The Reluctant Mr. Darwin: An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and the Making of His Theory of Evolution
A fresh look at Darwin’s most radical idea, and the mysteriously slow process by which he revealed it.
Evolution, during the early nineteenth century, was an idea in the air. Other thinkers had suggested it, but no one had proposed a cogent explanation for how evolution occurs. Then, in September 1838, a young Englishman named Charles Darwin hit upon the idea that "natural selection" among competing individuals would lead to wondrous adaptations and species diversity. Twenty-one years passed between that epiphany and publication of On the Origin of Species. The human drama and scientific basis of Darwin’s twenty-one-year delay constitute a fascinating, tangled tale that elucidates the character of a cautious naturalist who initiated an intellectual revolution.
The Reluctant Mr. Darwin is a book for everyone who has ever wondered about who this man was and what he said. Drawing from Darwin’s secret "transmutation" notebooks and his personal letters, David Quammen has sketched a vivid life portrait of the man whose work never ceases to be controversial.
About the Author(s)
David Quammen, the author of The Song of the Dodo, is a three-time winner of the National Magazine Award, most recently for a National Geographic story on Darwin. He lives in Bozeman, Montana.
A Helpful Review of Darwinian Basics, August 10, 2006
There have been so many biographies of Charles Darwin, good ones and big ones. This is entirely fitting, as his discoveries are at the level of Copernicus or Newton. There is another one now, pointed and clear, and it is a worthy addition. -The Reluctant Mr. Darwin: An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and the Making of His Theory of Evolution- (Atlas Books / Norton) by David Quammen is not a full biography; it really starts after Darwin returns from his voyages on the -Beagle-, it is most detailed around the time of writing and publishing of the great -On the Origin of Species-, and after that it is only a quick summary of Darwin’s remaining life and lasting influence. This is, however, a useful volume, or it ought to be. It gets all the basics in, and we are wanting the basics. As Quammen states in his introduction, almost half of all Americans think that all living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time, and about the same number think that God created humans in their present form sometime within the last 10,000 years. If you listen to the creationists’ claims, you’d think that there was some great scientific controversy over Darwin’s ideas, but there isn’t. The controversy comes only because the ideas conflict with a limited and literal interpretation of scripture. Darwin’s theory is as sound as any idea in science; Quammen writes that the idea of natural selection and evolution "has survived and succeeded because it fits the observable facts better than any alternative idea, doing exactly what a scientific theory must do: explain material effects by way of material causes." Quammen’s book is a fine summary of Darwin’s life and thought.
Darwin proved to be an uninspired divinity student at Cambridge, but however feckless the young man may have been, the five-year voyage of the -Beagle- was the making of him. As Darwin looked at animals and plants the world over, he began to wonder about their distribution. Coming up with the laws regulating such a distribution was a long process, and exposing them to public view took even longer. He noted evidence of species changing in his notebooks in 1837, and the next year, he picked up Malthus’s -Essay on the Principle of Population-, and began writing that species attempted to reproduce in excess, and the excess was stopped by predation or lack of resources, so that those that survive are the ones that reproduce, and push their survival traits into the next generation. He knew it was a worthy idea, but he also knew that it would be reviled even by some of his scientific colleagues. He kept it mostly to himself, and went to work on barnacles and biological experimentation. And then in 1858, Alfred Russel Wallace sent him a packet from somewhere in the Malay Archipelago, and Darwin was crushed. Young Wallace had written what was almost a summary of his own theory, the theory that he had been fretting over for so many years. A gentlemanly arrangement by Darwin’s friends resulted in papers by Darwin and by Wallace being read at the same meeting of the Linnean Society in 1858. Darwin’s work did get the idea of changing species accepted, but the mechanism of natural selection was doubted at the time of his death and for two generations afterward (apart from any religious objections to the work). The idea that Darwin’s work immediately changed biology upon its publication is wrong.
With a century of confirmation, and confirmation by molecular biology that Darwin could never have imagined, his book has become one of the most influential ever written. Quammen’s writing is informal and accessible. There is much more to the story, but as an overview of the man’s ideas and personality, this is an excellent volume (and is one more fine book in the top-notch "Great Discoveries" series from Norton). For all the scorn and misinformation heaped upon his memory, writes Quammen, "Charles Darwin was a man of great integrity, great goodness, deep generosity, and considerable courage." These admirable qualities are all on display here, as well as an accessible account of just what the man thought and taught, and why it is so vitally important for even religious Americans to understand.