Men, Microscopes, and Living Things Essay - Critical Essays

Katherine B. Shippen


Men, Microscopes, and Living Things approaches the subject not primarily from the discoveries of the scientists and philosophers themselves but from an analysis of the context in which the work was carried out. It is important for all readers of science, both young and old, to understand that discoveries are not made in a vacuum; rather, they reflect the thoughts and knowledge of the time. This approach is presented well by Shippen; a prime example is her portrait of Charles Darwin.

Darwin is most famous for his theory of evolution. It was an attempt to explain more than simply the existence and reality of evolution; such was well known for decades prior to his work. Rather, Darwin attempted to explain the mechanism of evolution through a process that he called natural selection. The basic facts are well known to most readers of science: Darwin’s role as captain’s companion and naturalist on the British ship H.M.S. Beagle during its voyage in the 1830’s and his eventual compilation of his work in both On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859) and The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871).

Shippen attempts to place Darwin’s discoveries in the context of his times. Darwin was not the first to note the existence of evolution, nor was he the first to attempt an explanation. Shippen begins the story with Baron Georges Cuvier, the inspector of education in France during the late eighteenth century. An extensive building boom was being carried out in France in the years following the French Revolution, and limestone was required for the new structures. During excavation, large numbers of fossils were found in...

(The entire section is 698 words.)