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‘Darwin’s Backyard’ chronicles naturalist’s homespun experiments

Breeding pigeons, growing orchids and other hands-on work provided evidence for the theory of evolution

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10:00am, August 24, 2017
Down House

HOMEWORK  Down House, Charles Darwin’s country estate, was the scene of many homespun experiments that provided evidence for the naturalist’s theory of evolution, as described in a new book.

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Darwin's BackyardDarwin’s Backyard
James T. Costa
W.W. Norton & Co., $27.95

The story of how Charles Darwin’s trip around the world on the HMS Beagle inspired his ideas about evolution is well-known. Less familiar, however, may be the decades of detailed research that he conducted after that 1830s voyage. As biologist James Costa chronicles in Darwin’s Backyard, many of those studies took place at Down House, Darwin’s country home southeast of London.

The estate’s relative isolation enabled Darwin to conduct in-depth anatomical analyses of everything from barnacles to birds. Darwin supplemented that work with hands-on experiments. He bred and raised 16 varieties of pigeons, trying to show that the fancy types preferred by breeders had developed from only a few ancestral wild types.

In his gardens, Darwin laid out intricate plots where he studied the diversity and growth of grasses and weeds, as well as how earthworms churn the soil. On nearby hillsides, he investigated orchid pollination and reproduction. (Not all of his experiments were successful: One year, cows ate and trampled his orchids.) Some experiments were considered quirky by 19th century standards, but the work provided data supporting Darwin’s notions about trait variability in a population and how natural selection drives changes in populations over time.

Stories of Darwin’s rich — and in some cases, tragic — family life are woven throughout Costa’s account. Without appreciating this aspect of his life, Costa claims, neither Darwin nor his accomplishments can be fully understood. For example, he enlisted his wife, cousins and nieces — and even his butler and governess — in assisting with his homespun field studies.

One outstanding aspect of the book: Each chapter ends with a description of some of Darwin’s experiments that nonscientists can perform on their own. Readers will enjoy the tales Costa tells and the experience of re-creating some of the famous naturalist’s most enlightening work.

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