[Annelida] Darwin's 199th

Geoff Read via annelida%40net.bio.net (by g.read from niwa.co.nz)
Tue Feb 12 20:08:36 EST 2008


One who should know recommends this book to me:

David Quammen, 2006. The Reluctant Mr. Darwin. An Intimate Portrait 
of Charles Darwin and the Making of His Theory of Evolution. W.W. 
Norton & Company, New York/London.

Reviews. this guy seems ambivalent:

This guy agrees. It's ".... a complete delight."  In full because
subscription access required. Feel free to pass on to the next email at
this point:


"On an autumn day in Chicago in 1959, exactly 100 years after the
publication of On the Origin of Species, a large and appreciative
audience of biologists attended an evolutionary musical called Time Will
Tell. Earlier in the day they had heard Julian Huxley, one of the
architects of the new evolutionary synthesis, declare that religious
belief was merely an adaptive social feature of early mankind. That same
year a partial reenactment of the Beagle voyage took place and plans
were announced for a Darwin memorial park on the Galápagos Islands that
meshed with international pressure on Ecuador to restrict commercial
fisheries around the archipelago.

Anniversaries, commemorations and the public theatre of ceremonies,
lectures and prize-givings are, of course, big business and have long
been acknowledged as strategic events for promoting culturally and
scientifically significant agendas. The fact that Charles Darwin has
been as important after his death as during his lifetime comes as no
surprise. The theory of evolution by natural selection, jointly proposed
by Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, is rightly regarded as the
foundation stone of modern biology and underpins much of how the human
race has come to comprehend itself. As commonly understood, these
writings challenged everything that had previously been thought about
living beings, firing hot debate in the intellectual, social, and
religious transformations of the 19th century. Yet in 1959 religious
controversy over Darwinism was relatively muted. The achievements of
20th-century biology were obvious for all to see. Intellectuals like
Julian Huxley used the occasion to praise secular humanism and the
rigor, honesty, and dedication shown by practitioners of the new
laboratory sciences. Biologists demonstrated that it was entirely
possible for a scientist to be a nonbeliever and a valuable member of
society. Noted clerics in Europe and North America preached
reconciliatory sermons. Nowadays, with 2009--a time that will be used to
celebrate the bicentennial of Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary
of publication of the Origin of Species--glimmering on the horizon, it
is clear that the shape of the debate has materially changed. Would an
evolutionary musical be so loudly applauded today given the other issues
currently at stake?

While the political and cultural controversy surrounding evolution has
flared again, there has been a steady stream of accounts of Darwin's
life and ideas written for a broad audience. The latest such work, David
Quammen's Reluctant Mr. Darwin, is a complete delight. Renowned as an
author and traveler, Quammen earned well-deserved acclaim with The Song
of the Dodo, in which he wove together accounts of island biogeography,
species extinctions, and Wallace's travels in the Malay archipelago (1).
He brings the same flair and fluency to this captivating biographical
essay. The book is fresh and original, even to those who have explored
other biographies of Darwin published over the last decade or so;
readers will find it to be just as insightful as many a heavier tome.

Quammen's aim is to open up Darwin's character as a thinking man. He
does not take a conventional chronological view from birth to death, nor
is he particularly engaged with documenting the emergence of
evolutionary biology as a dominant mode of thought. The book is more of
a personal reflection on those aspects of Darwin's story that have
intrigued him, perhaps as he moved through remote places documenting
nature's fecundity or shadowing field workers to describe their
adventures and ideas. Quammen leads us through the main features of
Darwin's life and thought after his return from the Beagle voyage,
building up to Origin of Species (1859). These events are framed by a
couple of fascinating chapters, front and back, that set Darwin's
achievements in modern context and reveal some of the reasons for the
powerful respect that practicing field naturalists and biologists feel
for him today.

There are many insights along the way. Darwin's time-consuming work on
barnacles is described with a deep understanding of why taxonomy
matters. Darwin's interactions with Wallace are given clear-eyed
examination: the subtle combination of panic, generosity, admiration,
and regret that each man displayed toward the other is brought newly
alive. And the skills of a novelist creep in. Quammen evokes a pleasing
image of Darwin playing billiards--a known historical fact that in
Quammen's hands suddenly turns the ill and tormented figure who was
slaving away writing Origin of Species into a real person, smoking
cigarettes, laying down his cue, joking about his "abominable volume,"
and telling his friends how refreshing it is to idle the day away.

For historical scholars, this has always been one of the most difficult
paradoxes: how to connect the man remembered by his friends and family
as a warm, even jolly, figure with the nervous invalid documented in
contemporary records and the incisive author of Origin of Species.
Quammen's gift is to describe these aspects of Darwin's character
without resorting to Jekyll and Hyde imagery. Not only does Quammen
enrich our understanding of what it must have been like to be Darwin (a
quiet, humane, and determined thinker running deliberately against the
Victorian intellectual and cultural stream), but he also shows the
lasting brilliance of the theories put forward nearly 150 years ago and
explains the great affection with which Darwin is still regarded by
naturalists today. If you are going to buy only one book to commemorate
Darwin in 2009, The Reluctant Mr. Darwin could surely be it."


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