Tag: darwin project

I dig fossils.

I mean, not literally. I have never been on a fossil dig; I’m no paleontologist right? But I dig fossils, man. I didn’t realize this until a recent trip to John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in eastern Oregon. And of course, I have been gettin’ my Darwin on – lots of fossil talk. I listened to the audiobook of Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution Is True on my Oregon road trip. Pretty good overview of evolution with detailed examples, but I cracked up every time the narrator adopted a limply terrible British accent to read the Darwin quotes.

I didn’t plan on going to John Day Fossil Beds. Driving back to Wyoming from Bend on Oregon 26 (oooh, so gorgeous), I didn’t want to show up at my motel early, so I stopped at the Sheep Rock Unit of the monument.  The monument is actually three separate areas – a total of 20,000 square miles – spread out along the John Day River valley. I showed up at the Thomas Condon Visitor Center – ten minutes before closing. Bummed! I speed-wandered through the exhibit (40 million years in 8 minutes) and grabbed some pamphlets before the Ranger chased me out. Then I ambled across the road to the Historic Cant Ranch, a restored old sheep ranch and house, just as a big dark thunderstorm started to brew.

IMG_2963When’s the last time you really thought about fossils? High School science class? That museum somebody dragged you into on your last family vacation? Me too. But now I’m starting to become more interested in the fossil record. I’ve found a good overview website from the American Geological Institute about evolution and the fossil record that also has a handy concise summary of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. And there’s this web page from Nature – the most detailed, image-rich resource I’ve found that explains how scientists can determine the age of rocks and fossils.

The John Day monument’s landscape is beautiful – colorful striated cliffs, rolling meadows, the gentle river. And it’s extremely important to paleontologists; they are still actively digging, researching, and compiling within this important repository for the big mammals of the Cenozoic. The fossil assemblages are remarkable for their sheer quantity of specimens as well as the intactness of the communities preserved in the rock layers. As the Oregon roadsigns told me, it’s a Journey Through Time.

IMG_3007The word fossil comes from the Latin fodere (dig) and fossilis (dug up). I spent last weekend digging in my garden. Actually, it’s a plot in my town’s community garden that I share with two friends. I pitchforked the heck out of one corner (I cannot take credit for the rest), and yanked out a wheelbarrow-load of quack grass by the roots. I’m calling it quack grass, but I’m not 100% sure that’s what it is. I am 100% certain it’s annoying, pervasive and hard to remove. But it’s gone (for now), and I replanted some strawberries in a wee corner patch. The rest of our plot is ready for peas, lettuce, kale and even quinoa. Seeds shall be sowed over Memorial Day weekend.

The goal this summer is to start seed saving. I’ve never done that before, but it dovetails nicely with the first chapter of The Origin of Species – Variations Under Domestication. I’m rereading that this weekend. Also, I always find myself thinking of Punnett Squares and Gregor Mendel’s pea plants whenever I’m trying to grow food. Maybe a post about that later. Right now I just keep adding to my Seeds reading list.

I love multi-tasking, so I listened to The Reluctant Mr. Darwin while gardening in a soft spring rain. David Quammen is my favorite science writer, though this book reads more like a mini-biography. So far, Quammen focuses on Darwin’s deep relationship with his devoutly Christian wife, Emma, and on his relationships with his scientific contemporaries, all of which contributed to his intense internal struggles over how and if he should share with the world his discovery of descent with modification by means of natural selection. Thus far, it’s a wonderful portrait of the man. Grover Gardner narrates the audiobook, and I always enjoy his voice; I’ve listened to him narrate the excellent Miles Vorkosigan novels of Lois McMaster Bujold.

More gardening and Darwinning adventures to follow!


Photos of Sheep Rock, leaf fossil and strawberry patch by me!

book reviews field notes my darwin project

I’m reading Rebecca Stott’s highly enjoyable book Darwin’s Ghosts, a lively and accessible review of the philosophers, scientists, pundits, and artists who preceded Darwin in the contemplation of evolution. Each chapter discusses a particular group or individual, so I’m getting to know a lot of historical figures in finer detail than I ever have.

Take Aristotle for instance. What do you know about him? Probably more than me. I knew he was a philosopher, but I could never remember if Plato was Aristotle’s teacher or student (ahem, Plato was the teacher). Also I mistakenly thought he was a Greek. Nope. He was from Macedonia, and in 344 BC, that meant he was often treated like an interloper, a metic – an immigrant. He spent a lot of time island-hopping around Greece, teaching, studying, and observing the natural world. He wanted to understand and explain everything, and did not accept myths and supernatural stories in place of the natural laws he sought. He didn’t support the theory of species transmutation over time (Darwin mistakenly thought he did), but he was an intellectual badass who engaged in hands-on scientific study whenever he could.

As is probably the case with most people, it’s the unexpected anecdotes that stay with me when I read biographies. I learned about sponge diving this time. Aristotle was way into sponges – the soft ones that were historically used for everything from bathing to water filters to contraception. Sponges baffled and delighted Aristotle. He couldn’t decide whether to put them into the Animal or Plant category. So he started hanging out with the sponge divers of Lesbos (and yeah I know that sounds like the punchline to a bad joke).

1024px-Spongia_officinalis_001Sponge diving is an ancient form of underwater diving, a rare combination of grace and brutal fortitude that’s both sport and commercial skill. Because Aristotle couldn’t dive (most of the men who did were deaf or deformed from years of enduring the underwater pressure), he had to investigate by asking questions. He interrogated the divers about everything involved in gathering sponges from the sea floor, and about the sponges themselves. Turns out Spongia officinalis belongs to the kingdom Animalia.

There’s a recent New Yorker article about sponges by the wonderful Ed Yong (if you haven’t subscribed to his weekly The Ed’s Up emails, you are missing out). Go check it out.

And that’s all for now – I’ve gotta go hang out with Darwin’s Ghosts.

“Busto di Aristotele conservato a Palazzo Altaemps, Roma. Foto di Giovanni Dall’Orto” by Giovanni Dall’Orto March 2005. Licensed under Attribution via Wikimedia Commons

“Spongia officinalis 001” by H. Zell – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

book reviews my darwin project

Since this is MY Darwin Project, I can write about whatever I want, and this morning it’s Cape Verde and Cesaria Evora.

I’m reading The Voyage of the Beagle, also known as Darwin’s Journal of Researches into the Natural History of the Countries Visited During the Voyage Round the World of HMS Beagle.  You can see why folk mostly call it The Voyage of the Beagle.

779px-Cape_Verde_1746_mapThe survey ship’s first port of call was the 10-island archipelago off the West Coast of Africa known as Cape Verde.  Here Darwin encountered dry air, atmospheric dust, cuttlefish, sea slugs, and the descendants of the African slaves first brought to the islands by the Portuguese in 1462.  (I didn’t know that the islands were uninhabited by humans prior to that.)  Reading these first anecdotes, I began to get a vibe that I hope continues throughout – Darwin is so positive, curious, and descriptive.  And he’s really into geology.

1024px-Sepia_officinalis_(aquarium)And cuttlefish of the tide pools, which are so Cthulhu that I might have to do a whole other blog post about them one day.  By the way, I’m really enjoying The Beagle Project website, which has a great post about the corals and cuttlefish that Darwin describes. My approach to reading Darwin is definitely eclectic and stream-of-consciousness, but I do enjoy scientific footnotes and facts!

I couldn’t read about Darwin in Cape Verde without listening to Cesaria Evora. She’s internationally known for her music, and beloved in her own country (she’s on a bank note!).

2000cve-front-preShe sings a song called “Paraiso Di Atlantico,” on her album Cafe Atlantico, which is gorgeous, brilliant, and one of my favorite albums of all time.  I tried to translate the lyrics from the Portuguese, but the best I could do – after copy/pasting the lyrics I found on Google into my Universal Translator app – was a jumble of English and gibberish.  I’m guessing it’s because morna, the traditional music that Evora sings, is usually in Creole.  And yet – extracting those English words became something similar to the found poetry project I’m working on this month at PoMoSco.  If you don’t know about the concept of saudade (sodade in the Cape Verde Creole) it’s worth a peek on the web here.

leafy happy dignity
a people in peace
dear corner of love and sodade





“Serra Malagueta Cape Verde” by Ingo Wölbern – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Cape Verde map By Jacques Nicolas Bellin (1703-1772) (http://catalogue.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/cb406025638) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

2000 Cape Verde Escudo bank note By Salguide (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

“Sepia officinalis (aquarium)” by © Hans Hillewaert. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

my darwin project


If I think about it, I can’t believe Charles Darwin was only 22 years old when he embarked on what would be a five year circumnavigation of the globe aboard a British survey ship named after a dog breed.  When the HMS Beagle embarked on her second voyage, she left Plymouth, England two days after Christmas in 1831, and Darwin was on board as ship’s naturalist.  Darwin and the Beagle would return some 40,000 nautical miles later, with over 5,000 collected specimens from as far away as South America and Australia.  This was almost two centuries ago, I remind myself.  No GPS.  No helicopter rescues.  Five years.  No refrigeration and no iPods playing Taylor Swift.  Just hardtack and scurvy and horse latitudes.  Hardcore and survey and new attitudes.

Of his sea voyage on the HMS Beagle, Darwin said that it was “by far the most important event in my life.”  He felt it had determined his entire career.  Not surprising.  He traveled for three years and three months on land, and eighteen months at sea.  He saw more along the coasts of South America alone than most of us will see in a lifetime.  This was boots-on-the-ground science; Darwin catalogued the workings of nature in all her forms firsthand.  He rode with gauchos on the Pampas, witnessed the 1835 Mount Osorno volanic eruption and a devastating earthquake in Concepción, Chile, and predicted the eventual exctinction of the foxlike warrah in the Falkland Islands.

1024px-HMS_Beagle_by_Conrad_MartensDon’t misunderstand me though – Darwin wasn’t the first on the scene talkin’ ’bout evolution.  He finally nailed the how – natural selection.  But I’m not forgetting Thomas Malthus, or Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, or Alfred Russel Wallace.  Wallace too, decided to travel abroad in his twenties, leaving for South America in 1848 and ending up in the Malay Archipelago in 1854. His independent writings about island biogeography and evolution were the kick in the pants Darwin needed to publish The Origin of Species in 1859, but not without giving Wallace his due (well, that’s what I heard – more on this later).

And there’s Charles LyellJames Hutton, Stephen Jay Gould, and all the scientists who’ve helped us understand the timescales of Earth’s geology and paleontology.   Like James McPhee, whose books – however bedrocky they may be – about North American geology inspire my own poems about Wyoming.  Darwin and his predecessors didn’t leap to the evolution conclusion on a whim.  They worked for it.  They put in years of effort, observation, and questioning.  They doubted, they tested, they scrutinized evidence, and they suffered setbacks.

Beagle_Chronometer_V_frontOh heck, I may need to read The Voyage of the Beagle, The Principles of Geology, and The Song of the Dodo before I read The Origin of Species.

The truth of 4.55 billion years is as big as the planet.



“Voyage of the Beagle” by © Sémhur / Wikimedia Commons

“HMS Beagle in Straits of Magellan” by illustrations by R. T. Pritchett 1828-1907 – http://etext.library.adelaide.edu.au/d/darwin/charles/beagle/ – Text and illustrations derived from the John Murray edition of 1913 titled A Naturalist’s Voyage Round the World. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

“HMS Beagle by Conrad Martens” by Conrad Martens (1801 – 21 August 1878) – English Wikipedia (13:42, 15 October 2005. User:Dave souza 1235×821 (73563 bytes) (HMS Beagle in the seaways of Tierra del Fuego, painting by Conrad Martens during the voyage of the Beagle (1831-1836), from The Illustrated Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, abridged and illustrated by Richard Leakey ). Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

“Beagle Chronometer” By Graeme Bartlett (self made photograph) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Read other posts in My Darwin Project

my darwin project

On December 15, 2013, I added Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species to my “Currently Reading” list on goodreads.

It’s still on there.

I assure you, this is not an oversight, and it’s not for lack of interest or because I can’t admit defeat.  I’m completely down with Did Not Finish when it comes to any book that annoys me (The Goldfinch…I’m lookin’ at you).  Darwin decidedly does not annoy me.

In the past two years, I’ve read countless articles, scientific papers, blog posts, and Wikipedia entries about evolution.  I’ve watched six Yale Lecture Series videos on Evolution (trust me, six is a LOTTA Yale to digest when you only have an English degree), and scoured the entire University of Berkeley evolution website.  I read Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins, and well…you get the point.  I don’t have that much Darwin street cred but I do have a wee bit.  It’s just not…Darwin himself.

I want to read Darwin’s seminal book – and I have, in fact, read the first three chapters.  Why am I doing this?  Because I once proclaimed to a circle of friends, rather obnoxiously and almost tearfully, that I am a Darwinist.  At the time, I had no idea what the hell that meant.  But I…thought I….meant it.  Even though I’d not read a word of Darwin and I had no solid understanding of evolution at all.  I still seem to be skimming the surface of evolutionary literature without really deepening my understanding.  Which ain’t right.

Well, now I officially start My Darwin Project.  Because those first 3 chapters of The Origin of Species are incredible.  They, and the subsequent twelve chapters, deserve more from me than a cursory reading and a move to my “Read” list on goodreads.  Darwin is the hub of this wheel for me; the driving force; my evo-co-pilot.  But I’m ready to dig in to Darwin’s predecessors as well as contemporary science writers, too.

Because hey, why do Darwin straight up, no chaser?  The Origin of Species is over 150 years old!  I need reading guides, supplementary literature, videos, poems, podcasts, Pinterest boards, a genetics primer, blogs, art, popcorn (best with olive oil, salt and nutritional yeast), photographs and diagrams, the Crosby Stills Nash & Young box set, long walks, and possibly reading glasses before this is over.  And I plan to share all of this with you (Except the popcorn.  Go pop your own.)  I may even tweet about this spectacle.  I’m not saying I will ever know what I’m talking about, but I will surely give this a go.

You can find a partial Bibliography of Evolutionary Awesome on my goodreads profile (along with my horror, pirates, and magicahhh book lists – wait come back here, don’t get distracted!)  AND also check out Darwin’s Entangled Bibliography, my supplementary resource list, or as I like to call it, Somebody Tell Me What Darwin Just Said.   To be updated regularly, and to include a bunch of other Darwinian and evolutionary treats.

How do we start this voyage?  On a ship, of course.  The HMS Beagle.  Pack your bags, we set sail soon.

“Darwin panel” Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons


my darwin project