Book review: ‘Darwin's Apprentice’ by Janet Owen

‘Darwin’s Apprentice’ by Janet Owen

John Lubbock is one of those people I've always intended to find out more about, but have never got round to it. Well, now I have.

Janet Owen's biography of Lubbock, published 100 years after his death in 1913, concentrates primarily on his archaeological and ethnographic work, although his other achievements are also covered. As a former archaeology student, I enjoyed the book very much.

John Lubbock was a young boy when Charles Darwin and his family moved into the house next door at Downe in Kent. Darwin took a shine to the lad, and encouraged his scientific interests. The son of a wealthy banker, Lubbock developed an interest in archaeological and ethnographic artefacts, starting what was to become an important and extensive collection. He bought or was given many of these artefacts, but he also began travelling around Europe collecting them in the field.

Darwin included Lubbock in his circle of close scientific friends, leading ultimately to Lubbock's becoming a member of the X Club, which lent support to Darwin's theories, and campaigned to remove religious influence from the scientific establishment.

Lubbock's knowledge of prehistoric artefacts led him to propose, in his influential and highly successful 1865 book, Prehistoric Times, that the three ages (Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age) classification system be refined to make a distinction between the Old Stone Age (or Palaeolithic) and the New Stone Age (or Neolithic). But it wasn't all just artefacts. Lubbock's non-archaeological interests included bees. His observations on those insects were cited a number of times in Darwin's On the Origin of Species.

Having inherited his father's bank, Lubbock was later to become a Member of Parliament, where he successfully introduced bills to establish bank holidays and protect ancient monuments. He even put his money where his mouth was, buying the Avebury stone circle in order to protect it. He was later ennobled as Lord Avebury.

A pall-bearer at Darwin's funeral, Lubbock recorded the death of his former mentor in his diary, stating:

For thirty years he has been very good to me, and a talk with him was as good as sea air.

I hadn't seen that particular quote before. It bought a lump to my throat.

Darwin's Apprentice is an enjoyable biography of a very interesting man, who really deserves to be more famous than he his.


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

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher.

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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