Saturday, February 28, 2009

Book Look Review "The Reluctant Mr. Darwin"

“The Reluctant Mr. Darwin”

Some scientific topics are more readable as an overview. We want the facts but we want them mixed with honey and served on a small spoon. David Quammen has achieved this in his well written half biography of Charles Darwin. He begins after the famous voyages of the HMS Beagle and concentrates on the time period between 1837 when Darwin was age 28, until his death in 1882 from heart failure at age 73.

Darwin’s name stirs up controversy even now, more than one hundred years after his death. Quammen paints a sympathetic picture of a complicated Victorian gentleman who was an amateur naturalist and a reluctant writer. Darwin suffered from a mysterious illness that caused him to vomit and feel dizzy for prolonged periods of time. He tried several “cures” promoted by the quacks of his day, one of which included cold showers and being wrapped in wet towels. For most of his life he was studious and reclusive.

Charles married his cousin Emma, a very religious woman, with whom he enjoyed an affectionate relationship and deep friendship. She oversaw his household and their many children while he spent years studying and writing about something in nature that caught his interest. Curious about earthworms for example, he wrote, “The Formation of Vegetable Mould, through the Action of Worms, with Observations on Their Habits”. Too bad I didn’t read and review that fascinating book.

Of course his famous book is “The Origin of Species”. It is one of the most influential books ever written. Copernicus, Newton and Einstein wrote other great works of science for their fellow scientists, but The Origin was written in everyday language to a public audience. He presented his observations and explained them as a narrator telling amazing tales.

The study of evolution uses observed facts and data more than experimentation. Darwin used the term “natural selection” to describe his observations of species adaptation begun many years earlier as he traveled on the Beagle to remote islands. He wrote: “On the whole, the best fitted live.” Darwin struggled with the contradictions between a law-governed universe and an intervening God. Did physical laws encroach on divine prerogatives? How did God’s designs and his observations of “natural selection” fit together? He admits that he often felt “muddled” by the irresolvable issues.

I had mistakenly thought Darwin wrote the monkey ancestry comment but actually he didn’t put it in The Origin. Among the few people who read it when it was first published was a reviewer who wrote: “If a monkey has become a man – what may not a man become?” It serves as a warning to folks like me who tend to oversimplify as we write reviews.

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