This year is the 150th birthday of the first publication one of the most influential books in history: "On The Origins Of Species By Means Of Natural Selection: Or The Preservation Of Favored Races In The Struggle For Life" by Charles Darwin. As such it's as good a time as any to get to know a bit more about the man and his works. Luckily plenty of opportunity exists on the interwebs to learn more, but if you're the bookish type you can find some more in-depth stuff in the bookstores.
When I studied Biology at the teacher's academy weirdly enough Evolution wasn't a required subject. The course was given once every 2 years and I never had the chance to follow it. I did get a 'free pass' on it though in exchange for some chemistry course, I still have that little piece of paper somewhere. In those days money was extremely tight and I remember visiting a local second hand bookstore and seeing some old leather-bound volumes by Darwin, his work on the emotions in man "The Expression Of The Emotions In Man And Animals" and some volumes on barnacles were there. Unfortunately they were way out of my means so I never got a chance to purchase these books. I visited the second hand bookstore a few weeks ago in the hope to find some nice and rare specimens but alas I was disappointed. Some opportunities don't come along that often and if they do you'd better hope you can take advantage of them. Luckily the visit wasn't a complete loss as I did find a brand-new copy of "Darwin And The Barnacle: The Story Of One Tiny Creature And History's Most Spectectular Scientific Breakthrough" by Rebecca Stott. (Dutch readers can pick up the book for €7.50 at De Slegte where it is in the biology section in the Ramsj, international readers can find the book on Amazon.) This book details Charles Darwin's life up to and during 8 long years where he attempted to write the definitive monograph on the cirripedes. That's barnacles to you and me. Darwin's struggles with this task and his family life are the center of this book. We do not get the promised revelation about how this actually helped his Species work but we do get a fascinating insight into what it meant to be a gentleman scholar of independent means in the 1840s and 1850s. We get to read about Darwin's struggles with his health and his quack doctor with a revolutionary "water cure" which meant Darwin had wear wet towels and take ice-cold plunge baths (we'd call it a shower) outside, no matter if it was snowing or a sunny summer day. We also get to know about his correspondance with other naturalists around the world, facilitated by modern things like a postal system that actually worked and railway carriages (in which Darwin invested) that would ship specimens from around the world to his doorstep.
The 8 years Darwin spent on the barnacle work was a lot longer than he previously thought, but if you read this book you'll find out why, his ill health and difficulties struggling with tiny creatures that had unexpected anatomical oddities made Darwin spend a lot more time on these creatures than he envisioned. He was also troubled in the extreme by problems with taxonomy, the classification of animals in families and species. Often he would wait for months for a rare specimen to reach him only to find out it had been misclassified and turned out to be an already known species, albeit under a different name. It was Darwin's goal to reclassify and understand all the cirripedes.
It has been suggested that Darwin knew how controversial his evolution work was and that he purposely held off publishing about it because he felt the time wasn't right yet. This book demonstrates that Darwin didn't fear the reaction of theologians, many naturalists at that time were obsessed about the boundaries between and mutability of species. Many published about it. In the early 19th century it was recognised that the answers to many of the questions regarding species and taxonomy could be found in the sea. Sea creatures of all kinds were studied and described. Darwin took on the barnacles as a way to contribute to this debate, as a way to establish his credentials in the wider scientific community so his ideas were taken seriously. He also needed the time to hone his scientific knowledge and writing skills so he could present his views and theories with the clearest purpose. Classifying and describing barnacles was often frustrating stuff yet Darwin persevered. In 1849 he wrote "Confound & exterminate the whole tribe [...] I can see no end to my work" (Stott (2003), p. 134). And late in 1852: "I am now at work on the Sessile Cirripedes, and am wonderfully tired of my job[...]
Darwin's years studying barnacles were not for nothing, the years spent firmly established him as a scientist of note, one who would get sent specimens from throughout the world, one who would be asked for references and advice. Darwin also learned a lot of things that would eventually help him with his species work. Sadly, as said, this book doesn't really go into that as much as the title makes us believe, it ends in 1854 when 'the barnacle years' are over, Origins will not be published for some years. Yet I still highly recommended this book, as it tells us an awful lot about the man who changed the way we view the world.
As I said to my friends a while ago: without Darwin we would still have the theory of natural selection. The scientific world was ready for it in the 1850s, we would still have evolution, but the entire world was made a better place by Darwin being alive and bringing us his meticulous works. Works of painstaking details and research.
For another interesting read about Darwin and the 20 year gap between first outlining his species work and the publication of Origins you can read a paper by John van Wyhe