Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Remarkable Creatures has an excellent bibliography

In a sense, I'm not quite the right reader for Remarkable Creatures. Not because I already have the history of science covered - ho ho, no - but because I am interested enough to read more. A lot of what Sean Carroll is doing - a lot - is summarizing other books that are worth reading. He does it adeptly (although the seams show, sometimes), so for many people his book will be porridge of the desired temperature and consistency.

I'm willing to push a little farther, both in terms of difficulty and length. To stick with Darwin, for example. Carroll's thirty page chapter on Darwin (less, really, including the illustrations and map) gives half of its length to the Beagle voyage, five years of Darwin's life. For Carroll's main theme, the urge to go out and discover something, this makes sense, and I have no argument with his account of the trip. Or only one argument, which is that The Voyage of the Beagle is very much worth reading on its own, entirely accessible, well written, and even funny. It's also five hundred pages, not thirty.

Darwin's Beagle is the only primary text of Carroll's that I have read, so one real benefit to me of his book is the bibliography. I already knew that I wanted to read Henry Walter Bates's account of his eleven years in the Amazon, mostly during the 1850s. But I had not expected Arthur Wallace's The Malay Archipelago (1890) to sound so good. Let's look that one up - how long is it? 544 pages, I see.

How about T. rex and the Crater of Doom (1997) by Walter Alvarez, about the discovery of the Yucatan asteroid impact and the extinction of the dinosaurs? 216 pages; all right, definitely reading that one. Carroll covers this ground in an action-packed eighteen pages. OK, how about Neil Shubin, Your Inner Fish - 256 pages, almost a real book (seventeen pages in Carroll, and a must read for fans of Arctic exploration stories). In general, the old books - the ones that belong here on Wuthering Expectations - are long and longer, while more up-to-the-minute science books are rather more petite. Well, who knows when I'll read any of them, but I've made a list.

Two books on the list are by Sean Carroll, so I guess that's some praise. Carroll is not actually a science historian, but rather a leader in a field called evolutionary developmental biology. Endless Forms Most Beautiful (2005) and The Making of the Fittest (2006) will apparently tell me what that means.


  1. Drat! You've thwarted my plan before I had a chance to fully articulate it. I've thought for some time that I should give you interesting science books as gifts and should do some research into the best of the 19th century. Then, just yesterday I thought, Aha! next Christmas I'll give AR historic science books based on the adventures related in Remarkable Creatures.
    Now I'm going to have to look harder.

  2. Carroll's book sounds like fun and oh, the bibliography sounds delightfully dangerous. I have wanted to read Voyage of the Beagle and will have to get to it one of these days. I am also interested in Humboldt. I have heard he has some long, but fascinating, writings.

  3. Well, here's another book going into my tbr pile.

    Remarkable Creatures sounds like a fun read.

  4. An old friend I haven't seen in a few years, Peter Nichols, wrote a book called Evolution's Captain, about Robert Fitzroy, that might interest you. But the other person who came up today was Francis Galton, Darwin's cousin I think, who seems rather odd and became too excited about eugenics. But he apparently traveled in SW Africa as a young man, wrote what might be a readable book about it, and then also wrote a popular, oft-printed book about how to travel, more or less to any where, in the classic 19th century Brit fashion, "The Art of Travel." Thought that might be down these lines...

  5. Well, SpSq, I haven't read 'em yet. A less amateur(ish) approach would be a big help.

    zhiv, thanks for the recommendations, right on target. Those Galton books are not so easy to find.

    Humboldt does sound interesting, but like Stefanie says, the length is an issue. The Amazon trip is in 3 volumes, and Kosmos fills five. Penguin Classics publishes a 400 page abridgement (of the trip, not of Kosmos) that is tempting.

    C.B., I think you'd enjoy this. I think pretty much anyone who stops by here would enjoy Carroll's book.

  6. I think my approach (pick 'em off of Carroll's bibliography) would be no less amateur(ish) than yours (pick 'em off of Carroll's bibliography), but do keep me updated about what you've read and acquired so that I can find appropriate complements.