While working on my next book, I recently had cause to consult Charles Darwin’s The Effects of Cross and Self-Fertilisation in the Vegetable Kingdom (1876). As with all the books Darwin wrote after On the Origin of Species, the apparently obscure subject matter provided him with ample opportunity to build his case for his revolutionary theory of evolution by means of Natural Selection. Not that I did anything but dip into his plant fertilisation book, you understand: it assumes far more knowledge of botany than I will ever possess.
Darwin theorised, experimented and wrote a great deal on plants. They made ideal research subjects for a man often confined to his home through ill health. And having a wonderful theory by which to work enabled him to ask (and answer) deceptively simple questions nobody had even thought to ask before. To cap it all, having as a best friend Joseph Dalton Hooker, one of the foremost botanists in the world, also gave Darwin someone to bounce his ideas off. Anyone who has read their correspondence will appreciate just how much Hooker selflessly contributed to Darwin’s work.
In this short but entertaining book, plant biologist Ken Thompson visits each of Darwin’s major works on plants. The subject matter includes orchids, climbing plants, insectivorous plants, plant domestication, and plant movement. Without getting too technical, Thompson examines Darwin’s thoughts and findings on each topic, while introducing us to some of the latest thinking.
By end of the book, I had a far better appreciation for Darwin the botanist. Although, ever modest, he no doubt saw himself as little more than a gifted amateur, he really was at the cutting edge of plant research. But, with Charles Darwin, you would hardly expect anything less.
A nice book. Highly recommended.
Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher.
“…wonderfully droll, witty and entertaining… At their best Carter’s moorland walks and his meandering intellectual talk are part of a single, deeply coherent enterprise: a restless inquiry into the meaning of place and the nature of self.”
—Mark Cocker, author and naturalist
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