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VINE VOICEon 9 February 2009
One of the striking things about the The Origin of Species is how much time Darwin spent pottering about in his garden and indeed, as Steve Jones says in his introduction, the great naturalist spent most of his time observing the natural world either at home or on extensive travels throughout Britain. I was delighted, therefore, to find "Darwin's Island".

Moral: never judge a book by its cover. Although there are some references to Darwin's garden and travels, this is not the book's main focus, nor is it, despite its historical background, a work of scientific history.

What we do get, however, is a review of some of the topics that Darwin studied, many of which are suggested by his lesser known works. The result is a fascinating whirlwind tour of carnivorous plants, insects, orchids, hops, barnacles and earthworms; as well as more predictable topics such as sexual selection.

This is a highly readable book aimed firmly at a general readership with no special knowledge of biology. Steve Jones has a neat turn of phrase and a good line in dry humour as well as a gift for drawing together the strands of historical and contemporary scientific thought and placing them into the context of the modern world.

Whilst drawing on the roots of modern biology, "Darwin's Island" is set very much in the present and, despite the title, has a global scope. As for the future, after reading this book, you may be left wondering whether the sustainability of our planet and our species has more to do with the fate of earthworms and barnacles than giant pandas.

Not quite as advertised, but nevertheless a welcome addition to that other endangered species, the popular science book.
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Steve Jones, who is a professor of genetics at University College London and a most engaging writer on evolutionary biology, wrote this book to coincide with the bicentennial of Darwin's birth and the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the publication of "The Origin of Species." He calls his book "Darwin's Island" to emphasize the fact that the vast majority of Darwin's work was on the biota of the island of England following his return from the voyage of the Beagle and not on what he learned during the scant five weeks he spent in the Galapagos Islands as a young man.

Darwin wrote a four-volume work on barnacles (over a thousand pages); he wrote on "Orchids and Insects," on the "Expressions of Emotions," on the "Formation of Vegetable Mould by Earthworms," and of course on "The Descent of Man" and other works, comprising in total more than six million words. Jones' intent is to introduce the reader to the wider range of Darwin's work and by doing so demonstrate why Darwin is widely considered the greatest biologist who ever lived.

Jones' technique is to devote chapters to Darwin's many interests while bringing us up to date on the current understanding. Thus we read about what Darwin learned about worms, barnacles, insects, insectivore plants, sexual selection, our facial expressions, etc., and how that agrees with or differs from what modern science has discovered. What we find out is that Darwin was amazingly prescient in many areas mainly because he worked so diligently for so many years with the kind of enthusiasm few of us can muster. And it didn't hurt that he was a brilliant man.

Darwin could have been a man of leisure because of inherited wealth, but he was driven to discover as much as he could about the natural world. He immersed himself into scientific research, performing experiments as well as reading, and corresponding with other scientists and amateurs from around the world. He dug up the ground around Down House where he lived; he dissected specimens, he worried about the adaptive vigor of his children since he had married his cousin (hence his volume on "Cross and Self-Fertilisation"), he measured things, he explored the woods and streams and seashores of his English "archipelago"; he examined fossils, and all the while he pondered deeply on the nature of life and on how evolution works.

The effect of Jones' technique in showing both what Darwin knew in the 19th century and what we know today is to emphasize how the world has changed since Darwin's time. We learn how some species have circumnavigated the globe and caused other species to go extinct, especially how the "weediest" of all species, human beings, have altered and destroyed environments and brought about changes in our use of the natural world that would have probably appalled Darwin.

Being a geneticist, Jones knows very well what Darwin could only guess at, that is, how the traits of species are handed down, how "descent with modification" works. And that is another strength of this remarkable and very readable book, demonstrating as Jones does how much Darwin was able to understand and get right without any knowledge of the basic mechanism of inheritance as expressed in genetics. How he would have marveled at what we know today.

Jones closes by seeing a "triumphant of the average" as we and other weedy species scurry about the globe mating widely instead of closely as in Darwin's time when people and other creatures seldom encountered opportunities much distant from the place of their birth. He sees what I once called "the browning of society" as natural selection irons out the differences between equatorial humankind and those from northern climes, as Asians marry the English, as Russian tumble weeds spread across the American west. When once it was the rich who had the most children, today it is the poor. Jones notes that "The gulf has closed through restraint by the affluent rather than excess by the poor." He does not speculate on what this change will have on society, but posits that the opportunity for natural selection "is in steep decline," meaning I suppose that evolutionary change in humans will become increasingly static. Musing on how that will play out in the long run, Jones writes darkly: "For Homo sapiens, some nasty surprises no doubt lurk around the corner. Some day, evolution will take its revenge and we may fail in the struggle for existence against ourselves, the biggest ecological challenge of all." (p. 286)
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VINE VOICEon 9 June 2010
If one of your books is the most famous scientific work of all time, and a social phenomenen the shock waves of which reverberated round the world; If, furthermore, this book is still in print 150 years later and still argued over passionately, it's probably likely that your other books will be relatively neglected.

So, Charles Darwin's "Origin of the Species" inevitably obscures his other work which is extensive. In this work of popular science, Steve Jones examines and aims to update some of these overlooked books. With the exception of "Voyage of the Beagle", Darwin's second most famous book, which is, of course, closely related to "Origins", Darwin's other works are given a chapter each. This approach inevitably means Darwins long and complex volumes are reduced to a couple of highlights...e.g. "Fertilisation of Orchids" is reduced to the well known story of Darwin's predicting a long tongued moth and the experiment of Pyramidal Orchid fertilisation repeated in just about every book on orchids since.

Surely we should have moved past Creationists vs Evolutionists argument but this conflict does seem to underpin a lot of Jones' points.

Generally this is a well written and interesting book. Its final chapter, which almost veers into social Darwinism, and sort of explains why every High Street in Britain is identical, as well as explaining more weighty issues of loss of Bio-Diversity is surprisingly depressing.
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i have really enjoyed the other Steve Jones books that I've read: they are full of amazing facts you immediately want to quote to other people, and his ability to explain an idea from genetics or evolutionary theory in very simple terms is really almost without parallel.

Yet for the first time, reading this book, I felt slightly frustrated that his books are always pitched at such a gentle level. Each chapter is devoted to the subject matter of one of Darwin's post-Origin publications; earthworms, orchids, insectivorous plants, variation in domesticated animals and plants. Take the section on pet dogs: there's lots of good facts about whippets, chihuahuas and pugs... Or the chapter on orchids, which gives a whistlestop guide to the general principles of orchid pollination. You end up with a general picture of orchids being fairly devious plants... but if you wanted to feel that your overall understanding of how evolution and genetics work is being increased, this isn't the book for you.

Darwin's Garden is infinitely readable, but deals with each topic in a chatty, magazine-article way, rarely referring by name to the scientists who actually did the research and never touching on any dissent on a topic. Maybe it's because I have just finished reading Matt Ridley's "Genome", which is pitched at a slightly more informed audience, but I really missed feeling like I was being taken seriously as a reader...
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on 26 January 2009
Whatever genes and cultural traditions transmit curiosity, Charles Darwin inherited a uniquely productive sequence. Steve Jones' refreshing contribution to the bicentennial gives the Galapagos finches as little attention as did Darwin himself. Seasickness made Darwin an island-hopper for whom the arrival was everything, the voyage hell. Indeed, after the unpublished 25-year old naturalist got back to dry land at Falmouth on 2 October 1836, he never again left the shores of the British Isles. (He maintained, however, his own worldwide web of correspondents.)

So, the Voyage of the Beagle and the Origin of Species are here set on one side in order to show Darwin's curiosity and experimental ingenuity as he tackles a lifetime of questions inspired by his own family with its domesticated animals and plants; the teeming life in the soil of his home at Down House and the botanical riches of Ashdown Forest. What are the effects of inbreeding? How do plants move (eg to climb up the Kent hop-poles)? Why do worms matter? Professor Jones links these and more of Darwin's major inquiries to today's research and to the practical consequences in a world so suddenly - in an evolutionary timespan - dominated by man. Worms can transform archaeological sites - as shown by the wormstone experiment started in the last decade of Darwin's life (and still running): but, undisturbed, they are at last being recognised as the natural creators of soil fertility.

The final chapter draws lessons. Since Darwin visited St Helena (still a UK overseas territory), unique habitats that delighted him have gone and many endemics, like the giant earwig, have disappeared or are under threat. Would Darwin lament with Professor Jones that the world has become "a far less interesting place than it was when HMS Beagle set sail."? With the curiosity that never left him, it is more likely that Darwin would take back his story from where Professor Jones ends it and start asking question upon question about "the only creature ever to step beyond the limits of Darwinian evolution."
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on 9 December 2010
Well, I like evolution as a subject immensely, but can only be led into associated topics such as geology and botany with guides who can get some interest into the area for me - in these cases Richard Fortey and Steve Jones in particular.

I felt that Darwin's other pursuits must be worth reading about, but more as a responsibility than a pleasure. How wrong I was with this book - I have always admired Steve Jones' style and have even come to trust his material to a considerable material. What I was not really looking forward to, turned out to be the greatest exposition of the power and breadth of evolution I have come across so far (and I have liked many), by linking the flora and fauna into the overall evolutionary framework. And in a style that is so readable.

THOROUGHLY recommended as a 'must read'
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 16 June 2013
This is an enjoyable enough book about evolution for the general reader. Based on Charles Darwin's researches at his home in Kent the book covers plants,barnacles, earthworms, birds, dogs, scarcity, obesity,and much else before concluding with a rather depressing chapter on the likely evoluntionary and biological changes being triggered by modern farming methods and climate change.

I enjoyed the book, but was not captivated in the way that I was by the author's more recent work The Serpent's Promise: The Bible Retold as Science
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on 14 November 2014
Almost everyone has heard of Charles Darwin and knows about his Origin of the Species proposition.

However, in this book, Jones takes us through his slightly more pedestrian life in the English countryside and throws more immediate context to the theory, exploring Darwin’s marriage to his first cousin, and looks at his observations on greenhouse usage, as he applies what he learned on his visit to The Galapagos Islands to the world around him, travelling extensively throughout England.

An interesting read and one which opens up the reader’s mind (well mine at least) to many further thoughts and avenues to explore.
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on 7 March 2012
Really good popular science book. Well written thoughtful and informative. A good starting point for a generally interested reader and a nice summary for those of us who are biologists. Would recommend this to anyone.
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on 15 August 2015
An excellent introduction for the layman to lesser known works of Charles Darwin. I especially enjoyed the chapter on Darwin's experiments on plants.
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