learning the skills of micro-dissection. He understood that it was essential to write clearly, and therefore to think clearly before publishing. It gave him his understanding of the scientific approach, of how to handle a hypothesis (Chapter 7: 'On Speculating') and building up a base of publications that received the respect of established scientists.

From the late 1830s until the publication of the final volume on Cirripedia by the Ray Society in 1854, he was engaged in correspondence and the sending of specimens by a postal service that would be intolerably slow to today's scientists, who will email questions and answers, with megabytes of image attachments. No doubt Darwin was delighted to have the new universal postal system available, to correspond with colleagues who might be in the British Isles, but equally might be in Australia or the Himalayas.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars fascinating
The book brings both Darwin and his barnacles to life and gives a very good background to his studies and to the time.
Published 19 months ago by A. Bryan
2.0 out of 5 stars Darwins barnacle book
I am not going to write a long review, let's just say I eventually managed to get through this book.
This author is much more clever with words than me. Read more
Published on 1 Nov 2009 by M. Dowding
5.0 out of 5 stars a mind at work
a meticulous and poetic study of an important phase of Darwin's life - an important study of a great mind at work. Read more
Published on 23 Oct 2006 by Peter Thomas
4.0 out of 5 stars Thorough
Ms Stott has written a thorough account of the years-almost decades- Darwin devoted to his studies of barnacles, (leading one of his children to ask a school friend"... Read more
Published on 17 Oct 2004 by Pelican
5.0 out of 5 stars fascinating book
I found this book fascinating. It showed me that knowledge is not just a light bulb going on but a consequence of daily considered thought patterns nutting out the achieved results... Read more
Published on 17 Jan 2004 by "merleharris"
5.0 out of 5 stars Darwin and the Barnacle
Stott brings Darwin to life! An extraordinary story, so well crafted it brings a wonderful sense of humanity to the history of science. Read more
Published on 4 Jan 2004 by "rdoyle5546"
2.0 out of 5 stars Darwin and the Barnacle
If you are coming to this book from a biological background, hoping to learn what it was about barnacles that so captivated Darwin's interest for eight long years, you may be... Read more
Published on 9 Aug 2003
4.0 out of 5 stars Evolution has its Hangers on
This is a rare book which sweeps you on from the first few pages, pursuing an idea to its conclusion. Read more
Published on 3 Jun 2003 by "azscientist"
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