While on his voyage aboard HMS Beagle, the 24-year-old Charles Darwin happened to pick up a rotten conch shell from a beach in Chile. Inside, he spotted a minute burrowing barnacle. He thought it might take an amusing month or two to classify its species. Instead, poor Darwin came to kick himself for beachcombing.
For the next eight years he neglected his early draft of the work that would shake science – On the Origin of the Species – while dissecting thousands of ever-weirder barnacles to solve the maddening riddle. ‘It has come to feel like damnation,’ he wrote. Yet it was his genius as a barnacle man that made the scientific world listen when he published his blasphemous theories on creation.
This book manages the record feat of making a small salt-water mollusc as darkly mysterious as Moriarty. It brings Darwin himself magically alive with its details, too. His London visits always bring on painful flatulence. And when he reads a new book by a cousing on hunting in Africa, he writes a poignant letter of congratulation: ‘What labours and dangers you have gone through… the objects of my study are very small fry, and to a man accustomed to rhinoceroses and lions, would appear infinitely insignificant.’ It seemed so obvious then to Darwin that posterity would remember ‘the adventurer in uncharted Africa’ rather than ‘the barnacle man, the man of footnote.’
Darwin and the Barnacleis is the author’s first book, which makes this brilliant, five-star history all the more of an achievement. One longs for her next. Can we hope for Newton and the Apple, or Archimedes in the Bath?