Natural History research

So, I mentioned before that I have a new series.

It will surprise nobody who’s been around for the Onyx Court books that I intend to do a bit of research. 🙂

NOT AS MUCH AS BEFORE. (Thank god.) But there are some things I want to read about, to get some good material for compost into my head, so this is the first of a couple of posts asking for recommendations.

The first topic up is, of course, the discipline of natural history. Can anybody recommend a good biography of Darwin, something that focuses on the fieldwork end of things? His education, the voyage of the Beagle, that kind of thing; I’m less concerned with what happened after he published his theories. Or books on other natural historians, or the development of the field. I’ve got a few things to read already, but knowing the internets, it’s entirely possible that somebody reading this post has a random love for the topic of nineteenth-century natural history, and knows exactly what I ought to be reading to understand it. If that’s you — or if it isn’t, but you know a couple of things you’d recommend — speak up in the comments.

If you’re not familiar with this topic at all, stay tuned; there will be other requests to come.

0 Responses to “Natural History research”

  1. moonandserpent

    I highly recommend Darwin’s own account of the Voyage of the Beagle. Preferably a good annotated modern edition… IIRC, the one with Steve Jones is good.

    I’ll have more when I’m not on the clock.

    • Marie Brennan

      Being pointed at a good edition is helpful. Gracias!

    • unforth

      This is exactly what I was going to say. I read Voyage of the Beagle a couple of months ago, and it’s AWESOME.

      • unforth

        Oh! But unless you like reading scientific names and then taking half a paragraph to figure out what on earth type of creature he’s talking about, I suggest you get an illustrated copy. I don’t know for sure which one is good. (the one I read was part of an anthology, and not illustrated) If you decide to go for On the Origin of Species, too – which is good, but not as “travelogue” – I was recommended this one by a professor who I work with.

        That said, I wouldn’t suggest launching in to Origin without a grounding in biology (which you may or may not have). Darwin gets a lot right, but he gets some wrong, and while reading it might be informative for the writing of a book, I don’t know that it would be as valuable if you don’t have the grounding to tell the difference (which is to say – I think that it’s informative what he gets wrong, and might shed some light on how to accomplish an interesting and not bad way of getting things “wrong,” but it only accomplishes that if you know enough about natural history to know what he’s getting wrong.

        Anyway, here’s a few other things I’ve thought of:
        1. John Muir. I know you’ve encountered him as part of the game. He wrote a number of books about his journeys, and though I haven’t read them, I gather they are quite good (they’re on the list).

        2. Gould’s Wonderful Life. S.J. Gould ain’t always right, but this is a beautifully written book that contains a lot of background on some scientific expeditions that took place in the early 20th century – not quite on time period, but in truth I’d recommend it anyway. This book had a throw away line that changed the whole way I see the world, which makes me rather partial to it. 😉

        3. While it’s not natural history, I would suggest that one of the classic travelogues of a regular person from the time period might (or might not) be interesting. The first one that springs to mind is Fanny Trollope’s Domestic Manners of the American’s (another book on my too-read list that comes highly recommended).

        Anyway, I’ll see if I can think of anything else. 😉 Most of the Natural History books I know and what to read I anticipate being wildly boring and only of interest to enthusiasts (I’ve been slowly but surely delving in to reading historical science works – Lyell’s work on geology is next after I finish the 1500 pages of Darwin…)

  2. rosa_g

    I second reading Voyage of the Beagle, it’s quite an interesting read. The same can be said of On the origin of species which I’ve read both for fun and for school on multiple occasions.

    Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist by Adrian Desmond and James Moore is also a really interesting read. This one goes into quite a bit of detail about the context behind Darwin’s work and expeditions. It’s a long book (700ish pages) but it’s really worth it. Darwin’s voyages on the Beagle are well described… so it might be worth checking out just for that.

    • Marie Brennan

      Voyage I’ll almost certainly read at some point, though it may be later on (for sekrit reasons I’m not naming right now). The Desmond and Moore sounds like exactly what I’m looking for, though.

  3. Anonymous

    Although these are not directly on point for the specific question you asked, I can recommend a couple of blogs that frequently cover issues of this nature (including annual stuff around Darwin Day that might well be directly on point for this particular question) and — perhaps more importantly — the social context thereof:

    Pharyngula (
    The Panda’s Thumb (

    Warning for the unaware: These are both pro-atheist (or at least anti-church-entanglement) blogs. I can’t imagine that a trained anthropologist would have a problem with that, but others lurking might…

  4. tchernabyelo

    Gilbert White’s “The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne” (1789) may be of interest, if you aren’t already famliar with it.

    Also I recently read Scott Wiedensaul’s “Of a Feather”, a history of American birding, and the insights into some of the early ornithological figures may be of interest.

  5. tltrent

    Um…how much do you want? I went to research Darwin and his rival Richard Owen for my Darwin YA a couple years ago, so I have lots of stuff. Do you know of Mary Anning? She may be a fun model, if you’ve not already discovered her. (I suspect you have).

    • Marie Brennan

      As much as you want to give me! I have not in fact discovered Mary Anning yet, so clearly I am ripe for all kinds of pointers.

      • tltrent

        I’ll email you directly with a list when I can. Still recovering from spinal surgery, so not at the computer much (or when I am, doing dayjobbery or revision). Keep a weather eye! Absolutely adore this concept!!

  6. kernezelda

    I read Irving Stone’s biography of Darwin, Origin, years and years ago, and enjoyed it, although now I can’t remember any details.

  7. elaine_thom

    I used to have a copy of The Dragon Seekers by . um…(invokes Amazon)… McGgowan which is a popular history sort of book about the early fossil hunters and how they figured out the underpinnings of evolution. I remember it being an engaging read. If I could find my copy I’d be happy to pass in on to you. It could help give you an overview of what was going on in your period. Amazon also quotes a PW review which recommends Terrible Lizard by Cadbury.

Comments are closed.