When we mention Darwin in classes, what generally comes to students’ minds is imagery of finches, shells, and tortoises in the tropics or perhaps simply the word “evolution.” Darwin's Backyard takes understanding Darwin and evolution to the next level, building upon general knowledge of Darwin's life and contribution to evolutionary theory by exploring in depth the scientific thinking and explorations in which he engaged in his search for answers. For any reader interested in the story behind the theorizing, this book is essential.
For each of the ten chapters in this book, there is a focused story surrounding the life and mind of Charles Darwin, as expected, covering everything from the early years before the voyage of the HMS Beagle to his more intimate home studies of seeds, worms, and other elements with which many are not as familiar. What sets this volume apart from a general history is the inclusion of Darwin's own backyard experiments in each chapter, experiments that can (and should) easily be replicated at home or in the classroom. These experiments are accessible and affordable, with most requiring little more than dirt, a patch of ground, trees, and other things that are in abundance or relatively easy to come by on a tight budget. At the same time, they open the reader to experience and witness first-hand the same events about which they have just read, putting the reader wholly in the shoes of Darwin as well as the scientific process.
In the interest of disclosure, I have two sons, ages 15 and 5, who were most taken with the experiments we completed as of this writing. “Going to Seed” (Chapter 1: Origins of an Experimentizer) worked out particularly well with the different seed types we had available in Georgia in Spring, and in my view, it was a great marriage of typical childhood behaviors (i.e., playing with helicopter seeds and dandelion fluff) shifted slightly to include scientific inquiry that both of my sons appreciated and enjoyed in their own ways. We have recently created our wormery, substituting large glass mason jars for the flower pot to provide a window into the lives of our burrowing crawlies in “Get thee to a Wormery” (Chapter 10: Earthworm Serenade). We have plans to attempt several others as the seasons change (“A Taste for Botany” in Chapter 3: Untangling the Bank) and as we travel to the coast (“Doing your Barnacles” in Chapter 2: Barnacles to Barbs). For me, the most exciting part of the book is the interest that my own children have taken as a result of shared “experimentising” and how it has allowed me to communicate more about my own work in evolution education with my own children as well as my students.
As teachers of science, we are continually looking for ways to add personal connections and voice to scientific discovery, and that is something this book does at great length. Despite a long-time interest in the life and scientific explorations of Charles Darwin, I still felt as though something new was contributed to my understanding and personal picture of the man and his search for understanding. As such, I can see this as a useful tool in formal and informal contexts, both in terms of the deeper look at Charles Darwin and at the early life of his contributions to evolutionary thinking and understanding. There is more than enough academic leaning to meaningfully inform science education across levels, and the “home-grown” experiments can be easily reproduced by both the novice and expert alike for minimal cost in most cases. I will note that the book is quite long, which makes it difficult to consider for a course supplement. However, it would be a more than reasonable read for the course instructor or to provide in portions or small bits to highlight key areas of interest in a classroom setting in high school or above.