An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and the Making of His Theory of Evolution
|Charles Darwin is the man who won’t go away. Nearly 150 years after publishing his theory of evolution, he remains not only central to biology and medecine but also deeply and abidingly controversial. Although most people know only an imprecise version of who he was, how he thought, and what he wrote, Darwin still receives much of the credit, and the blame, for what science understands about the evolutionary process and what society thinks we should—or shouldn’t—teach about that process in our schools.
Who was Darwin? A reclusive English biologist who wrote books. A cautious, shy man who found himself burdened with a profoundly radical insight. A breeder of pigeons, a close student of barnacles, a doting father, a homebody, a billiards player, an agnostic, a collector of beetles, an invalid… and many other things you might not expect. Every educated person should be directly acquainted with the story of Darwin and his most wondrous, frightening idea: “natural selection” as the main mechanism of evolution. Many volumes about him have been published, mostly written by scholars for other scholars. This little book represents Darwin for everybody.
Drawing on Darwin’s secret “transmutation” notebooks from the period just after his Beagle voyage, and on his private letters, David Quammen has created a meticulous, humane portrait of the man, and a lucid explication of his work, that captures both the personal foibles and the scientific substance. It’s an intimate view of a great scientist—taking readers behind the veil of Darwin’s greatness and his fame, following him closely through the joys, struggles, and sorrows of his quiet but extraordinarily consequential life. Quammen has spent his career shadowing field biologists and describing their characters, their adventures, their ideas; here he gives us the pre-eminent field biologist of all time. Read this book and you will never again feel the same about that formidable, cold word: “Darwinism.”