Is “Charles Darwin’s Barnacle” political? Sure, and I’m unrepentant.

They say you shouldn’t read your (book/album/movie) reviews, and I suppose they have a point.*

Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider, my book about eponymous scientific names and what they reveal about science and society, has been out long enough to have accumulated half a dozen Amazon reviews. (Incidentally, one easy thing you can do that really helps a small-time author out is to leave a review on Amazon or Goodreads. Here are some more easy things you can do.)  I’m happy that overall, people have enjoyed the book (and I think you’d enjoy it to, so stop reading this post and get to your nearest public library or bookstore).  But I’m intrigued by one theme that crops up a few times: the book is “political”.

It really is a theme. Three of the six reviews on US Amazon say good things about the book, but also complain that it it’s not just entertaining but also attempts to make some more serious points.** Consider, for example, this review (the full text):

The stories were good and the variety of taxonomy was great, but it got political at certain points.

And this one:

Very informative & entertaining, could do better by reducing pontificating on social issues to placate the political crowd.

I guess I should plead guilty: Charles Darwin’s Barnacle does indeed “get political at certain points”, and it does touch on (not “pontificate”, honest!) some social issues. But here’s the thing: it’s a book about science, and about the people who do it. We sometimes like to pretend that science is objective and that scientists are dispassionate and objective, but neither thing is true. Science, like any human activity, is touched by human virtues and failings, by human biases and social contexts. Actually, one of the interesting things about species naming is that it lets us see that human side clearly, There’s politics in cell biology, too (as anyone familiar with the saga of HeLa cells, for example knows), but it’s a bit harder to see. So, a book about scientific names “political”? Of course it is.

Now, having said that, I’m sure there are readers who would rather have just the stories: the heroic stories and the funny stories and the poignant ones. And Charles Darwin’s Barnacle is full of those stories: the stories of species named for heroic explorers and for scoundrels and bums; of species named as insults, of species people have named for themselves, of species named for daughters and sons and wives and husbands and illicit lovers***. But I’m unrepentant about also using those stories to look a little more deeply into what makes scientists, and science, human.

Look, even Garfield has a moral sometimes. I think.

© Stephen Heard  February 9, 2021

Look, I’ve been nagging you about  this book for almost a year. If you haven’t read it, please do – your local public library will almost certainly either borrow it for you or add it to their collection.  Or, of course, you could buy a copy! More about the book here, or go straight to the Big Corporate Evil Source 🙂


*^While maybe you shouldn’t read your reviews, I’m very glad I read this one. Dan Garisto’s review for the Literary Review of Canada taught me things – including things about my own book. It’s worth reading even if you have no interest in ever picking up Charles Darwin’s Barnacle.

**^Three of six on US Amazon levy this complaint, but zero of the three on Canadian Amazon. I’d love to overinterpret this pattern as indicating the moral superiority of my homeland, but – wait, maybe I just did. Oops.

***^Ernst Haeckl, maybe it’s too late for this advice, but naming a species after your secret lover, in the public literature, is not the world’s smoothest move.

11 thoughts on “Is “Charles Darwin’s Barnacle” political? Sure, and I’m unrepentant.

  1. strdon

    The lion;s share of Amazon reviews are superficial and ultimately deciduous, but clever Stephen Heard has written a useful blog inspired by a few throwaway lines in Amazon reviews, that the book waxes political (why? how?, more explanation please). I didn’t read the Amazon reviews, but rather those by Yale, goodreads, etc. I would have read more than the first paragraph in the Wall Street Journal but don’t subscribe.

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  2. André Sá

    Wish I could read but paying in dollar in somewhat expensive now for brazilians. Do you have any ideia if yor book is going to be translated for other countries? Wish you success on the book!

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Understood! I don’t know how good Brazilian library systems are, but check – perhaps you can get it that way.

      There are Russian, Korean, and Estonian translations in the works, but sadly not yet Portuguese 😦

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  3. cinnabarreflections

    Personally, I think that the ‘political’ aspects strengthen the book. Everything is political, and it is a misguided idea that objectivity equals a lack of opinions. I was particularly glad to see that your book highlighted how gender balance in science has vastly improved over the past three or four decades in particular. I have a feeling that the readers who complained would prefer if we stay in the dark ages! So no complaints here!

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  4. Pingback: Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider – a cornucopia of wit and information | Don't Forget the Roundabouts

  5. Jeremy Fox

    You can’t please everyone. Looking at reader polls and traffic data for Dynamic Ecology, it’s clear that we have some readers who want us to “stick to science” and never mention anything that could be interpreted as “political”, *and* other readers who *only* like our explicitly “political” posts and wish we wrote more of them. Both groups are small minorities of our readers, but they both exist.

    I’m more curious whether you’ve gotten mixed feedback on the specific *ways* in which your book is political. Criticizing it not for being political, but for having the *wrong* politics.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Well, my stance (in the book and in life) is I think fairly progressive, and I suspect those who object to the “politics” are objecting to that, rather than to (say) not being progressive enough. One person did point out that I always capitalize “Indigenous”. I have a feeling that calling attention to that is coming from somewhere on the right. (And also sometime in the previous century).

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  6. Pingback: No two people see a book the same way (or, Canadians CAN TOO be funny) | Scientist Sees Squirrel

  7. Chris Mebane

    **^ No dataset is too small for overinterpretative studies!
    Except this one maybe, which until recently was published in PLOS ONE. They had 14 authors and ONE fish, so PLOS ONE must have seemed the natural outlet. Unfortunately they picked the wrong fish, how unlucky was that? Still, they have to be candidates for the highest author to sample size prize. At least for the extant Canadian fish category
    https://retractionwatch.com/2021/02/15/the-one-that-got-away-researchers-retract-fish-genome-paper-after-species-mix-up/

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