Nature or Nurture?

Reference books are the tools of my trade (librarian), and there are paths worn into my office carpet leading to the most excellent and useful ones. Within the set of “excellent” and “useful” lies that even rarer tome—the fun and fascinating reference book. Richard Milner’s Darwin’s Universe definitely qualifies.

From “Abang” (a male orangutan in a British zoo who learned to make and use a stone knife) to “zoopharmacognosy” (animal knowledge of medicines in the wild), Milner explores the topic of evolution in well over 400 articles accompanied by more than 300 illustrations with insight, intelligence, and humor. I was not surprised to find entries on important scientists, influential theories, and major trends. I was surprised to find entries on movies (Quest For Fire, Planet of the Apes, and Jurassic Park) and literature (Tarzan, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Inherit the Wind).

Milner is an Associate in Anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History, a contributing editor of Natural History Magazine, and a performer—his one-man musical “Charles Darwin: Live & In Concert” has toured the U.S., the U.K., Germany, Australia, and the Galápagos Islands. He was a childhood pal of the late Stephen Jay Gould (who wrote the Preface), and there is a charming photo of both of them, circa 1954—Gould was known on the playground as “Fossilface,” and Milner as “Dino.”

As Gould remarked, “Milner has given us so much more than a conventional reference work. His book is a series of mini-essays on the highways and byways of this most socially contentious of all scientific ideas.” Milner includes pop-culture shams and shysters trading on people’s beliefs. Take for instance his article on “The Happy Family,” which was an exhibit conceived in England in the 1850s but popularized by P. T. Barnum in the 1890s. It consisted of many different species of animals living peacefully in one cage, which seemed a reversal of natural law. Another essay introduces us to Edward Simpson (alias “Flint Jack,” “Fossil Willy,” and “Cockney Bill”), the greatest faker of prehistoric tools in the history of antiquarian counterfeiting.

All of the articles cite at least one source, and some of them point to dozens of books and articles for further reading. This is a book you can read forwards, backwards, or sporadically in the bathroom. However or wherever you pick it up, you will learn something interesting without even breaking a sweat.

By the way, for those Darwin enthusiasts out there, check out the exhibition on Darwin at the John Hay Library at Brown, on display through September 20.


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