November 24, 2009

As we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, I thought I’d take the opportunity to note that though the image of Darwin we share today, that tired but steadfast symbol of rationality and science, dates back only to the 1950s, not 1850s (see Janet Browne’s article in Isis). Further, during most of the 30 years prior to Origin’s centenary, Darwin and his theory of natural selection, to borrow Peter Bowler’s term, were in eclipse.

This neat bit of near-ephemera was among the first attempts to restore some of Darwin’s lost luster. Published in 1956, The Darwin Reader was a “best of” (and somewhat sanitized) collection of the writings of Charles Darwin edited by two professors at the University of Michigan, Philip S. Humphrey and Marston Bates. The editors noted that hardly anybody in the mid-1950s was reading Darwin, professionals included. They thought a good digest would help.

I know nothing of Humphrey. But I know Bates was an amazing man (see related articles). A contemporary of Rachel Carson, Bates helped popularize ecology, was a fantastic natural historian and popular author and was the person most responsible for that radically influential 1960s biology textbook, the BSCS “green version.”

If you don’t know Marston Bates, go online right now, find a used copy of The Forest and the Sea, and buy it!

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