Professor writes an enjoyable, accessible look at Charles Darwin in new book

Jim Costa with his new book, “Darwin’s Backyard, How Small Experiments Led to a Big Theory.”

Imagine Charles Darwin as a family man, involving the wife and kids in nature explorations and fun experiments, chatting with neighbors, full of humor and grace.

Because that is how the famous scientist and naturalist actually was. “Darwin’s Backyard, How Small Experiments Led to a Big Theory,” a new book by Jim Costa, professor of biology at Western Carolina University and director of the Highlands Biological Station, reveals those aspects of the scientist best known for theories of evolution and natural selection.

Published by W.W. Norton and Company, “Darwin’s Backyard” will be on bookstore shelves beginning Tuesday, Sept. 5. In his book, Costa sought to present a historically accurate version of the man rather than the dour image many have of him, typically drawn from stern Victorian-era photographs. The book also includes directions for 18 hands-on experiments for readers to conduct at home or school, based on similar Darwin experiments.

Costa will have two local discussion and book-signing events ― the first in Asheville on Wednesday, Sept. 6, at Malaprop’s Bookstore at 6 p.m. and another on Friday, Sept. 8, at City Lights Bookstore in Sylva at 6:30 p.m., before embarking on a speaking tour taking him to Boston, New York, London and Oxford, England.

“I hope that I have written the book in a way that is engaging and accessible,” Costa said. “I aimed for a conversational style to tell the story of Darwin from a new perspective that a broad audience could appreciate, yet rigorous enough that scientists and historians would find it informative as well.”

Costa takes a historic look through a modern lens at Darwin’s childhood and college years, his round-the-world voyage on the HMS Beagle, an enduring marriage with 10 children, lasting friendships and his fondness of seemingly eccentric experiments at Down House, his home of 40 years. Through that perspective readers see Darwin as a homebody, a devoted correspondent and sometimes jokester who held a lifelong curiosity about the natural world.

Darwin, an Englishman who lived from 1809 to 1882, was an energetic, self-described “experimentiser” who conducted experiments without specialized equipment, Costa said. The power of observation and comparison counted for much, with projects in his house and garden and in nearby meadows, ponds and woodlands. Many of the most historically significant were conducted literally in his backyard. “That is why the book includes experiments you can be involved with, at home or school, just as Darwin involved family, friends, neighbors and colleagues,” Costa said. “I call them ‘Darwin-inspired’ experiments, and in that spirit of investigation, you can follow in Darwin’s footsteps by doing them. Doing these experiments is great fun.”

There’s potential for educators to turn them into lesson plans ― to structure a class or create an interesting project for almost any age group around them and get students involved. “I believe that is a unique aspect of the book that will appeal to a wide audience, including educators and home ‘DIY’ project enthusiasts,” he said.

Costa calls Darwin the “original crowd sourcer” and dispels the image of a monkish genius. Darwin would publish open letters in magazines and newspapers asking readers to try this or that experiment, as well as utilize colleagues and rivals, along with his wife, children, uncles, nieces, nephews and even a domestic servant, as lab assistants and field researchers.

Costa has been a WCU faculty member since 1996. He was named director of the Highlands Biological Station, a 23-acre facility that includes research and teaching laboratories, the Highlands Nature Center and the Highlands Botanical Garden, in 2006. A native of New York state, Costa earned his undergraduate degree at the State University of New York College at Cortland, studying biology and philosophy. He received a master’s degree in entomology and community ecology, and a doctoral degree in insect population genetics, at the University of Georgia. He then spent four years at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, first as a postdoctoral research fellow and then as a National Science Foundation/Sloan postdoctoral fellow in molecular evolution. He has taught courses on Darwin at WCU and abroad for more than 20 years.

“Darwin’s Backyard” will be available at Highlands Nature Center, local bookstores, national booksellers, and online distributors.