CONSTABLE £16.99 (251PP) £15.29 (FREE P&P) FROM 0870 079 8897

Darwin's Garden, by Michael Boulter

Down the paths to evolution

Charles Darwin's house to the south-east of London at Downe, enfolded in English countryside despite being caught within the cordon of the M25, will not officially become a World Heritage Site in time for next year's double anniversary: 200 years since Darwin's birth, 150 since the publication of the Origin of Species. Its bid for listing was withdrawn after a sniffy report from a panel that advises Unesco's committee, opining that Down House and its surroundings are not of "outstanding universal value".

It is hardly surprising that the list of sites barely registers science as part of the world's heritage. Down House was not just a rural retreat where Darwin could write up his notes. It was a place that nurtured his thought; whose grounds were the site of experiment and contemplation. Visitors can pace out the Sandwalk at the bottom of the garden that was his daily "thinking path"; they can gaze out across the same fields and walk among the descendants of the living forms that surrounded him as he strove to understand the variety of life.

Above all, it was the place where he developed a universal theory about the means by which living forms develop, and the relationships between them. Perhaps that is the problem. People still don't like to be told that natural selection is how life works. For 150 years, commentators have devalued or ignored the idea. By the late 19th century, they had achieved the "eclipse of Darwinism", during which the fact of evolution was accepted, but not the mechanism.

Michael Boulter, a biologist who admitted in a previous book that he had trouble understanding natural selection, is part of this tradition. Unfortunately, he also struggles to present an alternative vision of a more rounded biology. When this book dwells on life at Down House, it is brightened by the recollections of Charles and various relatives. The further it ventures out of the garden, into the development of evolutionary thought, the more it is likely to mystify or mislead.

Typical is a passage suggesting that the First World War and the Vienna Circle of positivist philosophy together inhibited the study of natural selection by promoting physics and reductionism at the expense of biology. This contention seems rooted in a facile opposition between "hardline" scientists and softer, fuzzier ones. But the study of natural selection was transformed, and its power recognised, by scientists who analysed it mathematically in the 1920s. Boulter fails to convey the point, locates one of the investigators, Ronald Fisher, in the wrong continent, and implies the other, JBS Haldane, had no time for "myth", though his immense head was full of it. The muddle pervades all levels, from abstract ideas to factual detail. It's a pity, because Darwin's garden is such an exquisite site for a book.

In trying to achieve a harmony between the productivity of reason, family life, and the humble appreciation of the natural world, we might all do worse than to see how Darwin cultivated his garden.



Marek Kohn's 'A Reason for Everything' is published by Faber & Faber

Arts and Entertainment

Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
And now for something completely different: the ‘Sin City’ episode of ‘Casualty’
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

    US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

    Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

    'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
    The male menopause and intimations of mortality

    Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

    So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
    Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

    'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

    Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
    Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

    Bettany Hughes interview

    The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
    Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

    Art of the state

    Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
    The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

    The haunting of Shirley Jackson

    Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
    Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

    Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

    These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
    Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

    Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
    HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
    Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

    'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

    Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
    Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

    The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

    Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen
    RuPaul interview: The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head

    RuPaul interview

    The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head