Sunday, October 22, 2006

The Reluctant Mr. Darwin: An Intimate Portrait Charles Darwin and the Making of His Theory of Evolution by David Quammen

According to David Quammen, Charles Darwin is like George Washington - everyone knows his name and major accomplishments, and many have strong opinions about him without ever having read past their school books about his life and work. Like Washington, he was a quiet, private man who had great impact on our world. While there are several good large-sized biographies of the scientist, Quammen saw the need for a short focused-on-the-essentials book, so he wrote The Reluctant Mr. Darwin.

To save time of readers, Quammen starts his story of Darwin after the young man returns from his five years as a scientist on the voyage of the Beagle. Darwin was in London consulting with the various scientists who received the botanical and zoological specimens from the voyage. It was ornithologist John Gould who pointed out to Darwin that many of the birds from the Galapagos Islands were finches. Darwin had not seen the similarities and was not really sure what to make of the fact, though he had noticed other interesting isolated species during his voyage.

For several years, Darwin was busy young man in London, joining scientific societies and writing several books about the Beagle voyage. Quammen describes these years and then leads readers through his retreating to his estate in southeast England, where he raised a family and worked in isolation on his not-yet-revealed theories. Only when he received an interesting paper from Alfred Russell Wallace, who was working in the Malay archipelago, revealing that the younger man was ready to publish his own version of the same theories, did Darwin finally complete On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.

The Reluctant Mr. Darwin is very quick moving up to the point of the publication of the master work, often known as just The Origin of Species. Then two thirds of the way through the text, it slows and becomes a bit confusing as the author summarizes the subsequent literature both praising and condemning the book. Like Darwin, the scientists in both camps had no real evidence with which to know how species evolved. Mendel's studies had been ignored and DNA had not been discovered. Once Quammen refocuses on Darwin the story quickens again.

With Darwin and evolution still a divisive topic in our society, public libraries are going to want this book.

Quammen, David. The Reluctant Mr. Darwin: An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and the Making of His Theory of Evolution. New York: Norton, 2006. ISBN 0393059812

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