Charles Darwin made his voyage to the Galapagos Islands as a young man, and then went home and mulled over his ideas about evolution for years. Conveniently enough for celebrants of modern science, he finally published his theory, after decades of waffling, at age 50. That makes 2009 a big Darwin year: both the 200th anniversary of his birth (that was in February) and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species (later this month). Evidence of Evolution, a new book from Bay Area photographer Susan Middleton and author Mary Ellen Hannibal takes advantage of the timing. It's out now, and the authors have a couple of events planned to celebrate this month's Origin anniversary.
Middleton and Hannibal teamed up to comb through the California Academy of Sciences' collection of specimens and to interview working scientists there. The result is an elegant book, full of vivid, vibrant photographs (ironically all of dead things) and clear, down-to-earth text. Hannibal and Middleton explain and illustrate the intricacies of how evolution works, going beyond textbook definitions to tell the stories of species' singular traits and common attributes. It's a solid introduction for anyone, and a lovely visual reference even for those more versed in Darwin's theory. Even the captions for the photographs contain gems of information; one caption introducing several Galapagos tortoises, each from a different environment, points out the shapes of their shells, differing depending on the availability of food where each subspecies evolved.
Middleton and Hannibal had extraordinary access to the Academy. Beyond the aquarium, beyond the living roof, beyond the rainforest and planetarium and penguin feedings, the California Academy of Sciences is a research institution and home to more than twenty million specimens. These specimens -- of endangered California plants, newly discovered Asian reptiles, long-extinct mollusks -- are the evidence for evolution. They form the backbone of natural history research and the heart of Evidence for Evolution. And, as Hannibal and Middleton point out, the specimens of now-living species may serve as historical references some day down the line if habitat destruction and climate change continue unabated.
Susan Middleton and Mary Ellen Hannibal will read and show blown-up photographs from the book twice this week at the California Academy of Sciences. Middleton says these photos provide "a peak into the inner sanctum of the Academy." They're a link to scientists working today, explorers and naturalists working two hundred years ago, and to historians working hundreds of years from now.
Mary Ellen Hannibal and Susan Middleton will show photos and read from Evidence of Evolution on Tuesday, November 10, 2009 and Thursday, November 12, 2009 at California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. For tickets and information, visit calacademy.org
Photo credits: Susan Middleton; Evidence of Evolution (Abrams; 2009)