Dr. Fred Bortz

Review of Darwin and the Barnacle: Story of One Tiny Creature and History's Most Spectacular Scientific Breakthrough

by Rebecca Stott

(Norton, $24.95, 336 pages, June 2003)


Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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In 1836, after an expedition of more than four years on the Beagle, a young naturalist by the name of Charles Darwin returned to his native England with "sea plunder and megafauna fossils; 368 pages of zoology notes, nearly 200 pages of marine invertebrate notes, a diary 770 pages long; 1,529 species bottled in wine spirits; 3,907 dried specimens, including giant tortoise shells and dozens of different stuffed or skinned finches," and, writes Rebecca Stott in Darwin and the Barnacle, "stories to tell -- some ... that, like a detective, he had to finish, to trace their narratives through to completion."

Among those stories was one that would change the course of science, one that emerged from a flash of insight that came to him on the voyage: Species were not immutable. Rather, they were linked in historical sequence by the process of natural selection.

The idea was controversial, far too explosive for a neophyte scientist to propose. He would have to marshal his evidence and establish his credentials before offering his theory to the naturally skeptical scientific world. Ten years later, after having mined his trove for several publications, he had become known as a careful researcher. Now he was ready to take the next step, to become the world's greatest expert on some creature.

He turned to a minuscule barnacle that had fascinated him since he teased it out of a hole in a conch shell he had collected on a Chilean beach. Unlike other barnacle species that secrete their shells as they root themselves to surfaces that become their lifelong abodes, this one appeared to have bored its way into a host shell that could offer lifetime protection. What set this tiny creature apart? The question offered enough depth to occupy him for the four years he estimated it would take him to produce a complete catalog of barnacles. Then he would be ready to publish his bombshell as the 1850s dawned.

His estimate was off by nearly a decade, and this book explains why The Origin of Species did not appear until 1859. It presents Darwin's barnacle years in meticulous detail, which might be off-putting in the hands of a less skillful author. But Ms. Stott's masterful prose draws readers deeply into Darwin's life and work. They discover the man as well as the scientist. They mourn with him at the loss of a beloved child, feel his anxiety about his own frail health, and discover the essence of his scientific mind.

This book, rich in story and deft writing, will appeal equally to readers of history, science, or biography, rewarding those who pick it up with both insight and pleasure.

Dr. Fred Bortz is a physicist, science book critic, and author of numerous science books for young readers.