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Book Worm… Darwin’s Notebook: The Life, Times and Discoveries of Charles Robert Darwin written and compiled by Jonathan Clements – A Review

By Naomi Asantewa-Sechereh, on 12 September 2013

Book Worm

Book Worm – that’s Grant and a lugworm

Darwin’s Notebook: The Life, Times and Discoveries of Charles Robert Darwin was first published by The History Press in 2009, the year that marked the bicentennial anniversary of Darwin’s birth. It is a biography which is made to resemble a personal notebook by the inclusion of quotations and illustrations from Darwin’s own journals and books.

Darwin’s Notebook begins by giving an account of Darwin’s early life and schooling. Darwin was born on 12 February 1809, the second-youngest child of the physician Robert Darwin and Susannah Wedgwood. Darwin’s passion for collecting and classifying came at a young age. As the only boys, Darwin and his elder brother Erasmus were very close, and would carry out their own amateur experiments while not at school. Even after Erasmus left for university, the brothers continued to correspond on the undertakings of the laboratory which Darwin kept running. Darwin didn’t take much interest in his early years at school; fearing that he would become the black sheep of the family, Robert Darwin took his son on as an apprentice eventually sending him to Edinburgh University’s medical school.

Next the notebook follows Darwin through his time at Edinburgh and Cambridge. Later deciding against medicine, Darwin spent some time as a clergyman in training at Cambridge University. Darwin never left his passion for the natural sciences behind, and when the opportunity arose he applied for the post of a naturalist aboard the Royal Naval vessel, the Beagle, which would travel to South America to calculate the longitude of various locations. Subsequent chapters look at Darwin’s time and observations as a naturalist on the infamous Beagle voyage which left England in December 1831.

On returning to England in October 1836, Darwin spent years analysing his finds from the Beagle voyage, adding to them with further experimentation when he moved with his family to Down House. His test subjects included amongst others pigeons, barnacles and earthworms. This research eventually led to the publication of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in November 1859, its publication brought forward by Darwin’s discovery that the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace was also forming similar conclusions to his own.

The quotations and illustrations from Darwin’s own journals add the intended personal touch to Darwin’s Notebook. It focuses on not only what we may know Darwin for best, but gives a snapshot of what his childhood was like and provides more insight on some of the hesitations that kept Darwin from publishing his theory sooner. We learn more of how Darwin felt under the pressure and how hurt he was by criticism that followed the publication of On the Origin of Species, some of which led to later revisions and additions to the subsequent editions of On the Origin of Species.

In the chapter dedicated to Darwin’s later writings, we see how Darwin contributed so much more to science through his less generally-known books and articles. Topics included sexual selection, human emotions and publication of The Descent of Man. Darwin’s Notebook ends finally on the remaining legacy of Darwin’s discoveries, which today are still built upon as further developments in science are made.

As a member of staff at the Grant Museum I was intrigued to find our very own Robert Edmond Grant gets a small mention, as I knew that Darwin and Grant had crossed paths but I didn’t know how or whether it was an amicable association. Darwin and Grant met in Edinburgh, where their relationship seemed to get off to a good start as Grant took Darwin on long walks. However, their friendship seemed to have soured as Clements writes that Grant published two of Darwin’s discoveries as his own, possibly deterring Darwin from making his scientific discoveries known to others at an early stage in the future.

Naomi Asantewa-Sechereh is the Visitor Services Assistant at the Grant Museum of Zoology

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