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Darwin and the Barnacle: The Story of One Tiny Creature and History's Most Spectacular Scientific Breakthrough Hardcover – May 1, 2003

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Who would ever guess that those funny little creatures called barnacles played an important part in the development of the theory of evolution? Charles Darwin was fascinated with barnacles for eight long years. If he had died in 1854, he would have been remembered as the author of a groundbreaking four-volume study of all the different shapes and sexual variants that these crustaceans exhibit. Darwin's meticulous investigation of the variations in species and morphology helped him to develop the analytical and descriptive skills he would apply when, a few years later, he took the short draft of his "species theory," as he called it, out of a locked drawer and expanded it into On the Origin of Species. Stott, a scholar in the history of science at Cambridge University, explains that Darwin's investigations could not have gone very far without the development in the 1840s and '50s of Britain's postal system, which depended on the expansion of the railroads, in turn dependent on smalltime speculators like Darwin, whose financial independence was based on his investments. Stott tells her story beautifully, but she takes a while to get going and occasionally dallies on tangential topics just when one wants to know what happened next. Readers will learn almost as much about England in the 1850s as about this crucial decade in Darwin's life. This fascinating account will probably be of interest mainly to Darwin and zoology enthusiasts, but history buffs and readers who appreciate fine writing will also enjoy it. 32 illus.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.


A spellbinding story, intricate and beautifully told. -- James Moore, co-author of Darwin

Perfect reading for your next beach holiday; you'll never look at a barnacle, or at Darwin, the same way again. -- James A. Secord, author of Victorian Sensation

Stott is skilful with many of the thematic connections here and her narration is exciting, gripping and addictively readable. -- Scarlett Thomas, Independent on Sunday

This is that rare book that sweeps you on from the first few pages...a brilliant performance. -- Roy Herbert, New Scientist

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (May 1, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393057453
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393057454
  • Product Dimensions: 8.5 x 5.5 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,431,988 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Rebecca Stott is a professor of English literature and creative writing at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. She is the author of the novels The Coral Thief and Ghostwalk and a biography, Darwin and the Barnacle, and is a regular contributor to BBC Radio. She lives in Cambridge, England.

Customer Reviews

Stott brings Darwin to life!
Rod Doyle
Substantial and entertaining, well written and well researched.
Steve R
Maybe "adequately illustrated" would have been better!
David B Richman

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

16 of 17 people found the following review helpful By R. Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on July 8, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Charles Darwin's contribution to science looms ever larger, as his work on evolution continues to be confirmed as elucidating the foundation of life on Earth. His account of his travels on the _Beagle_ are still enjoyed by readers looking to see how he began his insights, and his writings on the evolution of species and humans are of course well known and epochal. Less appreciated these days is that Darwin did not always write on the big subject, but he disciplined himself by writing on the small. In _Darwin and the Barnacle: The Story of One Tiny Creature and History's Most Spectacular Scientific Breakthrough_ (Norton), Rebecca Stott has taken one important aspect of Darwin's long career, with the idea that the barnacles, in many ways, were the making of Darwin as a scientist. Much of this information is not particularly new and is covered, though in less depth, in the many Darwin biographies. However, Stott's attention to Darwin's barnacle work, his family issues of the time, and his growth as a biologist focuses welcome attention on an important part of his life and career.
After his return from the _Beagle_ voyage (and his first collection of a barnacle specimen), besides writing up his journals and discoveries from his voyage, Darwin formed his first ideas about the origin of species and evolution. He wrote up his ideas, but refrained from publishing; he not only knew how controversial evolution would be, but he realized he needed to issue these ideas after having more basic biological knowledge. So for eight years, from 1846 until 1854, Darwin worked on barnacles. He had to dissect hundreds of them under the microscope. He had to work with both the adult forms and the free-swimming larval forms. He corrected misconceptions and made startling discoveries about their sex lives.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Steve R VINE VOICE on June 18, 2003
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Read 'Darwin and the Barnacle' as a prequel, if you will, to Darwin's 'Origin of Species'. It was Darwin's work on barnacles that prepared him for 'Origin'--the one book for which he will be eternally known, and wherein he articulated his theory of species evolution by natural selection.

Following Dava Sobel's 'Longitude,' the past few years have provided us with a flood of books on the theme of "the lone man of genius and his scientific discovery that changed the world." With rare exceptions, however, many of these have been less than profound or failed to make the case for the true relevance of their topic. Stott's 'Darwin and the Barnacle,' however, is a fine exception, and a book of a wholly different order. She forgoes the typical formula (misunderstood scientific hero fights haughty, blinkered scientific establishment to prove out his discovery that is destined to change the world). Instead, Stott's story provides a balance between exceptional narrative (the drama of scientific discoveries that truly do change the world, after all, makes great subjects for narrative), and solid, informed research.

Best of all, Stott avoids the "lone scientific genius" syndrome, by demonstrating that Darwin, as he worked on his barnacles, became the center of a world-wide scientific network that took advantage of nineteenth-century social and technological advances (a postal system, railways), institutional developments (burgeoning scientific societies, and scientific professionalization), and European imperialism (colonized outposts, and voyages of scientific discovery).

History of science is too often either popular (though shallow) drama, or thorough (though impenetrable) scholarship. `Darwin and the Barnacle' is the best of both worlds, with the pitfalls of neither. Substantial and entertaining, well written and well researched.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Rod Doyle on January 3, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Stott brings Darwin to life! An extraordinary story, so well crafted it brings a wonderful sense of humanity to the history of science. Primarily, `Darwin and the Barnacle' brings into focus the central essence of Darwin as a human being. It presents Darwin's raw excitement with life, seemingly ignited while strolling studiously (almost romantically) along the foreshores. Which in turn encouraged him to undertake his famous tour of discovery upon the Beagle.
The sensitivity of the author helped develop in me an understanding of and interest in Charles Darwin as a person. I was moved by learning more about the man and how he lived his life; by the grief he experienced as his beloved daughter died, how his wife and he read to one another, about his ill health, his day to day activities and about his dedication if not dogged determination of his scientific observations.
In reading this book I came to understand how much time and energy Darwin dedicated in undertaking his labourious investigations into barnacles, how this hard work paved the way for honing his monumental work on the `Origin of the Species'. Yet for me it is not a defence of evolution, but rather its Darwin who is placed under the microscope. It was literally as if Stott breathed life back into Darwin - which suddenly took on more importance than the revolutionary achievements that he is so well regarded for. `Darwin and the Barnacle' is a great book I only wish I had read this book when I was a geological student.
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11 of 14 people found the following review helpful By David B Richman on July 5, 2003
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I was prepared to really like this book. It is centered on Darwin's study of barnacles and their contribution to his evolutionary thinking. In some ways the author sort of got there, but along the way she often got off the track and uses some strange analogies in the process. There were several typos that were disturbing. Perhaps the worst is that we are told on page 21 that the marine segmented worm Aphrodita aculeata has stinging hairs (it does not! - see Sue Hubbell's excellent book "Waiting for Aphrodite"), and that it is parasitic (it is a carnivore, as Hubbell also noted). In stating that Aphrodita has stinging hairs Rebecca Stott was repeating an error that has come down to us through a book published in 1558 by Rondelet! Also "aculeata" does not mean, "stinging", but spiny! One would think that by now this misinformation would not continue to be repeated. However, the main problem is that the author rambles a bit too much and covers a lot of ground not pertinent to the subject. In fact she covers a lot of the ground in regard to Darwin's personal problems that is better explored in several other recent books. This is not a fatal flaw, but the book would have been more original if the focus had been kept on the barnacles rather than on background material that nearly every biographer of Darwin has investigated. As for the book being "lavishly illustrated," I am wondering what the writers of the dust jacket blurb meant! I would not have described it in that manner at all! Maybe "adequately illustrated" would have been better!
This book is worth reading and does give us some of the details left out of other books on Darwin, but the author has not answered the questions about Darwin's barnacles I would have liked to have had answered.
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