Book review: ‘Darwin's Island’ by Steve Jones

‘Darwin’s Island’ by Steve Jones

In his earlier excellent book Almost Like a Whale, Steve Jones updated Darwin's On the Origin of Species for a modern audience. He picked up the books-on-the-same-theme-as-Darwin theme a few years later with Y: The Descent of Men, followed by Coral: a Pessimist in Paradise.

Darwin's Island continues the Darwin-update theme, albeit in a less ambitious vein, by dedicating a mere chapter to subjects covered in some of Darwin's less famous books. There are chapters on mankind's relationship with other primates (again inspired by The Descent of Man), insectivorous plants, the expressions of emotions in man and animals, orchid fertilisation, variation of animals and plants under domestication, movement in plants, barnacles, sexual selection, and earthworms. Reading them makes you appreciate both the width and depth of Darwin's studies: he certainly was one very busy man.

Although, as ever, Jones's writing is both amusing and educational, at times I felt that, in Darwin's Island, he struggles to condense too much information into the limited space available. For example, in the earthworms chapter, he refers to the longest running biological experiment in the world (Darwin's fascinating worm stone experiment) without actually explaining what it is. Jones's use of metaphor as a convenient way to prune down explanations also occasionally left me wondering what on earth he was talking about. But these are minor quibbles: there is an awful lot of very interesting information packed into these pages.

"But why is the book named Darwin's Island?" I hear you ask. The book's subtitle gives a hint: Darwin was famously inspired by his visit to the Galápagos Islands, which lasted a mere five weeks; but he spent the following four decades developing his ideas and carrying out his experiments on the most beautiful and inspirational island on the planet, whose shores he would never again leave: Darwin's home island of Great Britiain.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.

Richard Carter, FCD

Writer and photographer Richard Carter, FCD is the founder of the Friends of Charles Darwin. He lives in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire.WebsiteNewsletterMastodonetc…

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