Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Reluctant Mr. Darwin

The Reluctant Mr. Darwin: An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and the Making of his Theory of Evolution
© 2006 Peter Quammen
304 pages, including chronology, bibliography, notes, and index.

I intended to read this for the week of Charles Darwin's birthday (12 February), but forgot that I would need to order the book in advance. I've read two Darwin biographies in the past, so I was familiar with much of the content here. Quammen's approach is slightly different: rather than focus on Darwin's upbringing and trip aboard the Beagle, he begins the book immediately after Darwin steps foot back on Britain: his first chapter is titled "Home and Dry". The development of his theory -- evolution through means of natural selection -- unfolds in four chapters: "The Kiwi's Egg", "The Fabric Falls", "Point of Attachment", and "A Duck for Darwin". The titles are quite apt, and "The Kiwis's Egg" is almost poetic: the author explains that Darwin's theory burdened him the same way that a kiwi bird's oversized egg burdens it.

In the sixth chapter, His Abominable Volume, Quammen looks at The Origin of Species itself, examining its contents, style, and changes throughout its various editions. Following this, Quammen tracks evolution's development through the two hundred years that follow with "The Fittest Idea". The last chapter focuses on the declining years of Darwin's life and his death. This, like Darwin, his Daughter, and Human Evolution is a brief but very readable narrative. So far Cyril Agon's Charles Darwin: the Naturalist Who Started a Scientific Revolution has been the most thorough. This volume is more about Darwin's development of evolution and less about Darwin proper, though.

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