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Darwin's Garden: Down House and The Origin of Species [Paperback]

Michael Boulter
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
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Book Description

26 Feb 2009
Five years after returning from his trip around the world on HMS Beagle, the young Charles Darwin became the owner of Down House in Kent, where he moved his growing family, far away from the turmoil and distractions of London. He would live here for the rest of his life. It would become the place where he began work on his masterpiece On the Origin of Species. For almost twenty years he used the garden around him as his laboratory. In the orchard he conducted experiments on pollination. He built a dovecot where he could breed new strains of pigeons that helped him understand the questions of generation. On his daily walk along the sandbank he observed how plants competed for survival. In his heated greenhouse he conducted experiments on orchids and primulas. In solitude he was also able to struggle with the ideas of evolution that had haunted him since his voyage, and give him the courage to publish his revolutionary new ideas. Bringing Darwin’s garden to the present day, Boulter unfolds a shining portrait of the formation of one of England’s greatest thinkers and his relationship with the place he loved and shows how his experiments that he conducted over 150 years ago are still revealing new proofs and revelations as we continue to search for the origins of life.

Product details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Constable (26 Feb 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1845299221
  • ISBN-13: 978-1845299224
  • Product Dimensions: 19.4 x 13 x 2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 834,315 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Fascinating and evocative. --Catholic Herald

Book Description

How Charles Darwin developed his ideas of evolution from his own garden and how it is still being debated today.

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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Charles Darwin served on HMS Beagle for five years but did not gain his great insight into Evolution until after he returned to England
Five Years later Darwin settled in Down House in Kent where he would live for the rest of his life. It was at home that Charles Darwin began work on his masterpiece "On the Origin of Species". Charles Darwin used the garden as his Laboratory and in "Darwin's Garden", Michael Boulter gives an exciting insight into Darwin's experiments and the formation of his great idea.As a great admirer of Charles Darwin I found this a most enjoyable book. Read the book and visit Down House .
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Darwin' s Garden a must read for Darwin fans 1 Feb 2009
By Liz S
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I bought this book for my husband as a present as he is a huge Darwin fan and has been to Down House many times. Although he has read many books on Darwin's theories and methods he said it offered new ideas and further perspective on the mans work. The author uses Darwins garden and the experiments he performed there to show how the great man eventually formalised his theory of evolution. He would recommend it to anyone interested in Darwin, the theory of evolution and its history.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Darwin 22 Jun 2009
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Good book, easy reading. Having purchased other Darwin books, I feel perhaps
this one was a little overpriced.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.0 out of 5 stars  2 reviews
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars More Than Just a Garden 19 July 2008
By R. Hardy - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
It is commonly thought that Charles Darwin's great ideas in _On the Origin of Species_ originated with his cruise on the _Beagle_, especially those finches in the Galapagos. The cruise and the finches are of course important, but many of Darwin's ideas had their roots closer to home. After all, as Michael Boulter writes in _Darwin's Garden: Down House and The Origin of Species_ (Constable), Darwin didn't do much with the finches "other than to pack them carefully and send them off to storage." The _Beagle_ voyage lasted five years, ending in 1836, but Darwin and his family moved into Down House near the village of Downe in Kent, and he was to remain there until his death in 1882. Boulter, a paleobiologist who works in London's Natural History Museum, shows that it is not at all surprising that the garden proved to be an inspiration for many of Darwin's ideas, as well as being a site of repose and reflection, not to mention a gentlemanly hobby. He also brings us up to date on some current researches in evolution, many mysteries that Darwin tried to solve but only his successors managed to do so, and many mysteries which remain. With both the bicentennial of Darwin's birth and the sesquicentennial of the _Origin_ coming in 2009, readers would do well to look at this intriguing view of the garden that inspired Darwin, and the resultant gardenful of ideas that are still being worked out.

For Darwin, the garden was the attraction of the property at Downe. Darwin wrote that when they took it over, "The garden had none of the shrubberies or walls that now give shelter; it was overlooked from the lane and was open, bleak and desolate." This would all change; Boulter writes, "It would soon become clear to all members of the household that much more was going on in the apparently quiet garden than in the normal gentleman's plot." There were gadgets that measured the growth of animals and plants. There were keeps for rabbits and for pigeons. Fine netting was used to cover some plants to keep insects off, so there was no cross-pollination; Darwin thus experimented with primroses and showed that "nature tells us in the most emphatic manner that she abhors self-fertilization." Darwin was a keen observer, and his studies of geology and climate helped him see what was going on in his little Kentish patch, as bees distributed pollen, as primroses, anemones, and cowslips grew together and adapted to make new varieties and hybrids, and even as the Asiatic cockroach muscled in to take over from the native species. The breadth of his studies is quite amazing. There were pigeons and rabbits. He made careful observations of how tendrils of climbing plants searched for supports and grasped them. He raised 50 varieties of gooseberry to study divergence. He would involve his children in his observations (besides making them the direct subjects of his study) in, for instance, games with worker bees, trying to trace the pattern of the bees' flights. They tested the hearing of earthworms by simultaneously playing piano and bassoon and whistling at them, and getting no response. He turned to earthworms as the subject for the last of his books, but he had watched them for decades. He built a "wormstone", a stone that sank into the ground as the earth was displaced by burrowing earthworms, and he monitored patches of earth to see the speed at which the earthworms turned over the soil.

There were experiments that went wrong and investigations that led to dead ends. For instance, not knowing about Mendel's work, Darwin labored hard to find the "gemmules", the agents that were somehow collected from the cells of the body and concentrated in the sexual organs for transmission to the next generation. Darwin would have been amazed by the genetic maps that have now shown how species have split off from each other, or by the universality of the hox genes that in worms or humans turn off or on to give all of us our segmentations. Boulter covers these modern topics as outgrowths of Darwin's original garden investigations. There was a huge amount of activity in that garden, and the charm of Boulter's book is that it describes how Darwin with delight and patience investigated his broad range of interests within his small domain, eventually producing the grand idea that encompasses all biology.
1.0 out of 5 stars Completely disappointing 25 Aug 2010
By Rob - Published on
This book had me fooled.

I am not an expert on Darwin, or any science, but as an art historian of landscape, and a weekend gardener, I thought "Darwin's Garden" would be a fascinating book. (There is even a nice recommendation on the back cover from Sir Peter Crane of the Royal Kew Botanic Gardens). I imagined that Boulter would provide a lush description of Darwin's garden, how Darwin conducted experiments in his garden, and how those experiments led to the formulation of some of the most influential scientific thoughts of our time. I even hoped, as a bonus, that there might be some talk of what Darwin (or other scientists) thought of gardens in general, or what place gardens had in their lives, or in the lives of others in the late 1800s.

Instead, Boulter has written one of the most frustrating books I've ever read. To be clear from the start, it is *not* about Darwin's garden. Further, it only pretends to be about the development of "Origin of Species" as a theory. The story that Boulter really wants to tell is actually one about the development of genetics and evolution in modern-day science, and somewhat of how Darwin's writings made a foundation for later scientists like Gould and Crick. In fact, Boulter interrupts the book and his telling of the Darwin story repeatedly to give extended summaries of research and anecdotes from the 1950s onward, including examples from his own work. It really is a shame that Boulter is not more honest about these intentions, with readers and with himself, because he probably could have organized a better book if he had thought more about what he was doing.

I say "organized" because, in fact, Boulter seems to be a terrible writer. His text is riddled with vague statements that are unsubstantiated and misleading. For example, he mentions Darwin's need to outshine his grandfather's scientific legacy, Darwin's anxiety over being less pious than his wife, and how the deaths of his uncles haunted Darwin for years, but Boulter never once cites his sources for these glimpses into Darwin's most private concerns and motivations. Nor does Boulter attempt to describe the scientist's work in relation to these thoughts and experiences. Instead, Boulter is content to say that these were influential, but he does nothing to convince readers that they are even true before moving on to write poorly worded sentences that foreshadow modern scientific concerns. The end result is repetitive speculation that insults the reader's intelligence at the expense of substantive descriptions of Darwin's experiments or verified statements about Darwin's personal life. Combine this with a writing style that confuses tenses mid-paragraph while making oblique reference to present-day scientific parallels, and only the most careful of readers will be able to decipher the difference between Darwin's thoughts, Boulter's speculation on Darwin's motivations, and Boulter's own opinions. That's if you can follow the disjointed story Boulter is pretending to tell. All in all, it's a wreck.

Perhaps the book would have benefitted from brutal editing, or more research and careful notation, but as it stands, I would not recommend the book to anyone other than a proof-reader looking to get experience using a red correcting pencil.
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