It was perhaps science's most meticulously constructed revolution. Charles Darwin first conceived of natural selection in March 1838; but two decades would pass before he began working in earnest on
The Origin of Species. In this long interim, he tested, retested, modified, and sharpened his epoch-making theory of evolution. David Quamman's brief (45,000-word) biography of Darwin describes how this reluctant radical created an intellectual revolution at his own pace.
It's easy to hear why PW named Grover Gardner Narrator of the Year in '05. He uses inflection, stress, rhythm and his rich vocal range to create an easy and often amusing conversational style. This is particularly appropriate for the modern idiom that makes Quammen's book so lively and readable. (He writes, for example, that Darwin did "a vast amount of scholarly nibbling and scribbling.") It took Darwin 21 years (and the threat that someone else might publish first) to publish his theory because almost all his contemporaries held theological views of nature, and his wife feared that she and Charles would not be united in heaven. Quammen explains that the synthesis of Darwin's theory of evolution and Gregor Mendel's genetic discoveries was essential to establish what now underpins all modern science. This short, highly readable book is as valuable as it is timely. Simultaneous release with the Norton hardcover (Reviews, Apr. 17). (July) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Everyone knows "Darwin's" Theory of Evolution. Fewer people know that although Darwin worked on his theory for 20 years, Alfred Russel Wallace independently wrote up his own version first, or that Darwin's powerful friends manipulated circumstances so that his name was attached to a "joint publication." Darwin was an explorer who became a recluse, a trained clergyman who became an atheist, and a scientific amateur who trained himself to be a methodical, dedicated researcher. Most important, Darwin was a timid man with a very bold theory. In Reluctant Mr. Darwin, Quammen examines not only the odd life of a great scientist but the 19th-century biological research establishment to which he belonged. Writing for the scientific novice, the author clearly explains difficult concepts, such as natural selection, mutation, and various versions of evolutionary theory. Although at times Quammen writes as though he was actually channeling Darwin's mind, his conclusions are usually plausible. Grover Gardner is a first-rate reader who seems genuinely to enjoy recounting the foibles of Darwin's life. An excellent general audience title; recommended for all public, academic, and secondary school collections.-I. Pour-El, Des Moines Area Community Coll., Boone, IA Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.
A first-rate look at the English naturalist's career after the Beagle; part of the Atlas Books Great Discoveries Series. Quammen (Monster of God, 2003, etc.) focuses on how Darwin arrived at his theory of evolution by natural selection. In 1836, arriving home from his voyage, he essentially had all the key facts of evolution; but it was more than 20 years before he published The Origin of Species. One factor was a mysterious stomach ailment, possibly tropical disease, possibly nerves, that dogged him for most of his remaining life. A second was the business of finding a wife and starting a family, a process that ended with him happily married to cousin Emma Wedgwood. That was a fortuitous match, despite her strong religious beliefs (Darwin was already well down the road to agnosticism); their fathers pitched in enough to support the newlyweds, with enough left over to reinvest. But a fair amount of time went to scientific work, especially Darwin's eight-year project of classifying barnacles, which gave him, in his own mind, a solid credential to back up the theory he knew was bound to be controversial. But even with that work out of the way, he dragged his feet. He was finally roused by the arrival on his doorstep of a manuscript by Alfred Russel Wallace, in which the central elements of his theory were unambiguously spelled out. At that point, it was publish or give up his priority. Quammen gives a broad-brush account of the book's composition and its reception; of the developments in evolutionary theory since Darwin's initial formulation; and of the scientist's final years. While much of this material has been covered in recent full-length biographies, Quammen's portrait of the greatman and his magnum opus is affectionate and well-paced.
Darwin is so frequently mentioned in Bryson's book he seems to inhabit the pages. If your curiosity has been raised, consider Quammen's stunning and lively account of Darwin after he arrived home from the Galápagos Islands. The central question facing Darwin after the voyage on the Beagle was how to explain and when to publish his world-altering theory. The when part was settled by the danger of being overtaken, but the how part is Quammen's great achievement. He offers a splendid summation of On the Origin of Species, making this foundational text of the scientific world accessible to all (not that Darwin himself was opaque). Quammen has also published a very nice illustrated edition of On the Origin of Species, filled with letters, maps, diagrams, and images. Neal Wyatt, "RA Crossroads", Booksmack!, 12/2/10
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