Wooten ‘connects’ science and history

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Dave Wooten with Darwin book

Flipping the pages of his 1882 edition of Darwin’s ‘Voyage of the Beagle’ carefully, WCC biology instructor David Wooten stopped to admire the intricate engravings of Galapagos finches. Natalie Wright, the Washtenaw Voice

Charles Darwin studied connections – connections between organisms, but also connections between ideas and theories that preceded him – and so does David Wooten.

An avid student of Darwin, as any biologist must be, and a lifelong “bibliophile,” by his own account, Wooten collects antique books by Darwin himself, as well as those who inspired him.

In his Thursday afternoon Biology of Animals class at Washtenaw, Wooten introduced his students to ecology with a quote from naturalist John Muir.

“If you look closely enough at any one thing, you will find it connected to everything else,” Muir said.

As a biologist, Wooten told his students, you will need to study connections. Like Darwin, you will need to be a geologist, a chemist and a physicist when necessary to understand the organisms that you are studying.

For Wooten, this also means being a historian.

As Wooten described Darwin’s theories, he couldn’t help but meander into the naturalist’s personal life, his wife’s family history, the scientists and philosophers and economists who inspired him and the historical context that surrounded him as he developed his ideas.

The theories and biography melded into one story.

“You can’t separate the theory from the author,” he said.

So when Wooten brings his talk, “Darwin: Books, Beetles, and Blasphemy” and his antique book collection to Washtenaw’s campus on Feb. 12, “International Darwin Day,” attendees can count on learning just as much about Darwin the man as Darwin the naturalist.

“The story is really what made people pay attention to Darwin,” he said. “It was this amazing voyage that a young kid went on, came back, spent decades cultivating and providing evidence and got it right.”

His students say that the stories he tells, along with animated impressions of animals make him a captivating lecturer. In his 20-student Biology of Animals class, there was not a cellphone in sight.

“He painted a very dramatic picture,” said Benjamin Meyers, 24, of Ann Arbor, a student in Wooten’s Biology of Animals class. “The story helps you get more of the nuance, and makes it less polarizing.”

Wooten’s personality and the connections he makes, make the information easier to remember and more entertaining, said Remi Thomas, 20, a biology student from Ann Arbor.

Wooten is bringing roughly three-quarters of the 100 books in the collection to the “interactive” talk, he said, which will be a combination of collection display and lecture. He will use the books to guide the audience through Darwin’s life.

“I’ll be pulling the books off the shelves during the talk so that people can actually see them and reference them,” Wooten said. A reception will follow where people can look at the books and other items in the collection.

The collection includes about 12 books published by Darwin. Most of the rest were published prior to Darwin and were influential to him, Wooten said, and some are in opposition to him.


WCC biology instructor David Wooten collects antique books published by Darwin, people Darwin admired and others who opposed him. On his desk sits (from top) Natural Philosophy by Herschel, Voyage of the Beagle by Darwin and Evenings at the Microscope by Gosse. Next to the books is a Carey microscope from 1850, one that Darwin could have used himself, Wooten said. Natalie Wright, the Washtenaw Voice

“That’s what the collection tries to focus on, tries to highlight,” he said, “not every famous book on the topic, but the ones Darwin particularly noted as significant to him forming his theory of evolution.”

The books are mostly for display, he said, as some of them are delicate and some are in German and French. But he has read at least one cover-to-cover – his 6th edition “Origin of the Species,” published in 1882.

The collection spans more than 100 years. The oldest book, a volume of “Histoire Naturalle,” is from 1779, and the most recent was published in 1905.

The books also vary in subject. Darwin’s ideas were not only shaped by biology and ecology texts, Wooten said, but also by economics and philosophy.

For the most part, he said, he tries to find editions that were published within Darwin’s lifetime. It deepens his connection with the material, he said.

“He very well could have been holding these exact ones for all we know.”

As Wooten held an 1882 edition of “Voyage of the Beagle” with his fingertips, he flipped the pages gingerly.

“This was Darwin’s travel log when he came back,” he said. And he pointed out the images of the Galapagos finches, whose beaks Darwin studied, taking a moment longer than most would to admire them, and he described the printing process that created them using “beautiful” metal and wood engravings.

The collection is valued at roughly $20,000, Wooten said.

While he has “most of the major ones,” there are about 25 more pieces that he has his eye out for.

“There’s a couple out there that are very rare, are very difficult to find or are very expensive,” he said.

A first edition “Origin of the Species from 1859,” for example, costs around $200,000 right now, he said.

Besides books, the collection also includes various antique objects like an 1850 Carey microscope, a model that Darwin used, which still works. The collection also contains fossils, models of the boat that took Darwin around the world, antique engravings and old maps.

Originally, Wooten said, the collection was his own, “academic, personal indulgence.” But then it grew.

“I started going online and looking at other Darwin collections,” he said, “and I couldn’t find this anywhere.”

Once he realized how unique the collection was, he decided that he had to share it with students and colleagues.

The talk at WCC will be his first run of what he hopes will be a traveling presentation.

He will be presenting it at the Michigan Community College Biologists conference this spring and is planning to take it down to the University of Florida sometime soon, he said.

As for the future of the collection, is it destined for a museum someday?

“What I wouldn’t want to see done, because it’s so unique, the compilation, I wouldn’t want to see it split up,” Wooten said.

If his kids don’t want to keep it in the family, he plans to donate it to Washtenaw when he retires, so that future students can discover a connection with Darwin.

Darwin: Books, Beetles, and Blasphemy

What: Biology instructor David Wooten will share his collection of antique books and lecture about the life and legacy of Charles Darwin.

Where: Morris Lawrence building

When: Feb. 12, 6:30-8:30 p.m.

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